The Tree’s Inclined
By Eric Chandler
I stood in the batter’s box and squinted at the pitcher. The baseball went straight for my head. I jumped back.
The umpire yelled, “Strike!”
“He almost hit me!” I yelled back. I’ve never argued with an official before or since.
I settled in for the next pitch and noticed the pitcher smiling. I didn’t know why.
Two more pitches, two more flinches, and I sat down.
I was a good catcher. I could throw people out when they tried to steal. I enjoyed defense. But I was a sucker for a curveball. After playing baseball my whole life, my offensive career was over. I don’t think I hit a baseball again.
This was the summer before 8th grade. My dad sensed the end before I did and took me running with him. I was reluctant, but went anyway. We lived in Cadillac, Michigan. We ran south of town into the fields on dirt roads.
My dad signed us up for the Cadillac Labor Day 10K. A fit guy named Dave Foley was the race director. He ended up being my eighth-grade English teacher that year. He was also the high school cross-country running coach.
During that English class, Mr. Foley learned I was cross-country skiing with my dad. This was when I had fancy new fiberglass skis, 75mm bindings and wool socks pulled up over my jeans. I did my first cross-country ski race with my dad that winter in Feb., 1981. It was the North American Vasa near Traverse City. We finished 25k together in 2 hours and 22 minutes. During class, Mr. Foley suggested I write a story about my experience in the race. He edited a magazine called Michigan Runner. He wrote features for similar magazine called Michigan Skier, later called Great Lakes Skier. He’d see if he could get me in print.
I scoured my house and couldn’t find that Michigan Skier article about my first Nordic race. I even called my mom in Maine, who keeps everything forever. She couldn’t find it. I wish I had that article. It’s the first thing I ever got published. I found the black and white photo that was in the article. I had a 5-by-7 print of it in an old scrapbook. It may have been Dave Foley who took the picture. My dad and I can’t remember.
In any case, I became a published writer that year. I also started my running career in earnest. I signed up to run for the Vikings of Cadillac High School. My first high school team. My first high school uniform. My first real training program. My first coach.
We did hill repeats on Diggins Hill in Cadillac. We did a fartlek workout that involved sprinting between telephone poles along the highway. Plus, what freshman in high school isn’t going to like the word fartlek? Then, we did this sadistic thing called the Oreo Meet.
We lined up to do ten 400’s on the track with a short break between efforts. The winner of each interval got an Oreo cookie. I finished my first 400 and felt okay. I noticed one of the older, experienced runners grab a stone and put it on top of a short concrete wall.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
“I put a rock there after each repeat. After a few more, you won’t remember which one you’re on.”
I forged a bond with my fellow runners. Sure, it’s an individual sport. Each of us was alone in a pain cave. But we all endured our crucible at the same time on the same trail for the same purpose: The Team. It didn’t hurt that our coach could run with the best of us. (Dave Foley ran a new personal best of 2:26:31 that year in the Columbus Bank One Marathon. I have the newspaper clipping, in case you need the evidence.)
My dad and I did the Labor Day 10K again in 1981. We finished together in under 40 minutes. I was the second kid in the 14-and-under age group. Dave was helping hand out awards after running his own 32:21. He handed me my second-place medal. That pretty much cemented it for me. Amazing how life turns on such small moments.
My family moved to New Hampshire just after that first season of running. I got an article into the school paper about cross-country running just before we left. In the new town, I learned there was a cross-country ski team. A team striding along the snow with a good coach. I knew how that worked already, thanks to Mr. Foley.
Fast-forward thirty thousand miles of human-powered travel. I’m pushing fifty. I just finished my 11th Grandma’s Marathon. I’m already roller skiing to prepare for my 14th American Birkebeiner. I clawed my way back into Wave 2 after a long absence and have delusions of Wave One. I still write stories down and send them to magazines. Out here at the end of my fifth decade, I find myself repeating the activities of my youth: running, skiing and writing.
It reminds me of something Alexander Pope wrote: “ ‘Tis education forms the common mind, just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.” My kids both ski and run and bike and write. Who knows what activities will resonate with them? Who knows which coach will encourage them at exactly the right time? Who knows what their passions will be? Whatever they are, they’ll find them now. And they’ll come back to them again and again.
I read my former coach’s stories in this magazine each month and smile. He’s portaging a canoe or talking about running. One time, a few years back, my article was just a few pages from his. If I’m lucky, this story will make it into the pages of Silent Sports. The mailman will drop the latest issue through the slot in the front door. I’ll read my first coach and first publisher writing about his active outdoor lifestyle. And maybe he’ll look over a few pages and read this: Thank you, Dave Foley.
Eric “Shmo” Chandler is a husband and father who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota. Visit ericchandler.wordpress.com to read his published fiction, non-fiction, books and poetry.