I went camping last weekend with two of my grandsons. It was with a church group that offers the camp every summer for boys and their fathers. Not all the fathers could attend, so older brothers and friends of the family filled in where needed. I thought I was the only grandfather in the group until I met a man considerably older than me. I had assumed he was there with his grandson but discovered that he was the father of one of the camp leaders and was born two months before me. I was shocked. After all, the guy had difficulty walking. My first reaction was to stare at him. My second was to get up early the next morning for the 6:00 am run. Not to prove anything, of course. This was just for my health.
The camp director led the run. He was in his late twenties and in formation to be an oblate or religious brother. He had also been at the US Air Force Academy and boxed there. The boys in the camp loved him, and he would do pushups with them whenever they broke one of the camp’s rules or showed up late when the bell rang, which seemed like every hour.
The route wasn’t long, but it had three steep climbs and a few sharp turns that led to the top of a foothill 2,000 feet above the valley floor. At the summit sat a small firing range used by law enforcement officers. During the day we could hear them firing their weapons, which made the camp experience feel surreal, especially during the rosary processions.
I started the run like a rabbit but ran out of wind by the first turn. The rest of the group, made up of dads, counselors, and campers, including a kid well over four feet, waited for me. By the second turn others had fallen back with me. By the third I pulled ahead and managed to gasp my way to the top if not in a respectable time, then certainly in a less humiliating one. Of course, I still had to walk stretches of the route. I had flashbacks to high school track.
We finally returned to camp. As I bent over holding my knees and panting, it hit me that I was not as what?–fast, athletic, in shape, tough, young–as I imagined. This may be news to no one else but moi. But if night walking makes you face your mortality (see Night Walking), day running isn’t any less humbling. I don’t know if humbling is the right word. The experience is more like chasing a fly ball in the outfield and suddenly feeling the warning track under your feet. You know that something big is about to happen, one way or another.
The big thing that happened to me was questioning who I am. At least I did by the time I hit the shower. It didn’t help that Mr. Air Force was in the next stall, soaping up with abandon and whistling like one of Snow White’s dwarfs. Meanwhile, my calves hurt, my hips ached, my ego hobbled back to the dugout. I blamed the altitude.
At times like those you think of the oddest things. I remembered a conversation I overheard years ago at DeLillo’s pastry shop in the Bronx. Two neighborhood toughs sat discussing a third guy. They were trying to size him up and agreed that they would have to “see what he’s made of.” I also thought of the questions the Levites posed to John the Baptist: “What are you then?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the Prophet?” “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?” “What do you have to say for yourself?” (John 1:19-22).
That’s really the question, isn’t it–who are you? I’ve asked myself that question over the years and noticed that the answer has changed. Hopefully, it’s gotten better, truer, more authentic. Then again, why did I go on a run when I could have just as well stayed curled up in my sleeping bag? Oh, right, it was for my health.
Image credits: feature by Max Harlynking. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” Happy birthday to Warren “Tiger” Wong aka DJ Man, Asian Orange, Kwai Chang, Grasshopper.