I remember an experience I had in the fall of 1960 some 58 years ago. Yet it is as fresh in my mind now as it was then. I remember where I was sitting when it happened and what the people around me looked like.
The scene was the Annual Freshman Cake Race at Davidson College. This was a tradition at the school where during Freshman Orientation all freshman were required to participate in a cross country race of about 2.5 miles. The tradition supposedly was started at the request of one of the early cross county coaches to allow him to identify prospects since cross country running was not a sport in most of the high schools that freshman boys had attended at the time. (Davidson was all male then.) The first fifty finishers out of a total 250 freshmen got to choose cakes made mainly by faculty wives (no female teachers at the time either), and Embry’s mother (wife of the college president) always took great pride in making a special cake. Rumor had it that one of the major status symbols among the Davidson village women was making the cake that was chosen by the winner.
The event had special meaning for me. I had been a polio victim in the mid 50s, having had to miss two years of school and never being allowed to participate in athletics. Now as a freshman and away from Nashville, except for my classmates from Nashville, no one knew that I had had polio, and I wanted to keep it that way. My doctor said I could try to do athletics “in moderation” and “within reason.” This was my opportunity to turnover a new leaf and reinvent myself. The paralysis that I had was mainly in my right hand, arm, and stomach, not so much in my legs. I had the fantasy that maybe I might have innate talent as a runner. The night before the race I dreamed that I charged ahead at the front of the pack and came in first in a moment of spectacular glory.
The challenge was that I had never run a long distance before. In fact I doubt if I had ever run more that 200 yards at one time. But still, you never know. You would think that at least I would have given it a practice try beforehand and perhaps even train for the event. My excuse was the timing. The Freshman Cake Race occurred on something like day two or three of orientation. In any event, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Maybe this would be my moment.
As we lined up at the start of the race I was impressed with how many upper classmen were present to watch the race. This was a pretty big deal. I stood on the starting line with my heart beating at twice its normal rate anticipating the sound of the gun. Boom! Off off we charged! I was one of the first across the starting line. The first 100 yards or so were across a practice field before the racers reached an opening leading to a path that would wind through pine woods with their fallen needles providing a cushion for another two miles. I knew that if I stood any chance of doing well, I had to be near the head of the pack before we entered the woods. My start had been perfect.
As one who at age 30 began a lifelong passion of long distance running, I look back on that moment now in disbelief that I could have been so naïve. What exactly could I have been thinking?
Whatever it was, by the time the pack reached the opening to the trail, my lungs were killing me. My legs felt like jelly, and I had already paused twice to catch my breath. I felt sick to my stomach. It got worse from that point on. Before I reached the mile one marker, I had dropped back, way back. This was the moment when I modified my expectations of a strong finish and committed myself to a new goal of simply finishing. The hell with everyone else, I said to myself. Dammit, I am going to finish this race, and I am not going to come in last.
About a half hour later, I was edging closer to the finish line. By this time I had run as hard as I could, then walked, then tried running again. Most of the time I was out of breath and painfully aware that others were passing me by, even the stragglers. Keep going, just keep going, I told myself.
Finally, I emerged out of the woods, limping along trying to make as strong a finish as I could. I saw many upper classmen lined along the final 100 yards cheering, but from where I was I could see no runners ahead of me. What had happened to everyone? I had no idea of what they were cheering about. As I approached the finish line, stumbling, I saw about a dozen or so guys laughing, guffawing, and pointing at me. Then in a singsong they started yelling, “Dead last, dead last, dead last!” Others chimed in, “Wimp, wussie, war baby…” I looked over my shoulder briefly. No one was behind me. As I staggered across the finish line, the race officials were beginning to remove chairs and barricades, and the top finishers were choosing the last cakes.
At that point I collapsed. I did not hit the ground but fell into an empty bleacher seat, placing my head in my hands and staring down at the dirt. The cat calls continued for a couple of minutes, and then the group dwindled to about six and then dispersed, laughing and pointing their fingers at me, giving each other high fives. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
I just sat there, staring at the ground, totally exhausted and completely alone since the few remaining spectators had moved over to the awards ceremony.
Then I felt someone squeeze my shoulder and gently pat me on the back.
“Nice going, fella, you gave it everything you had.” His voice was soft and gentle. “Way to go!”
I was too embarrassed and astonished to say or do anything, but I managed a weak smile and turned my head to say thanks to this kind and gentle person.
But there was no one there. Not a soul. It could not have been more than a few seconds before I managed the courage to turn and look him in the eye, but where could he have gone? Poof! How could he have disappeared so fast? I thought about it for a moment and realized what I wanted to tell him was that he had transformed one of the worst nightmares in my life to a strange kind of a glory, not unlike what I had imagined in my dream. I wanted to thank him for this act of kindness. I wanted to thank him for making a difference. But where was he?
When I told this story to a friend many years later, I noted that what I was sad about was that I never had a chance to let this mysterious person know how much this kind gesture meant to me.
“Are you absolutely sure he appeared out of nowhere?” my friend asked.
“Well, more or less. I certainly thought everyone had left for the awards ceremony.”
“And that when you turned around, there was no one to be seen anywhere near you?”
“That is correct.”
“Oh, well then, he was an angel.” He seemed dead serious.
I protested, “No, You don’t understand. He was absolutely real. I know he was real. This really happened. I did not imagine this in my mind!”
“Of course not,” he replied, “ He was real alright. Angels are like that.”