MY FATHER’S HEART and John Carlos
These excerpt selections are collected mostly from pages 12 through 22 of ‘MFH.’ They tell the story of how and why I first started running my junior year in high school, in the fall of 1968, and why I wanted my father – who already had had one heart attack – to be out there running with me.
It was during that period [after Dad’s first heart attack in 1963 and before the one that killed him in 1969] when I first started running. It would be poetic to write that I was a sixteen-year-old kid exorcising my father’s demons by exercising my own, but it wouldn’t be true. (Later, it would be, but not right out of the blocks.) No, I started running in the fall of my junior year at York Catholic High School because I was determined to become the country’s next great African-American sprinter.
I remain almost serious about that now. I was, then, for sure.
The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City were held that October. I devoured every minute of ABC’s nearly 44 hours of coverage, thrilling to Jim McKay’s “Live from Mecixo City!” It seemed so magical, so impossible, to be watching in our TV room on Stanford rive in Haines Acres in the east end of York, Pennsylvania, barely north of Maryland – yet it was taking place in Mexico City, in Estadio Olympiqo.
… I followed [all the coverage] … but it was the U.S. male sprinters who held me in their sway. … Together, a dozen African-American men and their eleven total medals [seven gold] constitute arguably the greatest male sprint team ever assembled.
… Of course, at the 1968 Mexico Games all that accomplishment by those U.S. sprinters was lost forever, turned into something else once Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the victory stand after their 200-meter performance. It had been a terrific race. Smith and Carlos were members of coach Bud Winter’s famed “Speed City” crew out in San Jose, California, and both had figured prominently in the yearlong speculation that America’s black athletes would boycott the Games – Smith especially, in solidarity with the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
Yet now here they were in Mexico City, running and simply dazzling, with Jim McKay calling the race. Smith pushed off tentatively, nursing a pulled groin, unsure he could run at all. … Carlos, as usual, has burst out of the blocks. … Huge and powerful, he swept to a nearly two-meter lead before even hitting the straight. Then came the lithe and elegant Smith, in a sudden, startling burst. Right now it’s Carlos and Smith. Then it was just Smith. … Here comes Tommie … taking command with 60 meters left. Smith has done it, with his hands in the air! His final six strides he ran with his arms overhead in thrilling jubilation, a smile of absolute and pure joy breaking open his goatee. Carlos, stunned, stumbled to third place behind Australia’s Peter Norman. All of it wonderful stuff.
And all of it mere prologue. The image to come on the medals platform is now iconic. Black gloves on Smith’s right hand and Carlos’s left, their arms extended. Bowed heads. Black socks on shoeless feet. A lone black track shoe on each pedestal. Smith in black scarf; Carlos in African beads.
Second place Norman wearing an Olympics Project button in support. I look at that picture now and try to remember what I was thinking then. If it rocked my suburban world
I can’t conjure it. Or perhaps with the advantage of hindsight I know better than to say so.
… I watched Smith and Carlos – on the track, on the medal stand – and breathed it all in regardless. Black was beautiful. Mysterious, scary, forbidden to a kid like me, but beautiful, too. … Home from school one afternoon and by myself, I went into the upstairs bathroom and, using my mother’s eyebrow pencil, drew a goatee around my still-smooth lips and chin. I couldn’t wait.
… I worked out four days a week, through the winter, in the mornings before school. Mondays and Fridays I took a long run, or at least what seemed like a long run then: two and half miles up and down the Haines Acres hills. Tuesdays and Thursdays I’d run the track at York Suburban Junior High on the edge of the acres. Only five years old, the cinder track was already beat up and rutted, poorly maintained. It was perfect. I walked 220 yards, jogged 220, ran 220, sprinted 220, repeating it four times. I relished the 20 or 30 yards when I’d roll from one speed into the next. The churn of my legs, the thrust of my arms, the way it all grew faster and faster. I’d find my cruising speed at the new pace and lean into the turn and down the straight until it was time to pick it up again, go faster. By the time I got to the 220 sprint, it was Tommie Smith, John Carlos and me, churning our way to the victory stand.
Even with all that work, I wound up a scrub on the track team, watching “as the legitimate sprinters found the higher gear that I didn’t own.” I did however, see a few of the neighborhood dads out on the junior high track “puffing around in their old Florsheims or high-top sneakers. … I wanted my dad to be out there with me … the two of us facing up to our shared [cardio] legacy while simultaneously facing it down. I wanted Dad to get in shape, stay in shape, be in shape. … He never did.”
But there would come for me one more Mexico City moment, on the night dad died and the phones were out: “I ran out of the house again – jumping the bushes in front of the porch – up the hill to our neighbors beyond the ones next door [I had tried them already; they weren’t home]. I was well past that first house, sprinting hard for the next, when a Springettsbury Township Police car popped over the hill, cruising down Stanford Drive. This was most unusual. Except for those times when a construction crew had cut the phone lines. I turned on a dime and took off after him, right out into the street, giving chase. I screamed but he didn’t hear. The car kept moving, though slowly enough that I was actually overtaking it. I leaned in – one final sprint to the finishing tape, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and me.”
The cop stopped and we walked into the house. But by then Dad was already dead.
MY FATHER’S HEART and “Rin Tin Tin”
This excerpt appears on pages 287-288 of ‘MFH,’ in the final chapter, where I finally tell the story of the night my father died of a heart attack in 1969 when I was sixteen. Dad and I were home alone that night, in the TV room watching the tube.
My favorite Western, and [my sister] Kathy’s, too, had been The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
Though we rarely saw it. It aired in the late 1950s and was on ABC, and our TV barely pulled in the required Philadelphia station. But we’d try and sometimes we’d get a snowy image. If we were lucky it would be an episode that featured Tom McKee, our Uncle Tom McKee, Dad’s older brother. He played Captain Davis.
Uncle Tom and Dad had shared the unheated trek up the back stairs to the attic bedroom on Rodney Avenue [in Buffalo, New York] when they were boys. Dad didn’t talk much about him, and I don’t think they had much contact with each other. Though Dad spoke quite fondly of a couple of boyhood summers when he and Tom, the city boys, were literally farmed out to a working spread in Ohio where the two brothers side by side milked the cows and mucked the stalls. Dad remembered this with enough fondness that once while on vacation out that way we went looking for the place, though we never found it.
Tom moved to Los Angeles after the war and amassed a lengthy, workmanlike string of credits in TV shows [three full-episode videos!] and movies [“No Time for Sergeants”]. A line here, a spot there, often playing the unshaven tough-guy ranch hand or platoon-member leatherneck. Throw in the commercial work and radio voice-overs that Uncle Tom likely did to pay the bills for a wife and kids, and he had the kind of successful career any struggling actor would kill for.
Once, home from college in the early 1970s, I was off to bed when The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell came on the Late Show. It starred Gary Cooper as the Army Air Corps flier famously put on trial in 1925 for questioning his superiors. “Uncle Tom’s in this,” Mom said. So of course we stayed up. Since Mom couldn’t remember when he might appear on screen – or for how long – we watched intently, never blinking. … And then suddenly there was Uncle Tom. Seeing his face took my breath away, jolted me, snapped me to attention. He was playing Eddie Rickenbacker, in a spirited thirty-second exchange with Ralph Bellamy, but he was Dad. There was the same full, rich hair, swept back on either side, the severe widow’s peak, the intense brow. And of course the “McKee Nose,” too big for the rest of him. He looked just like Dad, especially through the lips (thin) and jaw (square). Mom said that in real life Uncle Tom’s hair was darker, but the movie color lent everything a reddish cast, making him all the more Dad. It was perfectly stunning. My father, alive again, here in our TV room.