(Walks Around the Life of Tom Longboat)
I ran. No one could catch me. Only a few could beat me.
There was a glass jar inside my window, between the glass and the torn screen. It had six sides and no lid. A long black bug flew into the jar and did not fly out. (Could not? Would not? I wonder now. But not then.) I watched it walk across the bottom of the jar and try to walk up the smooth sides. But it slipped off them, sliding or falling down. It tried again, on one side or another. Three or four other beetles—dead, dried husks—littered the bottom of the jar. The walking beetle stepped over and around them.
Mother came into the room while I was watching the walking beetle. Briskly, she upended the jar on the sill and slapped at the contents with a newspaper. Once, twice. Her face alert and irritated throughout. “Don’t watch a trapped thing die,” she snapped. “Kill it or let it go.” She flicked the scraps up onto the newspaper, balled it.
She left the room. I stared at the empty jar, its movement erased. But still somehow present. It hadn’t occurred to me that the insect was dying. But the idea did not seem surprising or important. I had been watching it walk with its six legs.
“Catch me if you can,” Mother said. I never did.
The Globe, Boxing Day, 1906: LONGBOAT ALWAYS WINS
And that year, my nineteenth on earth, for a few months, I did.
Victoria Day, Caledonia. Took lead over five miles and never lost it.
“Around the Bay,” Hamilton. Caught John Marsh napping on the Stone Road and opened up three minutes on him before the tape. At the awards ceremony outside the Hamilton Herald, Bill Sherring predicted, You won’t win pretty but you’ll win.
Ward Marathon, Toronto. Fifteen miles. High Park west along Lakeshore Road and back again. Burned out Bill Cumming (and seventy-two others). Won by three minutes.
Christmas Day, Hamilton. Cumming and I duelled on icy, hard-rutted road. Halfway along, about the five-mile mark, a rig trotting beside us skidded on the ice and fell over on us. We squeezed out from under and kept going. My 54:50 broke the old course record by more than two minutes.
First year: 0 for 1. Second: 4 for 4. My perfect season.
“Interesting a study as the world’s champion long distance runner makes—as Indian first and before all—with, over those deep racial attributes, the light veneer of the white man’s ways and habits, of far deeper interest is the girl he is about to wed. Here the Indian traits are well covered…. Few would imagine that she had been born and raised on an Indian reservation and was of Indian blood. In every way she is a winsome little girl who has, as she says, been educated away from many of the traditions of her race. She does not like to talk of feathers, war paint or other Indian paraphernalia. She is ambitious for Tom and if anybody can make a reliable man and good citizen of that elusive being, Thomas Longboat, it will be his wife.”
Lauretta read it out like a teacher at the Institute, enunciating primly, shoulders back, hand on hip. She cracks me up. I was laughing out loud by the end, and she must’ve wanted to, but she kept her poker face.
“Lord-a-miracle,” I said, “how’d you like to get scalped?”
“Is that what we’re calling it now?” she said. Still prissy-like.
“Watch out for the tomahawk!”
Her smoky smell gets stronger when she sweats. We were lying side by side. Red lips over her ribs where I’d pinched her hard, made her giggle finally.
“What’s ‘elusive being’?”
She answered after a bit. “It means no one can catch you.”
“Pietri couldn’t anyway,” I said.
We were silent for a bit. Sounds of the hotel, and streets below. New York. My mind went ahead four days, to the rematch with Pietri. He would want it.
“Happy, I guess. Cheerful.”
I shoved her. “Happy.”
Martha Silversmith was a good wife too, though she lacked Lauretta’s mischief and her rebel fun. Then again, Lauretta was younger, and perhaps Martha had more to contend with. All Lauretta had to face was me getting killed and then coming back to life again.
(Spring morning. A robin bulgy with eggs on a stump outside the window, orange on brown on blue. Lauretta’s new husband rattling cups and dishes in the kitchen, letting us know he’s there. “Tom, I’m awful glad you’re alive,” Lauretta says , “but I think I’ll stay where I am.” That twitch at the corner of her mouth which you never knew if she meant or not.
We were sitting at her kitchen table in Ohsweken. When the robin flew up and my eyes followed it, I saw a raccoon curled up on the corner of the neighbour’s second floor porch, dozing in the sun. Chew marks on the lattice told me the work he was resting from. When Lauretta went to reassure the rattler, I rapped on the glass. The way the coon sat up and sniffed, plus the awkward splay of his fat rear, gave me an idea, and when Lauretta returned, I said, “I wasn’t dead. Just hibernating.”
“I don’t need a bear any more than I need a ghost.” Quick, Lauretta, so quick.)
Martha Silversmith. Lauretta Maracle. I only married women with beautiful names.
Sometimes it seemed Martha and I were running, sprinting full bore after something, and sometimes it seemed we were standing still. Hardly ever walking, though I tried to find that pace. Running and standing still are much closer to each other than either is to walking. I saw the plum side of that when I won the marathon in Boston. After I caught Petch on the Newton Hills, I felt like I was standing still. Policemen pushing people back at the end and I could see every face clearly, Rockefeller on a riverboat, watching the faces on the banks float past. Hands brushing me like branches, but still separated from them. By water, by current.
Afterwards, a terrific steak dinner. Then the governor of Massachusetts presents me with a gold medal (for breaking the record) and a bronze statue of Mercury. As I’m hoisting it up before the cheering crowd, suddenly I feel air fanning my face, cheers and shouts lost in a wind roar, and I glance up and see the wings on Mercury’s bronze feet spinning to a blur, like hummingbird wings. The faces too all just blurs, smudges lost to speed.
When your father dies and you are only five, many people assume you spend your whole life looking for a mentor. Untrue. Advice is overrated; you have to learn everything yourself. Every mistake must be made at least once. And when you do find yourself needing a guide, a teacher, there will generally be one close at hand. Overall, I had more trouble shucking off mentors than I did finding them. I have no memories of my father.
When I was twelve and finished grade four in the band school, they enrolled me in the Mohawk Institute, the Anglican mission boarding school in Brantford. Two rules: no “longhouse practices” (which would have made Mother laugh; she always said that longhouse was just the Bible watered down for Indians—“They know the hard stuff goes to our heads”—and that Handsome Lake should’ve been paid by the missionaries and maybe he was). No “Indian,” only English. That was a bigger problem.
The hours I spent standing in the corner at the back of the classroom. Glancing up I could see a painting of Joseph Brant and the poster of Pauline Johnson, which might have been hung there for my benefit. She wore a bear-claw necklace and fringed and beaded buckskin.
(Miss E. Pauline Johnson,
The Iroquois Indian Poet-Entertainer)
She was a handsome woman (Lauretta resembled her, though softer-faced and plumper), and the Institute’s most famous student. “If you mock her, you mock all of us,” intoned the fat, laced-up teacher in a dangerously soft voice. It was Art period and she was standing behind me. I stared down at my paper (which in a few seconds she would tear to pieces)—myself in shorts, raising my lacrosse stick after a goal
(Mr. Thomas Longboat
The Onondagan Lacrosse Champion)
—wondering if something my pencil and a dreaming mood had traced could really have such a sharp point.
No running (except in P.E. class). No fishing.
The first time I left, I was weeding the Institute garden. Cabbage whites flitted about my head. Bent over in a row between peas and carrots, watching green coil and feather upwards in the sun, feeling myself sink down the other way, muscles pooling like butter. A black bug walked a lime stalk: nothing. The last thought I had before I started running was, I might as well be weeding Mother’s garden (which would have handed her another laugh).
They caught me, punished me. But the next time, I made it all the way to my uncle’s, who said he’d hide me if I worked for him.
All the way up the road swinging an imaginary lacrosse stick, snaring passes from blurred wingers on one side, snapping them into blurred nets on the other, stampstampstamp, brain hollering CogagweeCogagweeCogagwee—EverythingEverythingEverything—as all the Indian and English names drop behind me in the dust.
Later the Institute would ask me back, but I declined all requests to appear. The first invitation came after I won the Boston; they came periodically after that, and frequently after Pauline Johnson died in 1913, just before the war. They needed another example. So did I.
Arguments with both wives on this score. Lauretta could recite “The Song My Paddle Sings” by heart; so could Martha (hell, I knew most of it), but with her it was more a matter of don’t refuse an invitation: it’s unlucky and who knows when you’ll get another. A good woman, but fearful.
“I left the Institute,” was all I ever said. Many times. To both of them.
1930. Thirty years almost to the day that I ran from the Institute, I made a guest appearance at the Canadian National Exhibition. I smiled at the spectators, started a race. Afterwards, my eight-year-old daughter ran across the street to greet me and was killed by a car. Her body flew through the air a short way, then fell to the ground with a thud. Like a shot goose, not much bigger.
Later, holding Martha as she cried and blamed me. “You can’t stop a child from running,” I said, and was sorry I said.
But can you? And would you if you could?
Martha’s shoulders shaking as she sobbed, my mind running.
Would I?Would I?Would I?
The Globe and Mail, 1937.
Youngsters in North Toronto are fired with a new ambition, not merely to be engine drivers, G-men or even cowboys. Their growing ambition now is to be a street cleaner. That is what their idol is—a man who 30 years ago was the most famous athlete in the world and the idol of Canada…. “Oh, I’m not news any more,” protested the once famous marathoner when a reporter discovered him sweeping leaves on Lawrence Avenue today. “I’ve had my day—and no regrets.”
“ You’re a pretty important fellow to the children of this district,” answered the reporter.
“Well, I’m glad they like me,” smiled the big Onondaga Indian. “Maybe all I’m good for now is sweeping leaves, but if I can help the kids and show them how to be good runners and how to live a clean life, I’m satisfied.”
Note: I was never “big.” Was five foot nine, maybe 145 pounds by then (I ran at 132).
Evening Walks (I).
From 1919 to 1926, I mostly kept to a comfortable stroll. Others might have worried (Martha did!), but I felt I knew the pace and the road.
Went out west to see if I could scare up a veteran’s homestead grant, but no luck. Saw a lot of pretty country, though, moving from town to town. All manner of jobs: digging ditches, mucking barns, baling hay.
Then back to Ontario, since Martha wanted to raise the kids closer to Ohsweken. Worked Dunlop Rubber in Toronto, then the Steel Company in Hamilton.
“Doc” was a janitor at the Steel Company. His nickname came from the rumour that he had been a doctor before and during the Great War, but had returned to work as a labourer. Others found him strange, but I found him to be a true gentleman, courteous and soft-spoken. We’d already been working together three months when Doc showed me a scrapbook he’d kept of my exploits before the war. The curious (and slightly embarrassing) part was that Doc had cut and pasted headlines, pictures, and articles not just about my running but also about my marriages, my children’s births, the scandals about my “professional” status, my enlistment (and death) in the army. Mostly from the Toronto papers, but Doc even had the side-view shot of my naked lower half (privates artfully concealed)— “Tom Longboat’s $20,000 Legs”—published in the New York Telegram.
Flipping through Doc’s scrapbook was like flipping through my life. Reliving it in shutter clicks.
The last article was only a month old. From the title, “Walking Into the Sunset,” I got the gist and knew it was a cornball piece. My eyes skipped down and found the phrase, “falling from the limelight into obscurity.” I guess nobody’d told the reporter everyone does that.
“I’ve had a good run,” I mumbled, closing the book.
And now Doc—who normally you had to crowbar words out of—told me that he and I had the same birthday. Same day, same year. That shook me more than his scrapbook had. I stared hard at him a few moments. He looked at least ten years older than me. Broom-bent, veiny-bald, his eyes starting to film. But then I’ve kept in shape, never stopped walking.
It was about six months later that I got my layoff slip. Production was slowing down. Doc was safe, of course—he had eight years in, and a janitor is always needed—but he seemed to take it hardest of all. I was emptying my locker after a long shower, the rest of the gang already cleared out, when I heard a gulp behind me. Doc was sitting hunched over at the other end of the bench, crying almost silently. One hand over his eyes, his shoulders shaking. Hardly any sound. I didn’t know what to do other than move down closer to him. I was standing behind him, my hand floating towards his shoulder, when Doc blurted, “I saw you run in England.”
I pulled my hand back. This little man kept surprising me. It was certainly possible. I ran races with the 180th Sportsmen’s Battalion in England, then with the 3rd Reserve, still in England. Races in France too. With the 107th then, the “Red” (or “Injin”) Battalion. February. June, I think. August, near Vimy. I didn’t know anything about Doc‘s life.
“I saw you run.” Quieter and fiercer now. His wet eyes glaring, his hands white-knuckled on the mop handle. If there ever was a picture of a man running and standing still, it was Doc just then. Which told me what to do.
I leaned the mop against the wall and led him by the elbow out into the wide clanking night. We walked around the Steel Company premises, among and between all the hulking black shapes. Men in sooty shadows, smoking or hiding. It was a pleasant cool night, the air decent and fresh, thanks to a west wind blowing the bad smells east. Doc kept peering upwards, but the yard lights and flames killed the stars. I walking him along the coke oven tracks and we saw a “push” just ahead of us. Red glowing coke tumbling out of the oven into a waiting rail car, orange sparks flurrying upward. Better than fireworks because it meant something. Further on, where the track ended, we had a good view of the dark bay with two freighters, black oblongs, moored in it. There were two huge hills, dark silhouettes, humped up to points, with soft sides rounding down. This was the iron ore and coal the ships had left behind. Right between the two peaks was a little curl of moon, bright white.
“Egypt,” Doc said, his voice almost a whisper. The piles did look like pyramids, their edges gentled by centuries.
That’s the way, I thought, and I clapped him between the shoulder blades in encouragement. That’s when I felt it. A tingle, small but unmistakable, like a current passing through my fingertips into Doc’s back. Mother’s words came tumbling back to me: “Spirit’s just like food or money. You can earn it, spend it, lose it, hoard it, give it away.” She recommended the first and the last as the best courses, and I knew I’d just followed her advice and passed on a little soul bread to someone who needed it more.
Hibernation (or: My Activities While Deceased).
It was like the end of a long, lost marathon. Like the end of my Olympic dream, 1908, in London, when, running a strong second, almost without warning, my legs turned to slush and I dropped. False accusations later that Flanagan, my manager, had drugged me (after running up the odds in my favour, then counter-betting). Flanny only gave me a stimulant when I was already twitching on the ground, bleeding from my nose and mouth. No, something poisonous was in the air that day. Something that took men out of the race. Hefferon’s lead died—he finished, but they carried him off in a stretcher. Pietri staggered into the stadium, turned the wrong way round, collapsed, was helped up, staggered, collapsed, fell again, got up…there was a film of all this, and I could hardly believe it when I watched. Finally Pietri fell and didn’t move. Hayes entered the stadium. That’s when the officials panicked, I guess. Picked up Pietri by the elbows and escorted him across the line—it looked like two burly, well-dressed bouncers giving the heave-ho to a half-dressed drunk.
(Question for the Press and the New England AAU:
If I was not an “amateur”—accusations that my managers, Rosenthal then Flanagan, took more than expense money and/or kicked back some of it to me— why did I turn down Alf Shrubb’s 1907 offer of five races, at $1,000 per race, just so I could go to the Olympics?
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five miles. Seventy-five miles for $5,000. Do you think I got more than that to smash the American ten-mile record?)
It had to hurt Pietri, being disqualified. But Dorando was a runner, unwilling to overlook one yard let alone forty. On December 15 we had our first rematch, at Madison Square Garden, also (note to Press) my first “pro” race. Twenty-five thousand people stormed the Garden doors; firemen drove ten thousand away. Pietri had beaten Hayes three weeks before. We traded leads, back and forth, but this time Pietri collapsed with six laps to go, and I didn’t. They brought him in by stretcher and we spoke in the locker room. “Tough miles, Dorando,” I said to him. “Tough eenches, Tom,” he answered. Only a week later, in Buffalo—and Lauretta and I just married in between—we ran a return match. Dorando stepped off the track at nineteen miles. Eenches, Tom I heard as I walked-jogged home.
It was conceived as a ladder tournament. Now I got to tackle Shrubb.
January 26, 1909. The Shrubb-Longboat Marathon at Madison Square Garden was watched by twelve thousand people. Flanagan had just quit as my manager, selling my contract and puffing some smoke which the papers (typically) blew into flames. At the worst, Alfie had eight laps on me, but eventually it was he who tottered off the track. I tick-tocked in the roar for sixteen laps.
Professional Champion of the World.
What a season of races that was! None of us willing to leave anything on the track. Like boxers who won’t settle for a decision. Knockouts only!
Nine years later, in France, it was a different game. As a dispatch runner, I covered short distances, but the organizers had added in obstacles of bullets and shells and barbed wire and craters. Mud and fog. You lost the field and ran entirely alone. If the fog got too thick, you were welcome to sleep overnight in a soggy field, no penalty except an aching back. And the goal was reversed from the golden years: since there were no winners, you prayed just to cross the finish line.
I ran hunched over like a gnome, due to back wounds and the presence of guns.
Then one day, in Belgium, there was a magic like the spell that overtook me in London. Only with a much happier result. I had just jogged into an officers’ communication trench when a shell exploded and buried all of us. It took me a few minutes to realize this. At first all I felt was my knees buckle, my eyes go milky, and my head roar. London, I thought. Then, when I came to and shook free of the dirt, there was blood—something warm and salty anyway (it was pitch black)—running from my nose.
But it was Belgium, and here was the miracle. No one in the trench was hurt, though we were good and buried. (It took some time to convince two boys that they hadn’t been killed. They were clutching each other in a corner, moaning and shivering. Later they put their hands down each other’s flies and spent the next six days that way, still moaning and shivering.)
“Are we dead?” whispered a voice in the dark.
I started laughing. “No, boys, we’re out of the race, and with any luck we’ll stay out for a while.”
We were getting air somehow, and we had provisions for weeks. Of course, the smell of six men, close, got a little rich, and an overflowing latrine and the lovers carrying on…all in all, it was like most trenches.
We slept twenty hours out of twenty-four and ate like hogs. When they “rescued” us, after six days underground, we must have looked like winter groundhogs, blinking unwillingly at the light.
Still, that “death” cost me Lauretta, who for once believed the newspapers. I was already demobbed when, in 1919, I ran my last military race. Kicked out to win against Bill Queal in a three-miler at “The Grand Army of Canada Sports Show.” I was thirty-two years old, and for fifteen minutes, the decade just past rolled back and never happened, or got ready to happen again.
On Training Methods, and my decision to quit the YMCA and join the Irish Club.
The Y felt that liquor and the company of women, even in moderation, were weakening for any man and disastrous for a runner.
As did Tom Flanagan, hammer thrower and owner of the Grand Hotel. As did Lauretta.
Evening Walks (II).
In the photo of Alf Shrubb and me, taken before our 1931 exhibition race, we look like what we are: a couple of old coots who used to be pro runners. Alf looks skinnier than ever, maybe sick. Me, in my white shorts and sleeveless undershirt, I look like a city worker who has just woken up and is leaning out his front door. What the paperboy must see Sunday morning when he comes to collect.
I don’t remember who won.
It flashed on me that I’d agreed to enter the four-mile Jubilee run in Hamilton only on the condition that the first prize be a second-hand car, a ’26 Chrysler. I was forty, just hired on by the City. Martha and the kids and I liked to drive out of town on the weekends, out to Ohsweken or just around. To lacrosse and wrestling matches. And it hit me in the moments after she fell—looking down at her and sprinting like hell—that probably none of that would change. That seemed very strange and awful: that this death could not alter our habits.
The Onondaga Wonder
The Streak of Bronze
The Caledonia Cyclone
My best run?
Hard to say. It might have been almost beating Higasadini’s record for twelve miles.
Higasadini (Deerfoot), a Seneca, ran in moccasins in the 1850s and 1860s. Mother remembered hearing about him. In Hamilton he and his partner Steep Rock won $1,000 by outrunning three horses in a ten-mile relay race. On his tour of England in 1863 he set a record for the one-hour run that would last for ninety years. In my training runs I sometimes took a poke at it. Grinding concession road into 3,600 second-grains, and draining them through the most pinch-waisted hourglass I could find. Telling no one, I found a white farmhouse that was exactly eleven miles distant from Mother’s house, standing by itself in a field. Reaching it would have given me Deerfoot’s record, plus a few yards to spare. But always, always, at the end of my run, my watch-hand jerked to 12 with the farmhouse still up ahead, starting to loom, but still a good ways off. I kept walking towards it as I cooled down, but out of superstition I always turned back before I reached it. Of all the roads I walked and ran, it was the only one that stopped me at eleven miles. In a way I’m just as glad.
Evening Walks (III).
In one way 1946 was like 1906, except that now it was Martha, not Mother, who disbelieved how far I walked.
When I checked myself out of Sunnybrook Hospital (they’d already told me I had diabetes, which was all they could do), I phoned Martha. A mistake. She was almost too angry to come and get me.
“What road are you coming in on?” I inquired, trying to make the question sound innocent.
My second mistake. She was as sharp as Lauretta in most ways.
“You stay right there,” she hissed. “Don’t move.” But I put down fifteen miles before I saw our Studebaker approaching. Henry Greene, our neighbour, was at the wheel; Martha no longer drove. Martha made a show of checking Henry’s pocketwatch before she’d let me in the car.
“Good. You hitched a ride,” she said, smiling grimly.
But if she really believed that, why did she make me sit in the back seat? “You’re too sick to drive,” she declared. And shot a glare at Henry who was grinning at me in the mirror.
“Drive,” she told him.
A runner’s strides are all to reach himself. That thought’s occurred to me more than once, usually while running. As if, with enough speed and stamina, you could catch the front-runner who decides things before you know or act on them, and tap him on the shoulder. Hey.
(And suppose he turns his head: do you recognize him?)
Like when I wrote my protest letter to the Hamilton Spectator “to declare war on the cheap two-bit imposter who has been capitalizing on my famous name for the last fifteen to twenty years, by calling himself Tom Longboat for the purpose of obtaining free drinks in various beverage rooms.”
I’d heard the story for years. At first it made me chuckle; rumours were nothing new, and they generally come in one shade: black. As time went on, it nagged a bit, something I’d have to get around to fixing, though there seemed no hurry.
What surprised me, when I finally put pen to paper, was my anger. Swiping the envelope flap across my tongue, mashing it sealed with my fist.
Naturally I thought of Doc. It’d been twenty years since we’d taken our midnight ramble through the Steel Company, along the tracks at Hamilton Bay, seen the pyramids of ore and coal, Doc whispering,“Egypt.” And Doc, I figured, who had the soul of a panhandler already—with his boy’s scrapbook and old man’s tears—maybe the tingle of spunk I’d slipped between his shoulder blades was all the push he needed to make him an aggressive one.
Roused up, I started rifling through the other pictures in Martha’s cedar box, where I’d found the recent snap I’d sent the paper. She kept everything (unlike Lauretta, who was content to let the moment slide by), in a jumble of no particular order. Picture of me in a Maple Leaf singlet, hands loose-fisted at waist, looking more like a boxer than a runner. As a body under a blanket on a cart, being wheeled off the field by an official after I collapsed from sunstroke: Chicago, 1909. (And it occurs to me—for the first time, strangely—that Martha must’ve been keeping her own scrapbook, because we hadn’t even met yet and I never saved these.) Alfie and I, lining up for Auld Lang Syne. Ghosting Shrubb in greener days. Flashing my “smile that won’t come off ” after beating Pietri in the indoor marathon. The Indian Made a Pace the Italian Could Not Hold. “Bring on your next champion,” dared the Canadian redman. Grinning as I buy a newspaper from a kid in a trench in France—remember nothing of the day, the kid, or the big rangy guy grinning between us. Only the kid unsmiling.
Here’s Lauretta and I on our honeymoon, looking starchy. The photographer was a prim and fussy individual whose flashbulbs kept popping; plus we weren’t giving each other much sleep.
The two at the bottom must be thirty years apart. From my pro days: I relax in a wingback armchair, dressed to the nines in a fancy suit, sucking a fat cigar ($17,000 in winnings my first three years as a pro; Lauretta kept the accounts, entering it all in a slim red book with blue lines). Right behind it a more recent clipping from the Star: we see a placid old fellow in suspenders, smoking a thin-stemmed pipe, smiling benignly under a straw hat. One gloved hand at his side, the other reaching up to the heap on the truck, as if to pat some stray litter back into place. Tom, Tom, the Garbage Man—one neighbourhood kid kept trying to get my goat.
I stir through the pictures a while, to no particular purpose. But feeling restless, jazzed up. I keep coming back to the last two, holding them slightly apart in either hand, like bookends on a short shelf. It’s not just that they look so different. Mother always maintained that anyone who looked the same in every photo was not a human being. I know that’s so. But she also said you gain spirit by spending it, and here I’m not so sure. There I have to pause for a second. Because the fact is, the young lion at his ease in 1909, and the obliging codger circa 1940, not only don’t look like each other, but I don’t think they are the same man. And neither of them resembles the face I shave. For a few moments, sitting in our living room in Ohsweken, Martha off visiting somewhere, there is this mystery in the air that can’t be explained or dispelled.
After the Boston several thousand people met my train at Union Station. They gave me a torchlight parade, in the competing blare of three bands, up Bay Street to City Hall. There Mayor Coatsworth presented me with a gold medal and a promise of $500 for my education. (Controller Hubbard had told the reception committee: “I have been thinking of the silver cabinets, etc., which other runners have received, and I have decided that they are not fitting for the young man who has practically no home but a boarding house.”)
The Daily Star added this praise: “Canada makes no bones about gaining a little glory from an Indian. In other matters than footraces we have become accustomed to leaders from the Six Nations. We give the Boston papers notice, one and all, that we claim Longboat as a Canadian.”
An additional $250.05 was raised by public subscription.
Later in 1907, I asked if the money, instead of being saved for my education, could be used to build a house for Mother. At first the board of control agreed, but when the American AAU started grousing about my amateur status again, the city treasurer decided to withhold the money until after the 1908 Olympics.
November, 1908. Flanagan requests the money be paid. The board of control authorizes it, but issues no cheque, and gives no explanation.
- I write. They cannot do it at this time.
- . I write again. I am paid $50.
- I write again. The city sends $165 to Lauretta. (She agrees—privately—to buy me a box of cigars out of it.)
- I hire my first lawyer. He chases the city around the legal track. The city pays me the $35.05 remaining from public donations.
I never received the $500. Though it could never be said that I did not get an education.
Surprised Frank Montour, the wrestler and band councillor. He stopped to give me a lift on a cold night just after Christmas.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
“I’ve just had a nice walk to Hagersville.”
Frank’s mind going as he figured the distance. Close to twenty miles. He drove, I walked, back into Ohsweken.
I would be dead of pneumonia within two weeks.
In 1949, after a sojourn of sixty-one years, eleven years before my People got the vote, I was buried according to the dictates of the Great Spirit.
The women of my family hand-stitched the cotton and wool they dressed me in. Two white fringed shirts and dark blue beaded trousers: Onondaga colours, the colours of my tribe. They tied a blue silk ribbon across my chest and draped a blue silk shawl over my shoulders and tied a silk bandana around my head. My daughter slipped new buckskin moccasins on my feet. The service was spoken in Onondaga, my sons leading the chants.
Henry Greene whittled a V in the top of the coffin to permit my spirit to escape. V less for Victory than for a runner’s legs, upended, still.
He kept it small, mindful perhaps of Mother’s favourite lesson: Be A Prodigal Soul.
My Greatest Race?
Maybe the one I lost to George Bonhag.
It was a three-mile match race in 1907 that I had no business running. Bonhag was the U.S. five- mile champ and he held the U.S. indoor three-mile record. I’d won my four races in 1906 in Hamilton and Toronto. I’d never run a short race before and I’d never raced indoors.
Nine thousand people paid to watch us. Bonhag beat me by eight inches.
We both broke his record.
(Bonhag at the finish line beside me, both of us bent over double, hands on knees: “Goddamn, kid. God damn.” His gasp of breath urgent as a lover’s hiss.)
For a runner there is only the official version, the truth of legs, the clock’s verdict. But a committee, composed of hereditary chiefs, speaks with many tongues, none of them ideally correct. Officially, the council of the Six Nations at Ohsweken refused to join the war. As a sovereign nation, historically allied to the British crown, they held out for a request for assistance from London. They were patient men.
Unofficially, women on the reserve raised money, knit socks and sweaters, and made bandages. Men who enlisted were not disdained.
I was of two minds too. I raced myself, alone, but when I chased Alf Shrubb, the Maple Leaf hung low over my diaphragm, a flaming at my middle. Alf wore the Union Jack higher, a cross with rays below his neck, on a dark singlet.
Attempts to shame were crude, but hardly ineffective.
The Issue is One of
CIVILIZATION vs. BARBARISM
If civilization wins, Canadian people shall enjoy their rights and privileges as heretofore.
If barbarism wins, Canadians will be placed in German shackles.
THE DUTY OF CANADIANS
The participants in outside Canadian sport are mostly unmarried men with few responsibilities, and with years of vigorous athletic training, are the logical individuals to defend the honour of the nation.
“Logical?” Lauretta jeered. “Ask the women what’s logical. They might say leave the young fit men here. Send the fat married ones first.”
“I’m married.” I tried a grin.
“Yes, you are,” she said softly, but with that sternness. Like Mother, I could see then. I don’t know how I missed it before.
Six months later, when I enlisted, I was trying to get up nerve to tell her. We were sitting in the house at Ohsweken, smoking and drinking. Clock ticking. Lauretta’s talk had a more corrosive edge than usual, brittle, like she’d touched acid or frost. She was a sensitive woman. When a bee passed she felt the shock wave, a tiny slap of honey or death.
The worst of it was, I didn’t have a reason I could tell her (which needn’t have bothered me, since why paled beside what to Lauretta). The pro running circuit had been drying up since 1912. I was twenty-nine. Near the close of youth (I realize now), men are prey to wild crusades, a target for that poised nerve and muscle.
“This is just stupid,” Lauretta said.
I crossed the living room, a long distance it seemed, and stood beside her chair. Looked down where her thumb, hard-shelled like a beetle, lay alongside another advertisement.
“WHY DON’T THEY COME?”
WHY BE A MERE SPECTATOR HERE WHEN YOU SHOULD PLAY A MANS PART IN THE REAL GAME OVERSEAS?
Lauretta snorted softly. “They spelled ‘man’s’ wrong.”
Did they? It seemed Lauretta had even more contempt for the minds behind the war than for the war. But I thought the minds were adequate. They did not dissuade me through foolishness, made foolishness irrelevant. In my mind I’d already moved closer to the soldier in the picture, with his pack and rifle and boots and bandaged head, silhouettes of artillery cannons puffing smoke behind him. Had already shifted from the fantasy blooming in the smoke from his rifle barrel, fans waving hats at toy figures playing hockey. I was ready to go, had gone.
Lauretta looked up and saw. She didn’t say anything. Just opened her brown eyes wide and looked at me, long and hard, then narrowed them. She did that several times, as if her eyes were a camera and she were taking my photograph. My perspective whirled, and I felt she was looking down at me. And I felt that she was measuring my face to remember it after it was dead and still.
Truth was stranger. I would come back from the dead to find her married happily to another man. “Tom, you’re back,” she said. It was an accusation.
Walking. The sportswriters used to marvel when I told them my training consisted of daily walks, of fifteen to twenty miles, with a couple of fast timed runs per week. Even in this, they suspected me of lying. One scribe waxed eloquent: “Could this modest regimen really produce those prodigious feats of stamina and speed we have been privileged to witness?”
But he wouldn’t have believed me. And—in a way—perhaps he was right to be sceptical. For me walking went far beyond a key to success in sport. It was my way of life, my life.
I discovered it accidentally, and in defeat. The way most true things are found.
After I left the Institute, I was a running fiend. From twelve to eighteen, I ran every chance I got, my legs two long itches only speed could scratch. I’d run from crosses and pale droning spinsters, painted Saints and sour-smelling scribblers, hours spent communing with the ghosts of Pauline Johnson and Joseph Brant, my farting rear to the classroom. Running could take me away from everything, I believed. And this was true.
Heading out to jobs as a farm labourer in houses off the reserve, I tore up road. I walked only with the greatest reluctance, a penance I paid to scorched lungs and swampy legs. There were canneries in Caledonia and Hagersville, Hamilton, Brantford and Burlington, where I picked up seasonal work. I ran (and walked), ran (and walked), to and from all of them.
I watched the road races on field days and in the Highland Games. Knowing—knowing-dreaming—I would be part of them soon.
Bill Davis was my hero then. A Mohawk from Ohsweken, he’d won races all over Ontario. In 1901 he’d finished second in the Boston Marathon. “That close,” he said, his hands straddling a length of air.
In the spring of 1905, just before my eighteenth birthday, I decided it was my time. My legs wouldn’t let me wait any longer. I entered the annual Victoria Day five-mile race in Caledonia.
When the starter’s gun cracked, I sprang into the wind, the Institute behind me. The rest is easy to tell. I ran too fast, burning myself up, and in the last half mile, someone passed me.
I was unhappy and happy. I had run my first race. My second-place silver medal, which I fingered in my pocket as I walked home, could not but turn to gold. I was eighteen. More strength lay ahead of me.
The walk home was almost five miles, too. I walked it fast, and sometimes I broke into a scornful sprint, just to show the speed I had to waste. After one such run I stopped, gasping, beside a field of tall grasses. From the field came a giant hum, a churn of rampant life, which I could not separate into the sound of individual insects. It seemed more the sizzle of growing, of life itself. Breezes passed through the grass like blushes through skin. Clouds sent cool bobbling shadows over the field and me. And there was the buzzing, like a tiny roar, the crackle of a fire breaking out, everywhere.
Cogagwee, I thought. Me, my name. Everything.
Excited, I leaped over the ditch to be closer to the buzzing grass. I stood in it, the sharp blades scratching my legs. I passed my hands over the frizzy, flowering tops, wondering if the pubic hair of women, which I had not felt yet, felt this way, soft yet dry, pleasantly prickly.
I saw a black dot near the base of a long stalk of grass, and stooped to look at it. It must have been a type of beetle, it was black, but though I peered at it closely, no other details of its appearance have remained with me. Only its motion. I remember touching it with my finger. It stopped climbing. I touched it again, a gentle nudge. Now its six legs scrambled forward—it ran—but only for a short distance. Then it walked again.
Several times I did this—touched the black beetle to see it stop or run—while I felt an idea growing inside me, my stomach prickling with excitement from the beetle’s lesson.
Running and stopping are the same, you do them from something. Walking is life, is time, it takes you towards.
The secret churned my stomach, ached along my limbs.
I walked to Dunnville and back, fifty miles. “Don’t lie,” Mother said, “or you’ll find another house.”
My brother took a horse and buggy to Hamilton. I gave him a half hour lead, then met him on King Street. His jaw fell open. “Does Mother know?” he asked. I think at that moment he believed me capable of anything: of flying, of telepathy, of spirit-walking. I just grinned at him.
Next Victoria Day, at Caledonia, I walked to the start line. Felt the touch, a tap, a flick, between my shoulder blades. Ran a short way along the stalk and won easily. Resumed walking, and walked slowly home.
Reprinted from Contrary Angel by Mike Barnes by permission of The Porcupine’s Quill. Copyright © Mike Barnes, 2004.
Hey (Reflections on a Published Story)
“Cogagwee: Walks around the Life of Tom Longboat” was a departure for me in several ways. It took a “collage” approach to writing further than I had taken it before; yet at that further extension, I felt more relaxed and natural, as if in leaving familiar precincts I had come home.
I felt at liberty to mingle found and invented bits. Actual newspaper headlines and passages; facts about the runner’s life from a primer for young readers; World War I recruitment ads viewed through the horrid blur of microfilm. But also: a beautiful, black, long-legged beetle had got into a jar on my windowsill and now tried vainly to climb up the slippery glass sides. Something distracted me for a time; when I next noticed the insect, it lay dead in its glass prison. That gave me my entry point into the story (and a character, “Mother,” who could supply the moral choices of freedom or murder that had eluded me). Another time—the story was written over a few days in August (another personal breakthrough, since the summer is usually inert creatively)—I looked out from my attic window and saw a raccoon curled up under my neighbour’s deck. That became a scene between Tom and his first wife. Anything might adhere to a story I felt I was walking through as much as writing.
I felt equally free in assembling the mixed materials. I wrote the small sections out of chronological sequence, whichever one came to me next, and tried various orders for the squares of cut paper patterned with text. Surprise and rightness shuffled into an easy balance. One example: when the first-person narrator describes his own funeral calmly, from a perspective somewhere beyond death, the scene occurs, not in the traditionally prominent position of beginning or end, but about three-quarters of the way through, preceded by money hassles forty years earlier and followed by an even-more-distant lost race.
Writing “Cogagwee” involved a few other paradoxes that hinted at future possibilities. The story is “about,” purportedly narrated by, an historical figure, but it wears its history lightly. Most of the story occurs between the scattered ascertainable facts. In the company of a character I admired even as I created him, I felt old defaults of irony recede in favour of a more ample relation. “Be a prodigal soul,” Mother advises in the story; and I felt, breathing life into a character, some of that prodigality breathed back into me. Nobility is magnetic, and I wrote to get nearer to it.
“Cogagwee,” the story explains, means “Everything” in Onondogan. And “everything” might well be what the collagist sees and hopes to suggest in his bits. But the subtitled “Walks Around” is warier about how close circumscription may draw, and to whom: “As if, with enough speed and stamina, you could catch the front-runner who decides things before you know or act on them, and tap him on the shoulder. Hey.”
Photo by flickr user BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives