Coach Bob Timmons picked me up as promised. On my recruiting trip, he’d said I could embrace my passions as much as I wanted to at the University of Kansas. I wanted to train under the famous coach, who had also coached Jim Ryun, the famous miler. I’d pursue my dream of becoming a great runner whom others were attracted to and nobody criticized. I couldn’t imagine Coach Timmons or Ryun being disrespected because I respected them so much.
See, back in 1977, I conceptualized society as having a pyramid structure, and the higher people rose in a domain (e.g., education, athleticism, popularity, wealth, beauty, dangerousness, and even age), the less they were hassled by others. I fantasized that they never had problems, or at least very few, just like in Solla Sollew. I hoped to become awesome in college and to use the years as a stepping-stone to Olympic and professional distance-running greatness. Did I say “greatness”? I meant the greatest of all time. Of course, today I see the distortion in this thinking, the narcissism, the passion, the ultimate ridiculousness of it. Now I know that the quest to be the greatest of all time in any domain—and subsequently have no one criticize us—is a futile goal. The challenge is to have a strong moral compass and self-love despite the certaincritics.
In the meantime, as a freshman, I was again on the bottom of the athletic pyramid. But having been the new guy a few times before, I knew to keep my pie hole shut and not irritate the older runners. I couldn’t play the extroverted track star anymore, because I was uncomfortable around strangers. Plus, the upperclassmen demolished me on the runs. American Graffiti gave way to One on One. The older guys were fast, smart, and mature. Red eyes, neuters (i.e., whacking each other in the testicles), or windshields shattered by a bare behind weren’t funny to them. My attempts at sophomoric, scatological, good-old-boy humor failed among the college crowd. I said “y’all” and assumed that everybody was comfortable around firearms. It took a while for it to dawn on me that I was in the role of country hick. Hmm. I had to reappraise my situation, reconsider my chameleon color. So, I shut down to hide myself, to collect myself as I observed my new environment. By then, I was an expert at the process, the best. So, I played the shy freshman from New Mexico. “Sí, it’s part of the United States,” I clarified. Then I did what had worked for me before: I put my head down, put in the miles, and worked my way up the distance-runner pyramid.
Step 1 was the same as in junior high and high school: to fit in, make the cross-country team, and earn an athletic letter. Step 2 was to stand out, to be the best. So, I became an enigma, the guy who didn’t seem to have much to say. I stood back and observed as I had with the Christian Science kids. That was my thing in any new environment: scan for danger before taking a few tentative steps closer, as our ancestors did when entering a strange tribe’s encampment. I’d let my new peers know me after I cultivated some allies. Or better yet, I thought, I’d never let anyone know me, only the version of me that I wanted them to know.
My new teammates thought I was “spacey.” I was very quiet, very defended. But spacey certainly wasn’t the color I wanted. When I won a spot on the team, everyone was surprised. I so hated being underestimated. Sometimes I reacted by attacking. Sometimes I whupped my critics on the track—sometimes I used words, and sometimes they ended up in the fetal position on the mesa shouting, “I give!” beneath their armpits. Underestimating me only left me alone on the playground. I wasn’t going back to my Apache Street bedroom. The high-school PE coach who made me run punishment laps couldn’t keep me down. The thugs behind the Circle K couldn’t squash me. So, no. I put my head down and ran harder, longer, faster.
A rumor from Albuquerque reached me in Lawrence. Apparently, I’d committed suicide. Greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain might opine, I grooved on it. Artists, writers, and comedians were tortured—at least, the interesting ones were. Mark Twain suffered greatly personally and financially and then he just told the truth disguised as humor. A little bit of suffering made for great art. Didn’t people’s indifference torture me? The rumor allowed me to reap the benefits but not really be dead. To clarify, I didn’t start the rumor—I just enjoyed it. There was a smattering of concerned letters and phone calls from Albuquerque. But no one at college knew any of this. They just saw the quiet freshman. I wasn’t sure which chameleon color gave me more traction: the tortured artist who offed himself (whom New Mexicans imagined) or the self-possessed athlete (whom Kansans witnessed). The truth was that I was too ambitious to squander my life on suicide or mediocrity, but I certainly enjoyed the drama. Looking back today, I was glad that somebody at least thought about me. I very much wanted people back home to be thinking about me, to think of me as being on an honorable adventure. I was too pressed to impress others, to think I needed others to be impressed. I was too self-conscious; I thought that I needed others to pay attention to me rather than just focusing on being the best I could be at the time.
My sister moved into my old bedroom on Apache Street. She reported that late at night, she awoke with something invisible and heavy on top of her, something like an incubus. There was no incubus, of course. She had watched—and believed—the wild, teenage track-star image I’d created at Eldorado. Now the weight of my shadow on a pubescent girl to create an acceptable image felt suffocating to her. She was driven to become the pretty, perky drill teamer on the Jock Wall. Today I think a good explanation for her experience was that hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations fooled her into thinking there was a malevolent presence in the bedroom. Remember, I’d felt the same thing at her age and thought of it as an evil presence as well. I think psychological explanations are more believable; we projected our fear onto the environment.
A few years later, after I mustered out of the army, I would tell my sister exactly who I was, removing the shiny image of me she’d held as a little girl looking up to her big brother. It would take our relationship to a much deeper, more authentic level and be healing for us both, and I’d walk her down the aisle at her second wedding when Dad was unavailable due to a conflict with deer-hunting season.
In the meantime, I was glad to be 850 miles away from that house on Apache Street. In Lawrence, the weird things that occurred could usually be explained by immaturity and alcohol. When the dorm’s vending machine inexplicably gave out free chips, I was there. I thought of it as good luck, but a dorm monitor thought otherwise and narced me out. The authorities let it go, as they did again when Peacock Muscles visited me and vomited in the hallway. The consequences could’ve been so much worse than nothing. I had continuing good fortune due to the grace of others. This point should be stressed. Was it only me? If it was only me, then why only me? I know I looked younger and more innocent than I was or wanted to be. Did people feel sorry for me? I didn’t want pity. Did people assume that thisface could not be responsible for thattransgression?
By Christmas, I’d earned a college letter jacket, and it was a “Cook’s Special” style. The difference was that everyone wore the same style because the athletic department gave the jackets to us, so it was awesome, not nerdy. Nobody offered to kick my ass or flicked cigarette butts at me. Funny how those things change depending on the current culture we’re in. I slipped on my new jacket, pleased with my new skin, which I wore for the next four years.