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Featured Image by Ronald Nutt
While driving from Montgomery to Enterprise to celebrate his brother’s thirtieth birthday, Jack Darragh spotted the perfect trail where he and his dog could take a break. A nice sandy road like this should be a great place for this Army veteran to enjoy a bit of minimalist running.
Both front windows of the truck were down. It was already a hot June morning and the day held a promise for this to be a hot June weekend. Jack’s brother’s birthday was this coming Sunday and like always, the celebration would be in the sweltering heat. Never mind. Jack was going to be there singing Happy Birthday with his sister-in-law and that smart, little kid.
Back when he and his brother were young, Bob’s birthday had often been celebrated on the banks of the Bogue Chitto Creek up past Five Points. The Bogue Chitto was a favorite swimming hole down there in Dallas County’s Orrville, Alabama.
Jack had made every effort to duck Bob in that creek at those free-for-all birthday parties. Instead, Bob had vowed every year to hold Jack under for a count of five times his age. Whatever adult was supposed to be watching over those parties had risen up and yelled at Bob when he was ten, and eleven, and twelve. And then it seemed to Jack that the adults had just come to accept that this was a ritual struggle between the Darragh brothers as the years went on. It was. Jack started it, and older Brother Bob would end it. All in good fun, except five times eighteen had been a big number.
Jack laughed as he thought about those birthday parties.
He looked in the truck’s mirror and found his dog’s head sticking through the back window. Somehow that dog had enough sense to ride in the back of the truck and not jump out every time they stopped for a traffic light. And, just like now, when Jack had that back window open, the dog would stick his head in. Smart dog. That dog had figured out that he could look at Jack in the mirror, just like Jack was looking at him.
During the two years since his release from the Army’s Walter Reed Hospital, it was that dog that helped keep Jack out of the anguish and despair from what he had seen and experienced in Vietnam. His dog had become his best pal, along with Brother Bob. Bob had pushed him and encouraged him as he recovered at Walter Reed. In fact, Jack was pretty much mended from the rubble the bomb blast had hurled, ripping through his guts. Lots of rowing, lifting, curling, and crunches had gotten him strong again. However, no amount of running was going to repair his eyes and ears. Powerful glasses had him seeing pretty well, but the hearing aids helped only a little. “Look at me when you talk!” His friends knew that, but sometimes he had to point with both index fingers to his ears to get strangers to understand. “Bomb blast in Nam,” he’d whisper.
Jack and his dog had the truck on cruise control and were sliding along on this off-the-interstate highway. See Alabama. That’s what Jack said when he went traveling across the state for one event or another. And that’s the reason he saw the side road.
Jack slid his bare foot onto the brake pedal, popping the truck out of cruise. Aware of his good friend in the back he slowed, though not too gently. “Hold on, good buddy,” he called as he pulled onto the side of the highway. Track marks were left on both roadside banks as he turned around. Watching not to get back-ended, he drove slowly back to the side road and turned in. There was no gate. He continued on up the sandy trail until there was a spot where he could pull off. There was enough room for anyone else coming to pass and deep enough so that the truck could not be seen from the highway.
Jack closed both front windows and reached for the back one. “How about a run, good buddy?” He turned off the engine. The dog was antsy to hop out of the back and was smelling all the bushes around the truck before Jack had scratched through his backpack to find running shorts. For sure, whatever animal checked these bushes next would know a new dog had been here. Jack confirmed that the dog’s eyes were the only ones seeing him as he pulled his tee-shirt over his head and slipped out of his pants and jockey shorts. Now, wearing only dark glasses, running shorts, and a running watch, he stretched an arm over his head, reaching for the sky. First one arm and then the other. Then he felt. Yeah, the hearing aids were firmly seated. He took a long swig of water from the bottle that had been on the floor of the front seat and, knowing the truck was going to get hot, put the bottle with the keys behind the right front tire. What was needed now was an assuring pat on the dog’s shoulders. “I’m afraid we’re going to have a sorry running weekend. But it looks like this is a chance to make it up. Let’s do it!” Appropriate buttons were punched on his running watch and a gentle slow jog began what they both knew was going to be an all-out sprint before it was over.
God, it was good! Running on the streets in Montgomery would never feel like this. Hot and humid. For sure. What man didn’t like a good sweat? Even on the city trails and sidewalks, he ran shirtless unless it was too cold. Lots of guys did that. After he had recovered beyond a fast walk, he had started participating in the local races, too. He didn’t stand a chance of winning anything in the 20 to 30-year-old class, but he liked being with the runners.
* * *
Initial progress seemed to have gone slowly at Walter Reed. For too long, the staff at Walter Reed had him lying flat on this back. The day after they allowed the top end of his bed to be raised, he called his brother. And, it was in that conversation that he learned they were going to allow him some solid food. “Think about what you want that first solid bite to be,” Bob had told him.
“Turnip greens,” Jack answered.
Maybe it was Bob’s infectious laughter that was Jack’s best aid in recovery.
There had been another celebration when Jack was allowed to stand and then to take a few steps with walking canes strapped to both wrists. In time, he walked with only one, and then none. They took him to the quarter mile track out a side entrance to Walter Reed.
In the late days of spring and early summer, there were always a bunch of guys and gals either limping on that track or just sitting on the edges, enjoying being in the open and watching their buddy’s successes.
One afternoon as he was about to begin his walk around the track, he was introduced to a new doctor. “Corporal Darragh, I want you to meet Major Moore. He’s an ambulatory physician helping guys to be running again.”
Jack looked at the man. Forty something, kinda short. “How do you do, sir.” Jack didn’t salute or extend his hand.
The major stuck out his hand, however. “Guys I work with call me Johnny T.”
“Major Johnny T. Yes, sir,” Jack accepted the handshake.
“I’ve been watching you. I want to talk with you as you start jogging again, and go on to running.” Jack waited. “You see,” the major started. “I’ve been involved in research on running.” He paused, smiled, and said, “Running without shoes.”
“Without shoes?” It was almost a shout in disbelief.
“Right. It’s called Minimalists Running. The notion is that we didn’t evolve wearing shoes. The pace and muscular development for running barefooted is slightly different from running with cushions under your feet. I’d like you to try it. In fact, if you’re willing, I’ll pull off my shoes and jog with you right now.”
That’s the way it started. The major had others in this experiment. Several of them started jogging together. Barefooted.
Sitting up, standing, walking, and then this fourth celebration: Major Moore introduced Jack to a sandy track close to the hospital. Jack ran, albeit slowly. A mile and a half. Two miles. And then three. All barefooted.
One evening, he just couldn’t help it. Tears ran down his cheeks when he phoned Bob.
“They gave me a set of fatigues with a Walter Reed label stamped on the left side of my chest. They also gave me permission to walk four blocks away from this damn place. I first had to promised I’d come back. I raised my right hand for the nurse and promised on my Boy Scout honor.”
“Good,” Bob laughed.
“And, you know what? I went to a bar and ordered a beer.”
Bob grunted. “Good.”
“Some guy,” Jack paused, took a breath, and, in a choking whisper, continued. “Some guy across the room paid for it.”
The phone was quiet.
It was Jack who spoke next. “I’ve asked them to let me out of this hospital for keeps. I’m ready to be discharged.”
Jack had been kept past his initial separation date, but the decision was made to discharge him now, keeping him in the Army Reserve. That way he’d have access to medical facilities if needed.
Brother Bob was there when he was given his honorable discharge.
Some searching had to be done, but a job he thought he would like was found in Montgomery. As far as he knew, he was the only adult in Montgomery running barefooted. For sure, he was the only barefooted runner in the local races.
He had to contact three of his former professors at Emory University before he could find that girl he had dated when they were both undergraduates there. Getting to know Audrey Roy again meant weekend drives to Atlanta. But she was good for him. And he told her that.
One Saturday, Audrey told him he should not be living alone. Jack sat up, his face filled with expectation. “I agree,” he smiled.
That’s when he got the puppy dog.
Running barefooted and with a dog was no big deal for any kid back in Orrville where he grew up. And, that’s what he was doing again.
He had spent four years at Emory, nearly four years on active duty and recovering, and more than two years searching for a job, then settling in to working in Montgomery. He now had a steady girlfriend, a devoted running companion, and a brother about to turn 30.
Maybe there’d be a big creek close by Bob’s home. Or a swimming pool. And maybe after all the exercise he had been doing while recovering, he’d be successful. There was that little bit of worry, however. Worry that if he failed, five-times-thirty was a big damn number!
He had thrown his favorite running shorts into his bag before leaving his Montgomery apartment, even though he had thought it was unlikely he would get a run this weekend. The outside of those shorts was some light, flimsy material with barely enough fabric to make them decent. It must have been a male runner who had designed the inside jockey. That mesh was both tight and comfortable. Jack acknowledged that the shorts were a little briefer than he saw guys running in at the races around Montgomery. So, he chose to wear more conventual running shorts at those races. The main reason he didn’t expect a run this weekend was the look he might get from his sister-in-law. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t want her friends to see the brother of her husband, Doctor Robert Darragh, out doing minimalist running on the streets of Enterprise, Alabama.
* * *
Running shorts on, and truck locked – that’s when he did that stretch reaching for the sky, took that swig of water, and parked those keys and bottle behind the tire. The hearing aids were set and the buttons were pushed on the running watch. It was a gentle start for the two of them. Even though the sunshine was not too bright, he knew he’d be pouring sweat before this was over and he’d would probably drink that full bottle when he came back.
It didn’t happen often, but something about this place and this road in front of him made Jack understand that he was glad to be Jack – glad to be Jack and to be pretty well recovered. Physically at least. And he also knew these runs alone helped him with the mental and emotional trauma from all he saw and experienced back in Nam. Audrey had told him that his memories sometimes made him a poor bed companion.
Jack smiled as he and his buddy went around that first curve. He looked forward to seeing where this road led and if there might be eyes he’d encounter along the way. Maybe not. Who knows? This might be a place for trying even more minimal minimalist running. “Always wondered.” He said it out loud.
Jack didn’t see it, but his dog looked up. Maybe his running buddy knew what Jack was thinking. More likely, it was just a surprise that Jack had spoken and he wanted to see if Jack asked for something.
Jack looked at his watch. A seven-and-a -half minute pace. He picked it up a bit. A seven-minute pace was good for warming up. Anyone watching them might not have noticed that these two had stepped up the pace. They had, and if the road stayed this nice, they’d step it up again in a bit.
The road was not torn up like logging roads usually are. Jack thought there might be a hunting camp buried deep down the way. Wealthy hunters from over in Mobile or from down in Pensacola might come up to shoot animals. Or, maybe they come up just to sip cocktails outside some fancy hunting lodge. Cocktails or moonshine.
Whoa! Moonshine! He surely didn’t want to run up on some moonshine factory back in these woods. Nobody’d ever find him if he got tossed down into some gully and covered over with one or two wheelbarrow loads of pine straw.
Jack frowned as they moved past the second curve. There was a cut in the roadside bank a little bit up the way. A dog appeared in that cut. Then two more. Three. One barking. Now two. “Easy. Easy.” He said that to his own dog, but he hoped it worked with the other three, too. A kid came to the edge of the road. Two more. The boys were shirtless, barefooted, and in cutoff jeans. As he approached, he realized there was an old, unpainted frame house set back from the cut. One of the boys had a basketball in his hands. Several planks nailed together and an attached hoop were hammered onto a pine tree on one side of the yard. On the other side was an ancient oak with limbs spread wide. An older woman was sitting at the far end of the porch. She was in the deep shadow of the rusted tin roofed porch. There was a metal bucket in her lap. She seemed to have been shelling something before she looked up. Peas? Beans? What seemed to be a large open space behind the house was probably the garden spot. And a place for a cow. What else did they grow down in this isolated spot?
* * *
He continued standing still. “Kind of you to say that.” He slowly nodded while continuing to look at her. “My guess is I won’t ever really recover. You wanta know why?” He paused, but before she could answer, he went on. “I had seven buddies in that hutch. Only three of us survived.” He looked at her, watching, waiting to see if she understood. Then, “And among the survivors, I wasn’t the most messed up.”
They looked at each other quietly. She asked, “Army?”
He pointed to his ears again.
This time, she was louder and slower. “Were you in the Army?”
She looked toward his feet and, frowning, asked, “Where’re your shoes?”
A smile spread over his face as he put his hands back on his hips. “Left ‘em at home.”
With still a frown, she asked, “And you’re running without shoes?”
She probably heard his chuckle as he nodded, stuck his thumbs into his running shorts and lowered them just a bit. “Wear as little as possible is the goal. I thought down this road might be a good place to experiment.”
For an instant, she jerked back. Then, she caught his smile. “Yeah. Right. And I’ve got a kennel of hunting dogs that haven’t been fed yet. They seem to like a bit of gristle.”
Jack laughed. “Maybe I’d better forget that idea then.”
She shrugged. And watched Jack reach down and scratch his dog’s ears. “So what’s your name, soldier?”
“What do you care?” He waited. And then, “Jack.” In a bit. “And who’re you?”
“Susan.” She nodded toward his dog. “Does he have a name?”
“She’s not a he.” Jack squatted and put his arm over his dog’s shoulder. “You wanna guess?” He looked back to Susan. Then he laughed, scratching the dog’s ears again. “Jill is my best buddy.”
As soon as Jill heard her name, she turned to Jack and licked his face, his chest, and his right ear.
Susan laughed, too. “Got it. Jack and Jill. Looks like she might take a bite out of your ear.”
“She seems to like the way I taste.” Nodded, and added, “And she doesn’t take big bites.”
A smile was over Susan’s face. She looked down the road, and then turned back to Jack. “So, here you are out in these woods with only your dog. Maybe I should ask if you’re married?”
“Smart question … considering the options.” He showed her the back of his left hand. “Audrey is in graduate school over at Georgia Tech. While I was in Nam, she was an intern over at the Mount Loa Observation Laboratory helping to get carbon dioxide data. She finishes her PhD this December and we’ll get married.” He watched her. “You married?”
She nodded. “Yeah.” Her right hand swept toward the land on both sides of the road. “My husband owns all this.”
“Got it.” And he nodded. “And enough of this. I’ll run back to my truck and get off your property.”
“Here’s a bottle of water for you.”
Surprised, he stepped to the truck and took the bottle. “Thank you.” He unscrewed the cap on the bottle and turned sideways to her as he started to drink.
“I think I should tell you that your truck is not how you left it.”
He spit the water out of his mouth. “Oh, shit.”
“Half the truck drivers leave the keys behind the left tire. The others behind the right. The boys poured out your water. About what they found in the truck, they said your pants were too big, but they liked your tee shirt and your underwear.”
Jack glared at her. Then, “Bastards! Damn it! I didn’t trust them when I saw them.” He looked down the road, and then back to Susan. “How’d they tell you about this?”
“Long story, but my husband’s company is exploring something called solar panels. Maybe you’ve heard of them. The idea is to have households running with minimal help from the outside. That house is an experiment. It even has an experimental, natural water purification system going. My husband arranged to have that family live there. Of course, he has to give them a good bit of support. Food and remuneration. They had to receive training for how to use and maintain that equipment, too. It’s all an experiment in getting households to be sustainable. Sustainable, while running with minimal outside help.” She looked over to Jill, then, “A researcher working with the company created a way for the family to communicate with the main office.” She paused. Looked down at her hands. Then, “Please don’t fuss about the boys. They’re good boys. They’re just at that age to be mischievous. Their older brothers chewed them out. And, I’ll be sure they make confession at church tomorrow. The priest will see that they make proper penitence.”
“Penitence? I’d bust their butts.” He shook his head in disgust, then finished the water and gave her the empty bottle. “Thanks. Thanks for the water and for letting me know about the vandalism.”
Three and a half miles back to the truck. Susan in her big truck passed him almost at once. The boys waved as he passed. He returned the universal obscene gesture. They laughed.
On the top of this truck was a bottle of water, his billfold, and a tee shirt. He held up this new shirt. On the back was the name of a company. On the front was the company’s logo:
Households running with minimal support.
“Minimalist running households. What next?” He’d have a story to tell Brother Bob!