--by Mike Murray
The air is crisp and cool. I move through the early morning calm with an ease and a joy I haven't known in quite some time.
I left my jogging companion at home, whining at the door behind me. It pained me to do so, since this surely is a morning in which she would revel. But this dawn is but a brief respite from the stifling summer heat and humidity; to raise her canine expectations (dogs are nothing if not creatures of habit) by inviting her along would only have led to bigger disappointments on subsequent days.
Janna's part-Rottweiler, part-Elkhound body is wholly unsuited to summer's oppressive conditions. Her musculature is too dense; her double-coated fur too thick. She is powerful and fast, and she has good endurance, too. But her body retains entirely too much heat for long runs this time of year.
That makes her an ideal Winter athlete. And, though she is game for the effort (that imp is game for almost anything), the kinder thing to do is to spare her the ordeal. This season's normal temps are just too brutal for her. Hard as it is to disappoint her, I will routinely be leaving her behind until Fall's relief arrives. (She'll just have to settle for twice-daily walks until then.)
My mind wanders at times like these. Often I return to races run over the years -- the excitement quickening the tempo of my footfalls, raising my pulse rate to meet my muscles' increased demand for blood and oxygen. Other times I reflect on some aspect of my life.
Today I focus on a fateful day in the Fall of 1969. I am on my way to a high school cross country race, a passenger in a car heading east on the Shoreway to the St. Joe's Invitational. The driver is making me nervous.
Though he is not speeding he is traveling a little too fast, it seems to me, for the wet conditions. A steady rainfall is making the road surface dangerous. Metal crosswork embedded in the cement surface is partly exposed by wear, and the water is making it slippery. I have my seat belt fastened. My knuckles are white.
Then it happens.
The car begins to hydroplane, all four wheels sliding as if on ice. We careen into the car on our right, bouncing off it and skidding left into the center barrier, which in turn sends us pinballing back to the right -- straight for the railing.
The railing is rigid (concrete, I think) and formidable; it is doubtful that a car hitting it could crash completely through. But, at the speed we are traveling (50 MPH or so), that fact is not apparent. Instead, the vertical spindles disappear in a blur. It appears to my racing mind that we are heading over the bridge and down into the water below.
I mentally prepare for an underwater escape. I try to remember the drill: get the seat belt unfastened, crack the window (and then open the door before water pressure from the outside makes it impossible).
It never comes to that. We crash into the curb, which is raised to a sufficient height to retard forward progress. Doing so grinds the undercarriage of the vehicle, however, and I watch in horror as the car's automatic transmission is shoved up through the floor between the driver and me. That's the last I clearly remember about the crash.
Our vehicle also struck a light pole, I believe. I don't have that specific recollection of the day's events, but I think a photo that ran in the Plain Dealer or Cleveland Press revealed as much.
My head smashed the dashboard as the crash jarred us to a halt. For, while the seat belt restrained me from the waist, my upper body was nevertheless free to careen forward in a wide arc. (Shoulder harnesses were not yet in common use.)
Worse yet, unlike the vinyl commonly used today, the dash was constructed of metal. Steel was still in vogue, and it was unforgiving . My face smacked the unyielding surface. Some of my front teeth were knocked out; others were chipped and cracked.
As my upper body recoiled backward, inward-flying glass from the windshield sliced my face -- one shard cutting skin just up to my left eyeball. Though blood flooded the eye socket, no permanent ocular damage was done. All in all, my injuries amounted to nothing serious. In hospital jargon, I was in "good" condition. I suffered cuts, bruises, contusions and the like. But nothing life-threatening.
The driver got much of the same in the way of lacerations and such -- plus a dislocated hip. He had kept his leg rigid, his foot jammed against the brake pedal throughout the ordeal. And its assembly (much as had the transmission's) pushed upward and into the passenger compartment. The result was a hip shoved out of its socket.
The passenger in the back seat suffered only a mild concussion. Despite the fact that he had failed to buckle himself in, the padding of the front bench seat saved him from any real harm.
After a brief period in the emergency room for stitching and examination, I was released. I looked a lot worse off than I was: my face and one leg were bruised and bandaged. When the wrap came off, I looked even worse. The crosswork of stitches over half of my face -- and the now-revealed purple and blue bruising -- made me look a little like the Frankenstein monster.
And then there was the matter of my teeth. They were a mess. A week or two later, I began dental work to sort things out. But, after only a couple of visits, I was informed that -- the driver's initial claim to the contrary -- there was no insurance to cover the repair. (He later informed me that he had been too embarrassed to reveal the truth up front.)
His family was of modest means and couldn't afford to pay for my dental work. And my family, headed by a widowed mother raising seven children alone, was even worse off. So work on my teeth halted.
I learned to live with the disfigurement. I tried my best to hide it for years. Photographers were continually exhorting me to "smile bigger" for shots. No way, Jose'.
When I was in the U.S. Army, I began work again to fix things up. But constant temporary duty assignments (TDYs) made for many appointment cancellations. I eventually just gave up.
Years passed and I didn't do much more than occasionally visit a dentist for a cleaning, a cavity filling, that sort of thing. But recently I was persuaded to look into the matter more thoroughly. Dr. Carrie Hansen presented options that would offer some long-overdue improvements.
For a variety of reasons, we settled on a plan that called for extracting some teeth and replacing them with a partial plate. It was psychologically difficult for me to come to grips with the removal of choppers located in the upper center of my mouth, but I came to realize (at long last) that it was the right thing to do.
As things stand now, the teeth are gone and a temporary partial fills the void. When my gums finish undergoing adaptive changes in a few weeks or months, I'll be ready to be fitted for a permanent partial.
The present and the past merge for me as I glide along on this wonderful morning. The weather is cooperative: the temperature pleasant, the humidity low. Oxygen molecules are more closely packed in these cooler conditions than on hot, sticky days. I deeply inhale the good air and I feel supercharged. (Well, as supercharged as a guy my age who's a little out of shape can feel.)
I recall my first runs back after the accident those many years ago. I remember how the normally welcome Fall air hurt then, how it literally set my damaged teeth on edge -- my heavy breathing moving cold air over exposed nerves and making the efforts nearly unbearable. After a few agonizingly painful minutes of running, the exposed nerves would usually go numb, making possible the completion of the workout or race.
It was a high price to pay. But -- as all runners can appreciate -- it was worth it. The pleasure of the physical exertion, the thrill of competition ...they overwhelm many discomforts.
As I take in the early morning pleasures of this glorious day, I am peaceful and happy. Running is worth it under almost any circumstances. It was every bit worth it those many years ago, painful though it was.
And today, with Mother Nature's gift of a glorious day, with cool breaths passing comfortably through a new mouth -- it is even better.
Copyright © 2005 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.