I’ve been running for as long as I can remember.
My parents are from Ireland, as in everybody I am related to, who aren’t my parents, siblings or kids, still live there. So every other summer or so, Mom and Dad would put me on a plane in San Francisco headed for the homeland. And when I say me, I mean just 12, 10 or 8-year-old me, to fly for hours and hours, and then change planes at JFK in New York, and then fly a bunch more hours.
Personally, I loved it. I’ve always been, how do I say, a little on the solitary side. I like my own company and am totally cool being alone for long stretches of time, and distance, so the five thousand miles to Ireland was no big deal to me. It was to others (like Mom) so I was typically placed in the charge of some group of adults, I assume known to my parents, who were headed the same direction. Sometimes it was the Irish Club that Mom and Dad belonged to, one time it was an order of nuns, and this other time it was Sister Michelle (the principle of my parochial school, and boy was that a long trip) but whoever it was, I always made it there, to the landing strip at the little airport in Shannon.
Remember how in the old days they’d roll a set of steps up to the plane and you’d walk down to the tarmac like you were coming down the stairs of a two-story house? Well it was the old days in Ireland more recently than it was in most other places, so that was still a thing when I was there. And when I got to the bottom, there would be Grandma, and her husband, Eddie O’Hanlon. Eddie wasn’t my grandfather (that guy had passed away many years prior, after a life spent mostly on the lam) but had married my Grandma after one of those later-in-life romances.
And Eddie was a character.
“Eddie” was short for Redmond, his namesake. Redmond O’Hanlon had been a highway robber who, legend has it, took from the rich (English) and gave to the poor (Irish). Think a local version of Robin Hood and you’re probably pretty close. You’re also pretty close in guessing that such generosity origninated from trying to keep said poor from sharing one’s identity with said rich, but that doesn’t make for as good a story – and in Ireland, it’s all about the story. I liked Eddie from the time I met him because he didn’t treat me like a kid – in fact he’d let me do things my parents wouldn’t dream of (nor later be told of) like fetch his drink at the pub (blackberry brandy with a beer chaser) or run his bets down to the bookie. I think he had me run bets because I could always get there in time to place them, even if he’d spent a little too long picking his ponies.
After collecting me at the airport in Shannon. Eddie would drive us back up to the north of Ireland to Grandma’s house, just outside a little village called Poyntzpass. Ireland’s funny in that just about everywhere that’s anywhere has a name, so the plot of land where the old house was had a name too: Corcrum. I loved Corcrum, with its sloping green hills, it’s rabbit and fox populated fields, and the little stream the ran through the bottom of the small valley below the house.
It was that same small valley where Eddie would have his eight greyhounds run up the steep slopes of the fields. They were chasing the rag constructed ‘rabbit’ I was rapidly retrieving via the tire-less back wheel of an upturned old bicycle I was pedaling – by hand – as fast as a boy could. Of course, the rope being wound onto the wheel that was tied to the rag rabbit kept jumping off track, so that scheme didn’t pan out as planned. But that was okay, as Eddie was an idea man. When some connivance didn’t quite come together, he typically had the next one ready to go.
And the next one after ‘fast dogs’ was, apparently, ‘fast boy’.
As a boy I was always the fastest kid in my class, and usually the fastest in the whole school. My Mom was a runner too, of the caliber that took her as far as training for the Olympics at one point, and I got a good helping of those genes. Between Mom’s genetics and the small mountain in my home town I spent summers running up, I was fast. Really fast.
And at some point Eddie O’Hanlon figured that out.
The little towns in Ireland typically held a fair in summer, and Poyntzpass was no exception. At the fair there’d be music, and baked goods, and prize animals and the like – and then there’d be stuff for the kids to do. One of which was a 50 yard dash. Which Eddie entered me in. And which I won.
After collecting that medal, just about every weekend to follow included Eddie driving me to another village’s fair, invariably in time for the 50 yard dash, which I invariably won. This went on until I had more medals than I could hold in one hand. It also had gone on to the point where it wasn’t really that fun anymore. I’m always up for a car ride, especially to somewhere I haven’t been, but the rides were getting longer, and then we’d just stay for the race.
And that’s how it went until one weekend Eddie took me to a big race in Belfast. This was no fair, this was a sanctioned sporting event. There were flag poles with the colors of different countries flying, and the kids I’d be racing against were accompanied by their trainers and were wearing track suits with their names on them – and the names of their sponsors.
And I was in my usual blue jeans and Keds sneakers.
I won a race or two but got eliminated pretty early on. I thought wow, these kids can really go, and I admired their athletic ability. I would have liked to stay and see some more races, and would have been interested to see how far the kid who beat me got. But we didn’t stay. We got back in the car for the long ride home, and that was the last time Eddie entered me in a race.
Which was fine by me.
After that it was back to fishing, which I adored, and playing in the fields chasing the rabbits, and riding the bike that Eddie and Grandma bought me. And on work days sometimes Eddie would take me with him, and then somedays we’d just ride around and find a little adventure or two. I loved that old man, and I know he loved me, though back then, back there, you didn’t really say stuff like that.
I feel silly admitting it now, but it didn’t occur to me until years later that Eddie likely bet on each and every one of those races. I hope he made a lot of money, and I hope he didn’t lose too much on that last one. I was older when I heard that Eddie died. I hadn’t been back there in quite some time, and it’s not like we wrote each other – still, that charming old rogue played a part in who I’d become.
When we got the call that Eddie was gone I went up to my room, to the top drawer of my desk where I still kept all those medals, opened it, looked at them, and smiled…