Running on Empty: A Colonized American's Rembrance of Time Past - Part 1
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Photo: Luis Lázaro Tijerina

Running on Empty: A Colonized American's Rembrance of Time Past - Part 1


Part I


Never once in this the country of my birth have I felt I totally belonged to any community. Perhaps the closest I have ever come to such a feeling was as a Junior High soccer coach in various New England schools during my early thirties, and in my later years, when I created my own soccer team in Vermont. The team was called FC Vermont-Champlain, a team name alluding to the Province of Québec, since it was only there I felt the idea of Freedom, a sense of Home, even though my spiritual and cultural home where I learned about elegance, literature, art, and military élan would always be Paris.  However, there is irony in what am writing here not as a memoir per se so much as a story about not wanting to belong. The smells, the intangible tastes of a community, those Madeleine tea-cake crumbs of delicious living in a country I could never consider my home which I write about here in my own Proustian way came to me in a most unusual manner..

If one is wise — and I am not — one does not return to a former love; rather, one goes forward with life. In this sense, I am no longer in love with running as I was in my youth. Now I have a grander, deeper, more committed love — with Football, as soccer is known globally — a game that takes my breath away, the ball at my feet, the coach in me always wanting to help and guide other footballers to love the game as much as I do, as if one were sharing a common-law wife on one level, but on another level, keeping her deepest desires and secrets all to myself.  And yet,  the other woman who once loved you comes again into your life, to make you think about what you once were — or thought you were — and how that very conviction and commitment to the running shoes, the small town from where you first begin to run, the fatal mistakes and flaws that brought about the total lack of love, the failure  to strive for completion, and how from the provincial town to the city with the contradictions at hand — sports and other things being equal, like the cultural “Madeline crumb” being something not everyone has equal access to in this country — suddenly and irreversibly comes again in memory — the remembrance of my own Swan Song.  

Last night about two in the morning in August, a glimmer of stars outside my bedroom window, and suddenly a photo of the great Native American runner Billy Mills appears before my eyes on Facebook as I am about to shut off my laptop computer. Billy Mills, of course — his birth name Makata Taka Hela, loosely meaning “love your country" — was the spectacular winner of the 10,000-Meter Run in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. More than half a century later, I am stunned seeing his photo on my Facebook Timeline. Seeing it there makes me think about my past in the most startling and immediate sense, as if cyberspace and time, that is, the time of my past, had suddenly enveloped me, sweeping away the very person I was in my bed trying to escape the summer heat while thinking how the night made me recall certain women — all those things that bring sleep quickly in the most sublime ways.             

Billy Mills and Mohammed Gammoudi, 1964

No longer was I in the here and now, but the photo of the Oglala Lakota runner’s face, taken after he became an Olympic winner in the Tokyo Olympics, was staring at me from the laptop screen, and I felt trapped by a past I no longer wanted to remember, that is, I no longer had a need to relive the past, even though I knew the dialectics of one’s personal life never leave us, but can suddenly, without warning return with a vengeance and reassert its  powerful authority over us. Only when we are older and hopefully more mature, we are able to see ourselves in a truer light. And so I remember how Billy Mills' mother died young, and at age nine, Billy Mills went to live with his grandmother. Which in turn reminds me how, when I was nine years old,  my own father, a labor contractor for migrant workers, had been killed, struck by lightning in a field,  and how my mother took my sister, brother and me from Hereford, Texas,  back to Kansas to live in the suburbs.                       

And so then I remember how Mills grew up in humble circumstances and how he went to Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas while I went to Campus High School in Haysville, Kansas. Mine, one of the more prestigious high schools in the nation, was one of the first in the USA to teach the Russian language. Then came that moment of subtly tragic destiny.  I would receive a partial Track and Field scholarship, through the back door, as the saying goes.  On a lark, I had won the 98-lb. lightweight State Champion Wrestling title under rather rebellious circumstances.  I had used my wrestling state championship to reach toward my goal of being a great runner. That said, I believe we should not worship the actuality of time past nor necessarily search for it as nostalgia.  In essence the need or impulse to look into our past or give remembrance to our lost narratives is to give order to chaos, to recognize the art in even the most mundane aspects of one’s life. And so, it was at Kansas State where I felt I could have achieved my goal.    

Haskel Institute

When I arrived at Kansas State that early autumn day in September nearly half a century ago, it was with admiration for the stately setting, the classical old buildings, the spacious library, the manicured green lawns and sidewalks, and then the breathtaking walk to the stadium where the wide oval arch of the track stood out like what the gods might have envisioned when they looked down at the stadium in ancient Olympia. I was not there even a week when the Wrestling coach informed me the Track and Field coach wanted to talk to me. Indeed, the Wrestling coach seemed disappointed I would want to even have such a meeting — truly, his eyes held a look of such dismay. 

Kansas State University

When the fateful day finally arrived, I walked into Track and Field Coach Deloss Dodds' athletic office at Kansas State University. Almost immediately, pointing to a photo of Billy Mills predominating a white-washed wall, the tall, lean coach smiled slightly and asked me, "Louis, are you going to be great like him?" Upset by his question, I managed to stammer out a reply. "I don't know, Coach."  It wasn't lost on me that the runner and I shared a slight resemblance. Moreover, I knew he had gone to Kansas University. And then I thought how I had been pampered yet neglected in the way I was raised, and how Billy Mills was not pampered nor neglected, but reared in poverty and internal discipline; from those harsh circumstances, he knew how to excel despite adversity.     

The meeting with Deloss Dodds was not a short affair. We spoke at length and touched upon his own failure to make the Olympic team, and how one of his parents had died young. We seemed to share a personal affinity between us, which was unusual for that time.

Now, gripped by the nocturnal restlessness of old age, in bed alone, after repeatedly watching various videos on Facebook of Billy Mill’s great runs, I could barely keep myself from going out to run at 3 AM. But I resisted, knowing what dangers might await a brown-skinned man such as I running on the streets of a racist Vermont village before dawn, an activity which would give the police a gleeful opportunity to hone their skills in interrogation, after they stopped me on the road, inquiring maliciously, “What are you out here running for? Let's see your identification!” — sadistic smiles pasted across their white, bloated faces. 

All this I  pondered that night as I lay in my bed, and then I thought of Proust, and how he might have written about all of this, a sudden remembrance not brought about the taste of sweet crumbs from a Madeleine cake, not even smells from my Tiger racing shoes, but triggered by a photo suddenly shot up on a laptop screen of a Native American Indian runner, and how it occurred to me suddenly on a hot night in August that I had been broken as a very young boy, how the ruling class had extinguished my will to fight as a warrior for everything I believe in, meaning,  running, for it was running that had given me freedom, to breathe among the plains and river beds where  I ran in my youth, to see as I ran the eagles floating like paper airplanes in the sky.

Kansas State University Cross Country Team 1965-66 with Luis Lazaro Tijerina (center bottom)

No, I would never have the emotional capacity to fight back until I became a soccer coach and believed I could win. Only then, with Football as the world knows it, could I even begin to understand what Billy Mills went through, when he wrote in his running diaries during his grueling workouts prior to the Olympic Games  "I can win...", and in the final sprint to the tape at the Olympic Games, when he would say "I won... I won!" In my own journal, as a retired Football Coach, I would write a similar sentence about a reverie of winning the World Cup, for even in the cruel winter of our discontent, we still can dream.

Years later. I realized the 'liberalism' of my Track and Field coach at Kansas State University was to package me, no different than the way Bill Easton attempted to package Billy Mills, except in one sense he was successful, because Mills, the Olympic 10, 000 meter champion, did become a product of the capitalist system in America, despite his lyrical and spiritual quest to not commit suicide because of his alienation as a Native American within the crassly indifferent world of Anglo-American culture.  It was only my intellectual curiosity and political stance as a Marxist- Leninist that saved me from ‘success’ in the athletic world of Anglo-American society.  It was with this intellectual fortitude and not with the guile of the Olympic Gods that I am still able to run in old age. I remember, as if just yesterday in Manhattan, Kansas, when I was rushed by Sigma Nu Fraternity, and the young upper-middle class members looked at me with high expectations as they showed me through the fraternity house into the bedroom. However, when they found out I was majoring in philosophy and more articulate than them, when they saw I looked at them directly in their eyes as I gazed around their enclosed rooms with expensive televisions and costly clothing and what I would say, "Is that the only light you have in the room, that small slanted window? It is a bit suffocating don’t you think without seeing trees and sunlight?” and I smiled in my own condescending way at them… then they knew I was different. 

I remember their jaws hanging open, utterly dismayed I was not impressed with their fraternity house and all its meaningless accoutrements. They did not reject me because I was Mexican American, I rejected them, not only because I did not have the money to be in a fraternity, but because of their pathetic bourgeois attitudes. When I looked at them closely with their plaid ties and tweed coats, it was easy for me to tell in my usual coolly analytical assessment that these young men could never be my friends.  I smiled to myself, because it was two other distance runners who had brought me to the fraternity rush, while at the same time excluding another runner on our team, a Puerto Rican from New York. 

Luis Lazaro Tijerina as a cross country runner at Campus High, Haysville, Kansas

I can still see that young runner before me in the early morning hours on the golf course as we prepared for our training run at 5:30 AM, and how he would come up to me and anxiously want to converse with me about the girls on campus, the books we had read, mostly novels, and about the marijuana he had smoked the night before. He was affable, an adequate runner, and he loved his coeds and he loved to drink. I could tell the other runners were jealous of him, as well as angered by his undisciplined behavior, when he came to practice with a hang-over. Alas, he only lasted a year on the team, because he was considered a party boy. In those days the racism towards Latins and Hispanics was subtle. And so he was disparaged as a New Yorker, and although he was light-skinned compared to me, they couldn't forget he was Puerto Rican. As for me, if I was accepted, it was because I was an intellectual, I wrote poetry and was a published poet— these things both fascinated and scared them. They only felt safe around me when I told them how I liked ROTC which meant in their eyes I was a solder at heart. Then their fears went away and I was considered one of them. Only when I became a student leader against the war in Vietnam did they sour towards me and eventually I would lose my scholarship, subsequently crossing the border into Québec Province. It was in Montreal and ultimately in Québec City that I found home.

Ironically,  on the  Île d'Orléans, the same beaches thronged by the British invading force of Major General Wolfe whom I detested, that I would decide to give up my American citizenship, as I walked along the rocks and water lapping  against my trouser legs. The season was autumn, the leaves were orange and golden and falling along the country roads of the island, and there for me it was community and I was free and I could run up and down upon the island’s shore.

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina