Articles From the July 1994 Unification News
The Three-Legged Lesson
by Richard Van Loon-Falls Church, VA
We were playing basketball in the school gym when our PE teacher, Mr. Trumble, blew the whistle.
"Okay, kids. Over here," he said, his big arms waving like a signal at a train crossing. We trotted over.
"In two weeks," Mr. Trumble said, his thick neck bulging and his voice much too loud, "we will be participating in the inter-county school track and sports meet. I've made a list of events," he continued. "It's posted on the bulletin board. Please take a look before you leave. Practice begins tomorrow."
I was looking at the bulletin board after gym when I got the biggest shock of my life. Mr. Trumble had matched me and Ted Zukkerman, the new kid, for the three-legged race.
Suckerman. That's what everyone called him. His face looked like it had a never-ending case of chicken pox, his hair was bright orange and his nose was flat, like when you push your face up against a window. And he was the only kid who had ever beaten me in the twenty yard dash.
Some of the other guys were looking at the list too. "Alex and Suckerman sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G," they chanted. I turned and ran down the hallway as fast as I could but their laughter echoed after me. This, I thought, was going to be the longest two weeks of my life.
Mr. Trumble had arranged with our teacher, Miss Blystone, to have PE every day until the meet, and so after math the next day we went to the gym. We ran and jumped and practiced handing off the baton, and then came the three-legged race.
After Mr. Trumble tied our legs together with ropes, Ted looked at me, his spotted face split wide with a grin.
"Suckerman, you smell," I said. I wasn't planning to say it, but he did smell. His grin faded and he turned away.
"Bang!" Mr. Trumble shouted, his finger in the air like a starting gun and Suckerman and I hobbled off. We went about ten yards then crashed to the floor. Everyone laughed. I felt my face turn red hot, untied the ropes and sprinted out of the gym.
The next day I told my mom I had a headache, and she wrote a note excusing me from PE. Just as I was about to go home, Mr. Trumble came down the hall.
He was about as tall as my dad but wider. He used to play football in college and looked like he still had on shoulder pads. His nose had been broken in two places and if you looked closely you could see the zig-zags along the bridge where he had gotten clobbered. He was scowling when he came up, his thick eyebrows down and his head lowered like a charging bull. I was expecting to get blasted but he smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and asked gently: "How's your headache, Alex?"
I looked up at the lights, squinted my eyes, put my hand on my forehead and moaned. Mr. Trumble just laughed. Then his smile faded. "You think I'm doing this to embarrass you, don't you? Well, I'm not. Ted's the only kid could ever beat you in a race and he's just your size."
A moan escaped from me. I did not want to be reminded of that.
"Listen, I don't know what's bugging you," Mr. Trumble continued, "but if you could find your way to run with him, we'd have a darn good chance at the championship. Do you know how long it's been since Spruce Hill Elementary's won the championship?
"No," I said.
"No. Of course you don't. It was before your time. Seven long, painful years, Alex. But this year we've got a chance."
Suddenly my headache got worse. Seven long, painful years... all depending on me!
"But why not Jeremy, Mr. Trumble? He's almost as fast as I am," I said.
Mr. Trumble shook his head. "Nope. I've seen the competition. You and Jeremy would be good, but not good enough."
Then Mr. Trumble gave me a run-down of the other schools. He must've had spies in every gym! He knew all the top athletes, had up-to-date records for each one. Jimmy Somebody-or-other from Such-and-such a school did the twenty-yard dash in so many seconds and Bob Schnob from East County was boinging some unbelievable number of feet in the broad jump. Kids, schools, events, numbers... They came tumbling out as if from a run-away computer going full speed! What it boiled down to was this.
I should be able to take the twenty-yard dash and Jeremy would probably take the broad jump. The relay was ours and for good measure, me and Suckerman would take the three-leg. You needed to win three out of five events to clinch the championship and the three-leg was our spare tire. I could see how excited Mr. Trumble was about winning the championship but no matter how much he rambled on, I still didn't like the idea.
"But...but what if I get sick, Mr. Trumble? On...on the day of the meet?" I suggested.
Mr. Trumble became very serious. "That's a chance we all take," he said, then added, "Who knows? I might even be dead by then."
Sometimes Mr. Trumble said strange things. When he did, his eyes would screw up in his head then slide back into place again. I looked at his eyes. Sure enough, they were all twisted around and funny like. I didn't know what he was talking about, that he might be dead in two weeks, but I had the awful feeling that if he did die, somehow it would be my fault.
I wrinkled my eyebrows. "I'll try, Mr. Trumble," I said. "I really will."
"Great!" he said, slapping me on the back so hard I almost fell. "I knew I could count on you, Alex. You're my main man."
Main man or not, our little talk and that slap on the back did nothing to change my feelings for Ted Zukkerman. As the days went by, things only got worse.
The kids made sloppy kissing sounds in the morning when I came into class. It was a good thing Suckerman and I didn't sit at the same table. And I had to be careful not to get close to him during recess or in the hall when we went to music or art class or else the other kids would start hooting and howling. So I avoided Suckerman as much as I could. Until practice, that is.
Mr. Trumble tried his best to keep the kids quiet, but they made noises and said stuff. You see, when you run three-legged you've got to put your arms around each other, and seeing me and Suckerman like that, with our arms around each other, it was just too much for the other kids. Their teasing hurt and I blamed Suckerman for my pain.
I didn't go around saying things, like, "Hey, Suckerman, I'm having the worst time of my life, and it's all your fault!" but that's exactly how I felt. Sometimes when our eyes met, I zapped him with a look of pure hatred. I enjoyed the way he winced. Once I drew a picture -- you know, crazy orange hair sticking out like spikes, red spots all over, blue eyes hopelessly crossed, swollen head on a stick body -- then left it on his desk.
But during practice I would smile at Suckerman, just to confuse him. (I didn't know I could be so clever.) While he was trying to figure me out, I'd slip my arm around his shoulder, say something like, "Suckerman? It's just you and me," then jab my fingers into his ribs. He'd be holding his ribs when Mr. Trumble would shoot his make-believe gun and we'd start running. All the way I'd be hissing, "C'mon, Suckerman. Think of the school. The school is counting on us." I knew it was mean but after a while I began to enjoy it, the kids laughing at us, me giving Suckerman a hard time.
Then one day during the last week before the meet Mr. Trumble sat us all down on the gym's wooden floor and gave us a talk. He told the class all the things he had told me that day I had skipped gym, about our school being able to win the championship and all the statistics on the other schools. As a result, the other kids became more serious about the "spare tire," Suckerman and I. I did too. The name-calling and the noises stopped. I quit poking Suckerman in the ribs and from the moment Mr. Trumble's "gun" went off, Suckerman's and my eyes would be fixed on that big clock at the other end of the gym. By the last day of practice we were running smooth as a well-oiled machine and fast as the wind.
We had one final practice on the last day before the meet. After it was over I went to the bathroom. I was sitting on the john when two other kids came in.
"You're doing great!" one of them said.
"Thanks!" the other one said. It was Suckerman.
"I don't know how you do it," the first kid said.
"I've always been fast," Suckerman said.
"I don't mean the running. I don't see how you can stand Van Loon -- those other kids. And especially that guy, Alex! If I were you, I'd have punched him in the nose a long time ago."
Suckerman didn't say anything. Then I heard him cry. "I'm sorry," the other kid said. "I didn't mean to make you cry."
"It's O.K.," Ted sniffled. "He does treat me mean and it has been very hard. But maybe if I help win the championship, the other kids will like me." I stayed in the toilet quiet as a mouse until they left then came out. I stood in front of the mirror but couldn't look myself in the eye.
When I got on the bus to go home it was raining. I picked at my dinner, told mom I didn't feel good and went to bed. It was still raining when I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next day the sky was clear and the sun was strong. By ten o'clock the ground was dry. The meet was to start at noon and when we got to Soldier Field it was so crowded it took mom, dad, Patty and I a good ten minutes to find my class. Things got going right away.
The twenty-yard dash was first and I took it no sweat. Suckerman came in fourth on a field of eight, though, and in the relay he lost ground and we had to really pull to squeak a win.
One of the schools must've been feeding their guys basketball vitamins. Their kids were taller than a lot of kids I know in middle school. They just flew over the hurdles. We didn't have a chance. But that was okay. We had two wins under our belts and two events to go.
Jeremy must be half frog (the lower half, that is) and he's the best jumper I've ever seen. But something terrible happened in the broad jump. On his first jump he hit the pad wrong and twisted his ankle on the take-off. He landed like a sack of potatoes in the sand pit and just lay there moaning. Mr. Trumble ran out and picked him up. As he carried Jeremy back to the sidelines, he fixed his eyes on me. Seven long, painful years.
The officials announced a fifteen minute break and we went over to see Jeremy. His ankle was swollen but he managed a grin. "Well, spare tire," he said to me, "I guess it's up to you."
My mom and dad and Patty came over to encourage me. A lot of parents were there with their kids, but not Suckerman's. He sat alone on the grass warming up for the race.
Then they announced the three-legged race. We went to the starting line. The giants, who were in the lane next to Suckerman and I, were at least six inches taller than us.
We all sat down, then our P.E. instructors came out and tied our legs. Mr. Trumble was so excited he had to do it twice to get it right. He gave us a pep talk while he tied the ropes firmly around our legs but the whole time Mr. Trumble was talking, Suckerman just stared at the ground. I wasn't paying much attention either. All I could think about was what had happened in the bathroom the day before.
The instructors helped us up then went back to the sidelines. I put my arm around Suckerman.
He looked at me and I could see the sadness and pain on his face. I squeezed him. "Let's be friends," I said.
Tears burned in my eyes.
Then Suckerman's face brightened and it was as if the sun had come out from behind a cloud. It was the same speckled, flat-nosed face but now it was the face of a friend, the warm, smiling face of a very good friend.
He squeezed me back and it was like both of us had been hit by lightning.
"On your marks...get set..." the man in the striped shirt said, and then came the "pop" of the starting gun. And when that gun went off Suckerman and I were squeezing each other so tight it was like our two bodies had become one. Energy flowed between us like electricity through the coils of a motor and we exploded off the starting line.
I had never experienced anything like it! We were so energized it was like our feet weren't even touching the ground. I didn't have to look at him to know Suckerman was grinning from ear to ear 'cause I was too.
At first the giants were even with us but when Ted and I exchanged glances and poured it on, we left them behind. We streaked over the finish line but we were having so much fun we just kept on running. We could hear the crowd going wild and we knew the same electricity that had jumped into us had zapped them too. We rounded the bend and went down the far stretch and the Van Loon yelling faded away. We were holding each other so tight my ribs felt like they were going to pop but I didn't care. The way I was feeling, I could've kept running forever.
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