A Varsity Letter From October

A Blogtoberfest Guest Post by Joe Schneiderman

Originally, I was going to write about how my life changed last October and how I wrote for 11 hours in a 24 hours period to try to save the day legally while my relationship to my father disappeared.

Age, hopefully, brings wisdom. Long drives across Western Massachusetts have a wonderful way of elucidating insight , as I discussed in my first Blogtoberfest entry. Indeed, a long drive from North Adams back to Holyoke on Route 116 made me realize that justice was not done. So, I stayed up until 3:30 AM that morning writing and trying to do justice.

Twitter, which I also have Jac to thank for introducing me to, reminded me that October 4 was National Teacher’s Day. As 140 characters would permit, I thanked as many teachers as I could from my alma mater, Kingswood Oxford, especially Rob Kyff, the Word Guy.

Where the hell am I going with all of this? Well, I realized that I should not further air last October. Instead, like how Finbar McBride was grateful to be alive after an angrily drunken near-mortal encounter with a freight train (something I am fortunate not to have lived through or faced myself, although, I have my own stories of gratitude that I was not there for events that could have altered my life), I will tell what I hope is a joyous, inspiring and surprising story about an October past.

In the dining nook of my apartment, a big, bright red cloth letter “K” sits among a sea of Fire Department patches, including Rescue 4’s Popeye. The “K” is a varsity letter from Kingswood Oxford.

Yes, I was a varsity athlete. A varsity running athlete, all 6’3” and 300 pounds of me. How did this happen? Well, we come back to Kingswood Oxford and the infinite kindness of Coach Steve Kline to a younger and not so wiser me-indeed, a lost and somewhat wounded me. Coach Kline welcomed me to Kingswood Oxford’s Track Team, although it was my dream to play baseball. And after perpetually and patiently encouraging me, he publicly invited me back-and I publicly accepted.

Let me pause and detour for a moment. Not long before Mom died, I drove to the Berkshires on a Friday night to meet with a client. There is a long, dark, lonely exit-less continuum between Westfield and Lee. Spirits of Western Massachusetts evoke contemplation there. I was intensely grateful that Kingswood Oxford did not give up on me-much as, sadly, my client’s school had given up on her-and such was why I had to go see her.

Sixteen redemptive months after Steve Kline’s invitation, I joined Kingswood Oxford’s Cross Country Team-and he coached me there too. An October institution at Kingswood Oxford is Hewett Day when all the sports teams play at home. Spirit days ensue– the joy of fall and the harvest and the foliage permeates the campus in the lead up to an event named for a former headmaster. Indeed, there is a Pep Rally where the teams perform.

And, the first game was, at that time, a Friday evening cross country race on campus. But, that did not happen in 2002; we ran through a rainstorm at the reservoir-our usual 5 km course. However, that fall gifted me a fraternal and sororal group and spirit of collegiality and conviviality that my life had otherwise lacked. I honed and developed self-sacrifice and endurance. But, like how Admiral Kirk stole and later purposely destroyed the Enterprise to save Spock, the team venerated the good of the one-me.

Let me unpack that a bit. Sorry, I like Star Trek, and I think like Casey Stengel sometimes. Not everyone else thinks like that.

I was never the fastest runner. Indeed, I always finished every race dead last. But, my team never left me. They would run with me home. They cheered louder and harder for me than eve (as I would do for them.) Indeed, even other teams would cheer me on. In my first championship races, Coach Newman of Westminster kept right along side me on his bike, through my vomiting at the top of a hill and recovering.

The gift of acceptance has been a rare and precious one in my life. The good of the one-me-mattered to the good of the many, notwithstanding that the needs of the many often outweighed the needs of the one.

And the loudest cheer voice was Coach Lisa Loeb. She was a French teacher at Kingswood Oxford who shared office space on the upper floor of the Seaverns building with Rob Kyff. And she warmly welcomed me to running there. We held court, invariably discussing running and other things, like FDNY. Coach Loeb was the first person to cheer for me at a practice. And she took pictures of my first race-I wonder if she still has them. And, at National Women in Sports Day, Coach Loeb introduced me as one of her student-athletes who supported the event. I was one of her own, my Y chromosome and hetro-cis male gender identity notwithstanding.

Yankee_Stadium_upper_deck_2010Such brings us, at long last, to October 2003. I was a 16 year old high school senior. I had had my first kiss that summer in the long shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge-but that’s a story for Blogsummerfest, or the MOTH Radio Hour, or a different time place and manner. See, I ramble. That’s the reference to Casey Stengel. (The former Yankees manager.)

I was in AP courses. I was Arts Editor of the KO News. I was and remain Rescue 4’s Buff. And, I was running Cross Country again-a constant and unmitigated source of joy in my life-every day from 3 to 5:30 at the main West Hartford reservoir. A head cold and a college visit felled me from two races. But, I was back up and running in October. Indeed, the first weekend brought cold rain, the second brought the beautiful leaves of Connecticut’s Quiet Corner-AFTER taking the SAT. And I remained the cheerful spirit of the Cross Country squad-boys and girls alike.

And Hewett Day approached on October 18.

In the week leading up to it, the Yankees and the Red Sox fought tooth and nail for a pennant. October 16 saw Pedro Martinez duel Roger Clemens and pitch seven innings gloriously for Boston. Then Pedro returned to the mound-six outs from a pennant over the Yankees.

Nick Johnson made it five outs. I was on the edge of my seat, homework complete, ish, watching with Mom and Dad-stomach gulping. 11PM was late but becoming a newer normal for me.

Derek Jeter stepped to the plate and fell behind O-2. Apprehension was palpable-even 110 miles from the House that Ruth Built. And he reached with a two bagger. Bernie Williams…drove in Derek. And Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in-going O-2 on Hideki Matsui-before he doubled-and Jorge Posada doubled-and tied the game!

And Pedro, Mr. Freeze to the Yankees Batman melted away from 7 and one-third innings to a no decision. And Mariano Rivera somehow pitched the 9th, 10th, and 11th. I was on baited breath watching. Midnight-it was now October 17. Finally, Aaron Boone stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 11th against Tim Wakefield.

And Aaron Boone drilled one to the upper deck in Left Field to clinch the pennant for the New York Yankees in 2003! Woo! As A senior in High School, I would have Yankees bragging rights over the Red Sox fans!

Back to the business at hand. There was shared and palapable joy among fellow Yankee fans-Babe-Buckner-Boone. Nothing really sticks out to me about the day itself at school-save perhaps the physics lab taking us outside in the sun. One thing that was unique about my penultimate term was that I was the oldest man in an acting class. I met some freshmen, sophomores, even a junior. They were a good and interesting bunch-and we had a wonderful teacher-renaissance man Lud Baldwin. And, every day circa 11:30, we all gathered in the Roberts Theatre.

I honestly cannot remember if we had a pep rally that day. But, the Friday night race on campus was back. We did our usual course walk. This was a course I knew well-and lacked the hills or crazy ups and downs of other courses-like Westminster’s down and up, Pomfret’s “Paradise”, or Williston’s sand maze-ish. (I got lost back there in one of my early races.) I don’t remember who we were running against. Things had become cloudy and a little chillier as the day wore on. But we were all there for each other, encouraging from fastest down to me.

And so we gathered off the long driveway to a large crowd to run our race. I stripped to my singlet and short shorts (which I still have.) Boys and girls would run together-why we were separate teams, I never quite understood, Swimming and Track were Co-Ed. Whatever.

And, with a shot of the gun, we set off for our five kilometers around campus! South towards Boulevard, west behind the gym, north again to the soccer fields by the new Middle School buildings, a loop, and then back around to our start finish line. That layout of campus no longer exists. At least, that’s what I remember. And if that’s all I remember, Lord knows how other attorneys can somehow remember a trial and that adequately substitutes for a transcript on appeal. But I digress.

The cheers emanated from students and faculty alike. And, in the crowd, there was my Dad. He had been to one other race before last year. And here he was! Finally Dad would see me run among the team I loved and knew so well. Well, he and Mom had also graciously hosted a pool party after our Founders League championship race-and were quite struck at how collegial and thoughtful and awesome they were. And they would host another party this year.

But now I’m ahead of myself. I ran, and I ran alone, being timed at the first mile, second mile. And I remember all my teammates passing and encouraging me. I focused on my form, things I still vaguely remember, to get my arms up, open my stride, I haven’t really run since that year-save a half-mile on a treadmill in 2014. But, there I was. And it was home-I didn’t feel the same exhaustion that other hills could provoke. The fields were just joyous-three miles could go very quickly! Here I was indeed.

Coach Kline had said two years before, “When someone has a dream, you don’t stand in their way.” Well, dreams and aspirations can evolve, especially in light of where life takes you. Years later, Judge Jerry Wagner had said to me, “Be prepared for the unexpected, Joe, and where it will take you.” I didn’t expect that I would end up on the Track team with Coach Kline. But, eventually, I accepted it-especially as he encouraged me to be able to make one lap at that track-and then two-with everyone. Mine had evolved-from a vague notion of playing baseball to be running at my home campus before everyone on Hewett Day. And here I was. (And, every year, I still get my baseball glory, thanks to the New Haven County Bar Association and their Snowball tournament.)

How had I come so far? How had I been so lucky to come so far? Lord knows there was plenty of heartbreak on the way, like Kristina Stahl’s death. I am saddened every day that she is not here to see how I turned out. In the perhaps the cruelest of ironies, the very real and substantial gift of acceptance she gave me she could not give herself.

Running that first year was a powerful antidote to the pain I felt over her death. Indeed, I blamed myself and engaged in an unending game of what-if. Let me unpack that a bit. Without Kristina Stahl, I would not have written my first book. I dedicated the book to her. I wanted to make it the ultimate surprise for her. And, on September 8, 2002, I drafted the e-mail to tell her…but deleted it. And on September 11, she was gone.

For seven long years, I felt that if only I had sent that e-mail…Kristina would have received her gift personally. Until her mother reassured me that she always cared for and about me and understood me-and let me let go. I still cherish Kristina’s memory-and hope she knows that I write for a living…to persuade.

But enough about heartbreak…

“Marge, may I play devil’s advocate for a moment?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Hit, yit, come on, yit, get in there…Oooohhhh. Stupid game. Now what were talking about?”

Right. I was running at my now but not-yet then alma mater.

I don’t know when people originally started finishing, but, the sky was getting a bit darker as I continued. Fall days were shorter then. Finally, the last length of the race was in sight…a long trip back and around the football fields-and everyone was there. Everyone. All my teammates. Spectators. Dad. The football team, I think. And, my teammates ran with me for that last furlong. And, as I rounded the last corner, I kicked-or took off into a sprint, to loud cries of “Joe! Go Joe! Joe!”

The Head of School himself was there, Dr. Lee Levison. A smile crossed my face as I saw Dr. Levison- an approachable, gentle, thoughtful, and intellectually interested man. I quite fondly remember going to his office to show him my book. And, as I kicked, he let out the loudest whistle. I don’t think I ever ran faster than I did that day in front of the crowd to finish that race with that bang-and not throwing up at the end!

Thirty-nine minutes flat! I ran five kilometres in thirty-nine minutes flat! That was my new personal record-by sixty-three entire seconds! And that was also the pinnacle of my athletic career-to run in the Friday night race on campus on Hewett Day. And there were photos, congratulations, and Dad was there to be a part of it!

I would only run four races that year. But, in the last ones that I was present for, I was more an adjunct coach-rooting people on, taking care of them, keeping time. My last race was memorable if for no other reason than it was 70 degrees and I ran through a nasty cramp-and Coach Fritz Goodman’s final words, “Joe, runners kick!” So, even if every graduating senior receives a Varsity letter, the letter embodies joy, accomplishment, and how I earned it that Friday night by living my dream.

So, as I said on my class night, I’d like to thank the Good Lord once again for making me a Wyvern-indeed, a Varsity Runner Wyvern.


Joe Schneiderman is an attorney and a writer based in Connecticut.

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