Thursday, July 14, 2011

They Call Him 'Chainsaw'

When I was a child, my parents took my brother and me on several summer road trips through the eastern United States.

I think that statement requires a little context.

In the years before my brother and I came along, my parents were missionaries in Africa. While they were there, they became close friends with their colleagues. I don't know if their friends returned to America before or after my parents did, but it turned out that all their friends were in the eastern half of the continent — so, for a time, vacations meant planning trips based on who lived where.

In those days, it was entertaining simply to watch my parents unfold maps on the dining room table and plot the routes from one friend's home to another with felt–tip pens. Our starting point was our home in Conway, Ark. Our destination was Vermont, where a couple of my parents' closest friends lived. We saved money by spending the nights with friends all the way to Vermont and all the way back.

(It was a rare treat in those days for us to stay in a motel. For my brother and me, it meant being able to swim in a motel swimming pool.)

I guess I don't need to tell you that our route was never a straight line — and we must have made that trip three or four times when I was a child.

The itinerary was never the same, but this might give you an idea of what our trips were like. One year, I recall, we took kind of a northerly approach, stopping in Kentucky, then Pennsylvania, then New York, on our way to Vermont, then we took a southerly route home, stopping in Virginia, then North Carolina, then Tennessee. Each time we stayed with friends (well, the stop in New York was to visit my father's sister and her family).

I thought it was kind of cool, actually. Because of those road trips, I figured I had visited more states than just about anyone in my class at school. And, because I was born overseas, I figured it was a sure thing that I had been to more countries than any of my classmates.

To put it in Charlie Sheen lingo, I felt I was winning.

But, if I haven't already surrendered my crown (and I may have — who knows how many states my former classmates have visited since we graduated from high school?), I would probably have to turn it over to a fellow who was actually a year behind me in school — but, before 2011 is over, he may have visited more states than I have ... and he's been doing it the hard way.

His name is Jeff. He teaches physical education in Fayetteville, Ark., the town where I earned my B.A., but he grew up with me in Conway. We knew each other as children. I don't remember if we attended the same elementary school, but I know we were in Cub Scouts together.

In high school, we kind of ran in separate crowds. I was always more interested in writing, working for the school newspaper, that kind of thing. Jeff was always part of the circle of athletes, the guys who could always be seen wearing their letterman jackets or their football jerseys.

Jeff acquired a nickname when we were in school. Because of his ferocious tenacity, he earned the name Chainsaw. No matter what might stand in his way, folks said, he would rip into it like a chainsaw. No holds barred. "Straight ahead" was his attitude about, well, everything.

Our families were acquainted as well. His father and my father were colleagues at a small private college. My father taught religion and philosophy there. Jeff's father was a coach, specializing in swimming. He built a successful program that included using the college's pool to teach children in the community to swim.

Jeff was one of the youngest in a rather large family, and he was always close to his father. I remember attending the high school graduation ceremony the year Jeff graduated. His father was a member of the local school board (the middle school in my hometown now bears his name), and, that evening, he was handing the diplomas to the graduates after someone else called their names.

He shook their hands, they smiled at each other, they might exchange brief pleasantries, then it was time to give the diploma to the next one. Pretty innocuous stuff.

When Jeff's name was called and he strode across the stage, father and son embraced to a thundering, spontaneous ovation. No one in that gymnasium that night could help but be moved by the sight.

Sadly, Jeff's father passed away in 1997. I don't know the details, but I believe he suffered from some kind of respiratory disease — an ironic way for an athletic life to end.

As I say, Jeff also is involved in physical education. I have no doubt he was strongly influenced by his father's example — as he was a year ago when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Jeff's admiration for his father is evident on his Facebook page, where he attributes (falsely) his favorite quotation to his father: "Be kind to everyone because everyone you meet is fighting a battle."

(I'm sure Jeff's father said that many times — it's the kind of thing I would have expected him to say to his children — but he probably never told them that it was really Plato who was responsible for it.

(That's OK, though. I don't think Plato would have objected if Jeff's father took credit for it.)

And Jeff appears to be winning his battle with cancer. In fact, he's doing so well that he's been trying to raise awareness of leukemia and lymphoma with a cross–country bicycle ride that began about three weeks ago in Oregon.

His friends and family have kept track of his progress through the updates and pictures he's been posting on Facebook.

An avid fisherman, Jeff has reported stopping at some rivers to do some fishing along the way. He appears to pitch his tent wherever he can — although, like my parents, he's been making some stops at friends' homes. He reported, for example, that he stopped in Boise for a few days of R&R with some friends around the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, the wind is at his back, and he makes more progress than he expected. His original goal was to cover 70 miles a day traveling at roughly 10 miles per hour, but he actually covered about 85 miles when he left the coast. "Great day in the saddle," he wrote.

"The coast of Oregon is a feast for the eyes around each bend."

Conditions continued to be favorable as he made his way through Oregon. A few days later, he wrote this: "McKenzie River. Gonna fish here today. Pedaled up the river from Corvallis yesterday 90 miles slight uphill. The weather is great. ... Slept in an old growth forest last night. ... This part of Oregon is very lush with lots of rain."

Then there are times when conditions are not so favorable. "Met my match today with the toughest climb I have had yet," he wrote last week.

"The ride down the main Salmon was nice and then once in White Bird the climb started 11 miles at 8% grade for 3200 vertical feet. The legs had a hard time responding after three days fishing in Boise, will begin my ascent over Lolo Pass tomorrow."

His latest post on Facebook says he is in Montana now. "The big open country of SW Montana makes one feel small," he writes. "In Virginia City now."

Montana, he wrote yesterday, "gave me all I wanted and more. Got hit by a hail storm, 40 mph headwinds and got a dose of the huge country with lonely roads."

In spite of all that, he observed, "This is beautiful country."

I've never been there, but, from what I have heard, it really is.

He closes each post with his signature line — "Straight ahead. Chainsaw."

My understanding is that Jeff won't be going clear across the country. Originally, his plan was for his ride to conclude around the Kansas–Colorado border — and if that is still the plan, then I expect that he will start to move in a more southeasterly direction now, probably taking him through Wyoming and Colorado.

But his plans might have changed. And, if they have, I would recommend that he stay in the northern half of the country. It's just too hot in the central and southern states for extensive bike riding.

Whatever his plans are now, though, I just say, keep going, Chainsaw.

Straight ahead.

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