American Studies American Autobiography

In 1990 a student at the University of Lowell a American Studies major I took a class in American Autobiography with department head Cliff Lewis.

After some discussion it was decided being an older student man of my experience of life age 35 I would write my own biography and this is how it turned out.

The night before I wrote this here paper I stayed at my hermit friends house in Chelmsford and  I slept on his couch and during the night I got up and visited the bathroom and woke up on the floor blood in my mouth bump on my head.  I pushed myself up washed my face assessed the damage took two aspirin and went back to bed.

In the morning I was running the last leg of the Mill Cities Relays for the GLRR. I woke groggy disoriented and threw on my running gear, the men in lemon and green were counting on me.

When I got the handoff I was in second place close to a minute behind. I ran mechanical not feeling especially motivated even though these local clubs take these events way too seriously.

I thought holding my place would be a good effort, under the circumstances.  Well, a mile into my 5 miles point something leg I hit my equilibrium primal instinct kicked in click, click double the clutch I was moving up and catching my fellow competitor.

It felt easy now I was in a nice rhythm I ran alongside momentarily considering running it in together, yes a tie I know, I know like kissing your sister.

My competitor team vehicle came alongside us urging my brother competitor on “stay with him Hodgie has no kick” haha.

Okay then so I waited until I was within sight of the finish line and kicked it in I mean we all have a kick just a matter will it be good enough. 

I immediately left the scene of debauchery headed to O’Leary Library to work on this here paper well it ain’t nothing special a work of gods but writing it was a revelation it was a release felt good.

I spent hours alone in a carrel and it poured out. As I was about to leave Pat Sweeney a fellow student and member of the men’s Track & Field team spotted me “Bobby what are you doing here on a Sunday afternoon?” Well, I explained the relay race and he had already picked up my hand written scattered pages.

“Bobby this is good” and laughed, “can’t wait to read the book.”

War on drugs — Baby Missles

University of Lowell Women’s Cross Country & Track & Field Coach holding court 1987.
Introduction
Last Page with comments.

What will follow is the paper in its entirety.

  Often these days, while walking across the South Campus at the University of lowell, I have flash backs to 1967, when I was twelve years old. At that time, these buildings, which make up most of the South Campus-the library, student union, cafeteria, and quad area-didn’t exist. What formerly existed here was an entire Lowell neighborhood, where several of my friends from St. Patrick’s Grammar School lived. Sometimes I try to picture the old neighborhood and particular houses and their former location, but its nearly impossible to do. The way that I think about it is usually to ask myself, if I ever could have imagined where I would be and what I would be doing twenty-three years later. Could I possibly have imagined being here again?

  Not having lived in Lowell for the last twelve years, I notice the changes in the city and compare it to the Lowell I grew up in. There have been a lot of changes here, most of them for the better, but much has remained the same as well. If I had never lived outside of Lowell, I think many of these changes may have gone unnoticed. 

  I returned to Lowell in 1986 to coach the University’s women’s cross country and track program and to finish my undergraduate degree work. I left a well paying job at an athletic shoe company in Boston, without a promise of future employment there. But I was very unhappy there and felt it was time for a change. I had an interest in coaching and when the opportunity became available in Lowell, I decided that I could gain coaching experience and finish a degree program at the same time. There was also my own running career and my ambition to compete in the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials.

I had begun running as a freshman at Lowell High School, in 1969. Since that time it has been the major focal point n my life, although that has been gradually changing the last few years. From the day that I was introduced to it, running was the perfect fit for me. The activity was natural to me and the success that I had was positive reinforcement. Most importantly it suited my personality type, which most people describe as quiet, introspective. (I just think that everyone else is too loud!).

Academically, I was at best an average student in grammar school. I remember that I used to have elaborate daydreams in school and was often rudely awakened by the nun’s pointer being slapped across my desk. My mother died when I was in the sixth grade. I am still not sure how this affected me, but I vaguely remember going from an outward child to a more lonesome one.

My oldest brother, Bill, was killed in Vietnam, in 1970:


When the telephone call came, I had just gone to bed and was lying there awake. I knew before my dad picked up the phone that my brother had been killed. I’ve never had that kind of experience again, but it made me believe in the ability to have ESP experiences.

Billy had been involved in a lot of different sports and was a coach of youth league teams in baseball and football. My other brother, Mike, was a good ball player, but I don’t think that he ever took it quite as seriously as Billy did.

I enjoyed playing baseball as a youth between the ages of nine and thirteen, but once I began running, I dropped other sports entirely. My brothers and I were also members of the Lowell Boy’s Club. Which helped to keep us out of trouble. Each year the club had an annual fitness test, which included all sorts of calisthenics and a rope climb. Everyone who passed these tests got a patch to wear on their jacket or cap. I never passed this test once! My brothers were always the highest scorers, so it was quite ironic that I would become the big athlete in the family.
I don’t remember my sister, Irene, ever becoming involved in athletics, but I’m sure that she was kept busy looking after us after my mother died for her to have had a lot of outside activities.
The emphasis that I got on education from my parents was to try your best. On grammar school report cards, we always received a grade for effort. If we did poorly here, which I often did, this would be my parents biggest disappointment. I think that after grammar school, I became side-tracked by the decision of my teachers that I should be in the business program in high school. They felt that the college program would be too demanding for me.

When I was in the eighth grade, some of my friends took the entrance exams for private schools. I was feeling a bit left out of this and decided that I would like to go to a private school, namely, St. Francis Seminary, in Tewksbury. My dad said “no way” and that I would be going to Lowell High School, but I decided that I wanted to take the entrance exam anyway.

So I got up very early one morning and walked all the way out there from our house in the acre section of Lowell. I was too afraid to hitchhike, so I walked the eight miles out there. Fortunately one of my friends was there taking the exam and his mom gave me a ride home. When they heard that I had walked out there, they thought that I was nuts and I don’t know if they believed me. A few weeks later, I got a letter saying I would not be accepted to the Seminary, so I figured the nuns were right and I went to Lowell High School.
In 1969, Lowell High School was overflowing with baby boomers and it was necessary to send some of the freshman students to the Roger’s Junior High School. The shock of attending this school after eight years in a Catholic grammar school was awesome. The teachers were kept so busy trying to keep control of the class, that learning was an afterthought. The first day of school, l wore a tie and I walked to school with a friend who was attending Keith Academy, which was right across the street from the Roger’s School.
When I arrived at school I was ridiculed so severely for the way that I was dressed (especially the tie) that I didn’t wear a tie again, outside of a wedding or funeral, for the next ten years.

There was one teacher at the Rodger’s school who could control his class and that was Mr. Crowley, the basketball coach. Mr. Crowley taught Civics and I did very well in his class. When I began running well, Mr. Crowley, along with my track coach Mr. Lang encouraged me to take college courses with the idea that I might receive an athletic scholarship to college.

Unfortunately when I began taking college courses in my sophomore year, I was behind everyone else and did not get particularly good grades. The exceptions were in English and History. I believe I could have benefited from another year or two in high school. I had just begun to strike a balance between athletics and school when it ended for me in 1973.

One interest I picked up in grammar school was reading. I used to visit the Lowell Public Library often and read dozens of books about athletic heroes, who started from humble beginnings and achieved greatness. These were the Horatio Alger stories for athletic types.

After I began running, I also began reading everything I could find about it. In high school, I had a part time job setting up tables and calling out numbers at bingo games at St. Patrick’s Grammar School. Most of the money I made there was spent on books about track and field and long distance running.  After getting a subscription to “Track & Field News”, I received a list of books which could be ordered through their library. About once a month, I would receive a box full of hard cover books and excitedly read and re-read them. I remember my dad was a little taken aback that I was spending so much money on these books and remember him asking me, did I really want to be spending it all this way.

From these books, I gained invaluable knowledge about the sport from the greatest athletes and coaches of the day. I know that this knowledge clearly helped me to become a much better runner than I would have been otherwise.

Near the end of my senior year in high school, I was offered a full scholarship to Johnson & Wales Junior College in Providence, RI.

In 1973 the school was primarily a business college, but today it has a worldwide reputation as a culinary arts school.

I had not done well on my college boards and was missing some required courses that I would need to get into a University and therefore never applied to any. I was not very thrilled to be studying business, but my options were limited. I could either go to school or find a job. I was quite flattered to be offered a scholarship even if it was to a junior college, so I decided to give it a try and see how things would go.

Athletically, things went well. I was an All-American Cross Country runner and my track times improved dramatically. Academically I was an average student with around a 2.0 G.P.A. I was quite proud to have the best G.P.A. on the team!

The city of Providence depressed me. Our dormitory building was a converted hotel in the center of downtown. Our team travelled to meets nearly every weekend and this was the highlight for me, after a somewhat dull week in school. We went to Florida for the national championships, the first time that most of us had flown anywhere. I made an abrupt decision after my first year not to return to school. Instead, I began working at Raytheon Company in Andover. My dad had been working at Raytheon for twenty years and my brother had begun working there just a few years earlier.

I was trained to make cables from flow charts and run cards. We were given a three month trial period and our performance was then evaluated. If we were satisfactory we were admitted to the I.B.E.W. electrical workers union.

The cable I was given to work on called for twelve of them to be made each day. I was having trouble making six. Near the end of my trial period, the manager came to me and said that I must be making twelve to be accepted into the union. I would later find out that no one who had ever worked on this cable made twelve, but they were already in the union, so it wasn’t a big problem for them.

I worked in fear for a few weeks, but I was finally able to figure out how to make twelve. In fact I began to make sixteen or more. This brought me a visit from the union side, who told not to ever make more than the job called for. I became bored with making the same cable and asked for a transfer, but each time I was working on another cable, the person working on the one I had left never made more than six. I kept being transferred back to this same cable so that they could get the required twelve.

I spent almost exactly a year at this job. It was a decent job. I was nineteen years old. I was confused, in some ways lost. I asked myself, am I going to work here for the rest of my life? I was still running but without much enthusiasm. I had been injured and this had discouraged me. I was drinking a lot, hanging out. One day while out running in the Dracut State Forest with a friend, I was introduced to Coach George Davis, the Lowell Tech Cross Country and Track Coach. He asked me if I would be interested in returning to school at what would become the University of Lowell. I decided to do this and managed to have some of my credits from junior college transferred over.

I began school in January 1975. Once again I was enrolled in the business program and during my first semester, I was determined to see it through. The first semester went well, but when I registered for my second semester, I did not get any advising and instead, just went through the catalogue and picked out courses which looked interesting. I became a business student who did well in hid elective courses and poorly in his business courses. I did well in Great Books of Antiquity, Literature of the Beat Writers (I read Kerouac back in high school) and Sociology (my first A in college). I did poorly in statistics, Business Finance and Economics.

If there had been an American Studies major or something similar in 1975, I may have made it to graduation, But instead, I began to lose interest. I never received much encouragement or advice, but I neverrealy sought it either. I determined that I could learn what I needed to know on my own and that college was more of an obstacle to life than an open door.

Everyone I knew in college went there to get a degree so that he could get a high paying job and that was the extent of it. I had only one real job and it did no seem particularly difficult to secure employment, if one was not looking to make the big bucks. I did not picture myself getting married, buying a house having 2.3 children. For some reason it seemed impossible to believe that this would happen for me. Who would want to marry me? When the pattern that many people fall into –high school, college, work, marriage, house etc.–is broken there is a kind of fear and excitement. You can live your life some other way, many people do, but you still want to be accepted. Can you have it both ways?

In 1977,  I left school and went to work in a supermarket. I trained to run my first Boston Marathon and saved as much money as I could for a planned cross country road trip the following summer. The idea of the trip was something that one of my close friends and I had talked about for quite a while, probably not believing that we would undertake it. We spent our Friday and Saturday evenings in the bars around Lowell shooting pool and took occasional camping and hiking trips to the White Mountains. We bought a Dodge van and worked on the interior during the summer to make it livable. In August 1977, three of us left on what would be a ten month long trip around the country with stops in thirty six states, Canada and Mexico.  

We camped out in state and national parks and sometimes just pulled the van over to the side of the road and went to sleep in the back. My friends and family thought that I was nuts. They didn’t come right out and say so, but I could certainly tell from the questions they asked. I suppose they felt that spending any more than two weeks on a trip like this was a waste of time. I’m sure we visited many more places in ten months than most of our friends would visit in their lifetimes. We also visited many places where tourists don’t normally go. We passed through and stayed overnight in places like Faith South Dakota, Big Foot, Wisconsin, Jackson/Wyoming, Lordsbury, New Mexico and many others. The trip was not quite non-stop, as we spent two months in Seattle, Washington sharing an apartment with a friend who was in the Air Force, and working for Manpower temporary work agency.

My dad wasn’t  exactly supportive of our trip, but didn’t say anything negative about it at all. I’m sure he was worried about me, but he had always let me find my way, and although I could have used more direction in my life, I much preferred the freedom to do what I wanted without being nagged about it. I had seen too many parents do battle with their kids over each decision a person needed to make and they usually wound up just hurting each other.

I had been out for a training run every single day that we were on the road and kept myself pretty fit. I was determined to be the best runner that I could and really began putting all of my energies into it. I had had a tough Boston Marathon in 1977, finishing forty sixth, after being twelfth at the halfway point. I had begun running for the Greater Boston Track Club and training with some of the best runners in the country, among them Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. I didn’t set any limits on myself and felt I could be as good a runner as Rodgers and Salazar.

When I had left on my cross country trip, I had done so with a verbal agreement with an athletic shoe company in Boston for sponsorship when I returned. When this agreement fell through on my return, I was left scrambling for a job. But it could not be just any job, it would have to fit in with my training schedule.

I had spoken with the owner o f an athletic shoe store in Hanover MA and was being considered for a position there. In the meantime, my brother had gotten me a position in a shoe factory in Lowell. My job was basically to look busy on my four or five hour shift each day. It wasn’t easy but I was lucky to have the job. It worked out all right and my running was going well.

I trained twice a day, six days a week and once on Sunday. This was a pattern that was rarely broken. I ran upwards of 120 miles per weekend the results began to show  that I was on the right program. In the Spring of 1978, I got the job on the South Shore and it felt great to be independent, finally and out on my own. Initially I lived with the store owners grandmother in Scituate, MA., and later moved into the store, living in the basement rent free. On the salary that I was making, it would be difficult to find an apartment. Later in the year I secured a contract with a shoe company and with the added income was able to afford a car and an apartment. I was training as I pleased working lots of hours, but having a good time doing it.

For most promising distance runners, there is not a support system for helping them develop. I was fortunate enough to be involved with the Greater Boston Track Club. Training with this group of successful post collegiate athletes helped to focus my energies and provide role models who were real people and not the far away personalities of the sport that I had read about in high school. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s before races had begun awarding prize money, it was possible to earn a living from the sport, if you do very well in key races, like the Boston Marathon. If you could achieve a certain notoriety and were lucky, it was possible to obtain a consultant contract with an athletics goods dealer. I was fortunate to obtain a small contract in 1978 based more upon the potential I had shown than on any great performance I had achieved.

In 1979 I finished third in the Boston Marathon, making a leap from a good local runner to world class runner. I had worked hard I had prepared, I had sacrificed, I was lucky. In order to do well in a marathon, everything must go right on that day, everything did. Boston ’79 was not the best race I would ever run, but it would become the race that I would be noted for. It was shocking to many people. After the race, people looked at me strangely, they asked me how I did so well. I laughed, shrugged my shoulders, I wondered, am I that good?

In the wake of the marathon, I received many invitations to compete in races all around the world. I was asked to speak at awards banquets, to give clinics, and to kiss babies (not really). What I really wanted and needed to do was to go back to work in the store and get refocused on my training. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but eventually, the excitement died down and I was able to plan a schedule of races for the summer. My original plan was to run in mainly track races, pointing toward the national track and field championships in 1979.  I somewhat reluctantly changed these plans because of the opportunities to travel and gain international experience. I would also be given fairly large appearance fees to run in several road races. My summer began with the Bay to Breakers Road Race in San Francisco. There was a field of twenty thousand runners in this race, about five of whom cared about winning the race. I’m sure I was the only invited runner to compete there  and felt pressure to run well, although I had a hard time taking the race seriously.

Before the race began, I saw runners dressed in various bizarre costumes and it was rumored that there was a woman running the course naked, but I didn’t get to see her.

When the race began, there were runners jumping into the race in front of me and it was impossible to tell who the legitimate runners were.

I determined to just run as hard as I could and let the race directors worry about who won. I took the lead from another runner at the top of a long steep grade halfway through the race. I was able to relax then and enjoyed the second half of the race, which went through Golden Gate Park, finishing by the Bay. In addition to the other awards I received , I was given a trip to Australia to compete in the City to Surf race in Sydney.

In July I was planning to travel to London  for the British National Track & Field Meet. For the first time, I began to get the feeling that my employer and fellow employees were not happy about all of my time away from the store. We had begun a shoe re soling business, of which I was in charge. In my absence, the shoes piled up awaiting my return. Returning from trips around the world to a pile of smelly shoes was not a thrill for me either. The people I worked for had been great, but I would have to be careful to take the needs of the job into consideration before I took any more time away from the store.

This situation led me to do one of the dumber things I have done. That was to go from Boston to Sydney Australia for the weekend. I had heard about jet lag, but I was naïve. I didn’t think that it would effect me. It is twenty four hours flying time to Sydney. I flew from Boston to San Francisco, where I had to stay overnight to wait for my passport and to secure a visa, which I had forgotten. This eliminated the one day that I had planned for sightseeing and relaxation. From San Francisco, I had to fly to Los Angeles, where I would connect to my flight to Australia. I stayed in a motel by the airport so that I would be able to catch my early morning flight easily. As it turned our, I never received my wake up call, missed my flight, took a later one and barely made my flight to Australia. The flight attaendants argued for about five minutes about whether or not they should let me on the flight. Finally, I was walked across the runway and put aboard the plane, flying from Los Angeles to Honolulu to Pago Pago to Sydney. All five hour flights, with about an hour layover in between each one.

On my flight from Honolulu to Sydney a Samoan native who weighed about three hundred pounds sat right beside me. He told me his entire life story. When we landed in Pago for re-fueling, I took my shirt off and put on my running shoes and ran up and down the runway for ten minutes in the one hundred degree heat and humidity. I left my bag, passport and all with the Samoan guy and surprisingly, I never worried him not being there when I got back. The airport in Pago is like the airport on Nantucket. The huge 747 was like the skyline of Manhattan beside the thatched hut that served as the terminal building.

In a situation like this, I need a beer, maybe two. The Samoan was good company and I almost forgot what I was going to Sydney for. I arrived in Sydney on a Friday evening. I was a physical wreck. A shoe company representative from the company that I represented in Boston, Picked me up at the airport and took me directly to a running seminar.

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