I can be precise about the day it began. It was December 10, 1974. That was the day I met Billy Sive, and he asked me to coach him.
The night before, a heavy snowfall had blanketed New York State. Around eight that morning, I ate breakfast as usual in the college dining room. Then, whistling cheerfully, I walked over to the athletic building. The sun had already come out, and the white landscape of the campus was blinding. I stepped past the students shoveling snow.
"Hi," I said to them. I smiled. I had no idea how my life was about to change.
"Hi, Mr. Brown," they said. They smiled back.
When I got to my office, I found the president and founder of Prescott College, Joseph A. Prescott, waiting for me by the locked door. He was wearing a sheepskin jacket, carrying his usual briefcase fat with papers, plus two steaming cups, one coffee, one tea.
When Joe comes around early in the morning like that, I always know something is up.
"Here's something to thaw you out," he said, giving me the tea.
We went into the office. Joe hauled off his sheepskin and settled his lanky brown-suited frame into the battered oak armchair by my desk. I settled my lanky parka-ed form into the creaky swivel desk-chair. On the desk, everything was neat, but very piled: students' papers, entry blanks for meets, track and field publications. On the raw concrete wall, the big bulletin board displayed schedules. Some framed photographs: myself in Marine dress uniform twenty years ago, myself as a Villanova miler, other runners I'd trained. A big bookshelf was stuffed with books on sports.
"What's up, Joe?" I said, sipping my tea.
Joe lit a cigarette, boldly facing down my frown. "Harlan," he said, "you know those three boys that were suspended from Oregon?"
I nodded. The track press had been full of it. Boys often get suspended from school teams these days. The youth revolution has hit track, and disciplinarian coaches have endless squabbles with their runners about late hours, hair styles, sex, drugs, etc. I had had a few of those squabbles myself. But the University of Oregon, the Jerusalem of U.S. track, had just unloaded three of its best senior-year runners. That was something else again. "Disciplinary reasons," head coach Gus Lindquist had said. But he hadn't been specific. Everybody had been mystified by the biblical heat of Lindquist's wrath.
"What do you know about the boys?" Joe asked.
"Not much, Joe," I said. "I've never even seen them run."
Joe's eyes sparkled wickedly. "Supposing I told you that they want to transfer here?"
I slowly put down my cup of tea. I couldn't believe my ears. For a moment I couldn't speak. I hadn't coached big burners like those three since I'd been fired from my coaching job at Penn State six years ago. What I had on this campus was a nice group of kids coming along, but definitely the ruck of Eastern college runners. The big burners wouldn't be caught dead at a school like Prescott. They all wanted to run for Oregon, Villanova, UCLA.
"Well," I said, "I'm not sure I want to have Lindquist's headaches."
"The boys say they were unfairly treated. They say no one ever listened to their side of the story. They want to talk to you about it. They and I agree that the decision will be up to you."
"You mean they're here?"
Joe was doing the smoker's comedy act: he hunted automatically for an ashtray, didn't find one, tipped his ashes into the palm of his hand, finally put them in the empty wastebasket.
"They showed up in the snowstorm late last night and knocked on my door," he said. "Marian put them up in the den. They hitchhiked all the way from Oregon. They ate everything in the house."
I was beginning to be more puzzled. Their action sounded desperate. I could see the three of them half-frozen by the highway in the Dakotas somewhere, with their thumbs out and a hand-lettered sign reading NEW YORK.
"But why here? I mean, there are big-time teams with permissive coaches who would snap them up."
"Prescott has you, doesn't it?"
"But I've been out of sight for years. Those kids wouldn't even know who I am."
"I'm sure they'll tell you all about it," said Joe, getting up.
"All right," I said. "I have classes at nine and ten, but I'm free between eleven and lunch. Why don't you send them over at eleven?"
After Joe left, I sat a minute before I went to nine o'clock track practice. To have runners like those three on my little team had been the hurting dream ever since I'd left Penn State. I felt overcome by memories and pain.
The moment I first saw the Oregon three, I felt a vague unease. They sat, or sprawled, in my office. I had shut the door and hung out my COACH IN CONFERENCE DO NOT DISTURB sign. They gazed at me in silence. I gazed back. I knew their faces well from all the photos I'd seen in Track & Field News, Runner's World and Sports Illustrated.
They looked like three travel-stained rock musicians who'd been busted flat in Memphis. They had hollowed eyes and beards. I thought with a twinge of nostalgia of the 1950s, when every runner had a crewcut and a clean shave. Even I didn't insist on crewcuts any more.
The superstar of the three was miler Vince Matti. He was also the best-looking. He was twenty-two, from Los Angeles, tall and rangy, as a miler should be. He had wavy coal-black hair down to his collar, insolent brown eyes, and a little scar under his right eye. He wore faded Levi's, a torn Air Force jacket and mountain boots. He owned a 3:52.19, the third-fastest U.S. mile in history. He also owned a pair of injury-prone legs that kept him from running like that about half the time. He was, I knew, very free with his elbows in a race and very hot-tempered.
My eyes moved on to Jacques LaFont. He was twenty-one, from Canton, Illinois. He wasn't in Vince's class, but he was a top miler and half-miler. The track magazines characterized him as a screwball and a cutup, and also as sensitive and highstrung. He was a shade more muscular than Vince, as a half-miler might be. He had exuberant frizzy auburn hair and beard, and wore a plaid headband and a motorcycle jacket. His bright blue eyes wavered between lively and anxious.
My eyes came to rest on Billy Sive. He was twenty-two, from San Francisco. He had been one of those spectacular California high-school distance runners. When he got to Oregon, he ran a 28:49 10,000 meter, but he seemed to have stopped improving. I wondered why he had not fulfilled that early promise. Maybe he had burned himself out.
Billy sat easily in the oak armchair where Joe had sat earlier. He looked calmly back at me through his gold-rimmed glasses. Behind those glasses were the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen in a man. They were a clear blue-gray. But they were beautiful because of their proud, spookily candid expression.
Vince Matti was snapping his gum in a way that already irritated me.
I pointed out the wastebasket. "Your gum in there," I said.
Vince hesitated. Then, possibly because he felt that the main thing at the moment was getting on my team, he obeyed.
My eyes went back to Billy Sive.
He sat there looking straight through me. He was wearing a faded, tattered blue-quilted Mao jacket. His brown leather pants must have been expensive—they were bagged and worn now, but they still displayed his long racehorse legs. My coach's eye measured his slender body at five-foot-eleven and weighed him at around 138 pounds. On his feet he had worn-out blue Tiger racing flats. I thought of him standing beside the icy highway in those thin-soled shoes.
"Well," I said to them, "Lindquist canned your asses for `disciplinary reasons.' What am I supposed to do with you? If you know anything about me, you know that I'm just as authoritarian as Lindquist."
"Yeah sure, the press said disciplinary," said Sive. Quiet as he was, he seemed to be their spokesman. "Lindquist was afraid to tell the truth to the press."
"So?" I said.
"So we'll tell you the truth," said Sive. "Then you can issue us tracksuits if you want, or tell us to split if you want."
"Okay," I said. "What's the big dramatic truth?"
The two others looked down, a little uncomfortable. But Sive's extraordinary blue-gray eyes never left mine. I had the spooky feeling that the kid knew everything about my life. (As it turned out, this feeling was correct.) His face, I thought, was young American Gothic. It was pleasantly handsome, fine-cut, with high cheekbones, a high forehead, a blunt nose, a good mouth. His mop of light brown curls looked like it had been through a wind tunnel.
"We're gay," he said to me.
I felt as if somebody had hit me in the stomach with the thirty-five-pound shot. After a moment, a prickling sweat of panic broke out all over my body.
Outside, my girls' freshman track team was going off for practice. The hallway echoed with girls' shrieks, laughs and giggles as they trooped past.
Sive was still talking. He pointed at Vince and Jacques.
"Lindquist caught those two fooling around in the locker room one evening," he said. "They were being very sexy, and Vince was taking off Jacques' belt. And old Lindquist just caught them cold. They sassed him, and said that gay lib had come to Oregon U and a lot of other crap."
Now all three of them were talking heatedly, leaning forward. "Lindquist was fucking livid, man," said Vince. "He put Jacques on the rack and Billy's name came out. And Lindquist is a big straight fascist, so there went our scholarships."
Jacques was now doing an imitation of a Lindquist tirade, complete with Swedish accent, that I would have found very funny at any other time.
"Enemies uff sport, dot is vot you are," Jacques said. "Away wid you, to de fire. Der vill be no Sodom und Gomorrah on my skvad."
Billy and Vince were laughing, choking, till the tears came. Possibly they were a little hysterical from pressure and fatigue.
I just sat there looking at them, unsmiling, unable to say a word.
Finally they quieted down and looked at me expectantly.
"How come he didn't have you busted?" I finally said. "It's illegal in Oregon, isn't it?"
"He didn't want it all over the papers that he had three queers on his team," said Billy. "You know, people would start wondering about the rest, about him . . . I mean, he was just shitting in his pants, he was so afraid of what the papers would say."
"Does that mean nobody knows but you three and him?" I asked.
"No," said Vince bluntly. "He yelled enough behind closed doors that some of the team and the administration know. Word'll get around, all right."
I went silent again, staring at my desk. I found that I was shaking slightly.
Billy started talking again, slowly and softly. "We have to finish school. And we figured that we might get the same hassle everywhere else. So we came straight here." Out of the corner of my eye, I could glimpse his eyes searching me.
"We have a right to run," he said. "We weren't bothering anybody. There's nothing in the AAU rules or the NCAA rules about the sex of the person you sleep with."
I looked over into his eyes again, fighting to control myself. An ex-Marine ought to have better self-control than that. But I had been caught off-guard. I had been naive enough to think that, after four years' seclusion at this little college, the subject would never be brought up again, and I could lead a normal life. But three of them. Macho gays, all of them. I should have recognized those leather pants of Billy's. I was ready to get mad at them for breaking into my peaceful exile.
I made one last attempt to put up a front. "What makes you think I'll understand? What makes you think I won't give you a big lecture on the morality and purity of the American boy?"
"My father said you might understand," said Billy.
"Who's your father?"
I shook my head. "Sorry, don't know the name."
"He's a gay activist lawyer," said Billy implacably. "He's working on the Supreme Court case that challenges the sodomy laws. We told him what happened and that we might not be able to make a team anywhere, and he said to try Harlan Brown at Prescott."
There was nothing diplomatic about the way Billy put this. He backed me right into the corner. I was shortly to learn that this was—always—his way. Billy lived for the pitiless truth because it was the only way he'd been able to survive.
"If you don't want us, we'll understand," said Jacques, a little forlornly.
I didn't know what to say. It was a big decision to make so suddenly. I knew that it would affect me, them, the school and—perhaps—track itself. If I took them on the team, people would talk about it.
To buy a little time, I said, "Tell you what. I'll show you around the campus first. Prescott isn't like most schools. You ought to know what you're getting into."
The four of us walked all over the campus.
The sidewalks were scraped clean now. The snow was melting already, and falling from the trees into the snow below with little whumps! everywhere. Students bundled in polo coats, Mexican sweaters, sheepskins, army surplus crisscrossed the campus with their briefcases.
"Prescott is an experiment," I told them. "About ten years ago, Joe Prescott decided that America was going to the dogs, and that American education was going to the dogs. He decided that what we needed was more human people, better able to survive, and cheaper, more practical education. So he turned his computer software company over to his board of directors, and out of his profits he built this school. This campus used to be his estate."
"He's some kind of straight liberal, huh?" said Jacques.
We walked and walked. I pointed out everything to them. "There are no regular courses. Each student chooses his area of interest, and fills a portfolio full of projects. If you want to learn carpentry, we have a damn good vocational department. If you want to learn political or environmental activism, you go out and do it. A faculty advisor keeps track of your portfolio of projects, and it's graded pass or fail."
"Sounds easy," said Vince cheerfully.
"It isn't," I said. "That's what I thought when I came here. No sir. Students without self-discipline wash out pretty fast."
All the time I was trying not to look at them too hard. Three class runners. And beautiful. Especially Billy Sive.
I showed them the plush athletic facilities.
"Joe's a big nut on fitness," I said. "He thinks the American body is going to the dogs too. I happen to agree with that. Physical education is the only required course here. We've got a broad fitness program. It's all aerobic sports. No ping-pong or golf. Only handicapped students are excused."
We were walking along the trail toward the track, our breath blowing white on the sunny air.
"Then, on a level above the fitness program, we have a few competitive sports," I said. "Swimming, field hockey, cycling. But the big emphasis is on track."
We stood looking across the quarter-mile cinder track. It lay in a great open field surrounded by woods. The school's little snowplow had almost finished clearing the track, though the bleachers along it remained buried. The girls' team, about twenty-five of them, were all over the track, striding, doing bursts.
"I've made track a big thing at this school," I said. My heart pained me at the thought of the four happy years I'd spent here, and how these three boys were maybe going to mess it up. "We have the same kind of enthusiasm for track that you had at Oregon, only on a smaller scale. The students and the faculty really get worked up about track. They run, or they jog, and they go to meets. Last year I even fielded that girls' team." I pointed at the girls. "The girls demanded it. They gave me a lot of crap about women's equal rights in sports, so I had to."
The boys all laughed.
"Foxes," said Billy, "will be foxes."
"Of course," I said, "we aren't big-time here. We don't have athletic scholarships. But even if we did, I couldn't go out and sign burners like you guys, because you all want to run for Oregon. We think more in terms of fitness and having a good time. We go to the local meets, and we do very well, and that's about it."
"What you're saying is," said Vince, "if you take us, it'll be a whole new ball game here."
"It will be," I said. "But it's no problem . . . we have the facilities, and the money, as you can see. We don't have an indoor track, but we're breaking ground for one this spring. And we're also going to install a Tartan track." The old-time cinder tracks are not as fast as the new synthetic tracks.
All three were looking hungrily at the track. Probably they hadn't had a good workout for several days, and they were feeling withdrawal symptoms. Vince had his arm over Jacques' shoulders. They were being quite natural around me—what could Billy's father have told them?
Billy couldn't stand it. He took off and ran gently around the track alone. He passed the chugging snowplow in the turn. He passed among the girl runners like a thoroughbred among a lot of ponies. He loped easily along, with perfect form. I noticed some of the girls turn to look at him, but he ignored them.
Perhaps it was the sight of his lonely, graceful figure among the girls, against the snowy landscape, that decided me. They were like three young birds driven away from the flock. Four years ago, Joe Prescott had sheltered me, an older storm-driven bird. It would be a sin not to pass on his Christian kindness.
Billy rounded the turn and came back to us, breathing easily, grinning.
"Ready to go, huh?" I said, smiling myself for the first time.
"Yeah," he said.
"All right, you're on," I said. "Go register, and get your rooms assigned. You'll probably lose a semester's credit, but we can work something out. Then report back to me, and I'll issue you your gear."
They all grinned happily, and Vince slapped Billy gently on the back.
"We really appreciate it, Harlan," said Billy.
"It's Mr. Brown," I said.
Their faces fell a little. Billy looked at me strangely.
"Okay, Mr. Brown," he said.
Copyright © 1974 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.