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The Middle School Mile

I'm reminded of the following story because Ella, my youngest daughter, is running the mile in her middle school gym class. She hates it, as did I.

Nobody could run faster when it came to catching lizards, I was the neighborhood's best lizard catcher. And there were few that could beat Dindo in the Middle School Mile.

I went out into the Southern California desert almost every day, wearing OP (Ocean Pacific) shorts or cut-offs, and barefoot. I'd find lizards under bits of plywood or on the inside of abandoned tires. I'd lift a board or tire, and sometimes there'd be multiple lizards scattering in all directions. Or in the springtime, you'd see them from a distance on the top of the Silver Cloud Texas Sage, eating the flowers, their faces, and heads covered in purple. I'd instinctively choose the biggest one and chase it down. The best way to catch lizards was to chase them into a varmint burrow, and then dig them up. The holes were never too deep and the loose sand made the digging easy. Sometimes there would be a hidden escape hole and when they'd sense me coming, they'd burst out of the sand and run to the next hole and I'd commence digging again. I would often come home with lizards in my hands and pockets and on the inside of my shirt, then I'd keep them in an 8' long aquarium. I would enjoy their company for a few days and then release them. The best lizards to catch were the Horny Toads because they'd eat flies and moths out of my hand. The iguanas floundered, so I'd release them before they got too weak.

As fast as I was when chasing lizards, I was equally as slow when it came to running the mile. Dindo was the one to beat, but nobody really tried because he had every race won before the coach blew the whistle and dropped the flag. On this day, the day after I got new sneakers from The Thrifty Cut Rate Drug Store in Palm Springs, California, everything changed.

Growing up in Palm Springs, I thought we were poor because my dad was a working-class gardener. In Palm Springs, there were the really wealthy and then the service class. Going to Thrifty's instead of the more upscale Kinny's Shoe store for new sneakers was a blow to my childhood ego.

The next day, wearing my new low-budget sneakers, we all gathered at the starting line. The go flag dropped and Dindo took his usual lead. Dindo and I weren't really friends. His parents immigrated from the Philippines, and unlike me, he took his education seriously. I don't think he liked me much, I was forever goofing off at school and I never took gym class or academics seriously the way he did.

I could run fast through the desert, but I never knew why I was always last in the mile run. If there was a lizard or snake to catch, I could run fast through sand and thorns, leaping over cactus, and I was so well callused that even goat heads were no match for the bottoms of my feet.

Just before the race began, probably due to the uncomfortable stiffness and pinch of new sneakers, I removed the insole of the shoe, which made it seem like I was barefoot, my superpower. The run started out like any other mile and I half walked, half jogged, bored. Then, about halfway, on the backfield, along the chain-link fence, lined by a row of scraggly tamarisk trees, I began to pick up speed. First, I left my fellow lethargic stragglers who could care less about my increasing speed. Then I passed, with effortless ease, the midfield runners who always wanted to win, but who never had the speed. Then I was at the rear of the lead pack, comprised of the kids that took this race seriously and on a rare day might even beat Dindo. I paced them for a few strides and then realized I had more, so I began to weave my way through until I was bearing down on the heels of the one and the only Dindo.

I remember easing up a little when I got close, as though I was breaking some unwritten rule. I can still see him glancing back at me, the whites of his eyes and his smirk, a look of mockery and astonishment, "Wrankle?" Then things got serious. He picked up the pace to claim a few more feet, toying with me, and for a little while, our strides were matched, and I was in his draft. Turning the last corner is when we really picked up our speed, and then the finish line came into view.

The coach and a few others who knew my running history began to take notice and cheer us on. I inched closer, our speed picked up and I could hear the wind rushing through my feathered blond hair. Our fists were pumping, we were elbow to elbow and then without thinking, I kicked it into lizard catching barefoot'n high gear. Dindo and I, together gained speed all the way through the finish line, with our lungs bursting, and to the cheers of the coach and a few onlookers, we collapsed onto the dry, sunburnt grass and we were spent. That day, on the field of Ramon Cree Jr. High school, under the hot desert sun, Dindo and I became friends.


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