A Long Jump Into my 40's with a Walking Stick

A Long Jump Into my 40's with a Walking Stick
June 1st, 1992 is a date that will live with me in infamy. That is the day I turned the big 4-0, and the day when I offered my son some pointers for his upcoming competition in the school’s track and field day. Notice, I did not say, “he asked me for some help.” Instead I offered, then begged, then coerced, and finally demanded that we go into the garage where he could pick up some valuable tips to better his distance in the standing long jump.

As a former track and field guy in high school, and previous head track coach, I thought, “who would be better to offer some suggestions to my son?” As expected, the nine year old didn’t share my feelings on the matter. Absolutely, he wanted nothing to do with me or my coaching until….

Without stretching or warming up, I took that first (and last) demonstrative jump. I vividly recall a snapping sound in the hamstring area of my upper left leg. Falling to the concrete floor, with tears in my eyes, I rolled over a few times because I could not get back on my feet. Something was awry, and I let it be known with a few choice words. A dangling sensation, as if some tissue was no longer attached to my bones, brought further worry as I struggled to get back up. When I finally made it to a half-standing position, I immediately hobbled away from my son (who was roaring with laughter), so he wouldn’t hit me with a stick. Why did I worry about something so absurd, you ask? Because…..

Years earlier while my son and I walked in the field behind our house, I fell into a groundhog hole, and twisted my ankle badly. As I sat in the field, my son, about four years old at the time, stood beside me with a look of concern upon his face.

In pain, but more so out of anger and frustration, I started to slap at the ankle a few times with my hand because I felt so stupid not to have noticed that hole. While agonizing on the ground, I contemplated how I was going to make it home. Then my anger quickly gave way to shock.

Please pause and try to visualize what is about to follow. Most of us have experienced times where a hundred different thoughts enter our heads, in a matter of seconds. Such was the case here. My son decided to help his dad. How??? By swinging his walking stick repeatedly and viciously at my swollen ankle. The stick was about 4 feet long and an inch or so in diameter. His little league coach would have been proud of his aim. He didn’t miss!

And the look on his face was indescribable. He was so intent on hitting that ankle with that stick – it was scary!

Now, most of us would have put a stop to this stick flogging without hesitation. But, remember – I was not only astounded, alarmed and speechless - but also physically and mentally paralyzed. Besides, I was afraid to put my hands in the path of his swings.

I took a deep breath and with all the energy I could muster, I screamed, “What are you doing?” The scene would have been worth fifteen grand if videotaped for “FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS” but we had no camera. The look on my face must have frightened my son. Because….

With ear damaging decibels, he replied, “I’m just trying to help!” Apparently, somewhere within the mutual chaos and my pain, my son somehow got the notion that if I was slapping my ankle with my hand, he could make matters much better by using the walking stick. Thus, the recurring nightmare of my son beating his father with a stick lingered with me forever. So….

This time, I was taking no chances. I got up from the garage floor and as far away from him as possible. With my back to the garage wall, he eloquently offered, “How about showing me another jump, Dad?” He was actually enjoying this.

Never finding myself at a loss for words, I hit him with a quick retort. “Sure, as long as you don’t hit me with a walking stick.”

Still in pain, I noticed our dialogue brought smiles to our faces followed by laughter. He immediately knew what I was referring to because that stick-story had been brought up in our household a couple thousand times.

But my laughter was short-lived. As I dusted myself off and limped back into the house, I realized how old I felt. And feeling this way on my fortieth birthday did not help relieve the aches at all. So….

I used crutches for about a week or so. And I refused to open any cards or gifts that I received for my birthday that year. I was truly down and out. Every time I would think about turning forty, I would get depressed. No other birthday before, or after, has affected me that way. And the mood stuck with me for quite some time. Despite pleas from the family, I found it difficult to shake the mood. And I swore that if anyone ever planned a surprise birthday party for me I would do an about-face and storm out of the gathering immediately. I was miserable for most of that summer.

Finally, in late August, my wife opened the cards and gifts (from June 1st) and set them out on the kitchen table for me to see. She was forced to open them because many of the gifts were shirts and ties bought for me to wear for the start of the new school year. Reluctantly, I accepted the gifts, and used them that fall while teaching. I acknowledged the well-wishers with “thank you” cards, but never explained the unusual length of time it took for me to respond to those relatives and friends.

Today, I realize that turning forty was no big deal. After surviving two major heart surgeries and numerous complications, I feel fortunate just to be here, and I am thankful for each new birthday that comes my way.

Most of us learn to accept our birthdays differently as we age. Hopefully we will all gain some wisdom and insight into our own mortality with each passing year. The difference with me however, is that I made a long jump, head-first into a birthday, with the added fear of being beaten by my son lingering in the back of my mind—not necessarily a normal way of celebrating such an occasion.

My tenure as a track coach is long gone. My era as a long jumper is gone too. Thank God for my son’s sake – my days of instructing him are gone also. Together he and I still hunt and walk in the fields when we can, but I always keep one eye on him just in case he gets the urge to help me out with his walking stick.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA