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Memories are Made of This: Dream, Disappointment, Deliverance

September 7, 2016
Lockerbie NYU

Lockerbie at NYU in 1955

Here is the fourth installment of recollections from D. Bruce Lockerbie. Read his first three herehere, and here.

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I’m aware that, over the six decades since I first arrived at The Stony Brook School, faulty versions of my athletic exploits have seeped into the lore of The Brook.  This is an attempt to amend the fiction with truth from 60 years ago, then 20 years, then today.  I take as my lead the famous words attributed to the Duke of Wellington: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”  I hope the same claim may be made by those of you who competed on Fitch Field, on the MWG track, or in Swanson Gym or Carson Auditorium or even the old wrestling venue.

Two years before coming to Stony Brook, I began to experience the kind of success in the sport of track that makes an athlete dream of the ultimate goal, an Olympic medal.  During 1955, I’d won two Penn Relays watches, I defeated three Olympians to win the Metropolitan AAU 800 meters championship, and I had a bronze medal from the NCAA cross country championship.  Success continued into 1956, when I met the standard to be named to the Canadian Olympic team.

I’d also gained the attention and encouragement of my boyhood idol, Gil Dodds, holder of the world’s record for the indoor mile (4:05.3), set in Madison Square Garden in 1948, and one of the few prominent believing Christians of that era (before it became popular and politically advantageous to testify as a “born-again Christian”).  But even as the best miler in the world, Gil Dodds had missed qualifying for the 1948 renewal of the Olympic Games when he contracted the mumps and could not run to his level of ability.  Eight years later, we met for the first time at a meet in Cleveland where, as coach of the Wheaton College team, Dodds had several athletes competing.  After I’d won a major race, he asked what I planned to do upon graduating from New York University, and—in effect—offered me a job as his assistant coach at Wheaton College.

With these triumphs and trophies in hand, I began to fantasize about the Olympic 800 meters final race, to be run in Melbourne, Australia, in November 1956.  Whether riding the subway from home to the NYU campus or in the middle of a classroom lecture or ostensibly reading a textbook, I found myself in an almost constant state of reverie.  The illusion was always precisely the same: I was on the starting line for the Olympic final with the best middle distance runners.  I was certain that the seven other men in the race would include several whom I had faced over the years—and I was sure I too would be among them, in part because God would reward my faith.  All I had to do was show up!

The starting pistol would fire, and we were off-and-running.  In that repeating reverie, playing over and over again in my imagination, the race always proceeded to the end of the final turn.  I could predict who would be leading, as he always did, with the rest of us in close pursuit.  The gold medalist would be the runner who powered through the final 100 meters, leaving the others in his wake.  Then my fantasy always faded just as that homestretch run began.

But, as the saying goes, “a funny thing happened on the way to Melbourne . . .” Like Gil Dodds, I too became ill just at the time of the qualifying race; in my case, from a smallpox vaccination forced upon me by circumstances involving both the Wheaton College Graduate School of Theology, where I was to enroll while also teaching English and assisting Dodds in coaching, and the local Brooklyn draft board.  I accepted the needle in my left arm, not anticipating the fever and ugly blister that weakened me.  So my dream was dashed, and my anger against bureaucrats landed before the Mercy Seat in rage against the God who had denied my hopes.

Two weeks later, I was on the campus of Wheaton College, teaching, coaching, and conducting my own studies—about as far from a state of grace as is possible for a disappointed athlete to be.  I remember one of the low points of that fall: I made an appearance at a church a few days after my friend Tom Courtney from Fordham had already won the Olympic gold medal in the 800.  For some reason, the clueless pastor—in a moment of spontaneity and uninformed speech—called on me to pray aloud, announcing his choice by saying, “He’s going to run in the Olympics!”  I mumbled something insincere and immediately left the church without correcting the pastor’s factual and hurtful error.

Instead, I wallowed in my disappointment and poured my rage into training throughout the fall, setting records in cross country that exceeded any previous accomplishment in that phase of the running sports.  Although I was officially representing the New York Athletic Club, I came under the welcome courtesy of Ted Haydon, coach of the University of Chicago Track Club, who offered me both training and competitive opportunities.  By the end of the 1957 indoor season, when the 1956 Olympians had returned, I was regularly defeating them, winning races that led to a world-ranking and times just a step or two behind the world’s record.

Then came Dr. Frank E. Gaebelein’s offer of employment at The Stony Brook School and the beginning of my long and blessed relationship with Marvin W. Goldberg (see the next issue of this memoir).  He promoted my continued running in major competition, including distant meets that called me away from my duties as resident master in Hegeman Hall.   My career in world-class track continued through 1963, by which time I had become deeply involved with coaching Stony Brook track-and-field athletes, although after a significant birthday, I resumed training and competing in senior events, until a heart attack in 1982 reduced me to playing left-handed golf!

Still, I held on to my disappointment and resentment for forty years, until the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  Don Lockerbie had a contract with the organizing committee to provide multiple services.  He invited his brother Kevin and me to work with him at various venues.  On the first day of competition, the race walkers were scheduled to begin their event on the stadium track, before moving outside to a neighboring course bordering the stadium, then like the marathon runners, back into the stadium for a final lap.  Those of us on Don’s team arrived by 4:00 a.m. to prepare for the start at 7:00 a.m., before Atlanta’s summer heat became unbearable.  Sometime just before sunrise, I was summoned by a call on my mobile phone to our trailer headquarters on the other side of the Olympic stadium.  To comply, I had three choices of a route to follow: I could go left or right around the massive structure, or I could use my multiple credentials and passes to go through a tunnel and across the stadium at ground level to the trailer on the far side.  I chose the direct route through the stadium.

As I emerged from the dark tunnel, the only illumination inside the stadium was the Olympic flame burning in the pre-dawn gloom.  I looked around, realizing that I was the only human being within those confines; I also saw that I was positioned at the head of the homestretch—just where my dream of forty years earlier had faded—with the finish line 100 meters away.  I looked again and, seeing no one to interfere, moved to the inside lane and shuffled my way in a final drive to the finish.  When I reached that line, I dipped my shoulders and raised my arms to signal my victory.

And it was a victory!  For in that instant, every trace of regret, anger, and disappointment I had carried with me for forty years—like the heedless “sin that so easily besets us”—was eradicated, replaced by a palpable deliverance and an infilling of God’s grace.

I’ve never told this story to an audience at The Stony Brook School.  I tell it here to confess what the Psalmist-King described as “presumptuous sin” in a younger man and still prevalent at age 81, the sin of presuming to know more and better than God himself and thereafter demanding that God show his power exclusively by fulfilling my heart’s desire rather than by working his divine will through my life.

I do so also because here-and-now I am certain that some athletes (including current Stony Brook athletes) are like me at age 21, treating my professed faith in Almighty God as a good-luck charm.  Over all these years, I am more aware than ever before of the heresy being preached by toothy and hair-styled TV evangelists, guaranteeing God’s blessing on the gullible if only they will “sow the seed” (by which the preacher generally means, “Send a generous donation”).  These hucksters give very little place to God’s more typical formula for spiritual growth, including the common need for a dose of suffering as an important element in achieving a mature spiritual life.

Finally, I do so now—sixty years, forty years, or twenty years after my personal encounter with grace—to affirm the reality that God’s merciful grace is ever-present, however hidden or however long it takes to manifest itself to someone as resistant to grace as I have been.

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Seal

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 22, 2016 2:39 PM

    Thanks, Bruce, for having the humility and honor to share this touching bit of memoir — Nick Marco, SB Class of 1961.

    Like

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