from A Squandered Life / Chomay '65

....I followed like a deep sea diver with my own personal atmosphere and leaden boots.

High school Physical Education (PE in the UK, but referred to by us simply as “gym”) was a whole order above anything we'd experienced in elementary school. Everything seemed so “professional”. There wasn't just a single PE teacher; there were staff and a "department"!

The head of department was the legendary Mr Chomay. Most of us had heard of him through elder siblings. In the flesh he was a remarkably magnetic man. When he looked at you, you were immediately in full lock on and compelled, almost hypnotically, to listen to every word he had to say. When he didn't look at you, you felt you were missing out on something. If you misbehaved in any way he would walk up to you, fix you with his x-ray vision, and say, “Take off your shoe.” As you bent down to take off your shoe, he would go off and take care of some business elsewhere. In the meantime, you just stood there, ridiculously holding one shoe in your hand, awaiting your fate.

He would eventually return, hold out his hand for your shoe, and wait for you to bend over (everybody knew the form). “Bend your knees,” he would say, apparently for health & safety reasons, then haul back and give you such a full on single swipe that your arse would almost ring. This would be followed by a moment of numbness, and then such a sting that your eyes would water and you wouldn't know what to do with yourself. He'd hand you back your shoe and then carry on without so much as a backward glance. Re-fitting the shoe was always a problem because bending over again or sitting down was simply not possible for the next few minutes. It was his cold blooded matter of factness which made the whole thing so chillingly unrepeatable. Nobody ever tempted fate to act like a cool rebel with Chomay. Even the bad guys avoided recidivism.

Very early on Chomay made it clear that we were expected to source and wear “athletic supports”. These we knew as “jock straps” and we were expected to pull one of the stretchy straps out from under our shorts and let them snap back to prove that we were actually wearing one. We were given a couple of weeks grace, but not being able to “snap” after the deadline was punishable by shoe.

I needed the impetus of the shoe to force me into action. I couldn't bring myself to discuss such a thing with my parents or anyone else. I didn't even know what sort of shop might have them. I went into our local hardware store which also doubled as a limited sporting goods outlet. After wandering hopelessly around the hockey sticks and the baseball gloves looking for the damn things, I had to drum up the courage to speak to the wiry little man who ran the shop. “Athletic support?” he queried, “You mean like for a bicycle?” As I flushed red before him the penny finally dropped. He managed to control his face and said, “Oh, I think you need the drug store across the street.” A drug store? Who knew flipping drug stores would harbour athletic devices of any kind, but sure enough, I found them and, after further but lesser mortifications, saved myself from the shoe.

The last sport of the school year was athletics, at which I was largely hopeless, but I went for the long distance running because it was something to do and my friend Steve was doing it and clearly enjoying it. Besides, as the Canadian spring bends the will of winter the earth begins to surrender pungency and flowing water and the sun begins to heat the shoulders. As the grip of the ice and snow relents it's not just the plants that discover new vigour. On the first few runs the roads felt positively elastic as our legs celebrated their freedom from oppressive vestments and enforced central heating.

An added incentive was the direct involvement of Chomay. I'd had occasional contact with him in the course of PE sessions but he was never the coach in any of my other after school activities. He used to run with us in the early days of the season; always starting well to the rear. “Come on boys,” he'd say as he caught up to us one by one. Later on he used to tell us our routes and then send us on our ways. It would be at about this time that the allure of the activity would begin to lose its shine. The novelty of spring would become commonplace and the absence of Chomay on the runs made them much drearier. The runs themselves became longer and longer and we would be set personal targets based on the previous days times. We were caught in an inexorable vice of infinite improvement. Some of us used to lag to keep our times down in the interests of making the following day less onerous, but Chomay could tell (I never saw them but I suspect he or his staff may have been driving around spying on us) and have quiet words in our ears. We must have become quite good because we began to win a few local tournaments, but he kept on at us.

Personally, I found that I did much better in the actual “cross country” runs. I found the tedium of running on paved surfaces much tougher to deal with. It seemed that the earlier meets were mostly cross country but that as the season progressed and the “seriousness” of the competitions increased, we ran more and more on those damned paved roads. We used to try to break up the tedium by occasionally splashing or trying to trip each other or by running down the central reservation on the dual carriageway. This had the added benefit of allowing us to yank our arms in the air to encourage the passing truck drivers to BAAARP at us in return.

By this time, although I didn't identify with the “jock” community at all, I think I'd become more or less identified as a “jock” at the school, with all the clannish implications one might expect. Like every school in North America, there were other clans - the achievers, the socialites, the nerds, and of course, the bad guys. The bad guys could be particularly scathing about isolated jocks engaged in cross country running through the town's streets as they relaxed smoking illicit fags in the lay bys along the running routes. They'd inevitably call out insults and even throw things at our backs once we were safely past.

One big guy and his little fat loud-mouthed buddy did this to me one afternoon, but they hadn't bargained for my return route being back along the same road. So, ten minutes or so later, I was running back down the road towards them. As they clocked me I could see a flicker of anxiety cross their faces as they stood aside for me to pass. I got up to them and, without slowing, dropped a shoulder and bundled them into the ditch at the side of the road, and kept running. I could hear them cursing and fumbling but carried on without looking back. I knew they couldn't catch me even if they felt so inclined. But the next day, to their credit really, they appeared in the heart of jock territory, the team locker room, to confront me with a bundle of broken records. They were alleging that these had been broken when they tumbled into the ditch and they wanted recompense. I said, “No,” and they said, wait for it, “Okay, we'll tell the principal.” And they fucking did.

The last resort of the bully is always to revert to higher authority. A couple of days later I was summoned to the office of the principal and told by him that he felt I was morally obliged to pay for the damn records. I refused and was told to go. I awaited the consequences for several days, then several weeks, then realised, for once, there weren't going to be any.

But the grand finale of every year was the massive Greater Montreal meet when all the schools in the sub-region used to converge on Mount Royal, the beautiful and expansive park in the middle of the city at its highest point. You could usually see Mount Royal and its splendourous cathedral from wherever you were in the vicinity. It took on even more mystical proportions as our season built up to the pain and exhaustion we knew we would inescapably find up there. Chomay would even arrange for a couple of familiarisation runs beforehand so we knew what to expect.

For me, its saving grace was the mix of cross country with road, but what we didn't have in the neighbourhood of our school training area was hills so this is where we would really bust our hearts. Chomay used to homilise us at the end of Mount Royal familiarisation sessions. “Boys,” he would say, “Where's the best place to overtake your opponents?” Gasping for breath and bent with hands on wobbly knees, someone would mutter, “Don't know Coach.” “What's the part of the course you hate the most?” he would persist. “The damn hills,” we would all explete. “Yes,” he would say, looking round at each of us in turn, “and that's the best place to overtake your opponents.”

In my senior year I had a touch of flu on the big day. I was sneezing and snotting all over the bus on the way into the city, and I was seething with a very bitter anger that I should be suffering this on the big day towards which we'd been building for the past couple of months. When we'd got off the bus at the other end, Chomay came over and peered at me through my rheumy eyes. “You sure you want to do this?” I nearly hit him, but instead stalked off to the starting area where, for reasons of snot and anger, my team mates were avoiding me.

At the start everybody bounded off like gazelles and I followed like a deep sea diver with my own personal atmosphere and leaden boots. Fuelled more by anger and peevishness I tramped round that cursed course, up and down slopes, over broken ground and paved paths, occasionally passing the more unfortunate but mostly being passed. I came out of a wooded section and was greeted by a killer stretch of wide gravelled road.

I knew this section well. It had just enough incline to sap you of the will to live as you saw it gently and tauntingly climbing to a curve round to the left, especially as you knew that led into yet another gentle taunting climb to yet another curve round to the left at the distant apex. As I rounded that first curve I began to realise how stupid all this was. I wondered what I was killing myself for and began to look for a discrete place to stop and disappear. In my head I was rehearsing what I would say to Chomay and my pals and got into such a funk of internal dialogue that by the time I looked up again I was already at the second curve.

Then the most amazing thing happened. As I stepped round that curve I was hit full in the face by a gentle breeze which the mountain had been hiding from me. The breeze blew away my funk and cleared my befuddled fluey head and I suddenly felt free of pain and exhaustion, just as if I was starting the whole damn race over again but in a fit and proper state. My feet took off and I found myself targeting little gaggles of runners up ahead, determining to pass them by some landmark further ahead again. Heeding Chomay's homily, I looked for slopes upon which to pass more of the buggers. My legs churned away and my feet flew as if they belonged to somebody else altogether. I guessed that this must be the “second wind” about which I'd heard proper athletes talking from time to time. I'd never experienced it before and haven't (to date) since, but it carried me along like a curling surfer's wave and I even found myself sprinting down the last leg, around one of the ponds and into the home stretch.

I discovered I came 16th out of maybe 400. Although I don't think we won, Steve and some of our guys had done even better. But strangely, as soon as I'd stopped running, all the agonies and symptoms I'd been dealing with before the second wind arrived came straight back and hit me like a wall. I was bent over, hands on knees, spewing and snotting when Chomay came over and quietly put his hand on my back. He held it there for a moment as I spewed, then said, “Good run Martin,” and walked away.

Apparently he mentioned me in despatches because when I got home I was greeted by my dad with perhaps the most gob-smacked expression I'd ever seen on his face. “The principal rang,” he said. I was sitting on the steps and busied myself changing my shoes, doing a quick inventory of all the bad things I might have done recently, but I couldn't think of any serious enough to merit an unheard of call from the principal. “He told me that the PE department had been very impressed by your efforts today,” he said. I looked up at him. He looked at me. “He said that they wanted me to know.” We looked at each other for a further second or so. "Oh,” I said, and we carried on with our respective lives.

Many many many years later I once went to a high school reunion. This was prompted by the internet and some of its early attempts at social networking. I became curious about people I hadn't seen or heard of since I was seventeen, and, as the event coincided with the week of a landmark birthday party for my mum, I decided to go along.

The event was a complex mix of emotions and conflicting memories, but a shining high point occurred for me when I turned around and saw Chomay. Perhaps smaller but instantly recognisable, he was still fit and wirey and had a strange glowing aura about him. A load of the jocks of more or less my generation immediately converged upon him. We stood around him as a kind of quiet reverence descended upon us in the midst of the crowded chaotic assembly room and he looked up at us smiling and shaking our hands. He was suffused with a kind of light I would normally have associated with a religious experience. As he turned to me, shook my hand in a firm unflinching grip, and gazed up into my eyes I was transported back to my mumbling bumbling teenage self and would, I am certain, have unhesitatingly complied if he had said “Take off you shoe.”


© 2012 Deacon Martin

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