Friday, October 10, 2008

The Grand Island, or at least some kind of island ... that's what we expected when we took the Grand Island exit off of I-80 in Nebraska. But there was no island. No water. No forests. We looked around and this is pretty much what we saw ...

So, we're not exactly sure what the Grand Island is. But I was pretty sure there'd be no dipping my feet in the water at our campground. Maybe it's a figurative rather than a literal island ... Maybe Nebraska is the "sea" ... a sea of corn ... and the island is a ... a sprawling outlet mall? Or a glistening urban center with a skyscraper skyline? Or a big rock where they can't get corn to grow? A sea of corn surrounding a grand, but as yet, mysterious island...

Or maybe Nebraska is the island and we were already on it and now all we had to do was slow down long enough to take it all in ...

Except we still didn't really know where we were going. (Note the lack of street signs.) Maybe it doesn't matter which way one turns in a sea of corn. I imagined hearing Joe the Cornhusker cruising up behind us in his 4x4 and commenting, "If you really belonged here you'd already know where you were. Wountcha?" I could taste the dust that followed him.

I experienced something like that the next morning as I went for a run. It was just about sunrise and I was pretty much alone on the dirt road when the dog started barking. Thankfully it didn't chase after me, but the alarm had been sounded.

"Where ya headed to so fast, stranger?" He simply materialized out from the tall dried corn. He also thought I was going fast.

It reminded me a little of junior high P.E. On Fridays coach would send us out for a run along the fence that surrounded the grassy fields where we'd play football and softball. We thought it was the equivalent of running a marathon and bordered on cruel and unusual punishment, but in reality it was probably less than a mile. On a typical Friday he could watch us from the basketball courts to make sure none of us ditched class or cut corners. But on foggy mornings in Sacramento, with visibility near zero, we could've gone anywhere, even nowhere, and coach would never be the wiser. My friends Sambo (short for a much longer last name and not having anything to do with ethnicity or even the once popular coffee shop chain), Oki, Swamp and Chopper and I used to talk some big talk about how we couldn't wait for the First Foggy Friday when we could execute the First Foggy Friday Flight to Freedom and ditch class.

When the dreamed of day finally arrived, it was perfect. It was beyond foggy. We couldn't see the basketball hoops we were standing under let alone across the football field. The entire 7th grade boys P.E. class at Brannan Jr. High, dressed in our white shorts and school T-shirts looked like faded gray shadows cast from formless lumps in the mist an hour past sunset. What Coach couldn't see, Coach would never know ...

The plan was this: We'd start out with everyone, just blending into the grayness of the pack and make the left turn with everyone at the pull-up bars. But when they all made the right turn at the softball diamonds we'd just keep going straight and head for the trees.

We executed stage one perfectly, starting right in the middle of the pack. Indistinguishable lumps of gray blending in with the slow moving blob of 7th grade flesh. We turned left at the pull-up bars and headed confidently for the softball fields. Freedom was less than a hundred yards away ... But at the moment of decision we flinched. I know deep down each of us looked straight ahead at the trees, but our feet made the right turn. We wussed out. Totally. All the big talk and all the big plans were just that much 7th grade air. We missed our chance and now we were running the marathon. No one spoke and the only sounds were the dull thuds of our canvas sneakers on the grass. Until we heard "the voice."

It turned out Coach was smarter than any of us expected and he had his own Foggy Friday routine. Once we made the left turn at the pull-up bars he'd sprint across the football field and park himself somewhere along the fence near the back gate. His voice sounded like it came out from nowhere and had a disembodied quality in the dense fog. "Mornin' boys." That was all he said before he materialized from the mist. His face was stern and his eyes were flickering as he made checkmarks on his clipboard...

And so here I was in Nebraska running along next to the corn field and I was reliving the First Foggy Friday encounter with my 7th grade P.E. teacher except this guy here materialized from the corn. And he thought I was moving fast.

I wondered if I was going to be interrogated. Maybe he thought I was fleeing a crime scene and making a run for it. Maybe he thought I was the infamous Runnin' Shoe Strangler, the notorious corn thief and serial killer known for his sunglasses and trademark blue shorts and whose only calling cards are the ubiquitous Adidas tracks.

I jogged in place, and knowing my sunglasses helped me look cool, I nodded my head toward the little Nebraska forest up ahead ... "Thataway."

"Ain't nothin' there but a clump o' trees."

Perfect. "Thank you very much." The little forest in the middle of the home of Arbor Day was the ideal spot to stash the three bodies I was carrying on my back that I hoped he hadn't noticed yet. I prayed that dog wouldn't come sniffing around.

"Not much around here ..." he paused, "but if you turn right at the second clump o' trees and head west a couple miles you'll come up on Doniphan." Wow, another forest.

A Doniphan school bus had passed me a while ago. "Uh, right. Thanks. Again."

"Great day to be outdoors, ain't it?" he asked.

And so it was.

He followed up with a "Have a nice day and when you're in Doniphan try Sal's Diner for the best Bisquits and Gravy this side of Omaha," kind of wave. The dog had caught up with us and I could almost see it nod in agreement as I continued down the dirt road.

I always think of these things too late, but I should've asked him about the Grand Island.

Instead, I settled into an easy pace and headed to the second clump of trees. At least I'd get to see the road to Doniphan in case we decided to visit Sal's Diner.

There was no sign. If the stranger from the corn hadn't told me about Doniphan I'd have had no idea I was anywhere but in a forest on a Grand Island.

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