Mr. Jones was short, with a large pot belly that appeared to be made of concretized beer. His first name was Percival, and I surmised that his short stature and silly name accounted for his cruelty. He would begin our forty-five minute sessions with a line-up. Standing in rows in the cold autumn wind, we would endure his twice-weekly exhortations to become worthy men.
"Quiet down, you homos in the back row! Quit playing with yourselves and lemme have twenty pushups!" This was followed by four laps on the track surrounding the football field. If one led Mr. Jones to believe that one was not making every effort to break Roger Bannister's world record for the mile, one was invited by Mr. Jones to partake of two extra laps.
I was generally at the rear of the pack. My fifteen pounds of excess weight borne on spindly legs withered by polio touched Mr. Jones's sympathies, causing him to encourage me with, "Come on, Whalebelly, move your fat ass!" I pushed on, determined to study harder, so as to gain a deferment from the draft, and avoid basic training.
By the third lap, I was so far behind that the rest of the pack was beginning to pass me for a second time. Desperately trying not to break stride into a walk, I heard panting and the rapid patter of feet on the cinder path behind me. A short boy with a blond crew-cut tore by me. He was a quiet kid from the technical school, whose name I did not know. I cursed him, nevertheless; his diligence and speed could earn me two extra laps from Mr. Jones. Suddenly, ten yards ahead of me, he dropped on the track. I passed him with satisfaction.
When we had finished our run and regrouped
at the goalposts, the boy still lay motionless on the track. Mr. Jones
and his assistants walked out to him, and one of them dashed back toward
the school building. An ambulance arrived. Word passed quickly that the
boy was dead. Someone said that he had a heart condition. Our voices were
low, fearful, unbelieving. One minute he was running, and the next, he
was dead. The words from a Peggy Lee song ran through my head, "Is that
all there is...?ä
The following week, we lined up once more in our shorts and T-shirts. Once more, Mr. Smith impugned our manhood and directed us toward the cinder track.
"Whaddaya want from us, Percy?" muttered Pete Gigliotti, a round-faced redhead in the third row, "You wanna kill another one?"
Mr. Jones marched deliberately up to Pete,
and struck him full force in the face with his fist, knocking him to the
ground. A trickle of blood ran down Pete's chin from his mouth, No-one
said a word. At some level, we were all aware that Pete had gone too far,
and that Mr. Jones's response was triggered as much by guilt and sadness
as by his usual anger. We jogged off to the track and began our laps.