The Assignment by Jim Morud

The Assignment

Chapter 5

By Jim Morud

The Willamette River flows swift and green through Eugene. On that cloudless summer afternoon hot, listless air hovered above the river channel, casting up a sweet scent of dried bed grass, and the river ran raw and free like the shirtless teenaged boys drifting downstream, twirling on wobbly inner tubes, their laughter and their coarse chatter echoing off the rolling water. Patches of cooler air pocketed inside the tree tunnels that bend over the Riverbank Trail.

For six miles or more, Ken strode strongly along the rushing river, his pounding footsteps alerting clusters of joggers ahead of him to scatter when he came upon their heals. Bicyclists were also out in force that day, charging at him from behind and keeping him constantly distracted. He felt agitated. He was trying to think and pray. But with all the noise and shuffle going on around him, his running conversation with God wen at by the wayside. When he spotted the span of Knickerbocker Footbridge rising up ahead he decided to cross over it to get out of the traffic. On the other side of the river, he slowed to a stop at Pre’s Trail.

Ken couldn’t remember the last time he had set foot there. It is a soft and easy trail, but running there had always made him feel uneasy. And now he was really thirsty. Pre’s Trail doesn’t offer much shade and it would be a long dry run in the sun until he got to a drinking fountain. But at least he was alone where he could pick up his talk with God. Pre’s Trail is hallowed ground in Eugene – named for Oregon’s legendary and nearly-sainted long-distance running star, Steve Prefontaine. It also happened to be the course where Ken had won a lot of high school cross country races. He had run some of his best races there, but strangely, he had also run some of his worst. For some reason he had always felt sluggish running on Pre’s Trail. His legs had no lift, like hydraulics running low on fluid. He struggled to find his pace. He ran tentatively, in anxious bursts, like a kid caught trespassing and fleeing for cover. He remembered running in races when his only goal was to get off the course as fast as he could, which actually amounted to his winning the races. But even now, as then, he had a nagging feeling that he hadn’t yet earned the right to run on that stretch of holy ground.

Ken started off in a trot. As he approached a fork in the trail, one way leading to a canal on the east side of the park and the other path going along the river, that old hesitant feeling welled up inside of him. He halted and looked both ways, undecided about which way to run.

“Why does it matter?” he asked himself under his breath. “This is stupid. Just go.”

Leaning right to run toward the canal, he suddenly stopped himself and leaned left, turning instead up the path beside the river. He picked up his pace.

“No, this isn’t the right way!” he scolded himself, shaking his head and stopping again. Sweat slid from his brow and stung his eyes. “Doggone it!” he shouted angrily. “Why can’t I get this right?” He swerved around and looked back down the trail, as if he sensed that the answer lay somewhere behind him. With the sound of the river rushing nearby, Ken stood still, hot and sweating and frozen in the moment.

“Why can’t I get this right?” he pleaded. He wasn’t looking backward. He was looking upward. He wasn’t asking himself. He was asking God.

“Why?” he shouted. “I did what You wanted me to do! I gave up everything to follow You! So why do I keep running down the wrong trail?”

Along the Riverbank Trail Ken had been mentally rerunning bits of the conversation he had had with Barb while driving home from Elk Creek. He could still feel the sharp blade of her distress piercing his heart, puncturing the enthusiasm he had felt earlier in the day when he was preaching. Now he felt flat. He had no more lift in his legs. So he just stood there under the hot sun, dripping sweat.

A pack of joggers slipped past him. Ken looked down, hoping they wouldn’t notice that his sweat was now mingling with tears.

“I’ve been on this trail too long,” he whispered, “and I still don’t know which way to go. I don’t know which way, Lord. I just don’t know.”

Not knowing normally didn’t matter much to Ken. He was used to winging his way through life, thinking on his feet as he went. But standing in that spot on that day seemed to matter like nothing else. And he felt stuck right where he was standing.

He was standing knee-high in dry grass beside a slow rise in the trail. A stand of scraggly cottonwood trees tilted over the river about fifty feet away. One tree stood out among the rest. It was oddly shaped like a figure four – one of its branches jutting straight out about ten feet from the trunk and then reaching skyward at a sharp right angle, like a car driver arm-signaling to make a right turn. As Ken’s eyes locked on that tree a stab of anguish jarred him.

“It was here!” he gasped, trembling. “I was standing right here!”

Ken’s gaze turned back down the trail and, all at once, back in time. He was a boy, maybe ten years old. He saw his dad racing toward him on the trail, filled with rage. His dad’s stiff, sweaty figure bent down to face-level with him, his eyes bulging with wrath. “You little idiot!” he screamed. “If you can’t get it right, you can’t run with me!”

The echo of those words hit Ken like a shockwave. He crumpled to the ground, kneeling on one knee. “But dad,” he remembered protesting, “you told me to run to the water, and there is water in both ways! I didn’t know which way to go.”

“Never mind!” his father exploded. “I told you if you can’t keep up, you can’t run with me!”

“But you were running too fast, dad!” he remembered crying. “You always run too fast for me here. I tried, but I couldn’t keep up.”

“Then you don’t belong on this course!” his father blurted. “It’s no place for bawl-babies.”

Ken sat sobbing in the tall grass, his emotional memory from that distant day uncorked and gushing again. He held his face in his hands, heaving in pain until all he could do was gag.

Two lady joggers ran by him. One paused and asked if he were all right. Without looking up, Ken nodded and waved her off. This caused him concern that other Good Samaritans might stop and offer to help him. If he looked as shabby as he felt, he reasoned, somebody was sure to call an ambulance on him. He picked himself up and wavered on his feet for a few seconds. His eyes were blurry. He focused on the horizon. In the distance, he noticed an easily-identifiable brawny figure lumbering toward him on the trail.

“Oh, no!” he muttered. “Not Chad!”

Of all people, Chad was the last person Ken wanted to see in a moment like this. His commanding presence was good in a business crisis, but Chad was like a one-man wrecking crew when a personal crisis came up. He had no tact. He knew no boundaries. Your business was his business and he was quick to dispense his unsolicited advice.

Ken darted toward the clump of trees by the river. He scurried behind a patch of underbrush and ducked low. Teetering on a loose river rock, he tried to balance himself but he fell on his rear. He rolled over and lay flat on his belly with his face planted between the rocks. He heard branches and leaves rustling and footsteps approaching and he held his breath.

“Ken, where are you?” Chad called.

Busted! Ken scrambled to his feet just as Chad came upon him. Chad stood staring at him, and Ken had the unmistakable look of a crook caught in the act.

“What the monkey-do are you doing here?” Chad bellowed.

Ken couldn’t think of an answer. He just looked at Chad like a kitten trying to stare down a pit bull.

“You look pathetic!” Chad offered. “Either you’ve got a terminal allergy, or you’ve been crying yourself sick. Your eyes are as red and puffy as over-ripe tomatoes. What’s the matter with you?”

Ken still couldn’t answer. He stared back at Chad, fearing his next volley of questions like a punch in the face. Smelling blood, Chad pulled his punch.

“Listen, buddy,” he said softy, “I’ll give you some cheap advice. Next time you’re trying to avoid being seen, don’t do it dressed in glow-green.”

Ken nodded rigidly. He always felt as if he needed to stand at attention when Chad spoke to him.

“And another thing,” Chad added. “I could tell it was you on the trail as soon as you saw it was me. We do go back a ways, you know. And I know how you roll as well as you know how I roll. I know your gait. And I’ve also seen you running in that hideous green get-up more times than I care to remember. I’m not going to say you look good in it, but you certainly are recognizable.”

Ken glanced down at his running gear. He cracked a slight smile.

“Well, looks like you need some alone-time,” Chad said, turning to go. “Maybe I’ll catch you in a finer moment next time.” Grabbing a branch to push his way out of the bushes, he paused and chuckled. “Hey, I’m not trying to play God with you, but remember, if I can see you running for cover in that bright green suit of yours, so can God.”

Chad pushed past the branch he was holding and let it swish behind him.

Ken watched him go for just a second, and then he bolted after him. “Just a minute, Chad!” he shouted. “I’m sorry I hid from you. But as you can see, I’m a real mess right now.”

“Okay,” he said, turning around in his tracks. “If you want to talk, I’ll listen.”

“To be honest, I don’t know what to say.” Ken replied. “All I know is I’m coming unglued. I feel like my whole life is splitting apart at the seams.”
Chad pulled a big plastic squeeze bottle from his belly pouch and handed it to Ken. “You look thirsty,” he said. “Want a drink?”

Ken pulled the cap and poured water into his mouth until it overflowed and trickled down his chin. The two men sat on a pair of large water-worn rocks beside the river. Ken took a few moments to collect his thoughts. “I’ve always hated running on Pre’s Trail,” he announced.

Chad looked at him with big, dumb cow-eyes. “So if you hate running here, then why are you running here?”

“Well, I didn’t intend to,” Ken explained. “I sort of got here by default.”

Chad still had a cow-eye stare.

“Let me back up a little,” Ken continued. “When I was a kid I used to run with my dad. He had run on the Oregon track team and he wanted to make a runner out of me. I looked up to him and so I wanted to be just like him. I felt proud running down the street beside my dad. I was the fastest kid in school and I kept getting faster, so he took me on longer runs on the trails around town. Then we started running Pre’s Trail, and that’s where he turned into a raving maniac.”

Chad’s eyes brightened. “You mean like Jekyll and Hyde?”

“Yes, he was a totally different animal on Pre’s Trail,” Ken replied. “As soon as we hit the trail, he’d take off like a bat out of Hades. I couldn’t keep up with him, and then he’d get mad at me for lagging behind.”

“So were you reliving one of those maniacal moments today on the trail?” Chad probed.

“I can show you the exact spot where I was standing when he lit into me twenty-some years ago,” Ken said, tossing a smooth, flat rock into the river. “It triggered something deep inside of me, and that’s when I lost it.”

“Friendly fire,” Chad stated matter-of-factly. “You got hit by friendly fire.”

“What?” Ken asked, puzzled.

“He wasn’t aiming at you,” Chad ventured. “Something about that trail set him off and caused his aim to go way off too. You just got caught in the crossfire.”

“In high school I won a lot of races on Pre’s Trail, but I never felt fast enough,” Ken recalled.

“Whose voice were you listening to?” Chad asked.

Ken picked up a bigger rock and heaved it into the current. “What do mean?”

“Demands, curses, pronouncements!” Chad insisted. “You can hear them howling in your head. They all have a voice. The question is whose voice?”

“You mean, whose voice was I hearing on the trail?” Ken asked.

“Somebody was shouting at you while you were running out there and apparently you were listening,” Chad submitted. “So what were they saying?”

“That I didn’t belong on Pre’s Trail,” Ken answered in a whisper.

“Who told you that?” Chad pried.

“My dad.” Ken plunged another rock into the water.

Chad wasn’t done yet. “When did he tell you that?”

“When he lit me up for getting lost on the trail,” Ken replied.

“So you bought that message, right?” Chad’s bushy red eyebrows lifted with that detection.

Ken nodded.

Chad went on. “Friendly fire is the worst kind of attack because you don’t expect it and you can’t defend against it.”

Chad plunked a fist-sized rock into the river. He leaned forward and hung his head. Talking downward at the rocks and the sand, he said, “I’ve been there, Ken. In another battle in another time and in another place, I’ve been through it. Different war, but same difference.”

Both men sat side-by-side on their rocks staring down at the riverbed, the rumbling rapids filling their silence. Ken sensed Chad stewing over what he was about to tell him. He felt him shaking, but he didn’t look over at him. He just waited for Chad to speak when he was ready.

“We got into some hellacious battles in the Gulf,” Chad started, his voice cracking. His jowls began to tremble. He was losing his stolidity. Clearing his throat, Chad’s face hardened and his voice poured out bottled-up anger. “The worst of it wasn’t what the enemy did to us. We basically ran right over them. It was those spankin’ fly-boys who couldn’t shoot straight! They were supposed to provide our cover, but they nearly wiped us out! During one offensive, eleven Marines in a light armored vehicle were annihilated by a misguided missile that our boys had launched from an A-10. I wasn’t on the spot, but I was nearby when it happened and I saw the carnage.”

By the agony in Chad’s eyes Ken knew that he could still see that carnage, just as Ken could still hear his father screaming at him.

“The hell of it is, it kills your trust, and trust is crucial in war!” Chad demanded. “You can’t fire back at your own people. All you can do is call ‘em off, hunker down and take your hits. It’s the most helpless feeling in the world.”

Chad looked at Ken and Ken nodded his understanding. “Don’t be ashamed of crying, Ken. I cried like a girl that day and a bunch of big, bad Marines cried with me. Sometimes I still cry and I’m glad I still can. Crying reminds me that I really loved those guys who died over there. I never want to forget them, so I cry proudly for them.”

Chad stood up heavily and Ken followed. Eyeing Ken’s outfit, his face broke into a smirk. “You look like a florescent leprechaun.” He chuckled at his own joke and then changed his tone to serious. “But let me tell you something else. I’ve fought beside some good men, and you’re one of the best men I know. So here’s some more of my cheap advice: You always did belong on that trail, Ken. Don’t let friendly fire take you out of the battle.”

Contact Jim Morud with any questions or comments
The Assignment HTML
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

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