Back in 1969 when I was 8 years old, our family lived in a tiny apartment in Ann Arbor while my dad was in grad school at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!! or whatever). Those were groovy times. Hippies for days all around the campus, war protests every fifteen minutes, the Summer of Love (really important to an 8-year-old, I’m sure), flower power, and three freaking Monkees posters on my bedroom wall.
I shared “my” bedroom with my 10-year-old brother, Tom. We spent a truly admirable amount of time arguing over just exactly where the invisible line was between his side and mine until our parents put a huge bookcase right in the middle to shut us up. After that, we halfheartedly threw marbles and Matchbox cars over the top of the bookcase trying to hit each other, but it wasn’t nearly as gratifying as our old argument. Once, Tom drilled four small holes through the bookcase and, using a pencil, pushed books on top of me in the middle of the night. That was pretty cool.
At some point during the summer of ’69, I began waking up just before sunrise every morning, something ticking quickly and steadily in the back of my head and then fading just as rapidly as soon as I was fully awake. I ignored it the first few times it woke me, but on the fourth day, I hurled a Matchbox dump truck over the bookcase and bellowed, “What are you doing!?” at my brother. To my surprise, Tom just answered quietly, “Have you been hearing that too?” That kind of freaked me out, so I peaked through one of the holes he had drilled and saw him sitting very still, his head cocked to one side, listening. He wasn’t joking.
“Well what is it?” I asked. And then randomly added, “You’re in trouble,” for effect.
“I think it’s footsteps outside. But really fast footsteps,” Tom replied thoughtfully. “And shut up.”
Tom and I made an agreement to wake the other one up if we heard the footsteps again. And the very next morning, I woke up to Tom standing by the window and saying, “Wake up! Look! Look! What a weirdo.” I stumbled over to the window, and as the footfalls faded, I could barely see the outline of a tall, skinny man running down our street beneath the streetlights. Tom and I sat there quietly for a minute, contemplating the strange vision we had just seen. Then we burst into the snorts and giggles of an 8- and 10-year-old.
In 1969, no one ran. Sure, athletes ran on tracks or in crackpot races for freaks like the Boston Marathon, but nobody, certainly not your normal, everyday person, tore around the neighborhood before sunrise on July mornings. My brother instantly dubbed him “Stick Man” because he was so thin (ingenious, I know), and we rushed to the window every other morning to catch a glimpse of him, practically falling on the floor in helpless laughter as he faded away. The idea of someone just running down the street for no apparent reason at all was almost too hilarious to bear.
As the summer wore on, Stick Man started running later. Sitting on our front steps on the weekends, I’d watch him go by in the mid-morning, a serious expression on his face and his long stick legs moving in smooth strides. Now and then, he’d wave at me, but I’d only continue to watch him warily. My amusement had gradually changed to curiosity. What is wrong with him? I’d wonder. Sometimes I’d see him run by twice a day. That was, of course, particularly troubling. Perhaps he was insane.
One warm September day, I had set up a lemonade stand (yes, I was that dorky). Business had been exceedingly slow, and I was right in the middle of an experiment that involved seeing what happens to ants when you pour lemonade on them, when I heard Stick Man approaching. He dashed by, grinning at my stand, and then he stopped. Stopped! This was understandably terrifying since I’d never seen him do anything but run. Pulling a sweaty five-dollar-bill out of his pocket, he leaned over and said, “Two, please.” I watched him cautiously as I poured the lemonade. Up close and still, he looked like an old man to me. Lines and wrinkles covered his face, and his beard stubble was grey. His eyes were sad and dark. He looked so much younger when he was running.
As he stood there drinking, I summoned up an immense amount of courage and finally blurted out, “Why do you run? I mean, I just wonder. Where do you go every day? Why?” in one big stream of words. Stick Man smiled and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, “Well, I don’t really go anywhere….just one big circle. And I guess I do it because it makes me feel better.”
I stared at Stick Man incredulously. As time had gone on and Stick Man had continued running faithfully, I had begun to assume that, at the very least, he was running somewhere every day for some reason. Running in circles to “feel better” was a tremendously confusing bit of information. For lack of anything better to say, I asked, “Okay. Um. So…do you feel bad?” Stick Man smiled at me again and simply said, “Not when I’m running.” With that, he set down his two empty cups, said, “Keep the change,” and with an oddly sad wink, took off. I watched him run down our street and then turn left onto Huron. Briefly, I wondered how big a circle he ran. Then I went back to pouring lemonade on ants.
Twenty years later, everybody ran. Including me. Sometimes for no particular reason at all, and more often than not in big old pointless circles. To see entire herds of people stampeding through one’s neighborhood at 5 a.m. was no longer an oddity. Running twice a day had become something to brag about, as opposed to being a valid reason for questioning someone’s mental health. Children were about as fascinated with skinny men running down their streets as they were with unrealized gains and stock dividends.
During the summer that year, I was home visiting my parents who had moved to South Carolina after my dad had finished school in 1971. As we sat on the front porch one evening, a tall, thin man ran by. Though I hadn’t thought of him in years, Stick Man popped into my head.
“Do you remember that guy that used to run all the time back in Ann Arbor?” I asked my dad. “You know, back before anyone ran. He was kind of skinny.”
My dad thought a while and shook his head no. But a few seconds later, a look of recognition crossed his face. “Okay, yes. You must be talking about Dr. Weiss.”
“What? You knew him?” I asked. It seemed impossible to me that my dad had actually known Stick Man, a memory that had morphed into a blurry childhood memory myth. It was jarring to think of him as a real person with a name.
“Well, I had him for one class early on. He only lived a few blocks from us, so I’d run into him now and then. So to speak. I do recall seeing him out running on occasion.”
On occasion? I looked at my dad to see if he was being sarcastic. In my memory, Stick Man was running by every other time I looked out the window. But my dad’s face was serious. Then he looked even more serious.
“Poor Weiss. Now I remember. His son was killed in Vietnam in the summer of ’69. It was his only child. Somehow he managed to keep it together and even continued teaching his summer class. I can’t imagine how he did it.”
Much later that night as I was trying to fall asleep, I thought of Stick Man and all those big circles he had run in the summer of 1969 in an attempt to feel better. No watch, old tennis shoes, no goal. Before dawn, late in the afternoon, once in a terrible thunderstorm that ushered in a tornado. Running, and then running more. I hoped that, in its small way, running had helped Stick Man.
As I grew sleepy, I wondered if he had continued to run…if he still ran now as a very old man. And just as I drifted off, I thought I heard something ticking quickly and steadily outside, approaching, approaching, and then, just as quickly, fading into the distance.