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Archive for March, 2008

I was pretty pleased with myself for handling my driving duties so well.  It was that sort of pleasure that appears after doing something difficult when you know you don’t have to do it again.  But now, here I am, driving through Usulutan again, this time with three of the girls on the trip in the back of the truck (nightmare visions of hitting a pothole, bouncing them out on the roads of Central American, losing my job), following a cattle truck through the early morning streets, hoping I don’t get lost.  Finally, half an hour or so on the other side of the city, the cattle truck turned left onto a dirt driveway and I followed.  Francisco stuck his arm out and signaled me to park, so I squeezed into a space and we all piled out of the truck and into a Salvadoran livestock market.

The day before, as we were reclining on hammocks after another day of digging, Sister came up to me with an idea.  Francisco was going to be taking a friend’s young bull to the livestock market, and maybe we could go along.  Maybe we could use some of the donation funds our delegation had brought down to buy a cow or a bull, have the neighboring community raise it, and then auction it off in November.  Maybe I would drive our cattle-buying crew and help with the deal.

I liked the idea a lot, and I immediately polled everyone in the delegation:  Should we pull out some of our donation money and use it for this?  They were all in favor, and some even kicked in some more money.  Get a good one, they told me.

So here I was, in the Central American version of a county fair.  It lacked all of the extra crap that makes US county fairs so deeply weird.  No carnival rides.  No carnival side show freaks.  No judging the best tomatoes.  No Miss Usulutan 2008 beauty contests.  Instead, there were several big tents set up with vendors selling things like saddles and tack, lariats and lassos, machetes and horseshoes.  A steady line of vehicles dropped off livestock.  I saw small pickup trucks with three cows somehow crammed and tied into the tiny beds.  I saw one of the really cool delivery tricycles (two wheels in front supporting a large carrying platform, one wheel in back) with a huge pig in the carry bin.  I saw a woman walking a pig on a leash.  The pig, though, really didn’t want to go, so it had locked its little legs and was squealing pitifully as the woman dragged it along, its skidding feet leaving twin lines in the dust.

All of the men had sticks, about three feet long and an inch in diameter with one end sharpened like a big pencil.  When the cattle got out of line, or even threatened to, someone would smack the hell out of the poor beat to get in back in line.  They liked to smack them on the snout, either because it made a great hollow thwacking noise or because it was an effective way to get the attention of a thousand pounds of walking steaks.

Francisco gave us a little tour of the market.  We passed the pig alley, where porkers of every size grunted and squealed.  One little boy had nearly a dozen little piglets, each on a string.  Then the goats, hairy critters with freaky eyes and tough-looking horns.  After that we wandered through the cattle section, where the various types of animals were grouped together.

There were big gray Brahmas sold in pairs as a yoked team for pulling the big wooden-wheeled oxcarts.  A huge brown cow and her calf were a relative bargain at only $1500.  We moved past the throngs of animals, looking for a likely beast that would fall within our price range.  We had $500 to spend, and we gathered together, whispering in conspiratorial tones.  Could we get two?  We decided to buy the bull from Francisco’s friend, who gave us a good deal–only $225 when he thought he would be able to get at least $250 for it.  We were sure we could find another good animal for $275.

Francisco’s friend explained to us what he looked for in a bull.  It had to be well-fed and not bony.  It had to have long legs, showing that it had some capacity for growth: this was especially important since we were looking for an animal that would get big enough to sell for a tidy profit by November.  As we scanned the crowd of animals, we saw a fine-looking beast, a Brahma mix with clear eyes, long legs, and a healthy-looking brown coat.  The girls were taken in by his dashing brown and white streaks and were not put off by the price–more than we had left.

After some negotiation, we managed to get the price down to $300, but that was still over our budget.  “I’ll make up the difference,” declared one of the girls.  “I really want this cow!”  “Bull,” we corrected her.  “It’s a bull.”  So, with the animal’s gender identity all straightened out, we completed the complicated financial transaction.  Francisco would be the owner of record, since the owner would have to be on hand in November when it came time to sell.  Then the inspector came over with a sheaf of papers that needed to be signed, but only after he checked the brands to make sure that there wasn’t any cattle rustling going on in these here parts.

For the rest of the trip, every time we passed a herd of cattle (and we passed many), we new Salvadoran cowboys and cowgirls would say, in tones of superior knowledge, “Our cows–no, wait–our bulls are better!”

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Driving Sister Elena

The theme of my trip was pushing boundaries.  So much of the experience was uncomfortable–not knowing the language, shyness around the Salvadorans, uncertainty about my role as a faculty guide–but I knew, despite my discomfort, that pushing through the hard parts would be more rewarding and allow me to come out on the other side of the experience changed in some way.  And thus my odyssey got frightening.

I returned with my crew from our work site on the first day filthy with sweat and dust but feeling very happy.  We all worked well together, slinging the pick, tossing the rocks, and we all seemed to feel somehow buoyant.  We leapt from the back of the truck and into the shade of the patio, ready to lounge in the hammocks for the hour or so until it was time for lunch.  Sister Elena came up to me and asked if I wanted to help her get water–we drank from 5 gallon jugs of purified water instead of from the tap–and I quickly agreed.

She took me off to the dining patio so we could eat lunch early and then go get water.  As I sat down, she told me that I would be driving.

I nearly choked.  I am a decent driver but very anxious.  Tailgaters, speeders, undimmed high beams, too aggressive drivers, too timid drivers–they all make my palms slick with sweat and my stomach knot with tension.  When Sister Elena asked me if I could drive a stick shift, the thought very briefly flitted through my mind that here was an out, but I could not lie.  Instead I echoed my grandfather’s words when a potential employer asked him if he could drive a particular kind of truck:  “Are the wheels round?”

And so we set out to Usulutan, a city of about 100,000 about 60 kilometers or so east of us, down CA-2.  The highway is two lanes wide, but the shoulders are extravagant, considering, and they are also necessary.  Huge–really, really huge–trucks overloaded with tall piles of sugar cane crawl down the highway at 40 kph.  Old pickups with more rust than paint, the beds filled with pigs or cinder blocks, or a dozen people, putter along in a cloud of smoke.  Herds of slow-moving cattle use the highway to get from field to barn and back.  There is no choice but to pass, and I did so with great trepidation.  I realized what the wide shoulders are for: when you pass, if you don’t have quite enough room, oncoming traffic slides onto the shoulder for you.  After two or three white-knuckled passes, I was driving like a Salvadoran, and loving it.

Usulutan was a riot.  The roads are narrow, with market stalls and piles of fruit, vegetables, and other goods threatening to spill out into the streets.  Traffic rules seem haphazard, and meekness means death, or at least a huge delay in your trip as you get pushed around by the bold.  In many ways, the bright, lively streets reminded me of some neighborhoods in the Bronx, only more chaotic and anarchic.

We drove through town to a large supermarket, where I again faced almost certain death from culture shock.  The store was large, brightly lit, very modern.  The Modern Foods supermarket where I used to shop on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx was less impressive (granted, Modern was a tiny, shabby store, but how many times would I find El Salvador more modern than the US?).  The goods on the shelves were a curious mix of the familiar and the exotic.  A dozen different kinds of cooking oil lined one aisle, while another had bags of Doritos.  Hershey’s candybars tempted us at the checkouts.

We got our five jugs of water loaded into the truck, and we set off again.  This time, I had to make a left turn out of the parking lot onto the busiest street in Usulutan.  “Just ease out and see if someone will let you go,” Sister advised.  I did so, finding a small gap I could quirt through.  I felt like a real professional.  Just before we left the town, Sister told me to pull over at an ice cream shop, where we treated ourselves before heading back home.

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Landscape of Conflict

As I watched the scenery from the back of the cattle truck, bouncing into the others in the truck with me as the road became rough, I thought how familiar yet strange the landscape looked.  In one moment it reminded me of California, with rolling hills covered with dry, golden grass, and small groves of dusty trees providing some shade to groups of cattle.  The trees, though, were cashew and mango instead of oak and eucalyptus, and instead of brown and white Herefords, many of the cattle had the distinctive neck hump of a crossbred brahmin.  In another instant, the truck careened down a steep pitch and into a small canyon shaded by tall trees festooned with hanging vines trailing in the stony brook, and I saw the cool streambed of the Massachusetts mountains.  Up the hill and around the corner we were presented with a savanna that would not have looked out of place in an African postcard.  Imperialism teaches us that otherness is all, and the differences between landscapes mirror the differences between people, but all I could see were the similarities.

On Wednesday afternoon the cattle truck took us northwest, parallel to the Rio Lempa, on a swooping rollercoaster of dusty roads and sweeping views of the volcanic peaks and the wide river.  The first time we saw the road disappear into a tributary, we all held our breaths in trepidation, but by the third or fourth water crossing, we were prepared, and even shouted a little in excitement.  This time the truck stopped in the shallow water and we got out to walk up a short path to a small, level bluff overlooking the shallow river.  We unloaded the two trucks and set up the chairs and the table for all of the food Morena had packed for us–rice, beans, tortillas, and peanut butter sandwiches.

As we ate I felt overcome by the peacefulness of the area.  The trees provided enough shade and protection from the tropical sun, and a slight breeze rippled the shadows.  The gurgling and chuckling of the water over the stones served as a counterpoint to the splash and slap of a family just upstream at a bend in the river washing their clothes and smacking the wet cloth on rocks.  A couple of little boys were hanging from a branch that stuck out over the water, and they hooted and shouted in little Tarzan voices as they hurled themselves into the river.

After lunch, the women and men who had joined us in the little town near Puente San Marcos began to speak.  Their calm, quiet voices and the pastoral setting belied the import of their stories.  In the 1980s, the Salvadoran government began a Tierra Arrasada, or scorched earth policy, where villages were destroyed in order to get rid of any potential guerillas or guerilla hiding places.  Using planes, helicopters, and artillery thoughtfully provided by the U.S. government, the Salvador military blew up the tiny shacks that housed the people and then set out to gun down any refugees running from the destruction.

One of the women speaking told how she came down the steep hillside behind me and to my left, slipping and tumbling on the steep rocks.  A sick old man walked beside her, and another woman carried her baby in her arms.  To my right and in front of me, the military had set up and sent out a withering cross fire, a murderous barrage of bullets.  One woman hid her baby in a crevice in the rocks, hoping it would survive the onslaught.  The people wandered for days without food, shelter, or water.  The military had poisoned the ground and the river to make it impossible for the people to survive.

One old man, sitting quietly, wearing a red western shirt and white straw cowboy hat spoke even more quietly, his face stony and expressionless.  He, too, had been caught in the strife.  He remembered C-130 Hercules aircraft flying over.  He explained how warplanes strafed the small villages, blowing apart their little houses, and later, how the soldiers came into the villages to knock down what was left of the walls so no one could return safely.  He then told us that his wife and seven children–his entire family–had disappeared, most likely slaughtered, during the war.

Later, we piled back in the truck and backtracked for a while before taking a road that bore northward.  We stopped at the rugged bluff of La Quesera and climbed out again. Between October 20 and 24, 1981, the Salvadoran military massacred between 600 and 800 Salvadoran citizens–civilians, women, children–at this hillside, this Central American Golgotha.

I walked around the site.  At the southern end, the small memorial, built and paid for by the people and a few donations from outside the country.  The government, led by the same political party that had been in power during the massacre, wanted to forget.  The memorial roof is in the shape of a dove holding an olive branch in its beak.  Its outstretched wings guard a curved wall and a mural depicting the hopes and fears of the capmesinos.  Archbishop Romero’s likeness stares out of the center of the mural.  In front a low concrete slab rises about a foot.  On its top are two steel plates, padlocked.  These are the doors that lead to the crypt where the remains of 43 recovered and identified bodies are kept.  Although about 700 died, only this handful of bodies has been recovered, for a variety of reasons.  First, the hogs in the area attacked the bodies, scattering bones down the hillside.  Then the black vultures moved in, followed by the rainy season’s mudslides and wind.  Earthquakes and time have contributed their part to effacing the memory.  But the biggest eraser remains the intransigent government, which still claims that a mere 43 bodies is not enough evidence to support any claims of a massacre and thus further investigation.

I leave the group and walk north.  The ground of the massacre is a level hilltop, roughly oval in shape, and reminds me of the deck of some large ship.  The hillside slopes away on all sides, and I can see other hills rising in the distance.  Every direction I turn I see only hills leading up to craggy volcanic mountains, all covered with lush tropical green.  No human habitation anywhere, in an area that once saw dozens of small villages.  The survivors are, not surprisingly, reluctant to come back.  I walk to the north end, what I think of as the stern of the ship.  A rickety log and corrugated steel structure stands forlornly.  It might be a structure used by the infrequent anthropological teams that come to dig for more victims.  A piece of the steel roof hangs by a nail and waves in the breeze.  The wind blowing through the building creates a low moaning sound, a desolate whistle.

I walk to the port side of the hilltop.  The brilliant sun is blinded by huge clouds, and shadows and golden rays of sunshine alternate.  The wind is the only sound, and I feel an otherworldliness here at this site of slaughter.  My hair blows back in the increasing wind, and I feel a chill despite the tropical heat.  All around I see cloud shadows racing over the hillsides like the shadows of the never forgotten gunships that rained fire and death out of the sky.  The dead have no voice but the low, incessant moaning of the wind.

I go back to the group.  We shake hands, thank the speakers for being so brave to tell their stories.  We pose for pictures.  We eat watermelon and pineapple.  We climb back in the cattle truck and ride back to Tierra Blanca.  We are numb, but later that night, writing in my journal, the pages keep blurring unaccountably, the same way my computer screen does now.

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Still Working

When we first visited the worksites, one of the men from the community at Hacienda said that we would probably not work past 10 o’clock.  I thought this was a wildly pessimistic view.  Sure, most of the students have not done a lot of physical labor recently, but I have been training seriously for bike races so I’m in good shape.  Plus, back in grad school I used to work construction, so I knew my way around hand tools.  Part of the reason for his opinion was the tropic heat: El Salvador is only 12 degrees north of the equator, and that means it’s hot there all year round.  Again, I scoffed inwardly at this.  It gets plenty warm in Connecticut in August, let me tell you.

I can admit it:  I was wrong.

After the engineer’s crew had lined out the foundation, Mino showed me how he wanted me to scratch out lines with the pointed end of the pick to outline the trench that we would then excavate.  Even though I speak no Spanish, we were able to communicate with lots of hand gestures, very simple words, and pantomime.  I scratched out the outline and then set to work with the other end of the pick, churning up the hard, rocky dirt.  Several times Mino and some of the other men offered advice, shouting “Duro!  Duro!” which they reinforced with gestures that made me realize that “duro” meant that I was to chop at the ground even harder.  So I did.

After fifteen minutes I needed a break.  This was not bad at all, though, since my fellow gringos (or gringas, rather) were taking breaks after five or ten minutes.  Then we saw the little kids come in and pick up the shovels to begin scooping the chopped up dirt out of the trenches.  Skinny little barefoot boys and shyly smiling little girls were tossing dirt aside with smooth, economical strokes and were not even breaking a sweat.  That meant it was time to jump back in and work even harder.  “Duro!”

As we were working, we noticed a group of little boys in the field next to us flinging a stick up in a huge tree.  Soon after that, some of the boys had climbed into its branches, swinging and hooting at each other like little boys all over the world pretending to be monkeys.  After a while, one boy walked up holding the bottom hem of his shirt in his teeth to make a carry sack of his shirt.  The shirt was loaded with mangoes that they had gathered from the large tree.  They shyly offered us some and then sat back, sucking on their own mangoes and smiling at us out of the corners of their eyes.

Then we were back to work.  I had applied sunscreen, but it was unnecessary since I was coated with a thick layer of dust and grime that had to add up to an SPF of at least 100.  My t-shirt was drenched with seat and muddy with dust.  The bandanna I was wearing on my head overflowed and dripped sweat into my eyes.  I started checking my watch, waiting for the 10:30 quitting bell that would arrive in the form of the pickup truck that would take us back home.  They were late, though, and we kept at it, laughing at our ineptitude, until after 11.

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At Work in El Salvador

There were three work sites for us:  the chapel site at San Pedro, another chapel site at Hacienda, and the field-clearing about two blocks away.  I really wanted to do something hard, for some reason, and swinging a pick around sounded nice and hard, so I volunteered to go to one of the chapel sites.  San Pedro sounded like the more appealing dig, since, of the two places we had scouted the day before, San Pedro looked prettier.  The clearing for the new chapel was next to the community’s old chapel, a small building of mud bricks, old boards, and corrugated steel roof.  The clearing was at an especially rugged section of rocky, rutted dirt road, across from a house built up of what looked like bamboo sticks and the ubiquitous corrugated steel.  Huge trees partially shaded the area, lending a bucolic air quite different from the poverty-borne squalor that marked so much of the countryside.

But this trip was, for me, at least partly about moving outside my comfort zones, and, since there were no other men going to Hacienda (there were only five of us on the trip), I said I would go there instead.  The site here was more disturbing, less comforting.  For one thing, it was more in the center of the community, which meant that the reality of Salvadoran life for the campesinos could not hide behind some tall trees and shrubs.  A house–really a shack–made of corrugated steel (seeing a pattern here?) stood next to the space devoted to the chapel, and there were some rumblings that the builder of the shack had encroached on the property that rightfully belonged to the church.

The rutted, rocky road leading up to the site was filled with garbage, a sight common throughout the country.  The obnoxious plastic bags we all carry are an insistent presence in Central America, and they reside with their best pals, the empty plastic water or soda bottle.  The scrawny Salvadoran street dogs ran about, and my canine-friendly heart hurt looking at a mother dog, her hip bones poking painfully through her mangy fur, push her single pup away and hobble painfully away from its demanding cries.

Above all, at this site, there would be more people.  At this point, I was still terribly shy about meeting the Salvadorans, and I didn’t know what I could say to them, especially since my Spanish is limited mostly to food items, and I couldn’t very well say to the people, “Tortilla!”  This, actually, would have been appropriate, as there was a small gas-powered mill next door that was churning out the dough to make the small, thick, and very tasty Salvadoran version of tortillas.

We arrived at the work site early, and with a little trepidation.  Someone had expressed a concern that the people from the community would not be there, and if they were not there, we could not work because our mission was not to perform charitable work but to work alongside the people.  We were left with the sense that there was something less than trustworthy about some of the people–maybe they just wouldn’t be interested in showing up.

Despite our worries, we were met at the dusty and already warm site with smiles and friendly waves.  The man in charge greeted each of us with a solemn handshake and a “Buenas.”  He then pointed out the work that needed to be done: the spot where the chapel would one day stand was full of trash, some weeds and brush, and a huge pile of rocks.  All of this would have to move.

A couple of the girls and some of the community people began to rake the trash into a burnable pile, while I surveyed the rocks with some of the other girls.  We all started to bend down to grab the rocks, straighten up, walk over to the place where we would leave the rocks, and then walk back to do it all over again.  I realized right away that this was not efficient, and organized us into a bucket brigade, passing rocks from hand to hand.  The foreman of the job noticed and gave me a slight smile.  I smiled back and nodded.

Soon we had removed the easy rocks on the surface and were down to the harder rocks that were partially buried.  It was time for the pick.  As we got to work digging out more rocks, I was grateful that all of the girls in the crew were jocks–field hockey and soccer, mostly–and they were dedicated to hard work.  After a while we had cleared the site enough for the next stage of the construction project.  Showing remarkably good timing, the crew working with the Roberto, the engineer, showed up and began swinging plumb lines and string to mark out the fifteen by fifteen foot foundation for the new chapel.

Next:  More on working in El Salvador.

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El Salvador Overview

My plan is to write several posts about my experiences in El Salvador, focusing on what the trip meant to me and what sorts of things I learned and took away with me when I left.  First, though, I think it makes sense to give a sort of overview of the trip to give my readers some idea of what the trip entailed.

I got involved with the university delegation in December when a friend from another department called me.  She had decided to join the delegation in the hope that doing something so different and out of her normal comfort zone would help her cope with some of the stress and depression that had been dragging her down lately.  She knew that I had been having a rough year as well (she is a psychology professor), and, when another faculty member had to drop out of the trip, she asked if I was interested.  I immediately said yes.

The university has been organizing these trips for something like fifteen years as an expression of our commitment to service learning in support of the school’s mission.  Since a large part of the Catholic mission is to help those less fortunate than ourselves, a trip to a third world country perfectly fits.  The service we perform shows several different faces: charitable donations, infrastructure support, and cultural exchange.  Students and faculty gather donations, both money and supplies, to take down to the center where we stay.  I solicited from my bike club, and ended up with bags and bags of clothes, art supplies, shoes (very needed, for reasons I’ll talk about in a future post), medical supplies, and other things.  Once down in the country, the delegation usually works on some sort of labor project, building something or clearing a field, for example.  The delegation also spends a lot of time visiting different communities and listening to the stories of the people and getting to know them as real human beings instead of distant case studies.  From all accounts, the cultural exchange is appreciated by the people more than anything else, for it makes them feel as if they are appreciated and understood; it means something to them that wealthy people from the United States (and believe me, everyone reading this is very wealthy by Salvadoran standards) are willing to take the time to listen to their stories and show they care.  The human connection is the most valuable treasure we have.

We left very early on the morning of Friday the 29th and arrived at San Salvador international airport a bit before eight o’clock.  We met Sister Elena, the nun who runs the center where we were staying, and piled into the back of a cattle truck for the 90 minute drive to our home for the next nine days.  The road, CA-2, is a major highway through Central America, but it is only two lanes, and would hardly rate highway status in the states.  Nevertheless, it is paved, a quality we would come to appreciate in the coming days.

Upon arriving at the center, we went to our rooms, unpacked, ate lunch, and napped for a short time before the first round of visits.  We were scheduled to work at two different sites, so we piled back into the cattle truck and drove to both sites, where we met some of the people we would be working with during the week.  After that we returned to the center, where a couple of women from the church had organized some of the children from the town to perform some dances for us in traditional costumes; they were followed by some of the women, in full, flowing Spanish-style skirts showed some more dances.

The next day, Saturday, was our first work day.  We took Sunday off from the physical labor, but went back to it on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  I’ll talk more about my pick and shovel slinging skills in a later post.  On Thursday we traveled back to San Salvador to make our pilgrimage to UCA, where six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were brutally, brutally murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989.  We then went to the chapel where Archbishop Romero was assassinated and the National Cathedral where his crypt lies.  Friday was for fun, with an excursion to the beach and the warm Pacific ocean.  Saturday saw us back at the airport, ready to fly home, exhausted but somehow happy.

This, as I said, is just a quick overview of the trip.  I will spend a lot of time in the next week or so adding flesh to this bare-bones sketch, adding more of my feelings and opinions along the way.

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I’m Back

I returned from El Salvador early this morning, and I will have a lot to say about the trip, but I need to meditate on some of the details of this emotional trip a little longer before I’m ready to post anything coherent.  I did keep a journal while I was there, even after some very, very long days, so I am not in any danger of forgetting things, not that anything that happened was even close to being forgettable.  In the meantime, I’d like to file the first race report of the season, and let me tell you: it’s a good one.

I arrived home at about 1 o’clock this morning, and got to sleep around 2, which of course means I instantly lost an hour when 2 became 3 because of the daylight savings time switch.  Shortly after I feel asleep, Muttboy had one of his chasing and barking dreams, which woke me up, so I had to wake him up to make him shut up.  In other words, when my alarm went off at 7, I was very, very tired and thought seriously about shutting it off and going back to sleep.  I had talked too much on the trip about my plans to race Sunday morning after we returned to do that, though, and I knew I couldn’t face the scorn and ridicule of the group if I didn’t get up.  So I got up and got ready to race.

The temperatures down in El Salvador averaged around 90 degrees or so during the day, so when I saw the thermometer showing only 29, I was not thrilled, and the howling wind gusts of 40 miles per hour were not doing much for my state of mind, either.  Nevertheless, I rode over to the race course, pinned on my number, and rolled out for a full fifteen minutes of warmup.

Many of the usual guys from last summer’s Tuesday Night Worlds were there, as well as a lot of New York riders.  Counting me, our team had four riders in the race, one of whom had finished fifth last week when I didn’t race.  As I looked around, I felt a little strange–somewhat nervous, but somewhat, well, elsewhere, as if I were not entirely in my body.  I knew that feeling would change once we started and had to deal with the horrible wind gusts that, because of the way the hills around the course lie, were headwinds for at least three-quarters of the course.

The whistle blew and Gene, racing for DC, sprinted away, taking the first corner at full speed and a good ten meters ahead of the rest of us.  We watched him tear down the hill and into the distance, thinking, “Well, if he wants to ride all alone into that wind, let him.”  A couple of guys looked like they were going to chase, but couldn’t quite seem to make up their minds, so they sort of made feeble little breakaway motions.

I was determined not to do anything stupid or exhausting, so I stayed near the front, but always about four back.  Whenever it looked like I might have to take a turn pulling into the wind, I drifted back to let someone else do the honors.  The first couple of laps passed this way, and I began to feel that I might not actually die on the course.  I felt relaxed and easy, which is a nice way to feel in a race.

Soon a few guys organized themselves enough to chase down Gene, one of them being Chuck, one of my teammates.  This was a big relief in some ways: I did not want to feel like I had to chase down a break, and if Chuck was up ahead, then I was morally obligated to perform blocking duties.  John rolled up beside me, and we began our tactical work at once.  We sat at the front and kept the pace calm.  When someone, usually one of the six or seven DKNY riders, attacked, we would follow.  We annoyed a lot of guys today, as they would pull over, expecting us to pull through and keep the chase going, only to find us staying behind them.  “I’ve got a guy up ahead,” I told them with a grin.  What could they say to that?  According to the rules of bike racing, I was doing exactly what they would have done.

Despite our efforts, the pack was gradually catching up with the breakaway group.  The largest gap was officially 40 seconds, but one lap later it was down to 20.  When I saw this happening, I dropped back a little to watch the other racers.  The best tactics call for a counterattack as soon as a break gets caught by the field, so I was surveying the others, thinking about tapping a couple to jump with me.  We swallowed the break, except for Gene, who stubbornly stayed about thirty or forty meters ahead of us.  Instantly Pawling made a counter, which was what I was expecting from this tactically savvy team.  I went with them and pulled us past Gene, who jumped in to work some more.

We soon had six guys in a small break of about forty meters, and we were increasing the gap.  Another guy bridged, bringing our total up to seven racers, which would make the final sprint interesting–points go only to the top six, so someone would get left out.  At about four laps to go, Sam launched a huge attack and bridged to the group.  Now we were eight.  As I drifted to the back of the break after pulling, I speculated about the group; I knew I could outsprint at least three of them, and probably four or five.  It looked good.

At At two laps to go Zack from Pawling and Gene launched a sort of attack and were hanging off the front by about one or two seconds–not much, but a gap of a two or three bike lengths.  At the same time, I noticed that the main pack was starting to gain on us.  I shouted to the group to hammer, and we gained back maybe a second on the pack.  When the bell rang for the final lap, I turned to look as we started down the hill.  The pack was only ten or fifteen seconds back, so I shouted again.  We gained a little time, with Zack and Gene still battling a little of the front, about three or four bike lengths ahead.  Here I made the only tactical blunder of an otherwise perfectly intelligent race.  I should have jumped to bridge the gap the these guys, but instead, I sat at the back, in eighth place, hoping Jay, who was sitting in third, would bridge.

We approached the final hill, and I waited patiently.  One of the businesses in the industrial park where the crit is held had a large landscape boulder beside the driveway, and we use that as the starting line for our sprints.  As soon as Jay passed it, I checked my gearing, decided it was just right and opened the throttle as far as it would go.

It was the best sprint of my life.

I screamed past the group, hearing Jay shout “What the hell?” as I flew past him as if he were not moving at all.  I was gaining on the two leaders when I ran out of race course and passed the line in a very fast third place finish.  Afterwards, Justin, a teammate who raced earlier with the Cat 5s, came up to me laughing, saying he had never seen anyone sprint with such a huge grin on his face.

It was a great way to start the season, but now I’m completely exhausted.  I’m very excited about next week, though.  It’s going to be a great race.

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