Wrong Way McKay
For the first year of my new teaching assignment my wife and I continued to live in Suffolk County on Long Island – in Sound Beach – which was about 65 miles from the school district. So each day I had a 130-mile commute. The second year – yes I made it to my second year – we moved into the Five Towns, where this school district was located.
Our rent was outrageous and my wife said to me, “We’re going to find it hard to make ends meet so you better get a second job or work some clubs for extra money.”
It so happened that the Cross Country track coach quit the job the year before and there was no one who wanted to attempt to coach this team – if there would be a team. Our high school put no stock in Cross Country track or any track for that matter (until Tony Sparandara, another great teacher, made the track team one of the best in the state – but that was in years to come); we were strictly a football and basketball school.
So I went into the principal’s office and volunteered to coach the Cross Country team.
“Do you have any runners?” asked Mr. Krawitz, the principal. “Last year’s coach said there wouldn’t be any runners this year except Steve Beck and his brother Bryan – who’s just a sophomore.”
“Oh, I can get runners,” I kind of lied there but I did have a clever plan. “We’ll have a team – maybe not a championship team but a team nevertheless.”
“Okay, you are the new Cross Country coach,” said Mr. Krawitz shaking my hand. “Good luck. You have to have a team out on the field in one week though for us to keep the funding of the program.”
In one week I had to field a team! There was one great Cross Country runner, Steven Beck, and his kid brother, Bryan. I needed at least seven kids to be on the team – or was that five? It didn’t matter; I planned on having a full compliment of students.
Here was my brilliant plan. Most kids would love to have a varsity letter for sports – I mean athletes, even track athletes, are more respected than your normal run of the mill high school student. So I went into the halls of the high school and started to recruit kids that I knew would never have a chance to be on a varsity team because they – well, they weren’t athletes in the traditional sense – oh, hell, they weren’t athletes in any sense. I went up to fat kids and low-life greasers smoking behind the gym and my spiel was simple, “I am giving you a chance to get a varsity letter. There is no skill involved. All you have to do is run. You don’t even have to run that fast. You just have to start the races and finish the races to get a letter – a real varsity letter that will be given out at a big dinner with all the pretty cheerleaders present.”
Most of the kids looked at me as if I were nuts. But enough of them joined so that I did have a full team – 16 runners all together, including some who were actually pretty good. We practiced every day for two weeks – if you can call it that. Except for Beck, his brother Bryan, Craig Tischler and Richard Zaintz, my team really stunk. Most of the other runners were fat kids who could barely walk much less run – but they wanted to be varsity athletes and I gave them a golden opportunity.
Our first meet saw two things happen that you never saw happen in a Cross Country meet at our local park – called Sunken Meadow Park. The three-mile race ended and only eight of my runners finished somewhere in the pack. Seven of them came trotting in about 10 minutes after the next race started.
“What happened to you guys?” I asked.
“We stopped for a smoke,” said one of them.
“You can’t smoke in the middle of a race,” I scolded. Then I realized I was missing one of the runners, Matt McKay. “Where’s McKay?”
“He was behind us,” said one of my smokers. “When we stopped for a smoke, he passed us but didn’t follow the trail and went into the woods on another path.”
“You mean he’s out in the woods now?”
I looked at my team. “You mean one of our runners is still out there?”
I went to the officials running the meet and told them that one of my runners had gone the wrong way. He looked at me askance and said, “How the hell can anyone get lost on this course? I mean it’s clearly marked!”
“I don’t know how he got lost but he did get lost,” I said. “I think we have to send people out to find him.”
“Oh for Christ sakes,” said the official. “I got a dinner engagement tonight and we could be here forever looking for this kid.”
“Oh, okay, then let’s just let him die, fine,” I said.
“Why don’t you send your kids into the woods to look for him?” said the official.
Before I could answer the next race was finishing. The top runners were coming in now and the official had to record their times. Then the second bunch of runners came in and finally the slowest runners struggled in, huffing and puffing, and behind those slowest of runners, running easily, and aimlessly with a beatific look on his face, was Matt McKay.
I went over to him. “What happened?” I asked.
“I just can’t run as fast as everyone,” he said.
“No, I mean, you got lost. How did you get lost?” I asked.
“I got lost?” he asked.
“You didn’t realize you got lost?” I asked.
“I finished the race pretty good if I got lost. Those runners weren’t too far ahead of me,” he said.
“That was the race after your race,” I said.
“The race after my race?”
“Yes, you went off into the woods and somehow got back into the race but it was the race after your race,” I said.
“Oh,” he said.
“You’ve got to stay with the pack and on the course,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
Now reading this you might think that McKay was a stupid kid – far from it. He was extremely bright. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a doctor now or a scientist.
The next week in practice I watched McKay as he ran. He was slow moving as if he were fat, but he was quite skinny, but somewhere around the second mile or so, his face would take on that beatific look and he’d run with a look of pleasure on his face that I have never (or since) seen in an individual engaged in athletics.
Have you ever seen those television or magazine ads where they show people working out with big smiles on their faces? If you work out in a gym or run in races or with groups, you know what I know – no one works out with a smile on his or her face. Working out makes you feel good – when it’s over – but during it, well it goes from terribly awful in the start to bearable by the finish.
I’m guessing that McKay got a jolt of whatever chemicals bathe the brain during the “second wind” time when suddenly you lose that initial fatigue and feel pretty good. I think he got a massive dose of those chemicals (I think they are endorphins) and he went off somewhere that few people have ever been. He went off in practice too – which was okay because it was just around the track – but he also went off in every race.
McKay got lost in the second race at Sunken Meadow too. He was well behind the smokers, who had again stopped halfway through the race to light up, and when he passed them he went off in a different direction than last time – but nevertheless the wrong direction. Once again he somehow found his way back to the finish line – again with the next race’s runners.
First I had to scold the smokers for lighting up in the middle of the race. “Look you idiots, if some kid from another team sees you lighting up in the middle of a race and tells on you, the officials will tell Mr. Krawitz and I am sure he will kick your fat butts off the team.” I called them “fat butts” because every smoker in that group was fat and I could play on the word “butt” as well – as in cigarette butt and backside butt. Also in those days, you could use words like fat and idiot because political correctness had not yet swept the land.
“So wait until the race is over and go somewhere off there,” I pointed to the rest room building, “and smoke where no one can see you. Behind the rest rooms.”
My fat butts listened to me and never stopped in the middle of the races the rest of the season to smoke. They were horrible runners, coughing and wheezing as they finished the races because they found it very difficult to make it through three miles without stopping for a cigarette break.
On the other hand, McKay could run all week. He was in terrific shape. He never got tired. He just couldn’t run the races properly. He also couldn’t run very fast. Of the 10 Cross Country meets at Sunken Meadow he got lost seven times. On one occasion, we had to finally get the team to head into the woods to look for him. We found him running around different paths.
So I started to call him Wrong Way McKay, a nickname that stuck. Our team was dismal. We lost every single meet we had – we finished last in all the group meets at Sunken Meadow where schools from all over Long Island competed and we lost every individual head-to-head competition we had with other schools at Eisenhower Park – even to a school for the slightly physically and mentally handicapped. That was a meet we all felt we could win and it crushed us that these kids were better runners than ours. “Man, some of them use crutches in real life,” said one of my disappointed smokers.
Now it was the last race of the season and of my career as a Cross Country coach that Wrong Way McKay put himself into my all-time “I can’t believe it” record book. We were running a race against a high school from the next town over from us. This was a head-to-head race at Eisenhower Park – an almost completely flat course. This other team stunk too so we thought we had a chance with them.
Even Wrong Way McKay had never gotten lost at Eisenhower Park – how could he when we could see him and he could see us from the start of the race to the finish of the race. Unfortunately, the officials had to change the meet’s course on this occasion because some construction work was taking place in the area where our races were normally held.
The new course was flat but at the end there was a little hill, maybe 20 feet in height that you had to run down and then run a straight line of about 100 yards to the finish line. The officials went over the course with all the runners. All the kids nodded their heads when the official asked if they all understood where the race would be run. Yes, even Wrong Way McKay nodded his head.
Our neighboring school kicked our ass, which was to be expected, although Steven Beck, as he always did, finished in the top three (he finished high in every race he ran but all our other runners were so far back that it didn’t matter for our team’s overall scoring). Wrong Way McKay was last, also not unusual as he finished last in almost every race he ran.
At the finish line, we watched the kids come down the hill and head for us. You couldn’t see them until they got to the top of the hill and then you’d see the top of a head, then the kid’s whole head, then his body and down the hill he would run and head for us at the finish line.
Finally McKay’s head appeared at the top of the hill and he ran down the hill, as had all the runners in the race before him. But then something happened. Instead of running towards the finish line, Wrong Way McKay headed right back up the hill. I started to scream, “No! No! This way! McKay, this way!” When Wrong Way McKay got to the top of the hill, he turned around and headed back down. I thought he had heard me.
When he got to the bottom of the hill, he turned and headed back up the hill. Now all of us were screaming, even our runners who were smoking, “This way! This way!” We waved our hands; swung shirts and towels over our heads. The other team even started yelling.
Wrong Way McKay just kept running up and down the hill. Finally I sent some of our runners to escort him to the finish line. How could he have gotten lost when he could see the finish line from where he was? I don’t know.
I retired from being the Cross Country coach, as I knew I wasn’t cut out for it, and instead I concentrated on handling the Science Fiction club to which Wrong Way McKay belonged as well. What’s interesting concerning my career as a coach is the fact that I didn’t have one winning meet. Yet, many years before – in 1960 – I was on a basketball team that went undefeated in 55 games, even beating Lew Alcindor’s (now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s) team in a New York City tournament. [You can read about this in my book The Craps Underground: How Controlled Shooters are Winning Millions from the Casinos!] I have experienced the height of success in athletics and the depths. I would have to say that I was probably the worst coach in the history of that high school.
One last thing to close out my coaching career: I did get a letter put in my “file” (all teachers had a file where good and bad letters and reviews of one’s performance and behavior were saved – it was very originally called the “file”) about allowing my students to smoke during races. Some skinny little creep from some other school had told on my fat butts who despite it all received their varsity letters in full view of the pretty cheerleaders.
Postscript: I finished writing this section on McKay on a Friday evening. I went to bed. I wrote all day Saturday since I write every day. Sunday morning I checked my emails and I had an email from Matt McKay. After 30 years of no letters, no calls, no emails, a student from my past, one I never thought I would be in contact with again wrote me. He had some nice things to say and, of course, he had been one of my favorite students of all time. The email arrived 24 hours after I finished this section.
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