“It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.”
Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)
(A letter to MVHS track coach Dave Rider, a comment on the passing of Charles Dumas, a famed track and field athlete, as reported in the Times.)
February 8, 2004
Hello from cold and frosty Tarrytown, as I sit at my desk watching the white flakes blanket our hilly terrain, I read this obituary in the NY Times and it reminded me of days now passed. When I was a young boy I had heard tell of one Charles Dumas, a collegiate high jumper, who had broken the 7 foot high jump barrier. In the sport’s world all the writers ascribed to the worship of mythical barriers of chronological and physical round numbers. Whether it was the 4-minute mile, or the 60-foot shot put, or the 7-foot high jump or 700 or 60 homeruns, or 20 victories or 300 strikeouts, or 20 or 50 points in a basketball game, these numbers took on mystical reverence.
So, these magical barriers of gravity, strength, and time enamored me not unlike all the other inhabitants of the world of feckless youth. I liked to run and jump, and not long after reading of Charlie Dumas (pronounced like the author of the “Three Musketeers” Alexander Dumas), I became interested in high jumping. Somehow I was able to get myself high jump standards and a bamboo bar. I would run down to Trapahagen Junior High School, with the equipment, where there was a sawdust pit for high jumping. We would set up the bar and practice. It was fun, exhilarating and very tiring. At about this time a young Boston University freshman named John Thomas broke the Dumas record and went out to the 1960 Olympic Trials in Palo Alto and jumped 7 foot 3.75 inches! Wow!
So I jumped for sport and self-satisfaction. One day my parents decided to replace their mattress, and I decided that it would make a perfect cushioned landing place for jumping in my backyard. So almost every day in the summer of 1960 I dragged that old worn mattress up from the basement to the backyard, set up the standards and the bar, and I practiced the “eastern roll” which Dumas and Thomas had made famous. The “western roll” was the conventional jumping methodology that had been previously used, and it required one to tuck one leg under the other as one crossed the bar. If you watch the Lena Riefenstal film-documentary “Olympia,” about the 1936 Games in Berlin, there is long feature on the high jump, and, of course all the participants used the “western roll,” including the American gold medallist, Cornelius “Connie” Johnson who leaped 6’7.5.”
Eventually I was able to clear 6 feet, which was quite good for forty years ago. I never leaped in competition, because of my commitment to other sports, however I always admired the difficulty of the high jump, which required coordination, jumping ability, speed and the over-coming of fear.
Ironically, during my first week at Boston University, while I was using the washing machine in the basement of Myles Standish Hall, my dormitory, I bumped into the BU demigod John Thomas. He was using the same machines as we mortals used. Eventually I followed him out as he walked up Bay State Road to his brown Ford convertible with his customized “JT” license plate. John Thomas’s spectacular career was ironically hindered by a freak accident that he suffered in the Myles’ elevator when the door damaged his foot. I never came in contact with Thomas again until decades later when he showed up at the Glen D. Loucks Track Meet at White Plains High School. I believe Fred Singleton, who was one of WPHS’s excellent coaches, (and one of my son’s when he ran track from 1990-1994), invited him. I went up to Thomas and reminded him of our short meeting in 1963 and of my interest in high jumping. Basically he couldn’t care less, was happy to blow me off, and went back to what he was doing. (I had attended the Loucks Meet for many, many years, and one very rainy year, the late great Lorenzo “Rennie” Thomas, who was the chief of the field events, asked me to officiate at the high jump pit because of the lack of officials.)
Dick Fosbury, who changed high jumping with his radical “flop” style, has placed into ancient history the likes of Dumas, Thomas and Brumel, the gods of the “eastern roll.” Its also too bad there is so little national interest in track and field today. The media is just not in love with it, and its foray into professionalism, I believe, tainted the sport. The media focuses on the professional team sports and therefore, there are no more household names in track and field like, Bannister, Landy, O’Brien, Boston, Thomas, Oerter, Hayes, Owens and countless others. Maybe it is the stigmata of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs that have jaded both press and public, but without those old numerical milestones, track and field statistics just don’t seem to have that old punch.
PS: Always great to see you and enjoy your company!
I have included with this letter the following:
a) Charles Dumas obituary
b) My recent letter to the editor on GWB
c) My son’s cover sheet on his recent edition of www.civilities.net
d) My son’s article on David Brooks and copies of the highlighted remarks he refers to.