With love, I dedicate this column to my grandfather, Joseph Vincent Behe, who would have turned 97 this month.
Some time after my paternal grandfather–”Pappap”–passed away in late December of 2020, my dad shared with the rest of the family a press clipping from a local Harrisburg newspaper. Written with the zippy flare and unapologetic corniness of bygone days, the piece features Pappap front and center in retro running gear. The photograph has frozen him to be studied, an expression on his face halfway between a grimace and a reassuring smile, his casual gait apparent through the effortless positioning of his body as he trots along Locust Lane and around the neighborhood where he and his wife Helen raised their family over the decades. I looked at that photograph and the accompanying article for a long time. In adulatory tones, it lays out Pappap’s habits and philosophies, his statistics and history, mileage accumulated and secrets to success. My dad had shared it especially for me, because he rightfully assumed that I’d be interested, given my own obsession…and perhaps that it would shut me up for a while.
But my initial reaction was interest of a different kind–irritation, and, primarily, jealousy. My investment in running, not just as a means to fitness but as a cornerstone of my life, was not wrenched into full throttle until late 2018 when I began training for my first half marathon. That gave an overlapping period of approximately two years between the adoption of my newfound identity and the loss of my grandfather, and in those intervening years, I had neglected to inspect the most obvious connection between us. I was the runner, the one who cared, who would chew people’s ears off about nutrition and races and records. Yet here was somebody lost to the past, a stranger, who–in the short conversation which it took to obtain the quote snippets for his article–had accumulated more knowledge about Pappap’s journey to and relationship with the sport than I ever had.
Memories of visits to my grandparents’ house around Christmastime are fond but indistinct, a welter of gifts, football games, peppermint patties and red and green and silver Hershey kisses, homey smells, old comic books, soft carpet, and cordial conversation. Pappap, even after Grammie was gone, would work his way through each one of us with sincere interest, a feat which must have required no small amount of conversational stamina with an intimidating lineup of nine young adults, some surly, others garrulous, all bearing minute life details to be remembered. Yet it was always a one-way line of questioning. Even after my marathon, I never picked the low-hanging fruit of our shared love for running, his past and my present. I never asked what meaning he might have found in such a simple practice, how it drove him forward, why he chose it–or did he feel as though it chose him? Perhaps the most obvious question–why did I never bother to ask–is precisely the one to which I cannot find a good answer.
You ought to know by now that I can’t resist a good analogy or bit of Greek mythology, and when the two are combined, well, there’s nothing sweeter under the heavens. “Know Thyself” is the most famous of the three Delphic maxims which would instruct visitors as they came to seek the council of the temple oracle millennia ago. No one can know themselves innately; it is the charge of each human being to first discover the meaning of the question “who are you?” and to answer that question through introspection, action, trials and challenges, collected wisdom, and their relationships with others. We do not merely find ourselves; we are assembled, pieced together, through our experiences. There are countless mediums by which individuals choose to partake in this journey; running, of course, is one of them.
Pappap surely illuminated himself, constructed himself, mile by mile, as he traversed Locust Lane in the heavy, humid air of summer and merciless, biting cold of winter. And I have done the same in different summers, different winters. Yet here is the realization I’ve come to since I first saw his picture and read that article: in coming to know yourself, you also come to know others, because you are able to recognize that which is shared. I like to think of humanity as one great big toppled china cabinet, all the saucers and teacups shattered, and the shards scattered to every far corner of the globe. We pass through life picking up these shards, remaking our own saucers and cups, each one the picture of idiosyncratic, chaotic beauty. And as we move forward, we encounter others whose items, though different, contain shards from the same piece of china when it was once whole.
I can’t say that anything ever “clicked” into place after having read that article. It wasn’t instantaneous, nor was it even perceptible on a daily basis. But at some point, I knew that, through running–our shard–I understood my Pappap better than any number of words could have achieved. He became alive to me all over again, and I saw him not just as my grandpa–a tough SOB who saw combat in the Pacific during World War II, whose swear words of choice were the ever-reliable “hell” and “damn,” a man of dedicated service and a creature of habit who never missed his breakfast cereal and banana–but as a multi-dimensional human beyond that. One with dreams and desires, failures and regrets, that must have accompanied him on many runs. Now, every time I lace up, I know I have the opportunity to learn more about him. I learn about his tenacity by grinding through one last, grueling mile. I learn about his stubbornness when I cope with injury and know that, even in his final years when his body was giving out, he would continue to walk two miles, one mile, on a daily basis–still testing himself, still pushing. I can feel those same things and feel him next to me.
The following is an excerpt from Pappap’s obituary:
“He was a runner for many years, and then became an avid walker. Joe even continued to ‘walk the mall’ right up until his hospitalization. He made many friends along the way.”
That connection–for as long as I am running, and for as long as I am moving forward–will never die.
Author’s Note: I won’t flatter myself by saying that I am a “natural” writer–that is a title that you can confer or withhold from me based on your own opinion. Still, I do tend to get into a flow after a time, where, rather than carefully selecting the next word and hewing sentences as if out of granite, I am instead being guided by the preceding language, led down a path that moves and twists and terminates somewhere that is often a mystery to me until I round the last bend. That was not the case here. Perhaps because this is a topic that is so personal and close to my heart, I struggled mightily. Though I knew what I wanted to say, the “how” was elusive and scurried away each time I felt myself coming close to it. I’m not sure that I ever managed to grab it. There were a number of things that I wanted to express through this piece, and whittling them down, alchemizing my thoughts into what would hopefully be a coherent and worthwhile reading experience, was overwhelmingly a process of omission rather than inclusion, reaching for and tying disparate threads together, slippery and wispy as they were. I hope I did so in a manner so as to make it worth your time.