As it dawned on me that, yes, my parents had actually gone and done it, yes, all of this was really happening, I did what I had to do, what many before have done as well—I joined the track team. This significantly multiplied the difficulty of my adjustment to Quito. Because the city is more than nine thousand feet above sea level, perhaps the biggest difference between it and the Canadian prairies is how hard it is to breathe. I learned this during the team’s weekly jogs up and down Mt. Pichincha. I mean other people were jogging. Mr. Landers, our track coach, practically sprinted up that hill, a lot of the times backwards, while smiling, and gently admonishing us by his mere age—I guess, he was close to 50, then. I want it clear that I did not stick with it. I walked up that hill. Within two minutes I was gasping, bent over while older kids of strong moral character and powerful lungs told me, “It feels better at the top!”
Landers had entered us into a city meet to be held at the nearby Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa (pictured). Estadio Olimpico is home to the Ecuadorean national soccer team, and two teams in the Ecuadorean top flight. I did not know quite how cavernous it was when I put my name down. I signed up to run the 100 meters not because I was fast, but because the race was short. The meet was city-wide and open to all ages enrolled in high school. At age 12, with two months of Quito air in me and no muscle mass at all, I lined up against seven lithe 17-year olds whose people had lived on these mountains for a thousand years. That was, approximately, the same time it took me to cross the finish line, dead last and by about 60 meters.
I quit track after that.
When I was expelled five years later, they treated me like I was contagious. The soonest flight they could find was three days away. Until then, I was banned from campus, confined to my room, and made the subject of a special “emergency chapel,” which I was not invited to attend. My dorm dad hustled me into a van on the appointed day and drove me to the airport. He watched as I queued to go through security. He wasn’t there to see me off. He was there to make sure I got on.
Just as security was about to pat me down, who comes running across the lobby calling my name?
It was like he was auditioning for a scene in a romcom starring Sandra Bullock. “Colin, wait!”
Since quitting the track team five years earlier, I had talked to Mr. Landers maybe twice. But he ran up to me, hugged me, and said, “Here, take this,” as he handed me an envelope. “I’m sorry they’re doing this,” he said. It was five American twenties. He had tears in his eyes that I honestly didn’t get then. I had been treated like this for so long that numbness was the only normal I knew.
That money was all the money I had in the world. My dorm parent had intended to put me on flight from Quito to Calgary, with lengthy layovers in Miami and Toronto, with nothing to my name except a jean jacket. I’ve always wanted to thank Mr. Landers, and not only for the money (which didn’t last long: I was talked out of most of it by a Moonie in Miami) but because, every now and then, it’s nice to know that someone out there cares if you live or die.
This post is too late. Dave Landers died on April 8, 2018 in West Covina, California. He was a good man.
Dave Landers, 1933-2018