Saturday, February 23, 2002

Circular No 15

Kingston, Jamaica, 23 of February 2002.
Dear Friends, here is your circular No. 15, this time by Wayne Vincent Brown, enjoy it!!!
A couple weeks ago, I read in the paper that Percy Granville Wilson, aged 75, had died. I read it with the small, sad, 'Well, that's that' feeling one gets on hearing of the death of someone whom one once knew well, but with whom one has since long lost touch. I also read it with faint surprise. The 'PG' I knew – so long ago! – could never die.
When first I read of his death, I didn't think I would write this: PG'd been gone from my mind so completely for so long. But as I thought back to the time when I knew him, 35 years ago, I was taken aback by how clear and detailed were the memories of him that returned. Perhaps it's like that with anyone who was once important to us. We only think we forget them.
I met PG in '58 when he came to coach track at the Abbey School, Mount St Benedict, where I was a student at the time. 'The Mount' was a private, predominantly white school, but – as we've since grown used to seeing in Britain and the US – its handful of non-white athletes enjoyed a success quite disproportionate to their numbers. Between them, in the age group above mine, Maillard Howell and Anthony Lucky (now Judge Lucky) ruled the track with an iron fist; and while in my own group Manuel Prada, a mixed-race Venezuelan, and I were sometimes separated or demoted in the placings by Bayshore's 'Turtleback' Galt, we were two of only five or six non-whites in our class.
At various times there were other fast kids who were white – Stanley Grosberg, who later ran the sprints at the Texaco Games, Richard Gransaul, Richard Farah – who, before he fell out of a mango tree and broke his leg and wound up having to have it amputated, would call for room when running a bend on grounds no family newspaper would ever print - and that was the composition of the unruly squad which PG arrived to coach.
To me, he arrived out of nowhere; for I had never met anyone quite like him. A tall, beaming, hectoring character with a hoarse martial bawl, and (the result of an accident) either one or two fingers missing from one hand, PG simply arrived one day and swarmed all over us, berating, heckling, encouraging, congratulating, sprinting from one end of the field to the other to bawl at us (for PG never seemed to walk anywhere, he always sprinted, or at least cantered). His presence quickly dominated the playing field. It was hard to remember a time we'd trained without PG.
He was the first real coach we'd ever had, though prior to his coming various track-inclined parents, including one who'd been quite gifted in his time, had filled that role. And because PG ran with us – and because there quickly sprung up between him and us a competition that was deadly serious, yet ultimately quite safe, since PG, we knew, was on our side – we soon gave him that fealty which every kid insensibly gives to the man or woman who first causes him to 'dig deep' and discover depths he hadn't known he had.
So PG became our track father. We made jokes about him behind his back, of course, but they weren't ill-meant or contemptuous – not anything like the ridicule we heaped in private on those teachers and/ or priests whom we thought deserved it. PG had, for example, a minor speech impediment and couldn't pronounce certain fricatives. He'd say 'werff' for 'worth,' or 'berfday' for 'birthday,' things like that. And so, soon, the quip went out: 'The Lord said to PG, 'Come forff,' but he came fiff.' That kind of thing.
PG had been a quarter-miler and was still inordinately proud of his running action. 'In my heyday,' he would tell us, till we were sick of hearing it, 'I had a 9-foot stride. I still have it; look!' – PG cantering off, calling back to us, 'Look at dat! Look at dat!' – and today, 35 years later, the image of PG in action is clearly before me as I write this: a deliberate, lunging gallop, head thrust forward, shoulders thrown back, elbows held wide – ah, PG!
For warm-ups we would jog a mile; invariably, at the last, these turned into a pell-mell sprint. For the first year or so, I remember, no one ever beat PG to the line. But we were getting bigger, and he was getting older, and a time came when he would cannily drop out on the last bend and cut across the inside of the track, doing this on the pretext that it allowed him to see us better and bawl individually at us ('Brong, yuh sleepwalkin', Brong! Move it move it move it! Howard, pump dose daddy-long-legs!').
Such ruses weren't quite enough, of course, to protect PG and his ground-devouring stride from the increasing attention of devouring Time; and sometimes this was painful to him. I remember in particular, for my own role in it, an afternoon he elected for some reason to run a quarter, and for a running mate selected Howell.
Now, Howell was a school sprinter of a very high order: someone who, I've often thought since, would no doubt have made it to the Olympics if he'd come along just a few years later. PG put him to run on his outside (Catcalls: 'Hey PG daz not fair! De coach should be on the outside!') and though they ran shoulder to shoulder throughout, it was obvious by the end that Howell was cruising, while PG was (covertly) flat out and all in.
We noted this among ourselves, amused. But then I went too far, calling out, in the pusillanimous feckless way of kids: 'PG! PG! Don't bother try not to pant! Howell buss y'ass!'
I had time to glimpse, dismayed, the quick hurt in PG's face before Prada dragged me away, demanding angrily below his breath to know what kind of man I was – I was 15 – and whether I thought getting old was funny. (PG by then would have been pushing 40.) I understood it for the first time, that afternoon, 'getting old.' For the first time, I both saw and felt it.
'I din' mean it, PG,' I said miserably, returning. 'I was jus' joking.'
And: 'Don't worry about it,' PG said sadly – yet somehow still heartily, for PG was always hearty – dropping a hand on my shoulder. 'You can't help it; you was always a young horse's arse.'
PG, as I said, was different; there was something about him I couldn't place. At the time, I put it down to his policeman's training, and to his Barbadian-ness. I didn't quite know what the latter meant, but I still think they were part of it. PG was 'an educationist,' a man who had consciously learned and practised his running – or so his textbook-perfect stride implied – just as he'd since learned and was practising his coaching; just as, in later years, he learnt and practised his physiotherapy. Yet such learning blent easily with his exuberance and talent, and didn't at all stifle them. And in this he was quintessentially Barbadian, not Jamaican or Trinidadian or Guyanese.
To me, however, the main thing different about PG was something I only understood consciously much later. This was that he was the first black man I'd ever met who treated white and black kids exactly – I mean, exactly – as though they were the same. I don't think this meant he was colourblind. To the contrary, I think his race mattered to PG; he was a Barbadian, after all. (Many years later, PG was with Crawford in Montreal, and I can just imagine the line his rhetoric took when he sat down with the TT sprinter the night before the 100 to psyche him up.) But once out on the track with us, PG was completely race-impartial. He was 'an educationist,' we were his class; and running was his abiding, great love.
I must have felt this at the time, for I remember being startled when, before a race in which my main competition was Bayshore's Galt, PG drew me aside and said sternly: 'Don't let me down, you hear me?'
'Okay, PG,' I said.
He stared at me. 'You understand what I'm telling you?'
'No, PG. What?'
'Me and you, we are people of colour. You don't let that white boy beat you, understand?'
I went to the line with the startled, bubbly-warm feeling that the coach and I had a secret; that me and PG, we were in this one together, the two of us united against Galt. It was only afterwards that I discovered that PG had likewise drawn Galt aside and told him more or less the same thing: 'Let that little black boy beat you, you never call yourself a man in front of me again, you hear me?' The ol' PG democratically working the racial vein, as only a West Indian, and a certain kind of West Indian, can.
Like other extroverted, happy men, 'PG' was a merciless competitor; it was how he had long expressed and focussed his pleasure in his own mastery. >From him you got none of that 'good boy scout' talk (which would secretly have disappointed us) about participation being its own reward. With PG, you trained to win.
The main part of this unreconstructed competitiveness was of course the physical: at training sessions, PG ran us, his young charges, into the ground. He could get you to do that, to run yourself out, because his heartiness - which was really the absence in him of any meanness, and the high spirits that underlay his hectoring - functioned as a sort of buffer, turning you back upon yourself. You couldn't grudge PG when, feeling you were ready to drop, his martial command came: 'Okay, let's go again!' You could only dislike, blame yourself, for your own exhaustion. It was easier to dig deep, and run.
I remember, one afternoon when PG kept the 'interval' 150's going a lot longer than we were used to, being struck by the fact that, past a certain point, the groans and protests stopped. This was probably nine-tenths due to exhaustion, but I think now the other tenth was not just resignation but something more: a visceral, dawning intimation in us of the hardness of the life that awaited us as men. We ran those last 150's in silence because we were too tired to protest. But we also ran them in silence because we sensed that it was a new thing, and somehow important: the having to do it.
That was the physical part. But running, to PG, was all in all; and so our training had a psychological side. And though I'm not sure which of us this says something about, my most vivid memories of him involve that side.
Once, for example, before an 800 heat (this was in 1960) Bayshore's Galt cannily suggested to me – and I naively agreed – that he and I should demoralise another guy by taking turns to make the pace really hot, in this way to 'pull his stones out.' Accordingly, we led off, and kept going, at such a pace that though we tacitly finished abreast (and with the other guy nowhere in sight) I don't think either of us had anything left, though we both tried not to show it. I was still panting when PG grabbed my arm and led me away.
'What the hell wrong with you?' he began without preamble. 'You gone an' show the man your hand!'
It took me a moment to realize he meant Galt.
'How many times I have to tell you people, a heat is not a race, don't show your hand in the heats! You show the man your hand!'
'I din't, PG,' I protested weakly. 'I was holdin' back something.'
'You was – look, boy, hang your head! Young people like you goin' be the death of Dr Williams!'
From PG we learnt the tricks of the trade: how to spread your elbows on the bend to force the other guy wide, how to twitch your shoulder at the 'set' to false-start the guy next to you. And these weren't taught us in any spirit of mischief or whimsy. PG was a competitor, and demanded such vaguely shady skills of us every bit as earnestly as he demanded that we turn up with our tins of glucose on sports' day, say.
One intercol meet, before the 100, PG drew Prada and me aside. 'That X,' he said – I forget his name, some kid from south – ‘he's dangerous.' (Translation: 'You all can't beat him.') 'Whichever one of you draws next to him, I want you to false-start him, understood?'
I was a moralistic kid. I started praying at once it would be Prada, not me. So, of course, I got the draw.
Nonetheless, PG had decreed. My heart in my mouth, at the 'set' I jerked my shoulder and, my God, it worked! The kid went, was recalled, hung back in consequence the next time around while Prada, now, got a flyer; and so in that one, against the odds, 'The Mount' finished first and third.
After that, I think I felt for PG something of the remonstrative, sinful-sad love which whores feels for their pimps.
But I also grew up a little.
Another time, I 'broke' in a 400 and hesitated, expecting to be recalled. The recall didn't come, an Eldorado runner flew past me, and I wasn't able thereafter to reel him in. At the finish, bent over, hands on knees, panting and feeling disgusted with myself, I nonetheless caught sight of PG hurtling furiously towards me.
I retained that image of imminent retribution for a quarter of a century. Ten years ago, I put it in a story entitled The Runner Stumbles. 'Sebastian's school mates closed around him and a general furor began; one glimpsed his enraged coach sprinting towards him across the field.'
Our last year at the Mount drew to a close. We were about to part ways with PG when, to my surprise, he suggested that Galt and I should apply for athletics' scholarships to some university in the States. PG not only recommended this, to us, novel idea; he produced the application forms himself and harangued us almost daily to fill them out.
I never got around to doing so (I don't think Galt did either). My elders had already decreed that I would be moving down to CIC for Sixth Form, and in any case, though I'd made good progress on the track and currently held (an abiding, small pride) the East Trinidad under-16 half-mile record, I had seen the older generation of college kids run, Roberts and Monsegue, Howell and the Bastiens, and I knew, secretly but surely, that I was not in their class.
And PG's persistence troubled me. Too young to realize what a feather in his coach's c.v. it would be if two of his charges won scholarships, I didn't understand it. PG, I felt sure, had to know that Galt and I weren't athletics-scholarship material. Then, why was he pushing us to apply? It was the first feeling of wrongness I'd ever had about PG, and it made me inexplicably sad.
And that sadness turned to something else when, abruptly abandoning his scholarship harangue, PG began pressing on me instead his 'personalised training schedule,' which he intimated could be mine for $50 (a substantial sum in those days). I was 16; too old not to see that his salesman's ardour changed the relationship between us, and not old enough to understand that, in this colonial country, the daily lot of most people of PG's and my colour was (often, great) financial hardship. I bought PG's cyclostyled sheets, though I never used them (I think I still have them somewhere). But it was many years before I forgot the hurt of those 'betrayals.' PG, after all, had been my track father.
Sixteen years later, I was living in England when I heard that PG was with Crawford in Montreal. It was the first I'd heard of him in many years, and I remember thinking with wry pleasure that the old PG had 'landed on his feet,' after all. By then, I'd come to think of him – when I thought of him at all – with affectionate amusement, as 'that scamp.' It was the condescending compromise I'd arrived at over the years between my debt to him and its conclusion in hurt.
I had to grow older still before the latter finally faded in the abiding light of the great privilege of self-discovery through which PG's coaching had taken me. And then I understood that his financial fate (which perhaps I exaggerated) was simply the fate of most men possessed in our time by some magnificent obsession other than money. PG's lifelong obsession was track-and-field; and whatever prices he may have paid over the years in its pursuit, in its service, I think now that he was essentially a happy man, a free man.
I last saw him about eight years ago, one morning on Elizabeth St, outside the Ministry of Education. He looked as fit as ever, though he was dapper now rather than imposing, and there was about him a slight air of anxiety which I'd never associated with him before. At the time I was writing this column five days a week, was all caught up in the coming '86 elections, and had gone, in short, as far as I would ever go from the long-lost world of PG and The Mount.
But the things that were once important to us, they never die, they only go into abeyance. And that morning, when PG barked in his old hearty-martial way, 'I see you lashing them every day in the papers, man, Brong! Very good, very good! Keep it up!' I was almost girlishly startled, and – 26 years on! – I felt the sheepish, abashed pleasure of a protégé commended by his mentor.
Wayne Brown
Photo: pg wilson
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