Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

May 16, 2001:
Just who are those four baggy-shorted fellows
Wishful thinking on the train to Princeton

By Hugh O'Bleary

This is a ghost story.

But unlike most ghost stories, which require dark nights filled with howling winds and creaking shutters to be truly effective, this is a tale to be told on a glorious spring afternoon full of sunshine and birdsong, a story to sit back and listen to as the Dinky clatters along, over the D&R Canal and up the tracks to the old, familiar campus.

In fact, let's begin our ghost story right here on the train. It is May 12, a lovely spring Saturday. The train is only about half full; the usual grim clutch of commuters happily absent for the weekend. A young man with sandals on his feet and headphones on his ears sprawls across three seats; a couple and their two little boys sit huddled together speaking French; an old woman is working the New York Times crossword puzzle in green ink.

Your gaze follows the conductor as he lumbers down the aisle, and that's when you notice the four young men standing together in the vestibule at the center of the car.

The conductor, spinning his hole punch on his finger, ambles right past them without so much as a glance, but you find yourself staring. Who are these guys? Students, you guess, but what's with the slicked-back hair, parted in the middle, and the goofy get-ups? The four are dressed exactly alike in baggy white shorts and sleeveless white shirts.

The more you look, though, the more you seem to see them through a kind of sepia haze - a trick of the sun, perhaps, glinting in the windows of the train.

Then one of the four, the tallest, turns and looks directly at you, reaches out a long arm and says, "Come." You look around, but none of your fellow passengers is paying the slightest attention. Now you're getting a little weirded-out.

But you rise and, taking your ticket stub with you from the back of the seat, walk over to where the four young men are standing in silence.

Up close, the sepia tone is still there, but you also notice - and your weird-out meter goes right off the charts - that you can, well, see through these guys. You're standing there, jaw agape, reading a New Jersey Transit poster through one of their torsos, when the tall one speaks again. "Are we in Princeton?" he says.

You nod.

The four look at each other and smile.

"That's good," says one of the young men. The train is pulling into the Dinky station.

"We're going to the track meet," says the tall man. The train stops, and with a sort of a shimmer the four pass through the door and onto the platform. You? You wait till the doors open.

The ghostly gang of four is right there waiting for you as the rest of the passengers, oblivious, stream past. "Who are you?" you say. It seems a reasonable question

"Forgive me," says the tall one. "Please allow me to introduce myself and my companions."

This, you think, had better be good.

"I am Robert Garrett '97," he says. Then, with a small smile, he adds, "Eighteen-ninety-seven."

"Of course," you say.

"And these are my classmates," continues Garrett, pointing to each in turn, "Albert Tyler, Herbert Jamison, and Francis Lane."

The names sound vaguely familiar and then it comes to you - the shorts, the track meet - these apparitions standing before you are Princeton's original Olympians, the four members of the Class of 1897 who participated in the first Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. You saw a TV movie about them once. The big guy, Garrett, won both the shot put and the discus. His winning discus is in the university archives, sitting somewhere on a shelf in Mudd Library. You look closer at the four. Considering that they're, y'know, dead, they look very fit.

Despite the uncanny nature of your new friends, you're not afraid (isn't it always that way in a ghost story?). "You're going to the track meet?" you ask, trying to sound normal. You know that Princeton is hosting an invitational meet this afternoon featuring several world-class athletes. It makes sense that fans of the sport would come from,er, far away to catch the action.

"Yes," says Garrett in stentorian tones. "We want to see how the great sport of athletics has been carried on by the men of Princeton."

You nod again and prepare to set off across campus, when suddenly there is a flash and a rush of wind and there you stand, beside the four on the infield grass of Weaver Stadium, blinking in the sun.

Now, of course, it is time for the four old Olympians to stare - as if they have seen ghosts. For all around them are visions beyond their wildest Victorian-era dreams: Young men and young women, a great number of them African-American (and all clad in shiny, skin-tight uniforms so different from those baggy old shorts), are running and jumping with what to 19th-century eyes must seem supernatural ability

Poor Albert Tyler, who back in '96 took second in the pole vault with a jump just over 10 feet, blinks and almost fades into the air as he watches Lawrence Johnson, the 2000 silver medalist in the event, soars over the bar at 19-feet, 2 1/4-inches. A young woman named Ambyr Craw from Lafayette College, clears 10'11", an inch higher than the winning man jumped in Athens.

Garrett gawks as Travis Pendleton of Army spins and hurls the discus 166'2" - more than 70 feet farther than Garrett's world-record toss in Athens. Sara Fields, also of Army ("A woman at West Point?!" says Garrett), wins the women's competition with a 147'1" throw.

All four of the old Olympians, though, are most captivated by the meet's star attraction, Sydney triple gold medalist Marion Jones. Gracefully muscular, with a radiant smile that draws cheers from the crowd of 5,000 or so on hand, this young African-American woman powers smoothly down the track to win the 100 meters in 11.12 seconds. It is a pedestrian time for Jones, but it would have won the men's 100 at Athens (there was no race for women) by nearly a second.

You sit in silence and soak up the atmosphere. The crowd cheers Jones's gracious post-race comments. Lawrence Johnson, wearing wrap-around shades and an earring and introduced to the fans as Lo-Jo, promises to come back next year to try for 20 feet. The wining athletes toss T-shirts into the crowd, and young white boys in baseball caps lean over the railing to slap five with black women sprinters as they jog back down the track after their race.

After the meet, you walk with the ghosts in the spring sunshine back across campus (you're getting pretty used to this). Jamison, Tyler and Lane are talking excitedly about where they might find some lycra tights "on the other side," but Garrett seems lost in thought. Then he speaks.

"When we went to those first Games," he says, "they taught us the Olympic motto: Swifter, Higher, Farther." He pauses, looking almost as substantial as if he were real. "I never thought," he says, "we could come this far."

Then, this being a ghost story, you wake to find yourself back on the train.

Hugh O'Bleary commutes to New York City from Princeton. He revels in his daily sojourn across campus to catch the Dinky. You can reach Hugh O'Bleary by writing him c/o paw@princeton.edu