a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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
"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
"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
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 email@example.com