He leaned into the gradient and once again fought the enemy of his own pain. It was a torture and a therapy. That was why he did it. Those who know often say that of all the disciplines the triathlon is the most brutal and unforgiving. The decathlete has more skills to master, and putting the shot needs more brute strength; but for fearsome stamina and the capacity to meet the pain and beat it, there are few trials like the triathlon. The runner had risen as always on training days well before dawn. He drove his pickup to a distant New Jersey lake, dropping off his racing bicycle on the way, chaining it to a tree for safety. At two minutes after five, he set the chronometer on his wrist, pulled the sleeve of the neoprene wetsuit down to cover it, and entered the icy water.
It was the Olympic triathlon that he practiced, with distances measured in metric lengths. A fifteen-hundred-meter swim-as near as dammit one mile-out of the water, strip fast to undershirt and shorts, mount the racing bike, then forty kilometers crouched over the handlebars, all of it at the sprint. He had long ago measured the mile along the lake from end to end and knew exactly which tree on the far bank marked the spot he had left the bike. He had marked out his forty kilometers along the country roads, always at that empty hour, and knew which tree was the point to abandon the bike and start the run. Ten kilometers was the run, and there was a farm gatepost that marked the two-clicks-to-go point. That morning he had just passed it. The last two kilometers were uphill, the final heartbreaker, the no-mercy stretch. The reason it hurt so much is that the muscles needed are all different. The powerful shoulders, chest, and arms of a swimmer are not normally needed by a speed cyclist or marathon man. They are just extra poundage that has to be carried. The speed-blurred driving of the legs and hips of a cyclist are different from the tendons and sinews that give the runner the rhythm and cadence to eat up the miles underfoot. The repetitiveness of the rhythms of one exercise does not match those of the other. The triathlete needs them all, then tries to match the performances of three specialist athletes one after the other. At age twenty-five it is a cruel event. At the age of fifty-one, it ought to be indictable under the Geneva Convention. The runner had passed his fifty-first the previous January. He dared a glance at his wrist and scowled. Not good; he was several minutes down on his best. He drove harder against his enemy. The Olympians were looking at just under two hours; the New Jersey runner had clipped two hours twenty. He was almost at that time now, and he still had almost two kilometers to go.
The first houses of his hometown came into view around a curve in Highway 30. The old, prerevolution village of Pennington straddles Route 31, just off Interstate 95, running down from New York, through the state, and on to Philadelphia, Baltimore, then Washington. There is not much to Pennington, one of a million neat, clean, tidy, neighborly small towns that make up the overlooked and underestimated heart of the United States. A single major crossroads at the center where West Delaware Avenue crosses Main Street, several well-attended churches of three denominations, a First National Bank, a handful of shops, and off-the-street residences scattered down the tree-clothed byroads. The runner headed for the crossroads, half a kilometer to go. He was too early for a coffee at the Cup of Joe or breakfast at Vito's Pizza, but even had they been open he would not have stopped. South of the junction he passed the Civil War vintage, white clapboard house with the shingle of Calvin Dexter, attorney-at-law, next to the door. It was his office, his shingle, and his law practice, save for the occasions when he took time off and went away to attend to his other practice. Clients and neighbors accepted that he took fishing vacations now and then, knowing nothing of the small apartment under another name in New York City. He drove his aching legs that last five hundred yards to reach the turning into Chesapeake Drive at the south end of town. That was where he lived, and the corner marked the end of his self-imposed Calvary. He slowed, stopped, and hung his head, leaning against a tree, sucking in oxygen to heaving lungs. Two hours, thirty-six minutes. Far from his best. That there was probably no one within a hundred miles who, aged fifty-one, could come near it was not the point. The point, as he would never dare to explain to the neighbors who grinned and cheered him on, was to use the pain to combat the other pain, the always pain, the pain that never went away, the pain of lost child, lost love, lost everything. The runner turned into his street and walked the last two hundred yards. Ahead of him he saw the paperboy hurl a heavy bundle onto his porch. The kid waved as he cycled past, and Cal Dexter waved back. Later he would take his motor scooter and go retrieve his truck. With the scooter in the rear, he would drive home, picking up the racing bike along the road. First he needed a shower, some high-energy bars, and the contents of several oranges. On the stoop he picked up the bundle of mail and newspapers, broke them open, and looked. Calvin Dexter, the wiry, sandy-haired, friendly, smiling attorney of Pennington, New Jersey, had been born with close to nothing in terms of a worldly advantage. He'd been created in a Newark slum, rife with roaches and rats, and came into the world in January 1950, the son of a construction worker and a waitress at the local diner. His parents, according to the morality of the age, had had no choice but to marry when a meeting in a neighborhood dance hall and a few drinks too many had led to things getting out of hand and his own conception. His father was not a bad man, by his lights. After Pearl Harbor he had volunteered for the armed forces, but as a skilled construction worker he had been deemed more useful at home, where the war effort involved the creation of thousands of new factories, dockyards, and government offices. He was a hard man, quick with his fists, the only law on many blue-collar jobs. But he tried to live by the straight and narrow, bringing his pay straight home unopened, trying to raise his toddler son to love Old Glory, the Constitution, and Joe DiMaggio.
But when the Korean War ended, the job opportunities gradually slipped away. Only the industrial blight remained, and the unions were in the grip of the Mob. Calvin was five when his mother left. He was too young to understand why. He knew nothing of the loveless union his parents had had, accepting with the philosophical endurance of the very young that people always shouted and quarreled. He knew nothing of the traveling salesman who had promised her bright lights and better frocks. He was simply told she had "gone away." He had accepted that his father was now home each evening, looking after him instead of having a few beers after work, staring glumly at a foggy television screen. It was not until his teens that he learned his mother, abandoned in her turn by the traveling salesman, had tried to return but been rebuffed by his angry and bitter father. When Calvin was seven, his father hit upon an idea to solve the problem of a home and the need to search for work far and wide. They moved out of the walk-up tenement in Newark and acquired a second-hand trailer. This became his home for ten years.
Father and son moved from job to job, living in the trailer, the scruffy boy attending whichever local school would take him. It was the age of Elvis Presley, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison, the Beatles, over from a country Cal had barely heard of. It was the age of Kennedy, the Cold War, and Vietnam. The jobs came and the jobs were completed. They moved through the northern cities of East Orange, Union, and Elizabeth; then on to work outside New Brunswick and Trenton. For a time they lived in the Pine Barrens while Dexter Senior was foreman on a small project. Then they headed south to Atlantic City. Between the ages of eight and sixteen, Cal attended nine schools in as many years. His formal education could fill an entire postage stamp. But he became wise in other ways; streetwise, fightwise. Like his departed mother, he did not grow tall, topping out at five feet, eight inches. Nor was he heavy and muscular like his father, but his lean frame packed fearsome stamina and his fists a killer punch. Once he challenged the booth fighter in a fairground sideshow, knocked him flat, and took the twenty-dollar prize. A man who smelt of cheap aftershave approached his father and suggested the boy attend his gym with a view to becoming a boxer, but they moved on to a new city and a new job. There was no question of money for vacations, so when school was out, the kid just went to the construction site with his father. There he made coffee, ran errands, did odd jobs. One of the "errands" involved a man who told him there was a vacation job taking envelopes to various addresses across Atlantic City and saying nothing to anyone. So for the summer vacation of 1965, he became a bookie's runner. Even from the bottom of the social pile, a smart kid can still look. Cal Dexter could sneak unpaying into the local movie house and marvel at the glamour of Hollywood, the huge rolling vistas of the Wild West, the shimmering glitz of the screen musicals, the crazy antics of the Martin and Lewis comedies. He could see in the television ads perfect houses with stainless-steel kitchens and smiling families in which the parents seemed to love each other. He could look at the gleaming limousines and sports cars on the billboards above the highway. He had nothing against the hard hats of the construction sites. The men were gruff and crude, but they were kind to him, or most of them were anyway. On site he, too, wore a hard hat, and the general presumption was that once out of school he would follow his father in the building trades. But he had other ideas. Whatever life he had, he vowed, it would be far from the crash of the trip-hammer and the choking dust of cement mixers. Then he realized that he had nothing to offer in exchange for that better, more moneyed, more comfortable life. He thought of the movies but assumed all actors were towering men, unaware that most were well under five feet nine. This thought only came to him because some barmaid said she thought he looked a bit like James Dean, but the building workers roared with laughter so he dropped the idea. Sports and athletics could get a kid out of the street and on the road to fame and fortune, but he had been through all his schools so fast he had never had a chance to make any of the school teams. Anything involving a formal education, let alone qualifications, was out of the question. That left other kinds of working-class employment-waiter, bellhop, grease monkey, delivery van driver-the list was endless, but for all the prospects most of them offered, he might as well stay with construction. The sheer brutalism and danger of the work made it better paid than most.
Or there was crime. No one raised on the waterfronts or construction sites of New Jersey could possibly be unaware that organized crime, running with the gangs, could lead to a life of big apartments, fast cars, and easy women. The word was, it hardly ever led to jail. He was not Italian American, which would preclude full membership in the Mob aristocracy, but there were n0 others who had made good. He quit school at seventeen and started the next day at his father's work site, a housing project outside Camden. A month later the driver/operator of the bulldozer fell ill. There was no substitute. It was a skilled job. Cal looked at the interior of the cab. It made sense. "I could work this," he said. The foreman was dubious. It would be against all the rules. Any inspector chancing along and his job would be history. On the other hand, the whole team was standing around needing mountains of earth shifted. "There's an awful lot of levers in there." "Trust me," said the kid. It took about twenty minutes to work out which lever did what function. He began to shift dirt. It meant a bonus, but it was still not a career. In January 1968, he turned eighteen, and the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive. He was watching television in a bar in Camden. After the newscast came several commercials and then a brief recruitment film made by the army. It mentioned that, if you shaped up, the army would give you an education. The next day he walked into the U.S. Army office in Camden and said, "I want to join the army." Back then every American youth would, failing some pretty unusual circumstances or voluntary exile, become liable for compulsory draft just after his eighteenth birthday. The desire of just about every teenager and twice that number of parents was to get out of it. The master sergeant behind the desk looked bemused.
"I'm volunteering," Cal said. That caught his attention.
The master sergeant drew a form toward him, keeping eye contact like a ferret that does not want the rabbit to get away. "Well, that's fine, kid. That's a very smart thing to do. Take a word of advice from an old sweat?"
"Sure." "Make it three years instead of the required two. Good chance of better postings, better career choices." He leaned forward as one imparting a state secret. "With three years, you could even avoid going to Vietnam." "But I want to go to Vietnam," said the kid in the soiled denims. The master sergeant thought this one over. "Right," he said very slowly. He might have said, "There's no accounting for taste." Instead he said, "Hold up your right hand ..."
Thirty-three years later, the former hard hat pushed four oranges through the juicer, rubbed the towel over his wet head again, and took the pile of papers with the juice through to the sitting room. There was the local paper, another from Washington, and one from New York, and, in a wrapper, a technical magazine. It was this he went to first. Vintage Airplane is not a big-circulation organ, and in Pennington it could only be obtained by mail order. It catered to those with a passion for classic and World War II airplanes. The runner flicked to the small want ads section. He stopped, the juice halfway to his mouth, put down the glass, and read the item again. It said: "AVENGER. Wanted. Serious offer. No price ceiling. Please call." There was no Pacific War Grumman Avenger torpedo dive-bomber out there to be bought. They were in museums.
Copyright ©2003 by Frederick Forsyth