A Century in the Making (USA Day 49)
Until a couple of hours ago, I thought today’s blog would be about our first hundred-mile ride. In a way, I’m glad it isn’t, because it was uneventful. We took advantage of an early start, flat profile and lack of headwind to knock out sixty miles before lunch. The last fifty were utterly remote, devoid of water or shade and quite mentally taxing, however through a combination of podcasts, Jolly Ranchers and an extended game of Crambo, we kept ourselves entertained. After eleven hours on the road, we staggered into a Wendy’s in the crumbling farm town of Larned, Kansas, the first civilisation since Nickerson, a full sixty-one miles previous.
Larned’s city park has a pool which, like a few other towns on the TAT, offers free swims to cyclists. They even turned the flume on for us, which was a delight.
After our swim, we took all of four seconds to consider a camping spot when a figure in the park started waving us over. We ignored him, so he limped towards us, grinning. This was Dennis. He wore a big flannel shirt, a different shoe on each foot (because one’s full of metal) and a USS Saint Paul cap. Dennis had at most five teeth, and great sores on his arms from ‘buckets of blood thinners’ for his heart.
“I’m a vet,” he said. “US Navy. You can trust me. I wait here for cyclers like you, show ’em where to pitch up. It’s all I do.”
We followed Dennis to a covered picnic area, where he reminded us that we could trust him and that he wouldn’t bother us. He had kind, wet eyes and a constant, crooked smile. He couldn’t hear too well, but that’s ok. He had his life story to tell and we were merely tonight’s audience.
I climbed into Dennis’ cigarette-butt-filled car to go and register at the Police station, and on the way back he showed me the local attractions. “Those’re filled with wheat,” he said, without pointing. I assumed he meant the vultures. “That’s the bar. This is a new café. I ain’t gone inside. It don’t open on Mondays so you’ll get breakfast at the Sonic.”
Once we’d returned to the park, Dennis settled on a picnic table and told us about his time in the Navy. He’d been in Vietnam, manning a ship that patrolled the coast. He never saw action, but had painted a plaque for John Wayne and been in the background of one of his war movies, In Harm’s Way. His younger brother hadn’t been so lucky: Dennis told us with tears in his eyes how aboard his own ship he’d been exposed to a leaking cannister of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and died some time later in a military hospital in Wichita. The only two things Dennis does every day is visit the military memorial at the top of town and wait for cyclists here in the park.
Proudly, Dennis showed me a coin he kept in his pocket, containing the roman numerals XXXVIII and the inscription ‘Be true unto thyself’.
“Thirty-eight years clean,” he said. “I got angry when I was drunk. Got in fights. I thought I was just like everyone else but I was a bad man. That’s why I do this. Want to start doin’ some good in the world.”
He told us he didn’t accept money from cyclists. He didn’t even like being fed, though he was stick thin. He’d said earlier in the car that he didn’t do much eating any more, and his doctor had given him a good ‘tickin’ off’ just this morning about it. He was trying to give up smoking, but his wife kept buying him cigarettes. That’s why he wanted to be out of the house.
As it was getting dark, Dennis made his exit, but he’s stayed at the front and centre of our minds. We hope he’s at home having a sausage and not a cigarette. We hope he gets to tell his story to the other cyclists passing through, and if he does, that they listen.
Today: 108 Miles
Total: 2253 Miles