The Grandma Loop

Pete was a gangly Mormon with an easy smile. I was a scrawny late-blooming eighth-grader good at turning that smile into laughter. Our friendship blossomed on the Jr. High track team one spring as we both tried out for the distance team knowing everyone got to run the mile and there would be no cuts.

Each afternoon practice our chiseled coach who doubled as the shop teacher would give us a Xeroxed  map (Today you would say "printed" or "copied") with a hand-drawn line on the roads we were to run. In the upper corner, in perfect all-capitals printing, was the name of the "Loop" for the day's training and its distance. A popular one we received that I remember was the Falling Springs Loop, 4.1 miles. . .and an ungodly amount of hills.

Pete and I ended up running the loops together most days at a pace known as a "slog", a slow jog. It's the pace most of us normal humans run after age 35. . .not like those abnormal jerks out there peeling off a half marathon at a six minute pace when they should be eating dinner at 4:30 pm and watching Judge Judy. . .

It became apparent in my soul at the tender age of thirteen that I was not what people in the biz would call a runner, and so my little mind began to think about other Loops Pete and I could run together. . .

I ran some quick figures and pitched a scheme to Pete. . .

Let's slog away from the school like everyone else except today we'll bring some cash in our pockets and peel away when the pack gets drawn out. . .

. . .and go to Dunkin Donuts. We'll eat a few or eight donuts and pace our return to arrive at our normal mediocre time and also to prevent projectile vomiting. . .

It was a rush, both of adrenaline and sugar, our friendship growing in the way only possible by a shared secret, powdered sugar on our faces as we laughed at the world and Kenyan marathoners and algebra and girls who were missing out on our looks and character.

It was also very scary. The risk-reward ratio was just too high in my nefarious mind so I went back to the deception drawing board and came up with the Grandma Loop. . .

My town in Pennsylvania is very typical of northern towns, arranged in blocks by mostly perpendicular streets, houses going at least two stories in the air and tightly pressed together. The design makes it easy to navigate and allows many homes and businesses to be concentrated in a small area. My grandparents lived right across the street from the elementary school I had gone to and had watched me every day after school, and now they lived just a few blocks away from the high school where our track team practiced. . .

The Grandma Loop gave us a few advantages over the Donut Loop: it was closer, it was much easier to avoid getting spotted, and Grandma wouldn't charge us for snacks. . .

The first time Pete and I knocked on the door, Grandma about exploded with joy. . .grandparents love visits but they really love surprise visits. She busted out the Pepsi and  pretzels and we had a great conversation; Grandma was always so good at asking questions about your life and about what you thought about certain things (usually prompted by the local news or the old Donahue talk show)

My grandfather, or Pappy as we called him, sat on the couch with his legs stretched out, ankles crossed, working a cigarette in the corner of his lips, hands free, the way the old school guys can, making it dangle there effortlessly, giving off the aura of the greatest generation in steady wisps of cancerous cloud. . .

He would join in the conversation slightly, but not with his usual gusto or wit. Pappy was my hero in many ways but particularly the way he moaned as the victim in every situation with self-deprecating exaggeration, winking at you after he'd made the case of why his life was so horrible. . .

Or maybe I looked up to him so much because when we all went out to eat at a buffet together, everyone would return to the table carrying a salad, except Pappy, who often came back with a plate of pudding and would sit down and simply say "I love pudding." (He often washed down the main course with another round of pudding by declaring "That pudding was good, I think I'll have another.")

It was the third time Pete and I had run the Grandma Loop, and the pretzels and Pepsis were already on the coffee table and Grandma had been looking for us at the door. . .

Two minutes into the conversation and Pappy interrupted the flow, taking over. . .and I will never forget his speech that day.

"Matthew, we need to talk. We love you and we love seeing you, we really do. But you're deceiving your parents and your coach and your team by coming here every day, and though we love having you here--we can't be a part of the deception any longer. You need to be honest Matthew; it's called integrity."


"Butch, you're being too hard on him."

"No I'm not Posey, this is what he needs to hear."

They used their pet names with each other and then they caught each others' eye and Grandma knew he was right. . .

. . .and I knew he was right, and I still know he was right to this day. I always remember The Grandma Loop: there may be a way to get some free snacks and still fool everyone but it's not the way an honest life is supposed to be lived.

But I do know of a time when Pappy himself wasn't honest-- when he deceived not a track team, but an entire military. . .and he didn't do it for donuts. He needed to be seventeen to fight in World War II, but he was only sixteen. . .but back then a little white lie like that was easy to pull off. . .

My Pappy passed away a few years ago and I miss him greatly. The last times I visited him in PA we would go to the local Veteran's club and have soup together, surrounded by forgotten pillars of integrity as they meticulously crumbled saltines into plastic bowls, cold draft beers standing diligent at lonely tables, heads nodding to each other with a weight and depth of knowledge being lost in our social networked era. . .

Last night on Veteran's Day we broke our usual dinner routine and actually had a dessert. And as my thirteen year old daughter and I ate our pudding together, we remembered a man of integrity who I was blessed to call Pappy. . .

Matt O.

(RIP Wendell Paul "Whitey, Butch, Skeetz" Orth, I hope they have horseshoes where you are. . .)