The Ghosts I Run With

Matt Tullis: “Creech.”

The name escaped my lips somewhere in the third mile of a five-mile run. It was a name I had been trying to think of, off-and-on, for the better part of a decade, the last name of my nurse Janet from Viking Street in Orrville, Ohio.

Janet brought me sausage biscuits from McDonald’s just about every morning because it was the only thing I would eat. She was typically my nurse on first shift. She had short brown hair and was about the same age as my mom, and so she felt very motherly to me.

Those things I could remember, but not her last name. Until now.

She died sometime after my initial 70-day residency at Akron Children’s Hospital, which started on Jan. 3, 1991, but during my more than two years of chemotherapy and radiation as an outpatient, time spent eradicating all the leukemic cells in my 15-to-17-year-old body. She died of cancer after years of caring for kids with cancer.

Surviving A Hike

Kevin Koczwara: A sense of dread has hung over Jason Spare’s life.

Spare’s father was 33 years old when he had his first heart attack. It almost killed him. Spare’s mother had breast cancer and complications related to the chemotherapy haunted her. They both died in their late 50s.

“I always had in the back of my mind a sense of mortality and urgency in life from being in that kind of situation so early on,” Spare says.

Spare, 46, looks worried. He’s digging through his stuff and reorganizing his backpack on the cold concrete floor of an ancient feeling ski lodge. He’s getting ready for what will be the hardest thing he has ever done: a 50-mile, 36-hour hike through the wilderness of Vermont in the middle of January. The hike, which will follow the Long Trail over the state’s highest mountains, is called Extremus.

The Rookie And The Zetas

Joe Tone: It was a matter of seconds, closer to six than seven, before what was happening became obvious, the colt masked in pink kicking up clouds of red on its way into the lead. It was late November, 2009. This race, the Texas Classic Futurity, was among the last of the year at Lone Star Park, the last chance to watch the 2-year-olds run. The last chance at a payday: $1.1 million up for grabs, a half million to the winning owner.

All eyes were on that horse in pink. The muscular sorrel colt, with a white racing stripe tracing the bridge of its nose, had first edged into the lead several weeks earlier, catching many in the crowd off guard. It had never raced in the United States, let alone placed. But it won that first race, and the next, and the next, and by the time it burst from the gates of the Classic, it was the odds-on favorite.

“Tempting Dash has been invincible!” the announcer bellowed as the horse cruised to the finish line, winning by three lengths and breaking its own track record. “Untouchable!”

Tempting Dash bounced along the track, 4-0, a future lucrative stud preening for his eventual suitors. Down in the winner’s circle, a family gathered around the horse’s owner, which only fueled the bleacher chatter. When the horse had first raced that fall, it was owned by a guy well known in racing circles. But since then it had been quietly sold to José Treviño Morales, the stocky, jocular man who was down there with Tempting Dash.

A few of the old-timers were suspicious. But for the most part, they just didn’t know anything about Treviño. He was, to them, like Tempting Dash a few weeks earlier, a mysterious newcomer, totally unknown but coming on fast.

Before I Go

Paul Kalanithi: In residency, there’s a saying: The days are long, but the years are short. In neurosurgical training, the day usually began a little before 6 a.m., and lasted until the operating was done, which depended, in part, on how quick you were in the OR.

A resident’s surgical skill is judged by his technique and his speed. You can’t be sloppy and you can’t be slow. From your first wound closure onward, spend too much time being precise and the scrub tech will announce, “Looks like we’ve got a plastic surgeon on our hands!” Or say: “I get your strategy — by the time you finish sewing the top half of the wound, the bottom will have healed on its own. Half the work — smart!” A chief resident will advise a junior: “Learn to be fast now — you can learn to be good later.” Everyone’s eyes are always on the clock. For the patient’s sake: How long has the patient been under anesthesia? During long procedures, nerves can get damaged, muscles can break down, even causing kidney failure. For everyone else’s sake: What time are we getting out of here tonight?

The Strawberry Queen

Anna M. Phillips: PLANT CITY — In a strawberry patch thirty minutes outside of Tampa, just past the exit for a dinosaur-themed amusement park, Maria Zuñiga pulls on her mud-covered rubber boots and ties a bandana under her dark, quiet eyes.

Now in her third season of strawberry picking, her latex-gloved hands know the most efficient choreography. Her body knows to stay bent at the waist, like a runner frozen mid-toe-touch. If you were to pass her from the road, you would see only the curve of her back silhouetted against the sun.

On this morning, she puts in earbuds to fill the silence of forty other workers picking fruit. There is no conversation, save for a polite exchange as the laborers near the ends of their rows and turn to see whose flats are nearly full. “Cuántos le falta?” they ask each other. How many are you missing?

100 Years

Joe Kovac Jr.: On the evening of July 14, 1915, a couple went into the Southern Railway station in Macon and tried to give away a baby. The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl was almost 5 months old, and she wasn’t theirs.

Salvation Army Capt. G.B. Austin was across the way at the Brown House hotel when someone told him. Austin hardly believed it, but he hustled to the station at Ocmulgee and Fifth streets. Built in the 1880s, the depot, replaced by Terminal Station a year later, featured a brick spire that overlooked the tracks.

On a bench in the waiting room, Austin saw a woman with a baby and sat down beside her. The man supposedly with her wasn’t around. Austin told the woman what he had heard.

“I guess I am the one you are looking for,” the woman said.

“Tell me about it,” Austin said, according to an account in the Macon Daily Telegraph.

The Martyr’s Son

Brendan Meyer: John Reeb plodded down the cracked pavement of Washington Street, his thick white beard and frizzy gray hair glowing orange in the setting sun. His feet ached as he moved slowly past the white-brick café on the right, his first footsteps in Selma, Alabama, shadowing the route his father took 50 years earlier.

Sixty-four strides from the café was a 3-foot-wide memorial with a man immaculately carved on the front. John weaved between photographers, reporters, tourists and locals, and faced the front of the monument.

There, just as he remembered him, was a bronze version of the man he hadn’t seen in 50 years. There was the dimple on his left cheek. There was the greased hair, always slicked to the left, the rimmed circular glasses and the bow tie.

There was his father, James Reeb.

A Job, Not A Parable

Anne Hull: The Hardee’s biscuit slides toward the heat lamp, and the uniforms are waiting.

“That one’s mine,” says Brandi Garner, snagging the cinnamon biscuit. A digital clock overhead is tracking each customer’s wait time in the drive-through and transmitting the results back to corporate. Brandi folds the bag so the heat won’t escape, then leans out into the 8-degree wind chill with snow spitting sideways on her face and farmland all around. At home later she’ll have a few nice sips of Equate Stomach Relief, but now she’s counting four sets of headlights and two employees who called in sick.

“Let’s go,” Brandi says, drumming her fingers. “Where’s the egg and cheese?”

Two weeks earlier in Washington, a former Hardee’s biscuit shift worker had appeared in front of 32 million Americans to present her vision for the country.­

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, recalled growing up in the small Iowa town of Red Oak and working the biscuit shift at Hardee’s to pay for college. Ernst, 44, cited her own striving as proof that opportunity is available to any American who wants it.

“You just need the freedom to dream big and a whole lot of hard work,” she said.

Brandi didn’t see the speech. Neither did any of her co-workers. They had never thought of the biscuit shift as a parable. Hardee’s is a job, and paychecks come out every other Wednesday. Trina Starkey, who is 18, spends hers on rent and ramen noodles. Emily Abell, who is 20, buys diapers. Brandi, who is 31, drives around Creston with a bank envelope to pay her bills, including a stop at Leslie’s Dance Emporium to cover her daughter’s tumbling class.

Rez Ball

Dirk Chatelain: WAYNE, Neb. — Mike Barry bounces back and forth from the gymnasium to the ticket window, running the numbers in his head.

Inside, bleachers are filling fast. Outside, the line snakes down the sidewalk almost 100 yards. He has a problem.

Barry has managed Wayne State’s facilities for 17 years, all the way back to the heyday of Greg McDermott. He has never locked the doors.

If fans keep coming, he isn’t going to have a choice.

He knew this Class C-1 clash would draw a big crowd. District finals are always popular. And Norfolk Catholic has a devoted fan base. The mystery was on the other side: the 24-1 Winnebago Indians.

Three nights earlier, Barry had attended Winnebago’s subdistrict final. He witnessed the best dunk he’d seen all year — “That was worth the price of admission right there.” He noticed the buzz around the region. Even casual basketball fans were talking about the state’s best Native American high school team in decades.

“This isn’t taking anything away from Norfolk Catholic,” Barry says. “But I had a sense that there were a lot of people rooting for Winnebago.”

An hour before tipoff, a Winnebago fan had told Barry, “Hey, the town is closed. We brought everybody.”

(thanks, Nigel)