The One-Legged Boy

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

The old man watched his wife die.

The noontime rally, when she had suddenly sat up and declared she wanted to go home, was past now. The nurse on the other side of the bed, a young woman with pink hair, looked at two monitor screens, a blue one and a green one, and then shot the old man a sideways glance. The old man’s wife was perfectly still with her eyes closed. The only motion in the room was the jagged line on the monitor with the blue screen.

The old man thought that it was all over with her. Something was crushing him — loneliness like a ton of bricks.

Suddenly the woman’s eyes flickered open. She turned her head. The beeping of the monitor with the blue screen seemed only to intensify the stillness.

She looked straight up at him. Sleepy as she was, a kind of comprehension was evident in her eyes.

She just wants to know I’m here, the old man thought. She just wants to look at me one last time. Then she will die. Oh my heavens, she will die.

She closed her eyes. The nursed looked at the two monitors. Then her glance flickered toward the old man, and it was over.

He put his sneakers on and then rose slowly to his feet. He stood in front of his locker, the only one in the room with a name on it: Cecil Wood. This room, this pool and pool house, were his real home. So it had been for almost forty years. But everything was different now. With his wife gone, his world was scarcely recognizable to him. He had no one.

He went out into the afternoon sunshine. Dozens of youngsters splashed about in the pool, or sat on the edge, or hung about chattering with each other.

June saw him and came over at once. She wore a black tank suit with a baggy pink T-shirt pulled over it, and her brown eyes and light hair glittered in the sunlight. She threw her arms around Woody.

“I was out of state — I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral,” she said.

“It’s okay. I know your father was sick.”

Woody looked and sounded like the drill sergeant he had once been, a long time ago. He was stocky, with close-cropped gun-metal gray hair, and a voice with sandpaper in it.

“I know everyone was there,” said June. “Ruthie was the best-loved lady in town.”

The eyes of the leathery old man became watery now. June, a pretty fair swimmer in her day and still youthful, wrapped her arm around Woody and squeezed.

“Wouldn’t you like to take a few days off?” she asked. “Maybe take a little trip? Change of scenery? Dana can take your classes for you.”

Woody looked away. There was a threat of rain today, but the only clouds he could see were puffy white, far away. The great oak treetops of the park were still. When he turned back to June, he was dry-eyed.

“Thanks,” he said, “but nothing will cheer me up more than these boys and girls right here.”

And he raised his whistle to his lips and blew an ear-splitting blast.

“All right, everyone in the water.”

Woody went over to the little girl who was crying and sniffling.

“Come here, Sweetheart,” he said, holding a rag to her nose. “Now, blow!”

She blew her nose into the rag and evidently the water came out. She blinked and took a couple of breaths and then smiled. In the front of her smile was a big gap.

“Got water up my nose!” she said. “It’s okay now. Thanks, Mister. Look at my tooth I lost!”

And she bounced away and jumped back in the water. Woody gave a laugh. Okay, time to get to work. He gave his whistle another mighty blow.

“Get in there! Every one of you!”

Woody wasn’t just another swimming coach. This plain, blunt man was one of the best — was, in fact, as great as any coach in the land. He was famous across the state, he was known all over the country among swimmers and their fans. The little town had produced state champions many times. Woody had coached dozens of boys and girls who had gone on to great success in college and even the Olympics. Everyone in the sport knew the name Woody.

The boys and girls all jumped in the pool with a great splash and a shriek. All the youngsters, that is, except one. Near the shallow end, at the corner of the pool to Woody’s right, a young boy sat in a wagon. He wore a pair of faded yellow swimming trunks that were much too large for him. Sticking out of the left leg hole of the trunks was the stump of a limb. Woody went over for a closer look. The scrawny boy was maybe seven or eight, with freckles and a sad face. His left leg was severed a few inches below the knee.

“Hello, I’m Woody, what’s your name?” he said.

The boy glanced up at Woody, then down at the ground.

“Henry,” he said in a quiet voice.

Woody had to ponder this situation. How to approach it? His decision took only a moment.

“Are you all right?” he said. “Don’t you want to get in the water?”

“Sir … I can’t swim, I only have one leg.”

Woody was gentle. “Henry,” he said, “get in the water.”

Henry glanced up at Woody with panic in his eyes, a cry choked back in his throat.

“But … I can’t!”

“Try. Please.”

“No, I — ”

Woody simply reached down and picked the boy up. At sixty-seven years old, he was still strong as a bear.

“I’ll show you,” he said. “You’ll do fine. In the water you don’t need two legs.”

Woody descended the steps with the skinny boy in his arms. The boy gasped as he went into the water, which wasn’t cold at all. He fanned his hands in the water in an instinctive effort to control his movement. Woody, the onetime freestyle champion, went a bit deeper into the water.

“You can stand up here, Henry,” he said. “Don’t worry, you can manage easily on one leg.”

Henry’s eyes popped open wide, and his eyes darted back and forth.

“I’m falling!” he cried.

Woody took hold of him around his ribs.

“No, you’re not falling,” he said. “You can balance yourself. Just float in the water.”

Slowly Henry got a feel for floating, for making himself part of the water, rather than struggling against it. A smile spread upon the cute freckled face.

“I’m doing it!” he said.

Woody went right up to the edge of the pool. He looked down into the water for a good ten minutes without saying anything. Then he nodded.

“That’s it, Henry, that’s good,” he said. “Don’t muscle the water. Stroke it, caress it. Smooth and rhythmic.”

June, who had stopped by to pick up her daughter, came over and watched Henry alongside Woody.

“He’s catching on quickly,” she said. “It’s amazing, really. He glides through the water like a perch.”

“Imagine all this time, watching the other kids playing at their sports, and he couldn’t take part. Now he’s found something he can do, maybe even get good at it.”

Now they took a break, so Henry could catch his breath before the regular class with the other youngsters. Henry jumped from the pool and took up his crutch. With his crutch or even hopping on his one foot, Henry was light and nimble. They went and sat on a bench in the shade near the door to the boys’ locker room. As the July sun beat down on the pool and the surrounding park, Woody and Henry sat and sipped cool water from tin mugs. On the bench was a clipping, an article from the local newspaper about one of Woody’s athletes who had set a record in her butterfly event.

“Did you see this article about Linda?” Woody asked Henry.

He handed Henry the article. Henry took the clip, stared at it for a moment, and then looked away. With a shake of his head he handed it back to Woody.

“Wouldn’t you like to know about Linda?” Woody asked. “it’s really something, what she’s accomplished.”

That freckled face turned down into a frown.

“Mister Woody … I can’t read,” he said.

Long years of dealing with youngsters had taught Woody when to be tough and when to be gentle.

“Have you been doing your studies in school?” he asked.

Henry wouldn’t look at him. The boy just shook his head.

“Let me guess,” said Woody. “You’ll be in second grade in the fall.”

Now Henry turned to look at Woody. The boy looked at him closely, directly. He never really had done that before.

“Mister Woody,” Henry began, “I ain’t got nobody to talk to. Can I talk to you?”

Woody listened to the little squeaky voice. He peered down at big blue eyes and an unruly shock of chestnut-colored hair.

“If there’s anything I can do for you,” he said, “you just let me know.”

Henry’s comment raised all sorts of questions, foremost among them — why can’t Henry talk to his parents?

“I ain’t been to school in a couple years,” said Henry. “The kids used to make fun of me, because of my leg and my crutch, and I couldn’t play ball, and all that. So I quit going to school.”

“But didn’t anyone ever know about it? Your parents or your teachers?”


Woody could only shake his head. What was going on with this boy?

Meanwhile, the rest of the youngsters began to arrive as the time for the group classes approached. The heat was escalating, the sun straight overhead, picnickers taking up position at the tables in the park beyond the fence that surrounded the pool.

Woody thought he needed to know more about Henry. Some ideas for helping the boy were coming to him.

“Do you mind if I ask you about your leg injury?” he said. “An accident of some kind?”

“I got run over by a train. My dad used to be a conductor, and I was doing like him running and jumping on. I fell and the train cut my leg off. I had an article in the paper, I’ll show you after I get dressed.”

They looked out at the other youngsters coming out of the locker rooms.

“Can I get back in the water now, Mister Woody? I like it in the water.”

Woody took the mail out of the box and went in. Looking about, he got that feeling again — this beautiful new house of his was dead. Without Ruthie, the place was inert. The spectacular high ceilings and porthole windows, the warm knotty pine, the gleaming copper counter, they were beautiful and lifeless.

Here was his favorite picture of her, sitting on a bench in the park in a green sweater and plaid skirt, with a carefree smile and the wind in her hair. He set the picture back down on the credenza. Ruthie had created this wonderful house. That petite bundle of energy — businesswoman, author, architect — she had designed it, built it, and furnished it. They had bought the vacant lot almost on a whim and just taken it from there. She had barely a year here.

After Ruthie was gone, Woody realized that he couldn’t cook anything. He didn’t even know how to work the stove. He was learning now. Last night he had made a big batch of chili. He heated some up now and sat down at the mahogany table built decades ago by Ruthie’s father. It was lined and scarred now, like Woody.

After dinner he went to the living room, glanced at the TV mounted on the wall, but did not turn it on. He dislike television. Maybe he could do some work on that scrapbook. Stuffed in a box in the credenza were a lot of good photos of Ruthie and Woody, going back to before they were married.

Maybe later. For now he thought he would just have a glass of iced tea and go sit on the patio in back.

He pulled one of his Civil War books off the shelf and went out. The evening was warm. Overhead were some gray clouds and some pink clouds and patches of blue. The fragrance of Ruthie’s rose bushes, bordering the patio, sailed on the breeze.

A small yellow cat suddenly appeared a few feet from where Woody sat. After a moment she crept toward Woody and then suddenly jumped up in his lap. Woody was startled, although this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Woody liked cats, and they seemed to know it.

Sitting there purring in Woody’s lap, the cat turned her head and looked toward the side yard. Peeking around the corner of the house was another cat, a shy black little thing.

Woody sneezed. And he decided to call the cats Goldie and Blackie.

Woody looked up at the house, then down at the sheet of paper in his hand, then back up at the house. Yes, this was the place. Number Forty-Six Railroad Street. Woody shook his head as he looked at the place. It was dark, gloomy, depressing. Woody thought he had never seen a drabber place. It was a sort of muddy green color, in need of paint and certain repairs here and there. It would be called, he supposed, a two-story colonial, with a sagging roof and lopsided front porch. The other houses on the street were the same or worse.

Woody glanced over his shoulder. Behind him were some abandoned railroad tracks, and beyond, a factory that gave off a smell like rotten eggs.

Woody thought, what have I gotten myself into?

When he had run his plan past June, she had agree it was a good one. So here he was. He went up and rang the bell. A large woman with brown hair going gray opened the door.

“Hello, my name is Cecil Wood. I’m Henry’s swimming coach. May I speak with Henry’s mother or father?”

The woman’s pudgy oval face was a blank page.

“Huh? Swimming? I don’t know. Well, come in.”

Woody went into a dimly lit living room with a sort of medicine odor hanging in the air. Sitting in a heavy leather chair was a thin, bony man who was probably in his early forties but looked old and unhealthy. On a table beside him was a pint bottle of something, perhaps brandy, and a half-full glass. The man was looking at a television set. After a moment he looked around at Woody. Presumably, this was Mr. Jones, Henry’s father.

“This man says he’s teaching Henry to swim,” said the woman.

The man squinted behind his spectacles.

“What? Swim? Henry can’t swim, he’s only got one leg.”

Woody didn’t follow. Didn’t Henry’s parents know that Henry was taking swimming lessons?

“I’m working with him a little,” said Woody.

“Come in here,” said the woman.

The man took a sip from his glass and returned his attention to the television. Henry’s mother led Woody into the kitchen. Hanging in the air was the heavy odor of fried food. Woody looked all around and listened. Except for the television in the living room, the house was quiet. Woody knew that Henry had several brothers, but there seemed to be no children in the house.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Jones seemed to have forgotten Woody altogether. She sat down at the table, where there was a half-drunk glass of milk and a deck of cards.

Woody’s strategy was to broach no controversial subject but to make straight for his objective.

“I’d like to help Henry obtain a prosthetic leg,” he said. “I came here to ask for your permission.”

“Help him git a what?”

“A wooden leg.”

She started dealing out a game of solitaire.

“Well, we ain’t got no money.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem. I can find state assistance that will pay for the device.”

Poor Henry, Woody thought, living in this place.

Woody pointed at the turkey.

“One piece of that, please, and some squash,” he told the girl behind the counter.

In the line in front of him were his friend June and dozens of students. Behind him were dozens more youngsters. A cacophony of young voices filled the room. The blend of cooking fragrances formed a sweet aroma.

“Pecan pie?” asked Woody, glancing toward the dessert counter. “You’re wrecking my diet, you know.”

“Gosh, you old phony, I’ve known you twenty years and your weight hasn’t fluctuated a pound in all that time.”

Woody and June passed the cashier and found an empty table in the corner by a long beverage station. June went and got them each a cup of water. June was so youthful she could almost have passed for one of the students in her school.

“Now tell me about Henry,” she said, slicing up a piece of chicken. “Is there something I can do for him?”

Woody told her everything.

“What I don’t get,” he concluded, “is how a boy can slip through the cracks like that. Two years not going to school, and no one noticed? His parents have neglected the boy, no doubt. The father, I think, is an alcoholic and the mother is, well, inattentive, to put it mildly. But how could the school authorities lose track of him that way?”

“Two years ago, that was when the school got new computer hardware and software. The transition was a mess, and I think a lot of records were lost. That’s no excuse — anyway, that’s what happened. Gosh, it’s too bad about Henry. I’ll do everything I can to get him back in the groove in school.”

“June, the boy can’t read. He’s gonna need tutoring, I guess.”

“We can do that. Maybe I’ll take that on for myself. I like to work directly with the students sometimes when I can.”

The students kept coming in. The din of excited voices rose, and it seemed every seat in the place was taken. Woody dug into his turkey.

“One more thing,” he said. “Poor Henry, he’s got everything going against him. Poor family, and neglect on the part of his parents — and then at four years old he loses a leg. Can we somehow get a prosthetic for him?”

Yes, said June, once Henry was back in school she would see to it that he got a prosthetic leg.

Henry glided into the room on his crutch, with his pant leg pinned up around the stump of his left leg. He sat in the back row, frozen in place, his eyes wide and staring. Woody and June appeared in the doorway now, watching the boy.

“He looks scared to death,” said Woody.

“It’s not surprising,” said June. “He hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom since he was seven years old. It must be overwhelming.”

“Hey, what the heck — ” murmured Woody.

Then he turned to June. “Come with me,” he said.

Meanwhile, the low buzz of voices died down and then rose again. The desks in the room were perhaps three-quarters occupied, and sunshine glowed in the windows on two sides. At the front of the room was a tall baby-faced young man finishing up some paperwork at his desk. It was the last day of August and the first day of the new school year.

Woody and June approached Henry and spoke to him quietly

“Why aren’t you wearing your new prosthetic leg?” Woody asked.

“That thing hurts my stump,” said the boy nervously. “It made a blister.”

“But Henry, you had two weeks of therapy with that leg. You had it figured out perfectly. Wouldn’t you like to walk around without a crutch like the other kids?”

“Yes, but it just hurt, that’s all. Darn it, Mister Woody — okay, I’ll try harder next time.”

As Woody and June stood by, Henry sat through that first hour in the classroom for a sort of orientation program. At the end of the first period, as each student went off to his or her first class, June put her arm around Henry. She took him to a meeting room a few doors down from her office. Woody followed along, to observe and to furnish moral support for Henry. In the meeting room, they sat down at a table containing a couple of books and some flashcards.

“I’m so happy I’ll be working with you and helping you get going again in school,” said June. “I know you’ll be able to pick up where you left off in no time. I’ve talked to the teachers you had before and they said you were one of their brightest students.”

“Uh-huh,” said Henry gloomily, peering sideways at the stack of books on the table.

“Now let’s just explore a little and find out where your reading skills stand. Let’s take this first card. Tell me what this word is.”

Henry glanced at the card and then glanced away. Staring straight down at the tabletop, he traced little circles with his fingertip.

“Okay,” said June. “It’s fine, Henry. We’ll try another one. How about this word?”

Slowly the tears started running down Henry’s cheeks.

Henry in his yellow swim trunks tossed his crutch away and took up position at the edge of the pool, mounted steadily on his one leg. He bent at the knee, coiled, and gave a powerful leap almost straight up. In a fraction of a second, he did a full flip in the air and neatly entered the water at a perfect vertical.

“Oh my gosh!” said June.

A moment later Henry popped up from the water with a laugh.

“I learned that yesterday!” he told Woody and June.

Then he was back underwater, diving, shooting back and forth here and there, launching again out of the water.

“See!” he called to the others. “In the water I’m not a cripple.”

Then he started his lessons for the day. Beyond him were the other swimmers, also under Woody’s supervision, doing their activities. But Woody’s gaze seldom left Henry.

“I never saw anyone pick it up so fast,” he said. “How many kids have I coached? Thousands? Never saw anything like it.”

“You’ve liberated him,” said June. “You’ve freed him from the physical limitations that have always held him back.”

Henry glided effortlessly through the water. Then a moment later he was doing a different stroke, arms flying out of the water, forward, down again, forward again.

“The butterfly?” said June.

“Because of his leg. The rest of the kicks he has a hard time with. This is gonna be his best stroke.”

They watched him for a while, and then Woody went away to work with some other kids, and then he came back. The wind came up momentarily, rustled the treetops beyond the fence, and died down.

June glanced at her watch.

“Gosh, it’s almost a half-hour I’ve been here,” she said. “Far as I can tell, Henry hasn’t slowed down at all.”

“His stamina’s remarkable. You know how some people can put mind over matter? You’d think he’d be exhausted.”

When the lessons ended, Woody went home to have his dinner. He heated his chili and scooped some into a bowl. Sitting at the table in the beautiful dining room with its polished wood surfaces and high porthole windows, he pulled the stack of legal papers toward him.

“In Loving Memory of Ruth Madison Wood,” said the large lettering at the top of the page. The scholarship fund would be established in Ruthie’s name.

Woody clenched his chest as he spoke.

“Here, your core muscles, in your trunk,” he said. “That’s where your kick starts. The motion, the energy, the rhythm.”

He watched as Henry did his best to apply Woody’s lesson. It was the second week of May in that first year that Henry returned to school. They were in the pool at the YMCA, awaiting the opening in June of the municipal pool in the park.

“It’s like a wave passing through your whole body,” Woody added. “From your core muscles to your hips. Then you bend your knees a little. A wave.”

The boy would be fine. For many months now, Woody had watched Henry and worked with him. The boy didn’t talk much, but when he learned something, he learned it well. Woody thought he had never seen a youngster so hungry to learn.

“My arms are tired,” Henry said as he climbed out of the pool. “Why do you make me work so hard, Mister Woody?”

Woody laughed.

“I’ve never made you do anything. You drive yourself hard. Looks to me like you enjoy it. Here!”

Woody tossed him the towel. Henry hopped one-legged to the wall, leaned back, and dried off. Looking him over, Woody thought maybe he had grown an inch. He was still small, even by the standards of a ten-year-old. You never knew about these kids, sometimes they just stayed little, sometimes they had a growing spurt.

“Come on, I’ll give you a lift home,” said Woody.

Henry hopped toward the locker room. He could skip along, on one leg, and he was still as sure-footed as anyone with two good legs. In the locker room, they parted ways. Henry went left toward his locker, and Woody went right, into the office. He wrote some names and times into the logbook, then glanced up. Through the doorway he could see Henry, sitting on the bench in front of the row of lockers, putting on his prosthetic leg. Over recent months he had forced himself to become comfortable with the thing. It had a sort of sleeve into which his stump fitted, and then a steel rod extending down to a prosthetic foot. When he wore it he could walk without a limp.

“I’m glad you made me wear this prosthetic,” he said as Woody came up to him. “It feels good to walk around normal like the other boys do.”

"That’s good, Henry. You seem like a much happier boy than you used to be. Now you go out front and wait a couple minutes for me. I’ve got some phone calls to make.”

Five minutes later when his business was done, he went out and found Henry sitting on the bench. Woody was astounded to find the boy reading a book.

“You must be making a lot of progress with your reading,” he said.

He looked at the title of the book: “A Brief History of the United States.”

“This book is really interesting,” said Henry. “I can’t believe all the stuff that’s happened. Did you know there was a guy once who couldn’t walk at all, he was only in a wheelchair, and he got elected president!”

Woody reached out and took June’s hand in his as she climbed out of the pool. Stepping up on the pavement, she gave a shake of her head, and a spray of water came off her hair.

“I know darn well I was your worst swimmer ever,” she told Woody with a laugh.

“You had a lot of heart. You were very popular with the other kids.”

Then she turned and looked back toward the pool, toward the diving board at the other end.

“My daughter’s the athlete in the family,” she said. “Watch this.”

They watched as Sally, a tall girl of fifteen or sixteen, sprang and executed a lovely flip and plunged tidily into the water. Together they started toward the pool house for a cold drink.

“Look over there,” Woody said suddenly, pointing.

Beyond the fence, below the slope on which the elevated pool sat, was a tree with a boy sitting under it. The boy leaned back against the tree, knees raised, book in his hands.

“Oh my gosh!” said June. “Not a week goes by that boy doesn’t amaze me.”

They went to Woody’s Bench, where June got a towel and patted her face and arms dry. Perhaps a bit too slender, still she looked very pretty in a purple one-piece bathing suit. She was so youthful-looking that she and Sally were sometimes mistaken for sisters rather than mother and daughter.

“His studies going well?” asked Woody.

“He’s entering his freshman year near the top of his class. He’s especially good at math. He likes to read, too. When I started working with him years ago, I saw right away how quickly he picked it up. He seemed curious to learn everything there was to learn.”

A cute girl with a mouthful of braces appeared now and handed June and Woody a cup of lemonade. Mid-August continued to be warm and sultry. The overcast sky was a milky gray, and no breath of air stirred in the great treetops of the park.

“Henry’s becoming a really good swimmer, I hear?” asked June.

Woody nodded.

“I won’t say he’s the best swimmer I ever had,” he said, “but he’s certainly the hardest-working. At three o’clock he’ll come up here and put his trunks on. He’s asked to have a lesson every afternoon through the rest of the summer.”

Children by the dozens frolicked inside the pool and out, while a few moms and dads sat about on towels. At the far end, divers on a high board and a low board splashed into the water.

“Time to cool off again,” said June, heading back to the pool.

At a few minutes before three, Henry came hopping out of the locker room and sat down on Woody’s Bench. When not wearing his prosthetic, Henry would sometimes use a crutch and sometimes just skip about on his one leg, which was a familiar sight at the pool.

The other youngsters greeted him.

“Hi, Henry!”

“Hey, man, what up?”

As everyone knew, Henry was one of the most popular boys in the town.

“Henry, have a seat. I want to talk to you about something,” said Woody.

“Hi, Coach!”

Henry put his hand out to shake.

“How are you, Sir?”

Henry was now a couple inches taller than when he and the coach had first met, and certainly ten or fifteen pounds heavier. A lot of lean muscle was forming, especially in the chest, shoulders, and arms. The thin, bony face of five or six years ago had matured into a face that was now rounder and fuller.

“I’m fine, Henry. I’ve got a question for you.”

“Yes, Sir?”

That sad boy of half a dozen years ago, that boy who wouldn’t look at you and had nothing to say — where was he now? The Henry who now sat beside the coach was friendly, self-confident, well-spoken. Henry wasn’t a chatterbox and never would be. He was more a listener than a talker.

“You’ve never wanted to swim in competition, and I’ve always respected that,” Woody began. “But you’re entering high school now. You’re headed into a whole new world. Maybe it’s time for you to … take the next step, in a sense? I’ve never seen an athlete who was more ready for competition than you.”

Henry turned and looked closely at Woody. He was a handsome young man with pale freckles and blue eyes and an intangible something, a softness, in his glance.

“I have to admit, I’m feeling a sort of change in myself,” said Henry. “Growing up, I guess. I’m looking at things different. Before, I never thought I wanted to be in races. I liked to swim because it made me feel good. Made me feel like I didn’t have a handicap.”

Henry looked straight ahead toward the pool now. His gaze was fixed there for a minute or two. Woody almost thought he could hear the whir of Henry’s thoughts. He imagined Henry was looking into the water itself, looking into the magical place that had set him free.

“I kind of changed my mind on that now,” said Henry, turning back to Woody. “For a long time I’ve been able to beat most of the other kids. So now sometimes I wonder, am I good?”

Woody stroked his chin, bounced his feet. The implacable drill-sergeant swimming coach was in fact frequently nervous. With a great effort, he contained himself simply in order to keep his wits about him.

“I think the butterfly’s next,” said June, sitting beside him.

It was just a dual meet, in a town called Middle City, but there was a large crowd on hand because swimming was a popular sport in this part of the state. Woody sat in the bleachers among a crowd of two hundred or so fans, with the starting line to his right. On the far side of the room were another hundred onlookers, mostly coaches and parents of the participants.

June turned left and then right, scanning the faces in the crowd.

“I guess his parents aren’t here,” she said. “You’d think with Henry in his first race ever, they might take the trouble to come.”

“Poor kid, he’ll never be able to count on them for anything.”

“Thank heavens he’s got you,” said June, putting her hand on Woody’s arm.

“And you, too,” said Woody. “Look at you — here you are to support him.”

“Oh my gosh, I’m fond of that young man. If I had a son, I’d want him to be just like Henry.”

And she winked at Woody.

“And Sally’s fond of him, too,” she added.

Her daughter, sitting next to her, blushed.

The hum of voices in the room rose and then lulled as the freestyle event ended. Woody’s heart beat a little faster now, and the adrenaline pumped — the odor of chlorine always did that to him, and today there was the additional excitement of Henry’s first race.

The boys taking part in the butterfly race approached the starting line. They were variations on a theme. All high school freshmen, mostly small and lean. A stir went through the crowd when Henry appeared, using his crutch until he reached the diving platform for his lane. Most of the people in the crowd were not familiar with the one-legged boy. The sight of Henry surprised them.

Sally leaned toward June.

“Mom, do you think Henry feels self-conscious, like people are staring at him?” she asked.

“My guess is it won’t bother him. He’ll be focused on his race.”

Henry hopped onto the little diving platform, and as the time for the horn approached, he crouched. Needless to say, most people in the crowd had never seen a one-legged swimmer, so the attention of many was on him.

The horn blew — and suddenly the moment was upon them. The row of boys made their dives, and Henry, like all the other competitors, looked as though he was born to this. He glided beneath the surface of the water, making that distinctive wiggle from chest to hips to knees to toes — he was an underwater streak of light, as when a person looks over the side of a boat and sees a fish darting about down there.

God, it was exciting — the energy of these boys, the heads bobbing up for a breath, muscular arms thrusting forward, bodies moving in unison. God, the thrill of it, thought Woody. Never before had the thrill been as great. Woody sensed something about the one-legged boy — in a word, potential. Over the years he had coached thousands of boys and girls, and his instincts in such matters were highly refined. In Henry, he saw promise, almost limitless promise. The race itself was never close. Henry left the other boys far behind. That didn’t mean the race was boring. No doubt many others in the crowd had the same feeling Woody had, that they were witnesses to a phenomenon.

A woman sitting in front of Woody turned to her companion.

“That one-legged boy beat my Billy by twenty yards,” she said.

Woody, June, and Sally went down from the bleachers to meet up with Henry. He was behind the diving platform, where there were hooks on the wall with towels hanging on them. He was standing there on his one leg with a towel around his neck. A crowd had gathered around him, and everyone was pumping his hand. The other boys especially wanted to meet him and shake his hand. Finally, the others cleared away and Woody was able to get over to him.

“That was a good race, Son,” said Woody, who wasn’t given to superlatives.

“All I know is, I was scared to death,” said Henry with a laugh. “I don’t remember a thing.”

Woody punched him on the shoulder as he always did before a race, and then went over to the bleachers, taking a spot in the front row. June and Sally were lost in the crowd somewhere, so Woody was alone. Above the general buzz in this large aquatic center, Woody could hear Doug and Dick, two men sitting behind him.

“Boy from Stamford gonna kick some butt here today,” said Doug. “You ought to see the shoulders on this dude. Smoothest stroke I’ve ever seen.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Dick. “There’s that youngster from Fresno and a Chinese kid from Cleveland. There’s even a one-legged young man that I heard of.”

“I like my Stamford kid. Got that look about him, you know? Got that swagger.”

It was the biggest meet of Henry’s life, the Municipal Athletic League nationals in Des Moines. This was an enormous facility, with an Olympic-size pool and bleachers on both sides and at both ends. Over to Woody’s right was the section reserved for the competitors and coaches. At the ceiling, on two sides, and even underwater, were television cameras.

A tall, thin young woman with dark hair and dark-rimmed glasses, with a microphone in her hand, came up to Woody.

“Coach, can I do an interview with you after the fly?” she asked Woody.

“I guess so. Let’s see what happens. What do you think of Henry’s chances?”

“No offense, Coach, but I like that little Chinese kid. He’s a tough son-of-a-gun.”

Yes, well, let’s see what happens. Actually, a lot of people, dozens of them, came up to greet Woody, old warhorse that he was. Few swimming coaches in the country were better known than he. His former swimmers who were now coaches numbered in the dozens. Coaches, young athletes, reporters, in the hundreds, all knew the barrel-chested, gray-haired old coach.

“There he is, that one-legged kid over in lane four,” said Doug, behind Woody. “I gotta tell you, I don’t think the sumbitch has a chance. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t wish nothing against him. You gotta give him credit. You know me, I give credit where credit’s due. And that boy’s got guts. With that handicap and all. I’ll give him a lot of credit there. But that boy from Stamford, those shoulders, that strut of his, he — ”

“Okay, whatever, now be quiet. They’re ready to start.”

Behind Doug and Dick, Woody had almost fifty years of listening to bigmouths who had everything figured out. He ignored it. Meanwhile, he glanced over at the bench behind lane four and managed to catch Henry’s eye. The boy gave a big wave and a smile. He was the smilingest kid Woody had ever seen. He was sweet and smiling on the outside and pure steel on the inside. Woody had coached many good swimmers over the years, but he had never seen the kind of bullet-proof willpower that Henry possessed.

Woody flashed the boy a thumbs-up. Well, he’s not a boy anymore, Woody said to himself now. At eighteen, and a high-school senior, Henry had filled out. Still lean, and very strong, a new maturity was apparent in his face. In his gait, in all his movements, was a growing confidence. He held himself erect, and with the improved prosthetics he had obtained over the years, he walked with no trace of a limp. He looked Woody straight in the eye when they talked. After years of bearing down hard in his studies, Henry displayed a keen intelligence, and he was articulate in conversation.

Doug was at it again.

“Look at how the Stamford kid holds his head up high, look of confidence, know what I mean?” he told his friend.

“Oh, stop with the Stamford kid,” said Dick. “There’s something about that Chinese boy that I like. Those inscrutable Asians, you know?”

Woody liked his young man in this race. He would take his chances with Henry against anyone. Resting a hand on the rail, Henry skipped up on the diving platform. His chest was deep, his shoulders broad. Woody was proud.

Just before the start of the race, the names of all the boys were announced over the public address system. They all received plenty of cheers, naturally, but when the crowd heard Henry’s name, the reaction was a deafening roar.

“Holy cow,” said Doug. “Everyone loves that one-legged boy.”

“He’s got a name, you know,” said Dick. “You just heard it. His name’s Henry.”

And then all of a sudden it was time, and then the boys were in the water. Woody watched the familiar rhythm, the arms thrusting, the bodies slithering in the water. The Chinese boy made the turn first, and then the swaggering boy from Stamford, and then Henry.

“My boy’s coming on,” said Doug. “He’s got this baby.”

“Henry’s making a move!” said Dick.

Woody thought it was Henry’s astounding stamina that carried him in the end. He touched the sensor a tenth of a second ahead of the Connecticut boy — and he was the national MAL butterfly champ!

A group of Henry’s friends, on the other side of the pool from where Woody sat, jumped to their feet and cheered noisily. Mr. And Mrs. Jones naturally were not on hand. In all these years, to Woody’s knowledge, they had not come to watch him swim a single time.

Henry, sitting at that bench behind lane four, was swallowed up in a swarm of swimmers, coaches, reporters. and officials. The woman with the microphone was nudging through the crowd toward him. Standing now, Woody just managed to catch Henry’s eye. He pointed off to the right, and Henry gave a thumbs-up back — “I’ll catch up with you in the locker room later.”

As Woody walked away toward the locker room, he caught Doug and Dick’s final comments.

“Oh yes, I was wrong, I admit it,” Doug was saying. “You know my policy, when I’m wrong, I’m not afraid to admit it. And I was wrong about that one-legged — I mean, I was wrong about that Jones boy. He’s got a lot of heart. He’s a competitor. I was wrong, I admit it.”

“You old bag of wind,” said Dick. “This is about Henry, it’s not about you.”

For a while, Woody just stood back and took it all in. All the people wanting to shake hands with Henry, the reporters wanting to talk to him, Woody had never felt so happy for one of his swimmers. Finally, the excitement died down, and Woody found Henry in the locker room getting dressed. He walked up to the boy, threw his arms around him, and gave him a bear hug.

“What a heck of a job you’ve done,” he told him.

Henry was happy and glowing with a big smile on his face. Woody thought he was the very image of youth, strength, and confidence.

“I can’t believe it,” said Henry with a laugh. “Somebody pinch me. All those other boys, and they’re such good swimmers. You know I didn’t really think I could beat them.”

“I knew you could. Henry, still, after all that’s happened over the years, you still don’t really know how good you are. With all that you’ve learned, you’re still learning.”

“Where would I be without you? Would I still be a sad boy with a crutch, limping around and feeling sorry for myself?”

Woody looked Henry up and down, just stepping back and thinking about everything. Henry was in a blue suit, white shirt, and red tie. He looked like a champ — he looked like the national champion that he was.

Woody gave him one last slap on the shoulder.

“We’re a team,” he said.

In the banquet hall at six o’clock, there was an invitation-only dinner for the athletes, coaches, and families. The banquet hall was a large room with a high ceiling, handsome chandeliers, and carpet with red and blue swirls. Servers put out roast beef and asparagus. There were more speeches than there should have been, and medals were presented to the winners. Across the street from the aquatic center was the hotel where everyone was staying. After a drink at the bar with some of the other coaches, Woody went upstairs and gave a knock on the door of Henry’s room. When he answered the door, Henry had an immense book in his hand.

“Studying, on your big night?” asked Woody.

Henry held the book out so he could see.

“Having trouble with my chemistry. The thing is, my college entrance exams are day after tomorrow. If I get high marks on the exams, I can get some scholarship money. Without that money, I might not be able to start at the community college.”

Woody knew that Henry had gone hat in hand to some of the leading business people in town with a simple request.

“I want to go to college, but I haven’t been able to save enough money. If you’ll lend me a hundred dollars, I promise I’ll pay it back as soon as I can.”

He had gotten a good response. Everyone knew of the famous one-legged swimming champion. But he was still a little short of making the first year’s tuition.

“And so you’re going off to college,” said Woody. “Do you remember when we first met? You were eight years old, and you couldn’t read.”

“It was you talking about college that got me thinking about it. You know what? When I found out I could learn to swim, it helped me to see that I could do other things I never thought I could do before.”

Woody glanced over at the bed, which was almost covered by books and papers.

“I have a feeling you’ll do just fine in college.” Woody said goodnight and went out. He and Henry would stay the night here and then return home tomorrow. He was halfway to the elevator when his cell phone rang.

“Nelson?” he said. “How are you, Buddy?”

For three or four minutes they talked.

“No kidding,” said Woody. “Well, I’ll be damned. Listen, I want to thank you personally, you old son-of-a-gun. Yes, I just left him in his room. I’ll go back and tell him now.”

He went back and knocked on Henry’s door. The door swung open and Henry appeared, this time with a Civics book in his hand.

“Something’s come up,” said Woody. “I need to talk to you.”

A young man of impeccable manners, Henry set the book down on the bed so as to give Woody his undivided attention. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt. He was barefoot — one foot and one prosthetic foot. Somewhere in the room, low rock-and-roll music was playing.

“Do you know the name Nelson Fellows?” said Woody.

Henry narrowed his eyes and blinked a couple times.

“That name’s familiar,” he said, “but I can’t quite place it.”

“He’s the swimming coach at the university. He was a student of mine a long time ago. He was a flyer like yourself. One of the best I ever saw. Well, I just got a phone call from him.”

Henry’s eyes grew wide.

“Nelson couldn’t be here today,” said Woody, “but he watched the whole meet on television. Bottom line is he wants you to come and swim for him.”

Henry’s mouth fell open.

“Holy shit,” he said.

Woody had never heard Henry use a bad word before, but under the circumstances, he could forgive him.

Henry took a deep breath. When he spoke again, he did so in that characteristic soft, musical voice.

“I’ve dreamed about being a Division One swimmer, but I never really thought it would happen.”

“Nelson and I realize that money could be an issue. He has no swimming scholarships available, but he has put together a package of grants and loans and part-time jobs on campus. Well, what do you think?”

Henry turned and stared into space for a moment. Then he looked back at Woody.

“Holy sh — I mean, holy cow!” he said.

Henry pitched a handful of diced ham into the omelet as it sizzled on the stovetop. Next to the omelet were two scrambled. In a moment he plated them and handed them to two black youths wearing blue T-shirts that said ”Varsity Baseball” on the front. Then he took an order for a couple of breakfast sandwiches. Seven in the morning and the dormitory cafeteria was quickly coming to life. To Henry’s right were bins containing bacon and hash browns and pancakes. Farther over were pastries and cereal and more. Through the tall windows came the sunlight of early March. Dozens of students sat alone or mingled, clutching textbooks under their arms. All through the large room was the aroma of coffee.

On his break, Henry left the grill and sat down at one of the tables. Checking his phone, he saw that Coach Fellows had called. He punched in the number. He told the coach that he was at work in the cafeteria.

“What time are you off?” asked the coach.

Ten o’clock, Henry answered.

“Can you come to my office at ten-thirty? Got some things to talk over with you.”

“Sure! I’ll see you then.”

At ten Henry left the dorm, walked past Old Math and the Ag building, and entered the fieldhouse. He was a few minutes early so he took a chair in the waiting room. On the walls were some fifteen or twenty pictures of swimmers — action shots, head shots, group shots. After five minutes or so the coach peeked out the door and invited Henry in.

“Take a load off,” said the coach, indicating a chair.

Nelson Fellows was tall, deep in the chest, with handsome, chiseled features and close-cropped brown hair tending toward gray. He was intense, brainy, almost professorial. Full of nervous energy, he chewed gum vigorously and talked rapidly.

“I’ve been reviewing your performance so far this season,” he said, leaning forward and looking Henry straight in the eye. “I don’t need to tell you, it’s been a remarkable year. You’ve been only in freshman meets, it’s true, but that’s how I like to prepare my guys for their varsity career.”

He offered a sort of summation. Henry had been beaten no more than two or three times and in fact, was continuing to show improvement.

“I never saw anyone work so hard,” said Fellows. “I know you work on technique with Coach Starr three or four times a week. It shows in your times too. I can see steady progress all through the course of the season.”

Then he rose from his desk and went to a table at the side of his office next to the case with the awards in it.

“Time for my tenth cup of coffee,” he said, taking two mugs from a shelf above the table. “Can I pour you one?”

Sipping from the mugs, they went out through a sliding glass door to a small balcony. This old fieldhouse, an oddity from many years ago, contained certain quirks — balconies and archways and parapets. From this vantage point, three stories above the campus, the view was nothing short of spectacular. Below was Old Math, a bit to the north lay the new children’s hospital, farther beyond was the Pentacrest, and then the Big Middle River, and in the distance, Kiowa Forest Country Club. The breeze on this mild spring day carried the fragrance of the vast gardens, to the south, encircling the student union.

“Down to business!” said the coach suddenly, turning to Henry. “Don’t know why I’ve been beating around the bush. I’ve got news for you.”

Henry’s eyes popped open wide.


“Looking ahead to next season, I’ll be gaining one available scholarship. It’s yours, if you will accept it.”

“Holy crap! Coach … a free ride?”

Fellows looked closely at Henry, gulping coffee, chomping on gum.

“Maybe I’m overstepping the bounds of what my role is here,” said the coach, “but I’d like to talk to you about changing the way you see yourself. I think this is a time for you to evolve.”

Henry nodded slowly. There was a great flapping of wings as a pigeon landed on the railing behind the coach, bobbed its head a few times, and then flew away.

“I think maybe I see what you’re getting at,” said Henry.

“Okay. If I’m out of line tell me to shut the hell up. But I think you’ve been trapped, in a sense, by your background. There’s your handicap and the poverty of your background. You’ve always felt … maybe like you’re not quite good enough?”

Henry nodded. He waited.

“But look where you are now,” Fellows went on. “You’re a top student at the university, you’re an outstanding athlete, and you’re one of the most popular young men we’ve ever had in our program. Your concerns about money are pretty much over. Seems to me you’re on top of the world.”

Henry was hearing thunder and lightning. Or maybe it was just some crashing noises in his brain. He turned away from the coach for a moment. He smelled a rose garden. He watched a small blue and white speedboat skim along the river.

Finally, he turned back to Fellows.

“That’s what Woody gave me,” he said.

Henry lifted his eyes to the sky. The midafternoon sun glinted off the gold dome of the Old Capitol, the grand building that had served now for a century and a half as the administrative center of the university. The Old Capitol was the center of the center. It lay in the middle of the enormous square, with large classroom buildings at the four corners, which was the heart of the campus.

Henry sat down on the second step. Eva would be along in a few minutes. He watched the coming and going of the students, most of them in sweaters or light jackets, against the brisk breeze of early spring. Pitching a chocolate into his mouth, he took a textbook out of his backpack. The course was Western Civ, one of Henry’s favorites.


Absorbed in the book, he didn’t even notice her approach.

“Oh. Hi!”

He stood and hugged her. Eva was in corduroys and a bright green sweater, smile on her face, cute tilt of the head as she always did. In her dark-rimmed glasses, she was pretty in a sweet-librarian sort of way. She was a farm girl from up north, and her childhood had been as different from Henry’s as it could possibly have been.

“Are you excited?” said Henry.

“Yes! Nervous!”

A little shiver went over her shoulders.

“Do you think they’ll like me?” she said.

“Yes, they’ll like you. Especially my brothers. Like I told you, my parents aren’t always the easiest people to understand. You know what? We’ll dive into it and see how it goes.”

They walked hand in hand to the street and climbed into an old blue Ford, which Henry had borrowed from his roommate. The drive was an hour and a half on two-lane country highways, past farmhouses and barns and grazing herds of cattle. Reaching the town, Henry drove first to what was obviously the most important place: the swimming pool.

“It hasn’t really changed much in the ten years since I first jumped in there,” said Henry. “I think there’s a couple more cracks in the pavement than there used to be.”

They were on the outside, looking through the chain-link fence.

“I don’t see Woody,” said Henry. “I really wanted you to meet him.”

They went around to the front. Behind the counter was a tall skinny girl with bright blue eyes.

“Henry!” she said with a smile.

“Hello. Sorry, do I know you?”

“You don’t know me, but I know you. Everyone knows you!”

For several years now, Henry’s hometown newspaper, the Dallas County News, had been publishing articles about their local celebrity, the one-legged swimming star.

Glancing at Henry, Eva nodded.

“I’m impressed,” she said with a smile.

“Well, it’s not a big thing, really,” said Henry. “My hometown, a few people know me.”

He turned to the cute blue-eyed girl. “I was looking for Woody. Is he around?”

The girl tilted her head and aimed a thumb to her right.

“He went out of here grumbling about something. Paperwork … pencil-pushing. He got his coffee and went to that picnic table down there.”

Hand in hand Henry and Eva went around the pool house and down the embankment. Off to their right, near the 4-H barns, was a lovely stand of birch trees. It was late afternoon by now, the sun was low, and a dazzling orange streak of a cloud peeked above the tops of the birches. At a picnic table within the birches sat Woody.

"He always hated the paperwork, the documentation,” Henry told Eva as they approached.

Woody looked up, his brow clenched, in an expression Henry had seen many times when the old coach was displeased.

“If we don’t get this grant from the national office,” said Woody, “I don’t know how we’ll ever get the maintenance done on that pool.”

Then he took off his spectacles and set them down on the stack of papers. He smiled at Eva and stood up.

“Forgive my bad manners,” he said. “You must be Eva. I’m happy to meet you, my dear.”

“Henry has told me so much about you,” said Eva. “I know he’s very grateful for all you’ve done for him.”

“Believe me, it was a privilege to watch this young man become the champion he is today. Which brings me to something I’m about to tell you. Henry, Nelson tells me he visited with you today. And he’s offered you a scholarship.”

“Can you believe it?”

“Yes — you’ve earned it. And another thing. You must have told him you were coming here today for a visit.”

“I think I mentioned it.”

“He called me half an hour ago. It seems after you left this morning, a letter arrived from the conference commissioner. Hang onto your hat. You’ve been selected North Central Conference Freshman of the Year.”

“Oh my God!”

“Henry, it’s wonderful!” said Eva.

She wrapped him up and gave him a hug. Woody slugged him on the shoulder.

“Quite a day you’ve had,” he said. “You’ll be expected at an awards ceremony in Milwaukee in May.”

It was almost dinner time, so they headed now for Henry’s parents’ house. Eva, in the passenger seat of the Ford, took a tiny mirror out of her purse and adjusted a lock of hair here and there. She plucked a speck of lint from her corduroys.

Henry was nervous too. He took a deep breath, wiggled in his seat, stretched his arms forward. He made a couple of nervous coughs. Approaching the abandoned railroad tracks where he had been run over by a train almost fifteen years earlier, the rotten-egg smell from the chemical factory came into the car.

He pulled into the driveway at his parents’ house.

“I hope Mom and Dad are on their good behavior tonight,” he said. “I’ll warn you, you never know what you’re going to get with them.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said Eva.

Henry had an immense admiration for this modest farm girl. On the surface, she was sweet and unassuming. On the inside, she was all firmness and backbone. That’s the way they usually were, these farm kids. They were raised with chores and responsibilities. That sort of childhood built character.

God, the place was as dreary as ever. No — drearier. Sagging porch, flaking paint. Weedy lawn and boarded window. Well, running away now wasn’t an option. With Eva alongside him, Henry went up to the door, opened it a few inches, and called “Knock, knock!”

Henry felt he caught a break when the first person to come to the door was Jackie, the youngest boy, a little squirt full of fun and laughter.

“Hey, Shorty!” said Henry.

The skinny eight-year-old ran at Henry and leaped. Henry caught him and slung him over his shoulder. On the stairs straight in front of Henry, heavy footsteps sounded.

“Henry!” came a deep voice, and two tall teenage boys stomped down the stairs.

Henry set Jackie down, and the three brothers peered in fascination at Eva, as if she were a monster from outer space.

“Eva, this is Willie, Frank, and Jackie,” said Henry.

Little Jackie gazed up at Eva with his eye wide. In this houseful of boys, a girl was an unfamiliar sight.

“I’m never gonna kiss a girl,” said Jackie. “It looks gross.”

Eva laughed.

“Well,” she said, “you might change your mind someday.”

“Nope!” said Jackie.

The brothers parted, and Henry and Eva went toward the chair where Mr. Jones always sat. As they approached him, he actually stood up. This occurrence in itself surprised Henry. Then Mr. Jones looked at Eva and attempted a smile. There was some question whether Mr. Jones looked more unpleasant when he scowled or when he smiled. He had the sunken face of an alcoholic, the yellow teeth, the watery eyes.

In any case, Mr. Jones sat back down, returning to his brandy and his television program. With the din of sirens and car wrecks behind him, Henry headed for the kitchen. It was some eight months since Henry had been in this house, and now the sense memories washed over him. The dim rooms, and that strange odor, like medicine or Vaseline or some such.

In the kitchen, he and Eva found Mrs. Jones, a great bulky figure bent over the oven. Filling the room was the fragrance of pot roast. Potatoes and green beans appeared. Mr. Jones came in, wobbling. At one end of the table was the large mom and the other end was the frail dad. The middle two sons came in, tall and silent, and sat down beside Henry with their backs to the kitchen counter. Then Jackie came skipping in, with the excess energy of an eight-year-old.

“Eva, you sit here next to me,” said Jackie, indicating the chair beside Mrs. Jones.

“Thank you!”

“Do you have pigs on your farm? And cows?”

“We’ve got lots of them. And chickens too.”

“I went to a farm once a long time ago, and I saw a horse!”

Eva smiled and winked across the table at Henry.

“My brother’s a real good swimmer, isn’t he,” said Jackie. “And he’s only got one leg!”

Henry laughed.

“Hush,” said Mrs. Jones. “Pass them potatoes over here.”

Four growing boys could pack away a lot of food. They piled meat and vegetables on their plates. They gulped tall glasses of milk. Mr. Jones, focusing his bloodshot eyes on Eva, made a lame attempt at conversation.

“I like police shows, all the shooting,” he said. “Do you like police shows?”

“The History Channel is my favorite.”

Everyone looked at their food in silence for a while.

“Henry won an award, Mom, did you hear?” said Jackie finally.

Mrs. Jones scowled. “College,” she murmured. “Why does anybody to to college when he could go over to the Procter and Gamble plant and make thirteen dollars an hour?”

Henry waved at Eva and pulled the blue Ford to the curb in front of the women’s dorm. They had attended church as usual in the chapel across the bike path from Old Math and then gone to their rooms to change clothes. Henry wore khaki slacks and a corduroy sport coat. Eva in a red and black dress looked to Henry like a million dollars.

It was an hour’s drive to Eva’s parents’ farm. When they hit the highway, a light rain started up. Half an hour later the rain stopped, and the sky cleared suddenly, and the sun came out. A few minutes after that, with Eva pointing the way, Henry pulled the blue Ford onto a gravel road, On the left was a grassy field where a herd of cattle grazed. On the right was a field of bare soil which would probably be planted in corn in a couple of months.

A mile or so and Henry made a left onto the long lane that led to the Jameson place. As they neared the house, Henry glanced over at the barn and feedlot on the left and the corn crib on the right. Past the barn, in a grove of enormous maple trees, sat a large metal shed that contained several tractors and other machinery. Eva’s father farmed on a large scale, owning a lot of land and livestock.

Henry went around the house on the right and parked the car alongside a white board fence. Out the door to greet the young couple came Mom and Dad Jameson. Stepping through the gate, Henry took a split-second to size up Eva’s parents. Mr. Jameson was a mid-fortyish man about average height, thin and wiry, sunburnt and leathery as farmers usually are. Mrs. Jameson was nearly as tall as her husband, big-boned, with dark salt-and-pepper hair. She stood erect, and there was something bold in her bearing. Looking at her Henry had the sense that she was accustomed to taking charge.

They exchanged meetings and greetings.

“Oh, I’ve heard a lot about you,” Mrs. Jameson told Henry. “You’re pretty darn fast in a swimming pool. And now you’ve got a scholarship!”

“I still can hardly believe it,” said Henry.

Ms. Jameson turned and called back into the house.

“Maggie! Joe! Come on out here, kids. Say hello to Henry.”

After Eva, at three-year intervals, came Maggie and then Joe. They appeared now and took up position in front of Mom and Dad. Henry was amused to see Joe staring at his leg.

“I never would have known,” said Joe.

“Joe, you mind your manners,” said his mother.

Henry only laughed.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Henry. “People are curious about prosthetics. I always look at it as a chance to educate people. Especially youngsters.”

And he pulled up his pants leg, revealing the steel rod of the prosthetic.

“Cool!” said Joe.

His mother frowned at him.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she said.

“We’re glad to have you here, Son,” said Mr. Jameson in a quiet voice.

Eva’s mother talked somewhat loudly. She was a bit deaf, Henry knew. Meanwhile, Mr. Jameson talked softly, following a choking incident of a few years ago. She was deaf, and he spoke so softly Henry could hardly hear him — Henry almost wondered how the two could communicate at all.

They went inside, and Henry found himself in a large living room with a beautiful black grand piano at one end, and at the other a big picture window presenting a lovely view of the farm — the barn, corn crib, fields lying idle for another couple of months.

“Henry, I have coffee, and chocolate-chip cookies fresh out of the oven,” said Mrs. Jameson.

As Eva exchanged the latest news with her brother and sister, Henry looked them over. Eva always referred to Maggie as the pretty one in the family (selling herself short, Henry thought). Indeed she was lovely. At fifteen she looked perhaps a bit older, with a heart-shaped face, sparkling blue-gray eyes and dazzling smile.

“She was talking to Doc Shoemaker’s boy after church for an hour,” said Joe.

That was an exaggeration, said Maggie. But Eva had told Henry enough about her sister to know that Maggie was a charmer and a favorite of the boys. She was an extrovert, while Eva was not.

“Joe, I hope you’re trying harder to stay out of fights in the schoolyard,” said Eva.

“They pick on me because I’m little. I never start nothin’ myself.”

It was true that Joe was small for his age. At twelve he was perhaps in for a growing spurt soon. In any case, Henry found hilarious the stories Eva told about forever dragging her little brother away from a fight in some far corner of the playground.

It was the custom in the Jameson household to have a big dinner in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday. Then there was dessert and coffee, and Henry and Eva said goodbye and took off for their return to the campus.

“So how do you like them?” Eva asked Henry as they headed back on the lane the way they had come.

“Very nice people. Looks like your mother runs she show.”

“She does most of the talking, but Dad’s really the boss. He can hardly talk since he ruptured his esophagus three years ago. I think they just read each other’s mind.”

They were on the highway now, traveling south. In the west, some milky gray clouds and a streak of pink lay atop a distant farmhouse.

“I never asked you this, when you visited my family,” said Henry, “but what did you think of them?”

Eva didn’t hesitate.

“I liked them!”

Henry took a moment to reflect on that.

“Well,” he said, “I know you’re too well-mannered to say what you really think.”

She was watching him. She was very pretty in this moment. Her dark hair, dark eyebrows, that softness in her eyes — a little-girl look, a lost-waif kind of face.

“My family,” said Henry, “they’re not an easy bunch to like. Well, except for Jackie. Thank God for Jackie.”

There was a question in him, screaming to get out. “Did you look at my parents,” he said, “and ask yourself ‘Is this a family that I want to marry into?’”

It was the first mention between them of the “m” word.

Woody stood as June approached him. She put her arms around him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. As she moved to the lectern, he retook his seat on the dais. He looked out at the assembled audience, the twenty-five or thirty tables with white cloths, four attendees per table. Behind him was a blue-and-white banner reading “The Ruth Wilton Wood Scholarship Foundation.”

“What I remember first and foremost about Ruth is her pie crusts,” June began.

It got a good laugh. Though Ruth was gone a dozen years now, the older folks remembered. "Yes, Ruth was many things,” June continued. “Businesswoman, author, architect — but, oh my, those pie crusts. My mouth still waters at the thought. I asked her once, Ruth, what’s your secret? And she said, I don’t know. My hands just do it. My hands know.”

June, who was now the president of the community college, was the keynote speaker tonight. To her left and right on the dais were the other members of the Selection Committee, along with the half-dozen seniors who were receiving awards. In the audience, at a table near the front, were Henry and Eva, now in their senior year at the university, who were joined by Sally and her new husband, Justin.

In the commotion prior to the beginning of the ceremony, Woody hadn’t had a chance to say hello to Henry. He caught Henry’s eye now, and they each made a small wave. Shortly after that June finished her remarks, and there was a break during which time the food would be served. The man sitting next to Woody, the wealthy owner of several auto dealerships, wandered away, and Woody motioned to June to come sit with him. He hadn’t seen her for a year or two and as she approached, he reflected how youthful she still looked.

“You never change,” he told her as she sat down. “You’re still a young girl.”

With her short, swept-back blond hair, her peaches and cream complexion, she could have passed for a college freshman.

“I might say the same thing about you,” said June. “I’ve known you, what, almost twenty years. You look the same today as you did back then.”

Woody laughed.

“When I was forty my hair was gray and I looked sixty. So now I just stay right there.”

A waiter poured coffee, and Woody put a hand on June’s arm.

“There’s someone I want you to meet,” he said. “Stay put for a minute.”

It took a moment, but finally Woody caught Henry’s attention. He raised two fingers, indicating Henry and Eva, and motioned them over.

“Sally’s told me about Eva,” said June as they waited for her to arrive. “She says the girl’s sweet as can be.”

Woody stood when the others arrived. He introduced June and Eva.

“I’ve known Henry here for a long time,” said June. “You’re a very lucky young lady.”

Henry put his arm around Eva. An intensity, a focus, came into his face, into his eyes, as he peered down at Woody and June.

“Without these two,” Henry told Eva, “I wouldn’t be where I am today. June taught me to read and to want to learn. And Woody set me free.”

Eva only smiled down at Woody and June.

“Thank you,” she said. Eva noticed that June was looking at her ring.

“Oh my gosh!” said June. “I didn’t know. This is wonderful!”

“We’ve set a date,” said Eva. “The wedding will be the first of September. You’ll be getting your invitations soon.”

By then it was time to eat. Henry and Eva returned to their seats. Woody was about to cut into his steak when he felt a buzz from the cell phone in his pocket. He usually ignored these alerts, but this time for some reason, he decided to take a look.

With the thumb of his right hand Woody motioned up, up. The girl on the ladder raised the right end of the banner and nailed it to the weather-beaten swimming pool sign.

“Come Celebrate With Us!” read the banner. It was Labor Day, the last day in the long life of this storied swimming pool. Next week demolition of the pool would begin, and the site would be converted to a skateboard park. Across town, between two cornfields, the new aquatic park would open next Memorial Day.

Woody, in his late eighties, had begun in recent years to show his age. He was bent, his hearing and eyesight were bad, his balance was shaky. But he still put on his khakis and white shirt, with his whistle around his neck, and went to work every day. In warm weather, he was at the park, and in cold weather, he was at the YMCA.

“Did you get the balloons?” he called to the girl, as she came down off the ladder.

“Got ’em, purple and silver, they look great!” she called back.

Woody would nominally be the master of ceremonies, but he planned to do little more than sit on his bench and greet the folks who came. He expected to see many of the swimmers he had coached as boys and girls.

People were lined up out front when the doors opened at one o’clock. In they came, young and old, some of them in swimsuits, some of them in shorts and sandals. Chairs and even a few picnic benches had been brought in. The idea was for people to drift in, stay a while, and then drift out.

“I keep telling myself that this isn’t a sad day, it’s a happy day,” said June when she arrived. “Not sad because of what’s ending, but happy because of the seventy years of enjoyment people knew here.”

June, the ageless wonder, in the years since Henry and Eva’s wedding, had put on a bit of gray but otherwise was unchanged. She sat down on Woody’s Bench.

“I think I could remember every single one of them — every last girl and boy,” said Woody. “With your experience, you know what I mean. They were mostly poor kids. I got so many of them here — poor kids from a poor town.”

His students and former students ranged in age from seven or eight to almost fifty, from young children to grandparents. They stopped by now to say hello and have a chat. About this time the weather brightened. The last gray cloud drifted east toward the baseball diamond, and the sun came out, and the temperature began to climb at once.

Suddenly a scrawny boy of eight or nine appeared before Woody. He put his hand out

“Hi, Kyle!” said Woody, shaking his hand. “Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Henry!” said Woody, when Kyle’s dad came out of the locker room.

Henry, wearing blue swim trunks and using a crutch, sat down next to Woody. They shook hands and hugged.

“Been a while,” said Woody. “What, year, year and a half? Look how tall Kyle is.”

“Finished third grade. Football’s his sport. I don’t think we’ll make a swimmer out of this guy. He’s gonna be a quarterback.”

Henry put his arm around the old coach. Looking at the young man who had astonished him so many times over the years — the man who had taught him about the unstoppable force of the human spirit — Woody grew teary-eyed. Woody, who had no son, and Henry, who in a sense had no father — they had found each other.

“Look at you, Henry,” said Woody. “Those big shoulders. I can still see them parting the waters as you glide through.”

Indeed Henry at age thirty-three was trim and youthful as ever, with perhaps a recent fullness, a sign of maturity, in his face.

“Right there, Kyle,” said Henry, pointing. “That was where Woody dragged me kicking ad screaming into the water.”

It was the semicircle of steps, beaten and crumbling now, that descended to the shallow end of the pool.

“Twenty-two years ago, Woody?” said Henry. “Twenty-three?”

In Woody’s memory, he could still see it — the frightened little boy, the thrashing arms.

“Long time,” he said.

Henry put his hands on his son’s shoulders.

“Come have a swim with me, big guy?” he said.

“Okay — but can I stay here and talk with Mister Woody for a few minutes?”

So Henry jumped into a somewhat crowded pool, while Kyle remained with Woody and June.

“Tell me about my dad,” said Kyle.

Woody looked at Kyle and thought he saw something of Henry there. Something about the prominent cheekbones, the shape of the face. He even had a few faint freckles across his nose. He was a good-looking boy, the son of a handsome father.

“He was a good swimmer, huh?” asked Kyle.

“He was a great swimmer, maybe the best I ever had,” said Woody. “He had records all over the Midwest. He had a national YMCA record. He did it all in spite of a serious handicap and a — well, let’s say a lack of support from people who should have been more helpful.”

June had her say as well.

“No one in your dad’s family had ever gone to college before,” she said. “To pull himself out of the life he knew, to get himself through college with no advantages such as money or support — that’s quite an accomplishment.”

Henry today was a successful insurance man, on the rise in a prestigious company. He was on a path to be the next regional sales manager.

“Think about what your dad did,” Woody continued. “Put himself through college, he was elected captain of the university swim team — and he was an all-American.”

For Woody, the memory was vivid of the night at the Ruth Wood scholarship award ceremony when the chairman of the NCAA’s swimming committee phoned him to tell him the news about Henry. That official, a longtime friend, had thought Woody was the right person to tell Henry of the great honor that was coming his way.

“What did you say?” asked Kyle. “Did you say what I thought you said?”

“Yes — your father was an all-American. I gave him that all-American patch myself, the shield with the stars and stripes on it. I’m sure he’s told you all about it.”

“He never told me at all! Oh my God. I’m gonna go talk to him!”

He turned to go, then glanced back.

“Would you come with me, Mister Woody?”

The old man rose slowly to his feet and took Kyle’s hand. Henry was in the deep end of the pool by the rope, swimming underwater, sleek and quick like a water creature. In a moment his head popped up out of the water. With a laugh, he shook his head and water went flying.

“Don’t say anything, Woody, I know I’m out of shape!”

“Dad!” said Kyle. “You were an all-American, and you never even told me?”

A sort of blank look came over Henry’s face.

“Oops!” he said. “Didn’t I ever mention that?”

He pulled himself out of the water and sat on the edge of the pool. He told Kyle he was sorry but it had never occurred to him to mention it. It was a long time ago, and when family and career came along, his athletic glory had simply receded into the past.

“I’m sorry!” he said.

“Well … jeez … my dad an all-American! Holy cow!”

The incident didn’t really surprise Woody so much. Henry was the most modest person he had ever known — modest, perhaps, to a fault. He could never do anything that sounded even remotely like boasting, not even tell his son of his greatest accomplishment.

“Kyle, give me a hand up,” said Henry now.

Kyle took his hand and gave a pull. Henry, still strong and nimble, rose up vertical. Standing there on his one leg, perfectly in balance, he turned to Woody with that matinee-idol smile on his face.

“Watch this! I can still do it!”

He sprang in the air, executed a nifty flip, and dropped tidily into the water.

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