Book project turns into a journey with surprising destinations.
Last Tuesday at 7:39 a.m., I pressed "send" to transfer a 76,098-word book manuscript to my publisher. Letting go of a manuscript is like taking your kid to college - neither is ever totally ready to go, but there comes a point when you simply have to kick them out the house. Nevermind that a few of your participles still may be dangling or you could have polished up one chapter a bit more, a deadline is a deadline - and, in this case, yours comes after you begged for, and were granted, a two-week extension.
My book is about Dick Fosbury, the Medford and Oregon State kid who couldn't high-jump worth squat so he literally turned his back on the establishment by inventing his own style. He won a gold medal in Mexico City in 1968 and revolutionized the high-jumping world. Everyone today uses the Fosbury Flop, though most jumpers have no clue the backwards-over-the-bar style actually had a start point - April 20, 1963, in Grants Pass - and no clue who Dick Fosbury is.
"What are you up to today?" a young barista in Sutherlin asked me last February.
"I'm heading to Medford to a banquet," I said. "Going to hear Dick Fosbury speak."
"Oh," she said. "Do you know someone in the band?"
That was the day I launched the project. I needed to get the manuscript done fast because the publisher, Sky Horse in New York, wants the book out a few months before Oct. 20, 2018, the 50-year anniversary of Fosbury's Olympic-record jump.
Now, four hours after pressing "send" - and after two months of getting up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. each day to write - I finally have a moment to put the 10-month process in perspective. And doing so evokes a Martin Buber quote: "Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware."
Who knew that I would be standing with Fosbury in the Sierra Nevada, at 7,377 feet up in the middle of a forest? In 1968, to replicate the high elevation of Mexico City, the United States Olympic Committee charged Oregon track and field coach Bill Bowerman to find a high-altitude site for training and trials to choose the team. Bowerman had a track plopped down above South Lake Tahoe, Calif., leaving more than a 100 pines in the middle of the oval and granite boulders nudging the long-jump runway.
Fosbury, now 70, and I were able to find the exact spot where he made what I contend was his greatest jump - yes, even greater than his 7-4 1/4 gold-medal leap.
Who knew that, while on the phone with long-jumper Ralph Boston I'd get a call from Tommie Smith, who, along with John Carlos, had raised a black-glove in the air on the victory podium in Mexico City to protest racial inequality?
Who knew I would wind up at a dinner that a couple outside Medford hosted for me so I could talk to about a dozen people who had gone to school with Dick - one of whom, it turns out, was a member of the Kingston Trio? And, yep, Bob Haworth does take requests, blessing a living room full of us with The New Christy Minstrel's 1964 song "Today" and three others.
At one point in my research, I was trying to track down an ex-Grants Pass high-jumper named Bob Shepard. He had won the high jump at the 1963 meet in which Dick first started modifying a "scissors"-style jump into what became the Flop. After weeks of research, I learned he not only lives in Eugene, but had been an across-the-street neighbor of mine in the 1990s.
Knowing that baseball analyst and former Seattle Mariner Harold Reynolds learned to "Flop" from Dick himself, I interviewed him one day. And the next was looking in a 1967 photo of Fosbury jumping at OSU's Bell Field - only to see, in the crowd, the face of a 7-year-old boy who looked familiar: Harold Reynolds.
Book research takes on a life of its own - and sometimes death. I talked to Dick's 94-year-old father, Doug, in March; in June he was gone.
One thing led to another as I followed the secret destinations. At Grants Pass High, after seeing the field on which Fosbury first Flopped, I saw two similar trophies in a trophy case - for the same state football championship. Odd. And one is burned. The athletic director told me the story of the team bus was coming over Sexton Pass one December night in 1948 after Grants Pass had won the state football championship in Portland. Only 20 minutes from awaiting crowd, the bus careened off the road, down a 200-foot grade, broke in two and exploded in fire. Two players died. But nearly two dozen survived when someone used the trophy to bust out the windows in the bus so the young men could escape the inferno. The school was given a new trophy but also displays the old, so nobody will forget.
Yes, I found a way to weave that anecdote into the book: the idea that desperation leads to imagination. It's the same force, I believe, that led Fosbury to re-invent himself as a high jumper after the death of a little brother and the breakup of his parents' marriage, leaving a kid hungry to belong. And a track team being his only choice to make that happen.
The same force that helps an author finish a book even when there are not enough hours in the day.
You write, write, write. You hand off the story to eight people, including former Runner's World editor Joe Henderson, and they show you the errors of your ways - hundreds and hundreds of them. You make the fixes. You polish. Then one day hit "send."
Ah, you think, it's over. But then you remember the kid-off-to-college metaphor. You may have let go, but you're not done - not by a long shot.
Bob Welch is an associate editor at The Register-Guard and an author, speaker and writing teacher. He can be reached at email@example.com