The Colonel hates, has always hated, and will always hate, running.
The Colonel's hate had ample opportunity to take shape and intensify into a black storm of absolute fear and loathing during his nearly three decades of association with an organization obsessed with running.
The Colonel will never forget -- he has purposefully dedicated one of the remaining clumps of cognitive cells in his gray matter to the task -- his first Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT). The shocking pain, breath-taking nausea, and morally degrading fear that washed over him was like no other experience in his theretofore unchallenged life.
And, that was just upon hearing the PFT requirements.
The insane men in insane haircuts wanted the Colonel, then a lowly midshipman 4th class in the NROTC program at Ole Miss, to do as many situps as he could in two minutes, immediately thereafter jump up on a pullup bar and do as many pullups as possible, and then... oh, the horror at the remembrance... run three miles in under 28 minutes.
The discussion went something like:
"Three miles, Sarge? Are you kidding the Midshipman? Couldn't we just jog once around the track and multiply the time by 12?"
"My name is Gunnery Sergeant McLain!" The Purple Heart scar on the Marine's cheek flashed white in contrast to the angry flush on his face. "You may call me 'gunny', but never call me 'sarge'!"
"Sir?," a look of pure, unadulterated disgust, that the Colonel was later to realize was a look perfected to an art form by all Marine senior NCOs, washed over the Gunny's face, "Don't call me 'sir' either. I work for a living."
The Gunny surveyed the skinny runt in front of him, resplendent in his cut-off jean shorts, faded hang-ten t-shirt, and low-top Converse All-stars; and the practiced look of pure, unadulterated disgust softened to a look of disdain one normally uses when scraping something smelly off the bottom of a shoe, "There ain't no track, short round. Just follow the herd."
"Follow the what?"
"Look, knucklehead. The 3-mile run course starts here in front of McCain Hall, around the Grove and across University Avenue to All-American Drive, then over to Coliseum Drive and out to Highway 6. Then take the highway -- stay on the shoulder and watch out for the 18 wheelers -- back east to Old Taylor Road and then back up to, and across, University Avenue. The finish line is back here where you started."
"That's just three miles? Sounds like a tour of the entire county. The Midshipman just got here yesterday and had a hard time navigating the two blocks here from the dorm. How's he supposed to remember those directions?"
"Follow the herd, knucklehead."
At the start command, the herd broke from the starting line like a herd of spooked wildebeests. The Colonel was so startled he actually looked behind to find the lion. He turned to the front to see the gaggle speeding away from him at an alarming rate and broke into a sprint to close the gap.
Within a quarter mile, the Colonel had closed the gap but was completely gassed. The pack had settled into an energy conserving pace, but the Colonel was already drawing on reserves.
The next twenty-five minutes passed in a sweaty haze of unimaginable leg pain, respiration racing to match a racing heart, and heavy self-recrimination for accepting an NROTC scholarship from the Marine Corps.
The turn onto Old Taylor Road leading back onto campus and the finish line would have been a welcome sight but for the fact that Old Taylor Road was more like the sloping legion-built ramp at Masada, climbing steeply for a good half-mile.
Reaching the top of that excruciating climb was no relief. The next quarter mile to the finish was lined with upperclassmen who, upon finishing their runs, had circled back to cheer on the rest. Their shouts of encouragement infuriated the Colonel -- how could they be standing, let alone whooping and hollering, after completing the death run?
At the finish line, the Gunny awaited, stopwatch in hand.
"Twenty-five, fifty-five! Twenty-six! Twenty-six, ten! Twenty-six-fifteen!"
The Colonel crossed the finish line, veered off into the Grove and collapsed on the grass. Death would surely come quickly and he wanted his last moments spent looking up into the trees.
"Get up, short round!," the Gunny yelled. "Walk it off!"
Walk it off? The Colonel was near death. Even if he didn't die, he was certain that he'd never walk again.
The next day, death having granted him a reprieve, the Colonel was bee-bopping through McCain Hall on his way to class -- Naval Science 101 -- when a long arm reached out from the office of the Marine Officer Instructor (MOI) and pulled him unceremoniously front and center of Captain Gerlach's desk.
"Good morning, sir!"
"You really tore up that PFT yesterday didn't you, stud?"
"Uh, yessir. Passed it with flying colors."
"Not hardly, stud. Lessee, 57 situps, 9 pullups, and a 26:15 run. Good enough for 3rd Class, but that isn't good enough for a Marine officer. You need to be shooting for maxing out the PFT -- 80 situps, 20 pullups, and a sub-18 minute three mile run."
Captain Gerlach saw the look of disbelief on the Colonel's mug and laughed, "Gregory, how much do you weigh?"
"Uh, one twenty-five, sir."
"Well, stud, you will have no problem maxing the PFT."
The good captain was wrong. The situps and pullups turned out to be no problem, but the run time only got under twenty minutes once -- three years later for the final PFT at OCS. It wasn't for lack of trying -- on both the Colonel's and the Marine Corps' part. In those days the Marine Corps was the world's largest running club. In those early days in the decade of Reagan, there wasn't funding for much training other than physical training. Marines ran everywhere.
Marines didn't walk anywhere -- you either ran or "forced marched."
The only thing the Colonel hated more than running was forced marching.
At any rate, after thirty years of running, and hating every minute of it, the Colonel gave himself the best retirement gift he could think of -- no more running.
These days, the Colonel walks. There's purpose to his walks -- but they aren't forced marches. He's not going to walk anywhere anymore where he can't look around and enjoy his surroundings. This morning the Colonel's walk took him out onto the county road which passes his vast holdings here at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere and runs from his drive northward through the Holly Springs National Forest toward the Little Tallahatchie River bottoms.
The road is paved -- barely. Narrow, winding, and shaded by towering old growth oaks and pines, it is all but guaranteed to grant the Colonel complete solitude for an hour. Rarely, a car or pick-up passes.
He rarely experienced the elusive endorphin fueled runner's high in all of his runs. But, the Colonel's walks flood his senses and spark his memories. Amazing, the thoughts that leap from synapse to synapse when the only sensory inputs are the sights and sounds of a walk in the woods.
The Colonel will walk until he has to crawl. He guesses the point is to keep moving forward, while not forgetting what's around and behind.