The Great Race
By Bill Donnelly
I just finished the July Checkers Chatter, and the President’s letter really caught my eye. First off, I must admit to being very proud of my brother, Tom, for he has really come a long way in the
running world. You see, most of you did not know him back when he started running, weighing in at somewhere under Buffalo 400 pounds, but definitely over 200, and wearing my worn out running shoes. This was, oh, about 34 years ago, and look at him now after his meteoric rise to the top of the heap, President of Checkers AC. Who could see that happening so fast?
My whole family is very proud of him overcoming his oh so many handicaps to rise to the top. Most are a bit annoyed at having to address him as “Your Royal and Most Exalted Omnipotent Grand Poohpah and All-knowing Highness.” My 90 year old dad really chafes at this. Why, when I was President of the Buffalo Philharmonic AC, I simply went by “The Great Serene One.” If you stop to think about it, if the two of us had been President of these two clubs at the same time, the combined number of runners under our complete and unrelenting domination would have numbered in the many hundreds. Why, Checkers alone has many hundreds of runners, and if you add the three Philharmonics who still run, why, what power we could have held together. Oh, I can just see it. Bwaaah-haa-haa-haa! Ah, but it was not meant to be.
Anyway, back to Tom’s message on safety in the July Chatter. His advice on running safety and listening to your gut when it tells you to take it easy was excellent, and I will not comment on it, except to say that sometimes after a couple bean burritos, I try to ignore what my gut is telling me, much to the chagrin of my wife, Diane. What caught my eye in his message was right near the beginning, and I quote: “Not so much in regard to fireworks, I don’t go near them.” Oh Really!
Let me tell you about my brother “Back in the Day”, back when those on
feared for their safety come July 4th. Now this wasn’t Back, Back in the Day, but more like the early nineties when Tom lived on Grand Island and was quite busy helping to raise his four beautiful kids who all grew up to be amazing adults despite the handicap of, well, why beat a dead horse. Grand Island
In those days I was busy teaching in the
area. But word reached me even there of the amazing fireworks displays that took place every July 4th on the front lawn of one Tom Donnelly’s place. Of course, word reached me via a few letters from said Tom, and I decided I had to come and see one of these amazing fiery performances myself, so I came for a visit during said holiday. Oh, and was I to be rewarded for my effort. Cleveland, Ohio
Tom always had a big to-do for the 4th, and most think he did it for his kids. This is only partially true, as he does dearly love them, and does quite a lot for them. Believe me; I am being serious about that. But Tom also loved to entertain, (hard to believe), and to put on a show, so he would have a big party followed by his big fireworks extravaganza.
I well remember that display I witnessed. But even before the fireworks, all the guests were first treated to perhaps what could have been the race of the century that could have determined the permanent winner of The Donnelly Cup once and for all. You see, beside Tom and I, my brother Mike, who ran the marathon in a respectable time, was also at the party.
After a day around the pool in the hot sun, most of the many guests at Tom’s party started clamoring for a race to be held with only the Donnelly boys participating. I had just gotten back into running, and my first effort in a marathon in ten years produced a time of . Now Tom of course, since my PR for a marathon was a whole 13 seconds faster than his, started needling me about how painful it must have been to run so slow as to be on the course for a full 3 hours, let alone those excruciating extra 14 minutes. Tom’s running friends picked up on this theme and decided the three Donnelly guys should settle who was the fastest once and for all right then and there.
Being that we were all so competitive, and being that we were being hounded by the others, and being that several barely-malt beverages had been consumed by all there, we agreed to a race. We lined up in front of the house, and were to race to the corner and back, a distance of about
800 yards. The rules were laid down, Dan Loncto acted as the official starter, barked off: “set and go!” and away we went.
Now, you must remember that the three of us Donnellys were lifelong siblings, and we knew each other as if we had been raised from birth as brothers, which we were. Without saying a word to each other about strategy, we took off at a leisurely walk, meandering towards the corner. The whole party of onlookers began howling for us to take off, but we kept to the pace, and by the time we turned to head back, droves of onlookers were heading back to the pool for more beverages and food.
A few onlookers remained, sure that our competitive nature would kick in, and one or more of us would break into a sprint. As we crossed the finish line neck and neck and neck, even Loncto threw up his hands in disgust and rejoined the other partiers. We may not have provided the highlight of the day, but most were not too upset, because they knew that would come later at dusk when the highly anticipated fireworks display would occur.
Finally darkness started to descend and all the party goers gathered around, but Tom made certain I was in the front row, next to his kids, Becky, Patrick, Alison and Paul. He had been talking up the display all day, and waited till a sufficient amount of barley-malt beverages had been had by all, and the sun was almost set so the night sky would provide the perfect backdrop for his amazing explosions. I remember especially how his oldest, Paul, looked on with wide open eyes, waiting for what he knew would be something only his father could produce. I could tell by the look in his young, trusting eyes, that he was wondering why all of
’s inhabitants, (and not just his glorious father’s slightly wobbly friends, including his beloved Uncle Bill-The Great Serene One), were not there to see his father’s masterpiece. Grand Island
I must tell you that young Paul had a strange nickname, as did all of Tom’s children, and there was a reason for all of their nicknames. Paul’s nickname was “Bottle Rockets”, or “Bottles” to his close friends, and this was not because Tom shot off so many bottle rockets, as he did, but because of what had happened to Paul when he was even younger. So let’s leave Tom’s fireworks for a minute, and I will explain Paul’s nickname to you.
You see, Tom used to have season tickets to the Buffalo Bills, and when Paul was just two and a half years old, Tom started to take young Paul to the games. Tom to this day will tell you it was to build up Paul’s leg strength for his future running career, but some might doubt this. You see, Tom figured out that he could sneak a few cans of his favorite beer, Genny Light, into the stadium by placing them into the inner pockets of Paul’s winter coat, a thick parka that Tom made him wear. The ticket takers would never check the cute kid you see.
Tom started with only a couple cans at first, but as he realized how well it worked, he kept adding more cans; Tom would say to build up his son’s strength gradually. After a while, Tom taught his second child, Alison, to sew pockets into the inner parka (thus Alison’s nickname “Pockets”), and he kept adding the beer. Tom’s other kid’s nicknames (Patrick is “Noodles” and Becky is “Bo-Ecky”) are a story all there own, and fodder for another of my future columns.
Some might think that this was a great way to build up Paul’s legs, but for Paul, it was becoming a nightmare. He never doubted his dad’s motives, but that parka was heck to wear at those hot September games, and in the cold months of November and December, those ice cold beers against his body were almost as heck, but the opposite. Paul now lives and works in the state where cold-hearted Tom was born, Minnesota, and when Paul shows up for work in a Donnelly Design T-shirt and shorts in January, and everybody is complaining of the cold, Paul just knowingly says “You don’t know what cold is till you’ve been to a Bills game.”
Things came to a dramatic conclusion one frigid, snowy December Sunday afternoon. The Bills were playing Miami, and Tom finally achieved beer nirvana when he reached his dream goal of packing a full case of Genny Light cans into poor Paul’s parka’s inner pockets (Alison was good!). Just as they reached their seats at the top row of their upper-deck section, the over-loaded young Paul lost his balance and began tumbling down the many rows of the aisle, looking like a tiny boy in a barrel bouncing down a hill.
Fortunately for the boy, the 24 cans of cold beer cushioned him as he bounced down the steps, and the bottom railing prevented him from flying off into the lower section. Unfortunately for the boy, the by now over-pressurized cans of beer simultaneously popped their tops and off went Paul like a misguided bottle rocket, his twisty flight path visible by the convoluted trail of foamy beer that hung in the air long after the boy landed, dizzy but safe, in the lap of one Ralph Wilson, who had just settled into his seat. Thus the nickname, Bottle Rocket, and this episode also explains why Tom no longer has season tickets to the Bills.
Ah, but I digress, so back to the fireworks. Tom proceeded to fire off his huge display, which consisted of, oh, maybe thirteen firecrackers, three bottle rockets (in honor of Paul), and a couple Roman Candles. And every guest was given a lit sparkler, which we were told to twirl in the night sky. Well, let me tell you, the whole 23 second display put me in mind of the Rice Krispies ad, you know, Snap, Crackle and Pop, only this was snap, crackle and fizzle.
I simply looked Tom in the eye and stated “Be still my heart!” This cracked us both up, and we rolled on the ground we were laughing so hard. We rolling on the ground laughing uncontrollably turned out to be the highlight of the party, but by the time we regained control, the rest of the party guests had returned to the beverages and food. All, that is, except for Paul, who stood there with the look of such pride in the show his dad had just put on. I guess all it takes is a couple bottle rockets and a lot of love, and that was something Tom has always provided. There has never been a fireworks display anywhere that equals the love Tom has for his kids.