Monday, January 30, 2012

The Flame

Gal Friday suggested we include a lighted wall niche in my office at the new home we're building near The Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina.  Naturally our builder needed to know the object for this cutout so he could configure it in proper dimensions.  When I told him it would contain my Olympic Torch, he stammered something like, "Oh sure, Ed, and my wife is Wonder Woman."  Well, I've never seen his wife in blue panties and a red bustiere, but I certainly wasn't about to debate his statement.  I've learned through the years there are three subjects best left alone when conversing with another man--religion, politics and his wife.

I'm sure our builder, Ron, figured if indeed I possessed the bonafide article, I either bought it off eBay or committed some dastardly crime to obtain it.  To Ron's and many others' amazement, I do legally and proudly own my very own, dearly cherished, Olympic Torch. 

In the summer of  2001 I checked the mailbox and found an envelope from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) addressed to me.  Normally I would have suspected a donation request, but since my daughter Dani had carried the Torch previously in the Relay Across America, I thought it might be some follow-up information concerning her achievement.  Dani's masterly-framed Olympic Torch hung proudly on her den wall and I admired it each visit.  I came to realize what a coveted honor it was to be selected for this special event.  Through my daughter's participation, I grew to better understand the true spirit of the Olympics.

I opened the envelope.  I was shocked.  I, Ed, me, was invited to partake in the Torch Relay for the for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.  I immediately thought it must be a prank one of my "good buddies" played on me.  I scanned the neighborhood expecting to find some interloper hiding in the bushes or in a paneled truck taking pictures of my startled reactions.  Was I to be humiliated on one of those TV "gotcha"  shows?  Once inside and sitting, I combed the material looking for signs of forgery, but no, the letter and application seemed legitimate.  Someone had actually proposed me as a torchbearer and I was thrilled. 

A few weeks later I received more written information and two videos.  Being so ecstatic about my upcoming role, I sucked in every written word like a dying man gulping for air.  The videos were the best part though.  The first showed the outfit I would be wearing and what each detail represented.  This was so informative.  Learning about all this little known information juiced me up even more. 

The second video totally bowled me over.  (I know writers are taught not to use clichés like "bowled me over," but sometimes old clichés best describe feelings or situations.  That's why they become clichés.)  This video depicted the inception  of the Olympic Flame in ancient Greece.  The sun was shown lighting the original flame.  Special  priestesses lit their torches from this primary flame and carried them to the known continents of the world.  The ancient Grecian Games were played from 776 BC to 393 AD in Olympia.  They stemmed from the religion of honoring the Gods by creating the best bodies and minds through sport.  Wars were stopped for the Olympics.  I believe the true spirit of the Games is bringing peace to the world through athletic competition instead of war.

Another information packet arrived and I learned I would be representing East Tennessee in the Greenville, South Carolina segment of the relay.  The Flame would arrive in Atlanta from Athens, Greece in the plane's special compartment  to allow for an open flame.  The FAA and other agencies bent over backwards to comply with this situation.  The relay of the Flame would begin in Atlanta, site of the last American-hosted Olympic Games, and continue to Salt Lake City, the location of the 2002 Winter Games.  Knowing I would be a part of this filled me with grand excitement.  The packet info also advised my outfit would be arriving soon.  I couldn't wait. 

Here I am in my Olympic
torchbearer uniform at a
Child Advocacy fundraiser
with Tennessee's former 
First Lady Andrea  Conte.
Torturous weeks crept by while I waited.  I checked the mailbox hourly.  I sat by the door listening for the UPS man to knock.  Where was my official Olympic outfit?  Then the day came.  The doorbell rang and before it stopped, I threw open the door, grabbed the item, shut the door and hugged the package to my breast.  It happened so fast, Mr. Brown probably stared at his hands wondering if a package was ever there at all.  The outfit consisted of a white nylon jogging suit accompanied by soft fleece mittens and toboggan cap.  Everything was white.  I had been told to wear white shoes and socks.  I, of course, had bought the newest, most expensive sneaks available.  I paid more for them than the down payment on my first house.  Adorned in my new, all white, official Olympic torchbearer uniform, I gazed into the full-length mirror.  I looked like the third base line at Yankee Stadium.  

Along with my entourage, I arrived in Greenville for my performance.  Family and friends from five  states accompanied me.  I dressed in my official suit and noticed the gray in my beard didn't go well with the pristine white of my suit, but so what?  My participation in the Olympic Torch Relay reigned supreme over all other matters.  Many of my friends said I looked like Osama bin-Laden, but again, so what?

My run was scheduled for l l pm, but I had to be at the meeting spot at 7.  The crisp December sky sparkled with stars and the bright full moon reminded me of a gigantic friendly eye waiting to watch the awesome event.  Because the Relay wasn't until much later, Main Street was devoid of people.  For a block or two, the street was covered by a canopy of  trees lit with white Christmas lights.  On both sides of the street, American flags were stationed about six feet apart acting like stately sentinels for the parade to come.

Entering this magnificent tunnel, I slowed.  An eerie feeling overcame me and I stopped the car.  Alone with my thoughts, I wondered about the Olympic Flame's trip from Athens, Greece to Salt Lake City, USA.  How many people must be involved to pull this off?  What a tremendous effort.  I thought about how this flame has never been extinguished since 1896.  I thought about the spirit of the Olympic experience.  I don't know how long I sat there, but other people or vehicles were never seen.  I felt like I existed in a wonderful vacuum.  I sat there thinking  if this moment in time, with a scene better than Hollywood could conceive, on this planet, in this country, in this state, in this elaborate tunnel on this street, time stood still for everyone, but me.  I can't say it was a religious epiphany, but I sure can say it was truly spiritual.   

After final instructions, the torchbearers entered vans to be transported to the the locations for their runs.  I was placed in the rear of our van because I was last in our group to run, or in my case, be pushed in a wheelchair.  The streets, sidewalks and porches were filled with people enthusiastically waving small American flags.  Our country was still reeling from the terrorists attacks a short four months earlier.  Patriotism ran high.

We stopped at our designated spots to wait for the Flame to arrive from Atlanta, GA.  We waited with great anticipation.  After about an hour, we were told the Flame still hadn't made it to Greenville because the procession had lingered in Atlanta.  Coke was a major sponsor so the Relay Team had to spend unscheduled time going through Coke's main complex.  I didn't actually mind the waiting; since the start of my Olympic Relay experience, I had become pretty good at the waiting game.  I spent the time talking with other torchbearers and heard of real heroics.  Did I belong there?  Some of the stories made me feel like a comic strip hanging in a museum next to the world's elite masters.  The Torch Relay crew kept us enthused with feel good Olympic videos and stirring music so our fervor didn't wane.

I will never forget the moment I first saw the actual Olympic Flame.  It came around a corner atop a specially prepared truck.  The bright yellow fire burned full and proud against the crisp, star-glistened sky.  I'm not sure how to describe my feeling but the impact was tremendous.  My patriotic zeal,  Olympic-spirit awareness, Olympic history, appreciativeness of effort by people circling the globe, the honor of my small part in this grandiose world event, and my spiritual experience in that wonderful tunnel collectively manifested into an emotion I can't explain--but it was fantastic.

I had watched every other torchbearer in our van run his segment of the relay and now it was my time.  There were second honorees who wore blue outfits and one blue-clad girl pushed my wheelchair for my portion of the Relay.  I sat in my chair with a special holder for my torch waiting for the last runner to light my torch.  Excitement and anxiety boiled through my blood.  My waiting game management skills melted away.  Out of the night she approached.  She seemed like an apparition quickly nearing.  Was this really happening?  Was I imagining this blonde-haired, white-clad priestess with a flame?  Instead of the nylon running suit, she appeared in flowing white cloth billowing from the swift pace her mercury winged feet ran.  Her lovely smile beckoned me to touch my torch to hers.  A calm soulfulness in her eyes promised eternal, sustaining  love once the Flame jumped from her torch to mine.  I had overdosed on the Olympics.

My aide-de-blue nudged my chair and I returned to reality.  The previous Torchbearer, who was at least blonde, lit my torch from hers and we took off.  My pusher must have thought this was a race and she was going for first place.  She pushed me so fast the Flame went horizontal.  I searched for an emergency brake.  It was over so fast, I don't remember it.  I wasn't worried because my good friend Terry (Buckwheat) Boyes was supposed to jog alongside and take pictures or shoot a video or something to memorialize this great moment in Ed Conte's life.  Buckwheat often bragged about being a football running back and star on the college track team so I knew the quick pace of my relay wouldn't bother him.  What I failed to take into account was his athletic prowess took place about 50 years ago.  He couldn't keep up with the little girl in blue.  I later learned he was cold and sought out another friend's (Archie) trunk.  This trunk is better stocked than many famous bars in the country.  I'll say no more.

The night wasn't over.  We all went back to the hotel and celebrated until we partied out.  Sharing this experience with family and friends made this great night even better.  Wow, what a night.

I'm including a poem I composed about this special experience.  I hope you enjoy it.


My “day in the sun” transpired in Greenville at night
Neath a majestic full moon and stars, oh,so bright
Nothing but magic filled the crisp air
As the flame arrived, a torch I would bear.

They told me of priestesses, a flame lit by the sun
I dreamed of winged feet and the race to be run
My emotions, so varied, were churning in breast
Should I really be there, could I stand to the test?

I was last on the van to carry the torch
I saw people-lined streets, sidewalks and porch
I watched as these runners, inspirational, all
Victoriously advanced it, answering their call.

Now my test was at hand, how did I feel?
Humble pride overcame me, it was all so surreal
My family, my friends, not behind, but aside
You all were with me on that wonderful ride.

Each one of your hands carried that flame
Through the years thousands, I could easily name
All who sustained me with love and support
Your spirit more regal than any king’s court.

I was an agent for you that cherished night
With the majestic full moon and stars, oh so bright
You all are winners, each dame, each fellow
Deserving God’s golden Olympic medal.

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