Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Thanksgiving Day Proposal: The Charlie Robbins Memorial Barefoot Warm Up

I’m finding it hard to let go of Charlie “Doc” Robbins, who died about 10 days ago. He keeps coming back into my thoughts. Maybe I’m just looking at my own mortality; I always thought that Doc would outlive me, and often told people this. I’m also feeling guilty that I won’t be able to attend the gathering that’s being held Monday night in Middletown for friends and family. Instead, I’ll think about Doc on my run Monday afternoon. At some point, I’m sure I’ll take off my shoes, and feel the gritty road under my feet. This will remind me that life can be tough at times, but there’s no gain in complaining. We all do better when we simply bend and get on with it. That’s what Doc did. In the 40 years that I knew him, I absolutely, positively never heard a complaining word from him.

[If you can make the Monday night gathering, here are the details: Friends and family will gather to remember Charles A. “Doc” Robbins, Jr., M.D., who passed away on August 10, 2006. We will gather to share our memories and to heed Charlie’s last wishes regarding his arrangements to,” Be cheerful!” Please, join us on Monday, August 28, from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Tommy’s Restaurant, 825 Saybrook Road, Middletown, CT 06457. Tel: 860.346.8686. ]

I was thinking of Doc on my long walk this morning, a warm, pleasant drizzle soaking through my shirt and shorts. What else can we runners do to remember him? And I came up with a good and appropriate idea; at least I think it’s a good one. More in a few paragraphs.

This afternoon I called Doc’s daughter, Barrie. She and I have met a few times, but don’t know each other well. In an email to me, she noted that she didn’t think she’d do very well at expressing her thoughts about her father. But I found her engaging and interesting, thoughtful and at times even funny. We had a great chat, and shared a few laughs.

She remembered that her father was always very straight forward in his words and dealings. He didn’t weigh his kids (Barrie and a 22-month older sister, Chris) down with a lot of life lessons, but always told them that lying and littering “just wouldn’t work out.”

“He was also about as unjudgmental as a person could be,” Barrie recalled. “He didn’t care what you looked like or wore, or what car you drove. He didn’t care if you were a child or an adult. He treated everyone the same. It was one of his nicest qualities.”

After his divorce in 1978, Doc moved into a house that I never saw but heard described many times. Usually people called it a shack. Some had less flattering terms for it. Barrie told me it could have been considered a 2-room affair, except that no one ever completed framing the perhaps 20 x 12-foot space. It had no hot water. Doc’s old road-race trophies, I have heard from others, were variously used as door stops and containers for his nails and screws.

“At the end of his life, when he was living with my family, the same two shirts and two pairs of underwear would show up in the laundry chute every week,” said Barrie. “He thought he was living in luxury to have someone wash them for him. He left just about nothing behind—a hammer, his wood-cutting maul, and a few other tools. He had divested himself of everything else, donating it here and there. Other people may claim that they live a simple life, but my dad walked the walk.”

In the end, Doc caught an infection that proved too much for him. “He wasn’t sick long,” Barrie told me. “He went fast, just the way he would have wanted.”

Barrie, like most of us, will have trouble matching Doc's 50-straight Manchester runs, but she has run the race continuously since 1978, including three years when she was pregnant with her three children. About half the time, she ran barefoot, and I’d be surprised if she doesn’t do the same this November.

We could all do the same, but that wouldn’t be realistic. I’d like to run fast-for-me this year, and I’m just not gnarly enough to do the whole distance barefoot. So here comes my idea. How about, a half hour before the Manchester start time, we all do a barefoot warm up jog up and down Main St.?

The Manchester Race Committee apparently plans to “retire” Doc’s number, #1, and that’s appropriate. But all of us who knew and loved Doc—and those who only read about him, but appreciated him from a distance—ought to do something too. We ought to toss off our shoes for a few minutes to celebrate the Doc Robbins Memorial Barefoot Warm Up on the streets of Manchester.

See you there. Don’t be late.


At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More thoughts about "Doc". I was at a race in the summer of the early 1970's and learning all about this "ruuners" thing with weekend competitions. The day was very, very hot and I had not broken my shoes in well and ended up with two huge, broken, bleeding blisters on my feet. I sat down to stare at them and feel sorry for myself when I heard someone say, "There is a way to keep that from happening you know?". I looked to my left and saw two bare feet with black tar smeared all over them holding up a smiling, serious eyed fellow. I asked how and he replied that I sould just get rid of shoes and my feet would toughen up to the task and I would have no blisters. He showed me the blackened bottoms of his blisterless feet as proof. He went on to tell me he had been running this way for "some time" and it worked for him.
I found out a little later who it was. I actually tried it and only succeeded in tearing all the skin off the bottom of my feet and having more discomfort.
Charlie Robbins was a unique and gentle man that beat me many times over then next ten years...and always without wearing shoes.
I will never forget him and his many kind comments to younger and inexperienced runners.

At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the proposal of running the Manchester Road Race warm up barefoot. In my first road race ever when I was about 14 years old I remember "Doc" out-kicked me right about 1/4 mile from Snow School on Wadsworth Falls road. I remember commenting to my Father that an old man running bare foot passed me, how could I ever amount to anything? My Father went out to tell me all about "Doc" and what a legendary runner he was and from that point forward I became a huge fan and always enjoyed seeing him at races and getting an opportunity to talk to him. I can't wait for the warm up run.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Editor said...

I just received these thoughts from Orson Robbins- Pianka, grandson of Charley Robbins

Most people knew Charley through running or through his work at the Connecticut Valley Hospital.  For me, though, he was just Grandpa.  When I was a kid, he would be the first person I'd see when me and my brothers came home from school, since mom had to work.  He'd always have half of a cookie and a mini- Charleston Chew Candy Bar for us, as a treat.  As I got older and stopped needing a babysitter, he was still around all the time, in person or (more likely) through the sound of his sledge hammer, ringing through the forest as he broke up rocks to fill pot-holes in our driveway, or split fallen trees to feed our fireplace.  One of the things that has made me most sad in recent years, and especially now, is the absence of these sounds in our lives at home.  For so long his steady work provided an underlying rhythm to our waking hours; hearing the clink... clink... clink... of Grandpa in the woods was beyond comforting.  But now there's a silence in the forest that just doesn't seem right at all.

Grandpa was the most impressive creature of habit anyone could ever hope to meet.  As my dad remarked, after they had been living under the same roof for a couple of years, "you could set your watch by his daily routine," and it was true.  It's this trait, I think, that lead so many people to feel as though Grandpa would just keep on going forever:  After all, if you can split wood in the morning and watch Soaps in the afternoon for thirty years without fail, what's to keep you from doing it for another thirty?  And, unlike a lot of people, there was barely any change at all in Grandpa as he aged, which made him seem immortal.  Sure, he might not have run very much at the end or gotten his weekly KFC, but everything else pretty much remained the same.

He taught us so many things through the way he lived, it's hard to know where to start.  For me, though, I'll always keep in mind the fact that you simply don't need very many things to be happy.  When you get right down to it, it's not important how you look or where you live or what other people might think of you.  He approached everything I ever saw him do so thoughtfully and selflessly, whether it be forestry, running, or other people.  When you spoke to him, you always knew there was nothing hidden in his words; you were having a truly personal conversation.  To put it simply:  Grandpa was the kindest person I've ever know, by a long shot.  We will always miss him very much.

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your personal stories and memories about "Doc".
I never knew him personally - only knew of him. As a Connecticut resident and runner for the the better of part of the last 15 years, I would always here stories about Charlie. He was and will continue to be a local legend. I hope everyone keeps him alive and with us by sharing their own "Doc" stories.

At 12:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These stories of my great uncle are pure examples of how great and influential one man can be.I am William Wesley Robbins III.My grandfather is Charlie's brother. I only saw my great uncle at christmas at my grandfathers or at the race where I too ran on thanksgiving.I was blessed with a gift to run passed down from the great genetics of my uncle.I never continued to run to maintain my stamina regretfully.I am though, continually inspired by the fullness of life that can be achieved in life if you live as he did. Thank you all for his insured legacy.
William W. Robbins III


Post a Comment

<< Home