They had all been drinking and a dark-haired guy who looked Italian to Tim Joe Key came into the Clairemont Bowl pool room with his gang from Linda Vista. “That guy ought to know this is Blue Jacket territory,” Key told his buddy John Bruckner, and purposely put his beer on the pool table’s edge and waited for the tension to build as he moved around to size his shots and finish the game.
This was 1960 and T.J., as Key was called by his friends, was sixteen years old. He went to Clairemont High School, but only when he felt like it. This day he hadn’t gone. And this night he played pool with the Blue Jackets in a room at the Clairemont Bowl on Clairemont Drive, just east of Mission Bay. It was their territory; they were all from Clairemont Mesa — not Linda Vista. The Italian-looking guy bumped into T.J.’s beer and knocked over the can. “Get the hell out of this pool room,” T.J. said. He dropped his cue and it banged onto the floor and the room became quiet as the pool games stopped and all that could be heard was the clatter of falling bowling pins.
Taking off his leather jacket, the Italian guy said T.J. had a big problem. “You got a big mouth is what you got, and I’m gonna shut it up.” His friends swelled behind him and pushed him closer to T.J., who stood nearly six feet tall and was tough and wiry and hard and knew how to box and who wanted the fight so badly he could sense when the guy was about to throw his punch, and just before that moment, knocked him in the face and up against the pool table, wrapped his arm around his skull in a headlock, applying intense pressure, so that the veins bulged across his forehead.
The guy grabbed T.J.’s scrotum and squeezed. Everybody heard a grunting bray rise from T.J.’s throat. Then T.J. dragged him across the room and rammed his head into a pool table. He knocked the Italian guy unconscious and let him slump onto the floor, and then T.J. looked savagely around the room. “Anybody else want to give me trouble?” He turned to Bruckner and another friend. Sonny Lefebure, like a general turns to his adjutants: “You two carry him out and dump him somewhere, and everybody else, including you, Nellie, over at the counter, remember you didn’t see anything and you don’t know anything.”
The night of that fight T.J. came home late to 4026 Conrad Avenue in Clairemont, to a flat-roofed house, and he crossed the lawn to the hose, turning on the faucet, wetting himself down on his hair and face, trying to remove the beer and whiskey scent that he didn’t want his father to notice. Inside the house, T.J.’s father, Rodney, a groundskeeper and maintenance man for Torrey Pines golf course, pushed back the curtains to look at his son cross the driveway. The man was angered by his boy’s wildness, his unwillingness to obey his father. So he went back to his chair, lighting a cigarette from his pack of Pall Malls, looking at the television, waiting for his son. They confronted each other in the kitchen, Rodney fully intent on enforcing some control over his boy. They stood looking at each other, T.J. smiling drunkenly in some sort of partly crazed way that was a mixture of resentment and defiance and hatred.
“Your goddamned grandfather drank himself into an alcoholic,” Rodney said. “I don’t want you drinking any more.’’ The boy did not speak.
“You going to talk or just stand there? I don’t want you staying out this late. You hear what I said?’’
The boy was still smiling as Rodney’s fist slammed into his jaw; then came the warm, coppery taste in his mouth. “Well, you finally noticed I’m alive.”
Fighting and violence were a way of life for T.J. because some are born to excel in the intellectual world, others in the physical. T.J., born nearsighted, the problem not diagnosed until he was about to enter his teen-age years, knew only the physical. He went through school until sixth grade never able to see the chalkboard. He was flunked from the fourth grade back into third. He learned few words and could hardly write. That turned him into himself. The violence came early — he remembers his father slugging him in the chest when he was ten after he came home from playing bingo on the night his grandfather died — but he had no release by words to dissipate the intensity of his feelings. At age eight he had begun boxing, and very well. He channeled his darkness and frustration into his fists. All the way through high school he would be put into classes for retarded children. He was absolutely certain he was dumb, that he was below normal intelligence.
Yet in other ways, until the family move to San Diego in 1957, T.J. remembers having an idyllic childhood. He came from Winner, South Dakota, on the Sioux Indian Reservation. Winner was a town that took up where the vast prairie lands ended; but where the buildings stopped, the prairie took over again. T.J.’s friends were Indian children. Together with Dewey Broken Leg, Butchy Hawk, and Iron Horse, he explored creeks and rode horses and shot rabbits with his .22 and ran and played on the wide-open rolling lands. But that way of life ended when Rodney Key’s milk-delivery business went bad, around 1957, when he refused to switch from glass bottles to cartons, a refusal to change that proved disastrous, certainly financially, and T.J. thinks emotionally, too. Rodney declared bankruptcy. T.J. remembers that one day he came home to find all the family possessions — cars, guns, furniture, dishes, radios, television, toaster — on the lawn. A man, calling prices for each item, tried to get the most he could from the people gathered around, some of whom were the boy’s friends and their parents. That was how T.J. learned about auctions.
Rodney had wanted to stay in Winner, but his wife said South Dakota was too hard and that California looked better, especially since their friend Donna Steckman had left Winner and moved to San Diego and lived in a small duplex at 5074 Cape May Avenue in Ocean Beach. She had invited them to share her home.
T.J. was thirteen and bitter as an old man when he arrived in San Diego. His parents had left him behind two months with his grandmother so he could finish school. That he resented. His first day in San Diego he walked along the San Diego River jetty. As he gazed at fish jump and the sun dapple the green water, four boys pelted him with rocks on his back and head. He ran.
On his way to a morning class on his first day in any junior high — this one was Marston, his parents having moved to Clairemont — four boys shoved him into the lockers. With an iron rod for a backbone, afraid of nothing, T.J. told them to meet him at the baseball field across the street. Scores of children gathered that afternoon along the fence and on the outfield grass, all of them set against the new boy who walked, alone, to the infield. His fists were clenched. All the children T.J. could see were his enemies; they moved closer in a tighter circle. The other boy swung. Three punches in the face from T.J. knocked him down.
That their favorite had been beaten angered the children, and they jumped onto T.J., holding down his arms and legs, kicking and slugging him. T.J. burned inside as outside he was bruised black. That night, when he was home, his parents didn’t ask him about the bruises. Typical. But T.J., in his hit-list mind, had memorized the faces of those who had jumped him. By the ninth grade he had fought them all and hurt them and pined revenge. The boy earned his reputation as a battler: he wouldn’t back down from anybody. All day during classes he flexed his abdominal muscles till they became as rigid as a washboard and so tough that the older students used his stomach as a punching bag. He was tough all right, and tense, too.
The first time T.J. was brought into San Diego County Juvenile Hall, he was fourteen and had stolen somebody’s checkbook from a car. He stayed three weeks, the longest of his eight visits there, sometimes being brought in for questioning, the police taking him out of class, all the students knowing what had happened, that maybe this time he had been caught burglarizing cars at Ocean Beach or breaking into Coke or candy machines or rolling drunks. A bad place to send somebody like T.J., juvenile hall made him special in his friends’ eyes, affirmed his evilness by providing him with the war decorations that made him a bigger, more daring leader with the Blue Jackets. That first time the police took him in, he was given a pair of blue jeans and blue shirt and tennis shoes and assigned to a tiny cement-walled cell that had windows made of unbreakable glass with metal crossbars molded into them; the doors were made of thick metal and were controlled by electronic remote control, so that returning from an activity, each inmate waited by his door until staff unlocked it and put the boy in and the door remained locked, each door having a small window slit for staff to look in to make sure nobody tried to hang himself or set fire to the mattress. Nearly every day T.J. would be led into an interview room that had a big table and chairs and unadorned walls. The plainclothes detectives from juvenile division always worked in tandem, their routine always the same — one good guy, the other bad.
“Have a cigarette?’’ the good one would say while the other looked on.
“Yeah. . . haven’t smoked in a week.”
T.J. would light up and the detective would say, “Now Tim, the questions we’re going to ask will be in your best interests to answer. Tell me, didn’t you steal the checkbook from a brown-and-white Chevy on February 23?”
“Don’t know a thing about it.”
“On the night of January 12, didn’t you assault two men in the Ocean Beach parking lot?”
“Nope. That wasn’t my job.”
“Goddamn you. Key,” the other detective would say. “You better own up to what you’ve done or you’re going to be in trouble past your eyes.” He’d look mean and hard at Key, who would feel his hands clenched into fists, ready to fight.
T.J.’s parents came to juvenile hall, and the boy was sure that the detectives had asked them to come and help break him down.
“Please, Tim, admit what you’ve done and come home again,” his mother Agnes pleaded.
“Didn’t do anything wrong, mom.” Maddened by his son, Rodney said, “If you don’t tell them what you’ve done. I’m leaving you in here for good.”
“Get the fuck out of here, old man.”
Another time, brought in on suspicion of rolling drunks, five or six of them at a time, around Ocean Beach, T.J. was seventeen and needed a shave and the guards gathered the inmates inside the recreation room. In the center was a stool that boy after boy was seated on, where a counselor used the same razor for each boy’s shaving. T.J., with bad acne, sat down and the counselor roughly sliced down each side of his face till every pimple was ripped open, the blood dripping profusely in red swaths, staining his blue shirt’s cotton to a dull red, all this transforming T.J. into a battling, cornered beast, bereft of compassion, cynical, violently callous. By the time he was twenty-five years old he had been jailed at least twelve times.
The first meeting T.J. Key and me had was marked by two things: his erudite knowledge of long-distance running, and my clear perception that he was hiding something from me as he spoke of the Flatlanders, a San Diego running club he helped to start in May of 1980 and whose members are among the true endurance runners in the United States today, running races of fifty and one hundred miles and frequently much longer. His involvement in this group bore more significance than he was willing, at this initial meeting, to reveal in detail. What detail he did provide concerned running — his passion.
Most people will never even consider joining the Flatlanders, since the price to pay is too high, not in dollars and cents, but in strength of body and mind — the will to run one hundred miles in less than twenty-four hours. That accomplished, with a two-thirds acceptance vote from the other forty members, the club may have a new member. Besides being president and publishing the chatty Downstream Digest club newsletter, as well as constantly writing articles for magazines such as Runner and Runner’s World, Key has become the Flatlanders’ spiritual hub. He has extracted as much personal meaning as he can from the strain of running great distances.
He spoke of a trip he had just made to Mexico’s Barranca de Cobre (Copper Canyon), taking a train halfway between Los Mochis and Chihuahua, hopping off at a site known as Divisio, hiking down into the canyon, the air smelling thickly of sage, footpaths from thousands of years of travel having been hollowed into the boulders along the trail he walked. At last he reached the Tarahumara Indians, some of whose men wore colorful feathered plumes, others with red cloth wrapped around their foreheads, the tribe’s men and women known for their ability to run for days with little or no rest. For several days Key ran among the Tarahumaras, the women smiling as he ran past, some of the younger men joining him as he ran. “Running is very spiritual with them; it's their being,’’ Key told me as we sat inside the small guest cottage in which he lives in back of a home on Manitou Way in Clairemont. “That they run is an everyday fact of life. Running for a Tarahumara is the same as eating food for anybody else. In many New World Indian cultures, runners were held very highly for their ability to run such long distances and withstand the rigors that running long distances involves. They were very spiritual people who had to take special care of themselves and stay by themselves a large part of their lives. These people usually didn’t marry. It took a special kind of person to be a runner.’’
That T.J. Key himself is an extraordinary runner is a fact: in November of 1980 he and Flatlander Tommy Jackson, of San Diego, set a world record in the two-man, twenty-four-hour relay. In that event, held in Carlsbad, they ran just under 194 miles, with an average mile time of 7:09, breaking the old record of 187 miles, set by a European team. Still, he had remained completely silent about his past, and I knew nothing of it but sensed there was indeed something worth knowing.
As our first meeting ended and we stood on his driveway, beneath clear blue skies and swaying trees, surrounded by an Impressionist’s palette of flowering shrubs, I asked him if he would be able to articulate his motivation for competing in races that shoved him close to the limits of human endurance. His reply, he confided, was something he usually kept to himself. He had been involved in struggles, he said, in which it was miraculous that he hadn't ended up imprisoned or dead. “People tend to think of runners, particularly world record holders, as athletes who ran in college, who were high school and college heroes. That isn’t my story. I’ve lived on the street. I don’t usually tell people these things about my life, but I’ll tell you, because if what I say can help even one kid in juvenile hall — or on a path he knows is a bad one — make himself a better person, it’s worth it. . . .
“Thirteen years ago I was jailed and charged with murder.’’
He looked at me to see my expression. “Did you do it?’’
"It was 1965. I was twenty-one. Jim Hammond and I arrived in Onida, South Dakota, after a week on the road camping and seeing stars in the nighttime sky and the red canyons of Utah one day and the next day the snowy peaks of Colorado that had clouds covering them and then coming to the north prairie lands and the wheat fields rolling on until my eyes couldn’t see them any more. We were drinking and staying drunk and feeling free. Only I wasn’t feeling all that free, I can see now. I was running away from home and my father and mother, and from being kicked out of Clairemont High. At Kearny High I stopped going to classes altogether unless I’d made a trip across the border to buy Bacardi and tequila I stored in my locker and sold to the students and drank myself anytime I attended classes. Mainly I was running from my father. He was the kind of man who could go for days without talking. You know how it is when you make yourself vulnerable to somebody and you don’t get anything in return? I felt cheated by him.
"In Onida we took a job bailing hay and pitching bluegrass and we drank up and gambled away all our money. The wheat harvest started and we hooked up with old Sam Anderson. He wore an old floppy gray hat and farmer johns. He also had known my grandfather and had stayed with him in his home in Winner. Sam had followed the harvests since the 1920s. We worked first around Onida, Jim working in the combine. The hell if I would. All a man made for working fourteen hours, with the chaff and stems coming at him all day and breathing in the dust and wheat and never leaving that combine and never resting, was four extra dollars. For twelve dollars daily I worked the truck and could relax till the combine operator waved. Then I’d drive the truck up along the hopper while the combine kept moving. I’d stick the funnel into the truck's high-fenced bed and the wheat would fill it up and I’d drive into town or to the railroad tracks or wherever the co-op silos stood. We’d auger the wheat into the silo to store. The people I worked with held no airs. One man I remember never went anywhere without a fifth, and wore a cowboy hat and talked cowboy talk and was always in a good mood and never afraid to fight. Jim told me all about apple picking in the Northwest and about stoop labor. All of what I was doing was an adventure. Even though the money wasn’t great. I’d rather have been with the harvest than washing dishes, which was about the only other job I felt I was suited for.
"But one day, heading into eastern Montana, we had to go over some mountains near Canada and the 1948 flatbed Ford I drove smoked badly. I thought the truck would make the pass, but the smoke filled the cab so badly I had to stick my head out the window. I burned out the engine. We made our way into a town and spent five days trying to fix the problem. But nobody could help that truck. Old Sam shot off his mouth. He told me what I was worth. All the bad feelings from San Diego I was trying to hide filtered back into my mind. I got tired of everybody telling me I wasn’t too smart. After night fell, when everybody slept, I told Jim we ought to cut out for Las Vegas. We could gamble and drink and find new jobs. We had $150 we halved.
"I gambled away my share two hours after we arrived. I wanted to get drunk, and I asked Jim how much money he had left. He wouldn’t say. In the Golden Nugget I stole half a chicken a guest left on a tray. We slept a few hours in the hotel’s laundromat, but the manager rousted us and gave us each a silver dollar and told us to leave. I thought that he gave me a silver dollar was a good omen, but I gambled it away immediately. Next, I told Jim we ought to buy some alcohol with the money he had left. He looked at me strangely, like what right had I to his money? He was cranky and said he wanted to sleep, so we went to the park across from the Golden Nugget and slept on the grass. Just before the sun came up, I felt the hard tap of a policeman’s nightstick in my heels that hurt bad, as though my feet were frozen and tingly numb and I’d stubbed my toe against a rock. I tried to see the faces of the policemen but their car lights’ glare blinded us. I saw one grab Jim and lead him away. The two that led me away asked whether I’d been in Los Angeles and what my name was. I said I hadn’t been there and Tim Key in a mumbly, fast voice. And one of the cops asked how did I get a Japanese name like that? I guessed Tim Key said fast sounded Japanese. They threw me in one squad car and Jim in another. I thought that in jail at least I'd have a decent bed and good food a few days. Later, Jim and I were in the cell and he was excited. 'Have you seen those pictures of you?' he said.
“'The ones the police showed me when they asked if I could identify the person in them? They were of you, is what I told the police. A guy ought to know when he sees his best friend’s photograph. Then one of the police said those were photographs of a man wanted for murder in L.A., and that I'd just identified you as the murderer.'
"Three days later Jim was set free and was about to leave the cell we shared. I was frightened. 'I need some money,' I said. 'To make some telephone calls. A dollar.’'
“'Forget it, T.J.,' he said. 'I need what money I have to get out of here as fast as I can.'
“'Just one dollar. I'm in trouble.'
“'See you later.'
"I was transferred to another cell known as Little Siberia that was a cage with bars on all sides set in the middle of a big room with gray walls and no windows and with four other inmates already inside, two of them in for murders they’d actually committed, two in for armed robbery. I was held on a murder charge for knifing a man in L. A. on a day I was probably in South Dakota. After three weeks in there, I felt like I didn’t exist any more in the outside world and that that world didn't exist for me, since without money I couldn't make any calls, couldn’t even buy a newspaper, candy, or cigarettes. They wouldn’t even allow me a lawyer or to mail a letter. I learned later that Jim arrived in San Diego and told our friends what they must have expected to hear about me someday, that I had been jailed for murder. He told everybody except for my parents. Maybe they would have helped me. Maybe.
'Every day the police led me into a room and shined a bright light on me and gave me the good-guy-bad-guy routine, one of them questioning, the other accusing. For a month I tried to convince them I hadn’t murdered anybody. I realized at last that I was being set up and I'd never get out of jail, and after that I fell apart. They almost had me convinced I’d knifed the man and sometimes during the questionings, I hate to admit. I’d lose control and cry.
"In Little Siberia, if I looked too long at one of other prisoners, he would shout, “Don’t stare at me!” Or all day and night all one of the murderers would do is stare at me, so I did pushups, hundreds of them, my signal to them to stay away or I’d kill whoever came too close.
"One night a guy screamed for hours and wouldn’t stop. So we all started to throw water on him. That cell was awfully cold in the night. An inmate has only the clothes he wears and no other mattress but the one he’s given. If all that is soaked, he can spend hours shivering, maybe catch pneumonia. By the time we finished, his mattress was swampy wet and his clothes like he’d been swimming. A guy turns sadistic in jail. But after two months, when I didn’t think I'd ever be let out, the real murderer was found. One of the guards handed me my street clothes and said, 'Don’t ever come back to this town again.' On the street, in the sunlight I hadn’t felt in weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground. Never thought the sun in my eyes could feel so good.
"If this hadn’t been 1965 and Vietnam hadn’t gotten had, San Diego would have been my choice to stay awhile, but with me eligible for the draft and the notices coming to my parents’ house, I was afraid to go back there. But I hadn't learned my lesson about jail either. Right away I was arrested again.
"I hitched to Key West and found John Bruckner [an old friend from Clairemont High] living in a trailer there with his mother and four children. They were poor and the other kids much younger than me. So in order to help her, John and I took to breaking into grocery stores to steal food. But I guess the police were onto us. After we piled $200 worth of groceries into the car we borrowed from his mother and took off down the highway, the police pulled us over and arrested us. The next two months we spent in a prison gang. We cleaned trash off roads while being watched by men who cradled shotguns in the crooks of their arms. Bruckner and I were the youngest there, barely twenty-one, and the guards liked and trusted us. They would send us to work in a hot dog stand by the beach while they were someplace else. One time they sent us there, we never came back. We hitched a ride out of Key West to Miami with some friends and from there took one of those drive-away cars north to Detroit in the winter of 1965. We were near dead when we arrived. We lived in the Greyhound bus station and stole purses and roamed the streets. I was trying to reach bottom so that I wouldn’t fall any farther but I always had a glimmer of hope that life would be better if only I managed to hang on.
"We got kicked out of the bus station and slept in hotel doorways and one night, sleeping, a black man put a gun to my head. 'Man, this ain’t no place to sleep.' That was when we decided to go back to San Diego. In Dayton, Ohio a guy picked us up who was really hard up for work. He didn’t care where he got a job now that his girlfriend had left him.
“'My uncle owns a construction company in San Diego,' I said once we’d been driving for a while and we were getting drunk together and I figured what he was after. 'If I tell him to give you a job, he’ll do it. That’s where I’m headed.'
“'Give us a ride to San Diego and you can bank on that job.”
“'Drop John and I off at the bus station so we can get cleaned up,' I said a few days later when we arrived in town. 'Now, you go buy some beer and come back in twenty minutes and we’ll go meet my uncle.'
"The guy returned and we were gone.
"When I came to my parents’ home, they had stacked all the draft notices on the kitchen counter. The latest ones threatened jail. I can recall the very date I went in for my physical. That was my mother's birthday on June 28 in 1966. We were to have a party for her after I’d taken the bus back from Los Angeles. But the same day, after being checked and given an aptitude test, the government shipped me to Fort Bliss in White Sands, New Mexico. Makes me spit when I think what the government pulled. “Well, make the best of it,” was all my mother said the next day when I called to tell her what happened. Everything made me furious after that.
"During basic training the Army made us use live ammunition and one of the guys was shot in his back and killed. Another died after a twenty-mile hike. The chef died of a heart attack. On a day the temperature reached 110 degrees, my squad leader ordered us to pick weeds from between rocks that covered the earth in front of our barracks. He kept shouting for me to stoop, as if the discipline would make me more of a man or break me as a man. All I thought while swinging my sharp-bladed entrenching tool was that I was damn tired of him. The next time I heard him bark, “Stoop," I bent and looked at the sun glare off his black boots. Then I swung the tool behind my shoulder and down, fast and hard, and the blade grazed the front of his boot. I was hardly able to pull it out of the ground. Any closer and I would have chopped off his toe. He had a terrified look.
“'Don't . . . ever . . . fuck . . . with . . . me . . . again,' I said.
"He never did.
"The first time I ever had a clue I might not be dumb was that on the aptitude test they gave me in L.A., I scored at least 117. I was offered placement in officer candidate school but refused. That would have meant extending my enlistment. So the Army put me into pharmaceutical school. Those first weeks going to classes I was feeling as smart as anybody. But I’d been transferred to Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where all the Vietnam battle casualties came, some only hours from the battlefield. Seeing those guys firmed my convictions that Vietnam wasn’t right. Everywhere in the hospital I heard moaning. I saw guys with no arms or that had lost a leg or that had been bombed by napalm and whose faces had disappeared and their bones showed. So many more guys than beds were there that they were on gurneys in the hallways. . . .
"The further along I went in school, the tougher the mathematics became until I was completely lost by the calculus and trigonometry, and the colonel called me into his office to say I wasn’t making the grade but that I could continue on, although I probably wouldn’t graduate. I lost the self-worth feeling I had, and I quit. I was shuffled around a lot the next year, staying awhile in Georgia, then Virginia, until a year later, around late 1967, I volunteered for the Army underwater demolition training program the Navy conducted in San Diego. That was the best break a guy could have.
"Of all the Marine and Navy and Army trainees, I was among the best. Some of them had trouble adjusting to the air-pressure changes as they descended underwater; other succumbed to the stress of diving daily. We’d begin on Coronado Island at five in the morning by diving in the ocean to swim an hour no matter how cold the water, and after that run ten miles with twin tanks and weight belts strapped on. Sometimes we ran through obstacle courses or mud. Some days we were dropped off underwater from a submarine and had to find our way back by use of only a compass. Even doing the 200 pushups I’d be given for my screw-ups was easy after spending time in that Las Vegas jail. But I dwelled a lot on Vietnam and that my training meant I'd probably soon be swimming in some Asian river trying to explode a bridge and probably be shot to pieces. So when the Army ordered me to extend my enlistment before UDT ended, I wouldn’t. I quit that course, too. I shouldn’t have. That I quit worked on me.
"Once out of the Army I had a hard time living with myself knowing I was a quitter. I thought my life would never amount to more than washing dishes. I had friends and women when I wanted them, but I felt so bad about myself I tried to stay alone. That first year out of the service I spent three months working carnivals, traveling in a 1948 Chrysler I bought for fifty dollars from Del Mar to Pomona to Sacramento to San Antonio. At first I untangled cars in the bumper-car rides. Later I worked a booth where people pitched dimes and quarters onto glass plates. I felt like a social dreg, knowing that as a carny I was no better than the sod the fair-goers walked on. We were always waiting for trouble to brew. We would all jump out of our booths to pound the man that put down one of us. After that was when my life started to change."
Everywhere in town T.J. went during his sad year of 1969, the regular haunts that once had been sources of mystery and excitement — the Clairemont Bowl, Tug’s, Maynard’s, The Pennant, other bars he had once frequented — he now saw faces, aged and lined, he had seen too many times before, knowing that these people wouldn’t amount to much in life as they drank themselves into oblivion and sat on their stools and their eyes searched for new faces and new bodies to approach. T.J. would light another Camel — he was up to three packs a day — and order a beer and feel trapped. San Diego was home, and all the old habits and patterns and his projections of what people thought of him chained him to a way of life from which he couldn’t seem to escape. Yet he knew he needed to change as news filtered in about what had happened to friends, friends as good as he thought he could ever have, the ones who had accepted him and shaped him in his earlier years. Bruckner and Lefebure had been killed in 1967 when one of them fell asleep at the wheel as they drove home from the Pomona fair. Richard Bohannon had by now spent most of his life in penitentiaries for bank robbery. Bob Merkle was robbing banks, too, and would soon be wanted by the FBI. Tim Sutton had been shot dead in another bank robbery. Rick Rawl killed himself on a drug overdose. Richard Boyd was arrested for narcotics. In prison he turned squealer and was killed. Jason Royalstin was in prison.
Taking work in a cement factory in Mission Valley, T.J. registered for night classes at Clairemont High. The principal was the same man who eight years earlier had told him to leave that school but who had also told his mother her son was “college material.” A plain-looking man by the name of Kenneth Hale, he would provide T.J. one of the most important opportunities in his life. Even though T.J. tried to avoid the principal, ducking from him in hallways, pretending he didn't see him at other times, he walked into Hale’s office one day to tell the man that he badly needed to earn a high school diploma, that he wanted to try to quit smoking and find a better job and make money and lead a better life. Although Hale said little, he listened and understood. But after two semesters, with one remaining, T.J. quit school. “I had quit so many times before that it had become easy.” On graduation day, however, a cardboard envelope came in the mail. His graduation diploma was inside.
When he and his father talked after that, T.J. said. “I wouldn’t mind going to college. I wonder if you would help?”
“My father never helped me go to college,” his father replied.
Gl benefits would help some, and in January of 1970 T.J. entered Mesa College. Within eight months he was arrested twice for drunk driving, once while riding his motorcycle more than a hundred miles per hour down the freeway. Both times he was taken to the old San Diego city jail, and after the second arrest he vowed he wouldn’t drink again — and he didn’t for three years. He became so serious about school after his second arrest that he withdrew completely from all outside activities — no more bars, no more carousing with old buddies, no more television. And he became especially vehement in his opposition to sports, particularly those on television, but sports in general, too. They were a distraction to his studies.
After he transferred to San Diego State in 1973, he took courses in sociology, anthropology, and psychology. In one course — Dick Jones’s class in ethnographic field methods and procedure — the enrollment started with fifty students but dwindled to ten. Only two students received an A, and T.J. was one of them. He felt excellent. “The whole thing with college,” Key says, “is that when I finally graduated seven years later, when I was thirty-three, I had proven to myself that I could persevere to accomplish what I wanted, and that I was intelligent. I got a degree in sociology from SDSU in 1977. I could have gotten a second degree in anthropology if I had gone one more semester. I also had a 3.4 grade point average. My thinking changed during those seven years, too. Once, all I wanted was to travel on the road and not own anything. Now I wanted wealth. I had my GI benefits — $175 a month in 1970 and $275 a month by 1977. And I also bought things at auctions that I would resell, sometimes at swap meets. Things like trinkets or refrigerators. Sometimes I'd buy five or seven refrigerators at the same time for twenty dollars apiece and sell them for triple what I paid. I also had a cart trailer and ran ads in the Sentinel, the local Clairemont paper, and the Tribune for hauling furniture around town.
I got up to making twenty-five dollars a single move, so that in a day, making several moves, I made seventy-five or a hundred dollars. I also began to buy real estate. I scanned the papers and looked for good property buys, things I could convert. I made my first buy in 1970 when I bought my duplex with the guest cottage in back. That was on Manitou Way. I got in for $2000 or $3000 with that place. The guy was going through a divorce and had to sell. He sold for $18,000 and my monthly payments were only $290 and went down to $200 when I paid off the second trust deed in 1972. That was the same year I bought four units on Ohio Street in North Park. The property was large and had two homes — one was a small three bedroom — and a duplex. The woman who owned the property wanted to sell, but I didn’t have enough credit qualifications to borrow the money I needed from the bank. She was vice president of some corporation and arranged with the corporation’s president to tell the loan officer that I worked for the company and made $1200 monthly. I went into the bank dressed in jeans and didn’t even wear a shirt but I looked good on paper and got a loan for $8000 or $10,000. The selling price was $47,500 for that property. Now I had $800 a month payments for all my property. I moved into the home on Ohio Street from where I was living on Manitou and worked on it all through 1973. I bought another duplex in north Clairemont, on Bannock Avenue, in 1975 for $75,000. In 1977 I paid $62,000 for a house and garage on Forty-fourth Street in East San Diego. I lived on Forty-fourth Street throughout 1977 and worked on converting the garage into a two-bedroom apartment. I sold that property in 1979 for $92,000. After I bought another piece of property — a duplex and small home — for $58,000 on Kansas Street in North Park, I owned about a dozen units. I was a rich man.
“But all my money was in land. I couldn’t pay all my bills. It had become a matter of which bills I’d pay this month and which I’d put off. I spent all my time worrying about money, trying to figure how to make my payments. All that worry made me lazy. I sat all day and would become frustrated and try to solve my problems by eating. My weight went up to 215 pounds. I had become a butter ball and I smoked more than three packs a day. I ignored my body. If I was turning into a heart attack victim, I figured that was the price I had to pay to become wealthy. I was a workaholic. I was going to school and still hauling things and going to auctions and all that. All I did was work. I never rested, so that I didn’t have time for serious relationships with women. A couple of girlfriends got serious and I could have gone that route and gotten married, but I just wanted to be in easygoing relationships. I just didn't have time for anything more. I was on my way up.
“After I graduated in 1977 from State, I figured the next logical step was graduate school. I thought about teaching elementary school and went a semester to teaching school but I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do. So later that year I entered SDSU’s graduate school of sociology and earned six or nine units. But the studying got a lot more intense and my GI benefits stopped coming in. I lost interest. I could see that in trying to become wealthy and educated, I was just as trapped as when I was in jail for theft or murder. ‘What am I doing in graduate school in sociology and worrying about money all day?’ I asked myself. That wasn't me."
One night in mid-1977 he coughed up brown phlegm from his lungs. That told him all he needed to know about smoking's effect on his body. He looked in the mirror on another day and had to admit: he was fat. He stopped smoking. T.J. says he stopped easily. “One day I said I would stop and I did." But he also wanted to lose ten pounds. That was when he went to the SDSU track and ran a quarter mile before his muscles tightened and he ran out of breath. But he returned each day to the track, each time running farther, feeling something come alive inside that made him feel vital. Sometimes, as he ran, he concentrated on the feeling in his legs as he strode and his muscles stretched. Other times he let his mind wander faraway from worrying about his property that had dragged him down into his lethargy.
His thoughts drifted back to the time when he was sixteen and he had gone to a track meet in North County, at San Dieguito High School. He told the meet organizers he represented Clairemont High, which wasn’t true. He had never even tried out for the team. They allowed him to compete in the long jump, and he won with a mark of twenty-three feet, six inches, which tied the California state record for high school athletes, but that couldn’t be counted when Key was discovered to be an unofficial contestant. Or sometimes, while running, breathing hard, he went back in his memory to tenth grade. He had gone out for the Clairemont High varsity football team. The coach made him first-string fullback, quite an honor for a tenth grader. But the coach ordered the boy to cut his hair. T.J. wouldn’t; anyway, he had better things to do than spend his afternoons sweating on the gridiron — like shooting pool or drinking beer at the Clairemont Bowl.
Within six weeks of that first lap around the track, running felt so good that he joined up with the SDSU distance men on the streets around campus. They easily outsped him. An hour after they had returned to the athletic field and warmed down and stretched, T.J. would finally arrive, chugging like an arthritic buffalo. He was always last, then. But the main thing was that he wouldn’t quit. He just couldn’t any more. “I started out as a quitter and came to the realization that quitting was a real handicap," he says. “I learned not to quit by starting on small projects I completed. There’s this book called Word Power Made Easy. I went through the book a number of times. A dozen times. There was a time when I couldn’t have gone through the book even once. But I did, and my vocabulary improved tremendously. I had made it through college. In the Army I had passed a life-saving course with the highest mark ever. Things like that made me feel better. It was just completing a lot of little tasks. With running, I could see it was doing great things for me physically, and emotionally. It would relieve the tension after reading all day or working. It agreed with my physical being and emotional being and it was something I was good at and I knew it. It was an evolutionary thing I had to go through. You fall on the ground and can’t get up, but get up anyway.”
Key’s natural talent at running quickly became apparent when, within two months of struggling through his first quarter mile, he entered the 1978 Mission Bay Marathon. He completed it in three and a half hours. Next he ran marathons eight weeks in a row. For practice, some days he ran thirty miles. Some weeks he ran thirty miles each day. By the fourth day he would be unable to move his body, and, rolling out of bed, he would lace his shoes and make himself go out on the road for one more round. To run every day became essential. He especially loved to run through canyons and on dirt trails and through the brush and in river beds. Every day that he didn’t run, he felt his body stiffen and soften. Running freed T.J. from feeling entrapped by his properties. He wasn’t even so sure any more that wealth was what he truly wanted. He discovered he wanted health and freedom more.
By 1981 he had sold all but one of his properties; all that remained was his duplex on Manitou Way in Clairemont. But with the money he made selling the other properties, together with the $825 his remaining duplex brought him each month, T.J. was able to live comfortably — modestly — in the guest cottage back of the main building.
By May of 1978, less than a year after that fateful quarter mile. Key ran his first hundred-mile race. The event was held at the SDSU track, where the heat rose above ninety degrees. World record holder Frank Bozanich came to compete, announcing before the race that he intended to break his own record, but he quit early. T.J. watched him walk off the track — the best man had quit — and Key vowed to himself he would finish, and he did, in a time just over twenty hours, taking second place. In May, 1979 he entered his second hundred-mile race, the Chula Vista 100, and quickly took the lead, but at thirty-five miles his body started to jerk and become spastic, shivering and unable to control his movements, feeling the dry heaves, feeling like quitting, the other twenty competitors passing by him, telling him the logical move was to quit, T.J. thinking he couldn’t, telling himself no . . .no. . .no . . . no. . . . Don’t quit. The next two hours he walked around the track and still won in 16:56:36.
More training followed, and other races. The Western States 100 (through the High Sierras), his two-man, record-breaking 193 miles, the Pacific Crest Trail 50, the Cal Road Runners 100, seventy-three miles around Lake Tahoe, fifty miles along the American River — Key had become a man possessed.
Today he is running from one hundred to 150 miles per week, beginning and ending his workouts with sets of 200 pushups and 200 situps. His 215-pound body has been replaced by one that weighs about 165. He’s training for a six-day race at the end of this year (to be held at the Naval Training Center on Point Loma), and for a possible seventy-eight-day transcontinental race that would coincide with the opening of the 1984 Olympics — from New York to Los Angeles. Two other goals include staging a race between members of the Flatlanders and representative runners from the Tarahumara tribe, and breaking the world record for one hundred miles, which currently is about thirteen hours. He is also attending classes at the University of San Diego, studying to become a paralegal and perhaps then to enter USD law school.
The tension from T.J.’s earlier years, however, never will leave him. “Running is my emotional safety valve,” he says. “My closest friends say I'm too serious and too tense and feel too much of a burden.” Although running hasn't enabled him to leave completely behind the burden of his past, he has at least come to terms with the relationship between him and his father. T.J. speaks of what his life might have been like if his father would have taken the time to, say, play catch each day before supper, or if his father had taken him camping or hiking. “It's not that I wanted hugs or kisses,” T.J. says. “I just wanted some attention.” He says that his father was more concerned with his own friends than his son and that, in South Dakota, when Rodney went hunting for deer or birds, he always took his friends, not his son. The flying his father did was without his son.
“If my father had given me some of himself, some support, I might have had more guidance and not have gotten into so much trouble. My mother talked with me, but that didn’t make any difference. I needed my father. For many years, I think, much of my anger was because I didn’t ever have his attention. But I’m not angry with him any more. In late 1981, he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous portion of one of his lungs. He also has emphysema. He’s going to die. His other lung works only partially. At that time, whether he would survive surgery wasn’t certain. He spent four months in intensive care at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Diego, and I saw him every day. One day, after he had recovered but was still in the hospital, I came to visit. Several of his young girlfriends were there — girls he met on days he used the Jacuzzi at the Jack La Lanne Health Spa; he did little errands for them and took them to lunch. He had been hugging and fussing over them. They left a few minutes after I came into the room. ‘The way I treat those girls is the way I treat my family; too,' he said.
“I looked at the small man lying in bed. I knew he was dying and I wondered if I could allow him to die a lie. I decided I couldn’t.
“‘Rodney, I can count on one hand the number of days you ever spent with me.'
“When I walked out the room I felt some of my bitterness dissolve. It was replaced by sorrow.”
Last summer T.J. entered a twenty-eight-mile race up and down Colorado’s Pike's Peak. He finished only in the top twenty percent. But what was important to him, he recalls now, was the exhilarating experience of revelation: he felt his spirit join with the high mountains and the wind and the hawks soaring and the massive boulders arranged, as if by divine forces, to resemble an altar. He felt his pulse throb with the inspired rhythms of life on earth.
After the race, his brother-in-law gave him a ride to the Denver Greyhound station. T.J. had told him he planned to return directly to San Diego. But as soon as the Greyhound was outside the city, the old urge to wander overwhelmed him. He hopped off the bus, carrying with him an equipment bag, a small tent, and a sleeping bag. He hitched a ride into Cheyenne and slept on the edge of town. Then he headed to Rapid City, South Dakota, and from there to Winner. He walked down the main street of his old home and everyone recognized him and nearly all of them thought he had gone crazy in the head after he told them he was running races that took twenty hours and were a hundred miles long. Crazy.
Leaving Winner, T.J. hitched to the Badlands and ran all day through the orange and red and yellow canyons and mountains. Then he went to Rosebud and got drunk with the Indians and gambled in the back rooms of bars. He looked up old Sam Anderson, watched the wheat harvest, and recalled an earlier life. Another week passed before T.J. hitched home to San Diego.