I really like this quote from Joanne McFadden’s article that appeared in last Thursday’s Gazette:
“If you hear about them with no direct experience, they become abstractions, and they become easy to forget when they become abstractions.”
She was quoting Timothy Cahill, founding director of the Center for Documentary Arts at The Sage Colleges, in a story about the new photo exhibit in Troy, “Battlesight: Dispatches from Iraq and Afghanistan by International Photographers.”
Cahill was referring to the indigenous people, as well as our servicemen and women overseas, who continue to be at war, even as the plastic American flags stuck to people’s cars have long since disappeared.
I’ve never met Cassie Ayott, who’s on the other side of the planet right now, but she’s not an abstraction to me anymore after we had a phone conversation for about 15 minutes recently.
An Air Force flight nurse advisor who had been a member of the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club since 1998, Capt. Ayott called me from Kabul, Afghanistan, where she’s stationed with the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group as part of the NATO Training Mission. She’s scheduled to return to Stratton Air National Guard in December.
Although we lost the connection several times and had to account for a five-second delay between questions and answers, it wasn’t difficult for me to discern a bright, intelligent, cheerful woman who believes in the importance of her job, which is to train Afghanis how to treat and move patients, and who is looking forward to “running” in the Gazette Stockade-athon this weekend.
Coincidentally, the “Battlesight” exhibit opened last week, so I went to Troy on Saturday and checked it out, and I can tell you it’s a sobering, eye-opening experience. In the comfort of life in this country, it’s easy to get complacent and forget about the Cassie Ayotts of the world, if you don’t have any close friends or relatives in the military, which I don’t.
By the same token, it’s inevitable that someone like Ayott is going to pine for such simple pleasures as running in a race, feeling the burn in your lungs and legs, then the relief and sense of accomplishment that wash over you when you cross the finish line.
Where she is, there are no beautifully maintained bike paths or tree-lined streets, resplendent in the reds, oranges and yellows of fall; there are a lot of rocks and flat terrain. There’s an access road. Confined to the Kabul International Airport, she finds the running course that she uses to be “horribly boring.”
To take some of the dull monotony out of that routine, her unit established a committee that contacts race directors and asks if they can hold races on the base covering the same distances. Then they e-mail the results to be folded into the results of the races held here.
This year, the Stockade-athon will be one of them, and Ayott and about 300 people will “run” the 35th annual 15k, using a loop around the perimeter of their base (I’m writing a feature story on this effort that will appear in Sunday’s Gazette).
They’ll run sometime today, then try to hustle the results to us on Saturday in time to include them with the times from Sunday’s race.
A byproduct of this story is that I have been duly inspired (shamed?) into running the Stockade-athon myself, despite a maddening lack of training since June because of a sore Achilles’ heel.
I’ve covered this race for the Gazette since the late 1980s, and had always vowed to run in it someday, but only if I was able to train properly for it.
I was able to pull that off in 2009, and a year later, it all seems like something of a minor miracle in retrospect, considering this unblievably discouraging Achilles issue that has wiped out all of my training.
People have been asking me about the race recently, and my response, a la Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” has been: “I got nothin.’ ”
Well, that’s not 100 percent accurate. True, I have no aerobic capacity, no stamina, no speed.
What I do have is this: two Achilles’ heels that are utterly pain-free for the first time in months. I know this because I did a little 2 1⁄2-mile experiment last Saturday.
My goals and expectations are as low as low can go.
Although the temptation to go too fast during that crazy-quick stretch down Nott Street will be enormous, I’m going to force myself to slow-jog it, just turtle along with no consideration for time. It’s going to be unpleasant, it might even be awful, and I fully expect to be gasping like a fish out of water well before the finish.
There are people in Afghanistan who would love to be in my position, with the freedom to come and go as I please, to pick whatever route I want, whenever I want.
It’s way too easy to forget about them, or to become so self-centered that you magnify the minor inconveniences of everday life.
Sometimes, it takes exhibits like “Battlesight” to help us realize what a dehumanizing effect public relations spin can have on our perception of people in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
We’re here; they’re “over there,” out of sight, out of mind.
Cassie Ayott is going to be thousands of miles away this weekend. While I’m chugging my ugly course through the Stockade-athon mob, in some small way, I feel like she’s going to be somewhere nearby.