Monday, 3 August 2015

Cheese and crackers! Big boys and babies!

My Grandpa Howlett had almost a century's worth of great sayings, but my favorite was his exclamation of, "Well, cheese and crackers! Big boys and babies!" It took something fairly extraordinary (though he'd never use what he called "a 50-cent word" like 'extraordinary') to get this double-barreled reaction, which was always delivered with a big grin and a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes.

I'm confident John's epic test of endurance would have elicited one of Grandpa's booming, "Cheese and crackers! Big boys and babies!" When it came to physical fitness, Grandpa was no slouch himself: he was a star baseball player in the heyday of the game, and he must not have put down his golf clubs until he was in his 90s. He won running races and horseshoes, bowling tournaments and, yes, probably cycling competitions, though I can't remember ever seeing him on a bike.

But what he would have appreciated most about John's Transcontinental Race was the sense of good old-fashioned adventure. Of making your own way, being resourceful, finding clever solutions and not giving up when the going got tough. Grandpa and his brother and sister set out on something similar in the 1920s, albeit in an early model automobile and heading into America's largely unsettled West, instead of East into parts of Europe most of us won't be lucky enough to see. Both John and my grandpa mended a fair few punctures along the way, and endured heat, sleeping rough and wondering where their next meal would come from. And loving every minute of it, not least the kindness of strangers met in the process.

Early this morning, though, John's big adventure drew to a close. After the third race checkpoint and 1,650 miles since July 24, his knee gave up the ghost. His Achilles tendon wasn't in much better shape, but when you're facing nearly another 1,000 miles - much of it mountainous - with a joint that's refusing to work, the smart thing to do is to call it a day.

I'm incredibly proud of John. He's battled record-breaking heat and humidity, pushed on with little sleep through elevation I can't possibly contemplate, is probably walking like the worst Hollywood interpretation of a cowboy and might never be able to look another can of Coke in the eye again. He hasn't complained, and mentally I doubt you'll find anyone tougher in the Race. I had every confidence he would finish in Istanbul (though I did worry about the feral dogs, disease-carrying ticks, errant drivers and opportunists), but I'm so pleased he didn't keep going until his kneecap exploded or whatever fate is in store for those on the wrong side of 50 with a lifetime of joint abuse.

John was, of course, conscious of letting down all of you who have so solidly supported his efforts, sending encouraging messages and following the Number 35 dot in a sea of others. He is so very grateful to you, and so am I.

The cheese and crackers thought came into my head as we talked this morning, while he waited in some tiny airfield in Bosnia for a flight home via Germany. He'd spent a good hour wrapping his bike in clingfilm and cardboard, much to the amusement of the locals ("Was anyone wondering what you were doing?" "EVERYone was wondering what I was doing!"), and was now contemplating how to transport his various small bags of equipment on an Eastern European budget airline. For the record, I'd already insisted that he burned all items of clothing and start afresh (I hope, for the sake of his fellow passengers, he took my advice).

"Why don't you go to the Duty Free and buy something so you can chuck everything in a plastic bag? It's a budget airline - you don't have to carry actual luggage," I suggested.

"This airport is exactly like Norwich. It's only "international" because it flies to one destination outside Bosnia," he said, unsure of the Duty Free possibilities.

"They must sell something. Buy a nice present for your wife! Even if it's a big cheese! Buy me a big Bosnian cheese!"

He said he'd see what he could do. I should know the result by tomorrow afternoon.

But cheese or no cheese, I think John's efforts deserve a wholehearted "Cheese and crackers! Big boys and babies!" Grandpa Howlett would have applauded, and so do I.

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