Telegram

By  |  September 23, 2013
"Asher on Belle Chase" by Kathleen Robbins, from "Into the Flatland" "Asher on Belle Chase" by Kathleen Robbins, from "Into the Flatland"

It takes three people to hold it up, like an anaconda, draped between them and unfurled to its full length of twenty-six feet. The woman and the two men look triumphant, like they’re the ones who caught it. THEY STRING ALONG WITH JIMMY, says the photo’s caption, referring to Jim Beatty, a twenty-one-year-old University of North Carolina junior, who had traveled to Los Angeles that month to compete in the 1956 Olympic track and field trials. The stylish, sharp-jawed woman in the foreground—she could be a Kennedy—is Jimmy’s sister Mary. The others are Charlotte businessmen who helped sponsor the California trip, and what they are holding is a Western Union telegram signed by more than 1,200 people—hence the document’s magnificent, ridiculous length. ALL YOUR FRIENDS IN CHARLOTTE ARE PULLING FOR YOU TO MAKE THE OLYMPIC TEAM, reads the message to Jimmy, SO SHOW THOSE DISTANCE MEN JUST HOW A REAL TAR HEEL CAN RUN. The photo appeared in the Charlotte News on June 29, 1956, and though the newsprint is now grainy and faded brown, the bright white of that festively looping list of names still comes through, matched by Mary’s crisp shirt and earring and flashing smile. The men’s shoes are shiny. The sense of bursting pride and excitement is palpable.

Fans will recall Jim Beatty as the first man to run an indoor mile in under four minutes—3:58.9 to be exact—breaking the world record in 1962. I only happen to know about him because he’s my friend Tully’s dad, and because, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I fell in love with the telegram photo the second I saw it. Tully, who was born in 1968, learned of the telegram’s existence only a few years ago, when his father gave him a huge stash of career memorabilia, boxes full of hundreds of newspaper clippings documenting seemingly every race he ever ran, dating back to his high school days, and stacks of 8x10 newswire photos of him with various sports luminaries, including Hungarian track guru Mihály Iglói (who defected to the U.S. in 1956 and eventually trained Beatty for the 1960 Olympics), and with movie stars like James Garner and Lee Remick (the mom from The Omen). Stuffed down in the corner of one of these boxes was the rolled-up telegram, like some kind of ancient sea scroll. “I was floored by it,” Tully says. “The length, the number of signatures, the gesture, the use of that sort of . . . technology.” It seemed odd that his father hadn’t shared it with him sooner. They both live in North Carolina and see each other frequently, and it wasn’t like Jim Beatty’s celebrity was secret or short-lived. After he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and broke the world record, he broke some more records for indoor and outdoor running, was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and served six years in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Even now, everyone in North Carolina seems to know his name. Yet for some reason he let the telegram with twelve hundred names sit in a shoebox for fifty years. Perhaps the romance, the sheer metaphorical power of the thing, did not occur to him—he was after all a runner, not a writer.

Or maybe he never showed it to anyone because the day after he received it, in June of 1956, he failed to qualify for the Olympics. He finished tenth out of fifteen runners, for no reason anyone could figure out. Maybe he choked; maybe the good-luck telegram was bad luck. Newspapers ran follow-up stories: TAR HEELS FEEL REMORSE AFTER LICKING IN TRIALS; CHARLOTTEAN LOST HIS RHYTHM; BEATTY'S DEFEAT IS OLYMPIC MYSTERY. “Beatty’s case is another mystery which will go down in the track files as unsolvable,” one story said. Beatty “never got his rhythm right and lost the swinging stride which is his trademark.” Beatty told his son later that he “resolved to take that disappointment to the grave.” But then, within a few years, came the avalanche of success and fame. So maybe, I think, the telegram is simply not Jim Beatty’s favorite memory to revisit.

I, on the other hand, can’t stop looking at it. I feel some ineffable need to read each and every name, to do them all justice, make sure I don’t miss anything, or anyone. Tully and I unscroll the sepia document, brittle and cracking in places, on my living room floor, then realize it’s too long to fit and stretch it down a hallway and into the kitchen, weighting the ends with books. (I use the collected works of John Cheever, which feels appropriate and respectful to all involved.) “Twelve hundred signatures in 1956 is difficult to grasp,” Tully says. “I mean, I don’t have twelve hundred friends on Facebook. Or off.” The names are in Courier font, all caps, beginning with Charlotte’s MAYOR PHIL VAN EVERY and JACK WOOD (one of the businessmen in the photo, who engineered the compiling and sending of the telegram), and ending with COACH HOUSE, which was a local restaurant but might also have been a person (Tully doesn’t know). Reading the names feels ceremonial and a bit mystical, as if by invoking so many EDs and HARRYs and SHIRLEYs and BETTYs and JOHNNYs we’re resurrecting the entire era in my living room, raising an invisible phantom mushroom cloud of jukeboxes and poodle skirts and Brylcreem and hot rods and falsies and Motown and James Dean and racism and sock hops and sexual repression. “Actually, James Dean was already dead,” Tully says, like this matters, which maybe it does. “And then On The Road was published, Elvis was in the Army, Pat Boone was singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ on TV. Chuck Berry might’ve been in jail already . . . I’m not sure.” (He wasn’t yet, not until 1962.)

Tully recognizes many of the names on the telegram, all the Beattys, of course—Mary, Peggy, Henry, and Kitty, as well as DICK AND SKIPPER BEATTY and UNCLE FRANK BEATTY. Several local celebrities signed on, including MARTHA RANDALL (MISS CHARLOTTE) and GRADY COLE, a hugely popular radio announcer, as well as scores of people who at least sound like celebrities: CARSON COWBOY MCCLAIN, FLOOGIE BAIRD, HOBBY COBB, BOBO TANNER, BIFFER BAXTER, TUFFY HENDERSON, PUNK JONES, and a few cryptic entries that sound like rappers or wrestlers—T.N.T., STICK, SCRUMP, maybe friends making inside jokes we’ll never know. On the loftier side, FATHER PERRY and BIBLE HOUSE INC are also listed, suggesting Beatty had support from the highest levels of the cosmos.

It occurs to me that the names might have been typed out in paragraph form rather than in one long vertical column, saving paper and possibly expense, but that would ruin the visual effect—the sight gag was the whole point, like flagpole sitting or phone booth stuffing. Super-long telegrams were a thing back then, before we had Facebook and “Can this poodle in a tin foil hat get more ‘Likes’ than Glenn Beck?” On Google I find old newswire photos of Apollo 9 astronauts showing off the 150-foot telegram they received before their mission in 1969, signed by 10,500 people wishing them GOOD LUCK AND GOD'S SPEED, and the 1,400-foot telegram sent to the Nebraska Cornhuskers on behalf of 46,500 fans before the 1971 Orange Bowl (now displayed in a glass case at the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium with a sign declaring it “The World’s Longest Telegram”), and a 1964 photo of Jim Nabors in goofy character as Gomer Pyle, holding up a 21-foot telegram sent by 750 families in his hometown of Sylacauga, Alabama, congratulating him on his TV stardom.

What does the telegram mean to Tully personally, I wonder. I know that his parents divorced when he was young, that everyone remarried and they all now get along fine, that he himself became a world champion in Ultimate Frisbee, a sport he currently coaches, and I wonder what it was like for him to have an Olympian for a dad—but these are Tully’s stories to tell, not mine. (He is in fact writing a book about his father.) Also, Tully is the kind of person who, if you ask him too many personal questions, is liable to answer that Bugs Bunny once got a telegram saying Fearless Freep couldn’t make the show and so Yosemite Sam made Bugs jump off the high dive, and then in the movie Blazing Saddles Sheriff Bart delivers a candygram to Mongo in the saloon and quickly walks away in the manner of Bugs Bunny and then the candygram explodes in Mongo’s face.

To me, the telegram is simply one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Like any great text, it feels endlessly evocative, ever-expanding in meaning. It is a metaphor for the endurance of the runner (not to mention the endurance of paper and print), and for the track itself, looping infinitely into the future, and for love across impossible distances, including time, and it is sort of the opposite of a petition, one of the longest love letters ever written, though it is also a list of all the people in line in the universe ahead of Tully, single-file, to love his dad, and a metaphor for the long reach of all fathers, impossible to escape no matter how fast we run, and for all the things fathers and sons might wish to say to one another but can’t, or won’t, and for all the days not spent together, the things not said, the kind of ongoing debit list we keep, unconsciously or consciously, on the people we love the most, especially when they run away from us, or stay close but just out of reach, or simply confound us by their very existence, so that we are forever fleeing their legacy, running away, running from, running behind, running after. 


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Wendy Brenner is the author of two books of fiction and is a recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is a contributing editor of the Oxford American and teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.