Cowbells for Hermann

In honor of the 41st Birkie today, I am posting this delightful story from my book, Filled Up, Poured Out:

Hayward is home of the American Birkebeiner, North America’s largest cross country ski race. Over ten thousand skiers come from almost every state and many nations to compete in this world-class event. Spectators line snow-covered Main Street, ringing cowbells and cheering weary skiers across the finish line.

For two decades, I’ve been a Birkie cowbell ringer.

A day or two before the Birkebeiner, I always pine a little, wishing I had pulled the skis from the rafters and joined the throng of brave souls testing the limits of their endurance. But, as Birkie day arrives, I find myself content to ring cowbells. After all, if everybody skied the Birkie, there wouldn’t be anybody left to cheer.

Normally, we ring in the elite skiers who finish first. Usually the winner is some Olympic European who hardly broke a sweat. I’m always impressed.

The best part of the race, though, is the middle of the afternoon, when all of the ordinary folks—lawyers, cooks, plumbers, and preachers come in. For them, it’s a painful struggle for survival. I wipe sentimental tears and ring my bell with vigor.

It was shortly after dusk a few years ago, when my daughter, Hannah, asked if we could go back down to the finish line.

“The race is over now, honey,” I tried to explain.

“Please?” she pleaded, “It might not be over yet.”

So, against all odds, we packed up our cowbells and headed to Main Street. We arrived to see a busy crew removing snow and shutting down everything.

“See, we’re too late,” I began, when a worker with a walkie-talkie suddenly waved frantically and shouted, “Wait! Wait! There is one more skier coming in!”

Sure enough, long after the all other racers had hung their skis, ninety-one-year-old Hermann Nunnemacher crossed the finish line. Midway, Hermann fell and fractured four ribs, but he got back up and kept plodding forward!

With the crowds of spectators long gone, Hannah and I were the only cowbell ringers left—so we rang them for Hermann. We rang them with all our might!

For a few minutes, the workers stopped to shout and cheer. Some passersby also joined in the magical moment. Hermann crossed the finish line, and we all cried.

Terrell, the omnipresent reporter from the Sawyer County Record happened upon the scene and said, “You finished the race! How do you feel about that, Mr. Nunnemacher?”

Through cracked lips, the poor old guy croaked, “I hurt.”

The next Wednesday, Hermann’s picture graced the front page of The Sawyer County Record, the only time in history when the guy who finished last made the headline.

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