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Road to Tokyo: Arriving at Camp Pendleton

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Reflections on the St. Sylvester Midnight Run

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Choosing the Wrong Words

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"No Vacancy" for Me

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Meeting the Coach

Reflections on the St. Sylvester Midnight Run

It is January 3, 1964, and I can’t get the St. Sylvester Midnight Run on December 31, 1963, out of my mind.

Running with a very bad cold, being tripped at the start of the race and losing a shoe was devastating to me. Was this the way my Olympic quest was going to end? If so, it seemed it never got started.

I have one more race in Montevideo, Uruguay, but I am too sick to continue the tour.

It’s now late evening Friday, January 3rd and we have wheels up as we leave from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil before the long flight to New York City, connecting through Washington D.C.

I’m exhausted but energized, knowing I will be with Patricia and Christy soon. It’s mid-afternoon, January 4, 1964.

As I explained my mishap at the start of the St. Sylvester Midnight Run, I focused on the fall. Patricia focused on how inspiring it was knowing Pat Clohessey waited for me.

She said with a smile that I shouldn’t be so clumsy and then added so sincerely how blessed I was to have a friend like Pat Clohessey. As we talked, her comments made my fall so insignificant.

I shared how beautiful Rio de Janeiro was with its magnificent beaches and how someday she had to see for herself the 98-foot tall statue of Christ the Redeemer on the mountaintop called Corcovado. I could feel her excitement for me and also for the trip I promised her to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. But most of all, I realized how much she believed in me and in our future. We talked about how someday we would travel the world together.

Choosing the Wrong Words

It is now Monday morning, January 6, 1964, and I am outside of the office of the Colonel in charge of Special Service Programs. I’m greeted by the 1st Lieutenant in charge of Quantico’s Track and Field teams’ logistics. He informs me I’m not being transferred to Camp Pendleton to join the Elite Marine Corps track team training for the 1964 Olympic Trials.

He says the decision is final!

I protest, we have a few words and I choose the wrong words! The next thing I know I am summoned into the Colonel’s office.

The Colonel tells me to stand at ease and then quickly gets to the point. Looking at my 2nd Lieutenant bars, he asks me if I threatened a 1st Lieutenant.

I respond, “Sir, yes Sir!”

Continuing to look me straight in the eyes, he says, “Lieutenant, you give me the impression you would rather be a US Olympian than the United States Marine Corps Officer!”

I look the Colonel straight in his eyes, trying not to show my fear. I say, “Sir, no Sir!” Followed by, “May I continue, Sir?”

He acknowledges my request with an affirmative nod of his head.

I proceed, “Sir, I have three goals in life and I will soon be adding new ones. Number one, I wanted a college degree. I graduated from the University of Kansas. Number two, I wanted to become the United States Marine Corps Officer. I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant one year ago. Sir, my third goal is to make the United States Olympic team. I can do that, Sir. I just need the United States Marine Corps to believe in me, Sir!”

I can see just a slight smile break the corner of his mouth.

He asks me one final question, “What’s after the Olympics?”

I respond, “Once a Marine, always a Marine, Sir!”

The Colonel speaks with a gentle authority. “You will be leaving for Camp Pendleton, California in 30 days. Good luck with your training for the Olympic Games, Marine!”

As I walk away from the Colonel’s office, I think I hear the Colonel’s voice, “Lieutenant, the next time another Lieutenant threatens you, just defend yourself.” But maybe my mind is playing tricks on me.

"No Vacancy" for Me

It is February 6, 1964, as we drive away from Officer’s Base housing in Quantico, Virginia -- destination Camp Pendleton, USMC base in California. I think of the words Oliver Red Cloud, grandson of Chief Red Cloud, said to me three summers ago when I last visited family and friends on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

“If you go to the Olympics, Billy, humble yourself to honor your family. If you honor your family, you will honor your Tribal Nation. In honoring your Tribal Nation, you honor your country, the United States of America.”

Now I must include a new family, the United States Marine Corps.

It is Thursday, late evening February 13, 1964, and we are one hour from Gallup, New Mexico. We took a two week leave to travel to Camp Pendleton and I must report in on February 20th. We enjoyed dinner at Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas on February 7, with my high school coach and mentor Tony Coffin. When we parted, I told him I was going to fool a few people in Tokyo! Tony nodded as if he agreed.

Most of our vacation time was with Patricia’s mother and relatives in Coffeyville, Kansas. Patricia and her mother fought over Christy; Grandma always won.

But it is late and I have to stop reminiscing to keep awake as we drive into Gallup. I need to check us into a motel to get some much-needed sleep.

I stop at a very nice motel with a vacancy sign showing.  As I walk into the motel lobby, the gentleman looks at me and says, “Two minutes too late. I just rented the last room.” and turns the sign to “No Vacancy”.

The next three motels I try, the “I just rented the last room” story repeated itself, as the vacancy signs were turned around to read “No Vacancy.”

I very quietly drive back to the first motel I tried. The sign now reads “Vacancy.” Patricia goes in and comes back with a room key.

I am always challenged by the way much of the country tries to wash the footprints of racism away by the winds of change and passage of time while continuing to practice racism in subtle and not-too-subtle ways.  The Civil Rights Act was just passed- will it bring change?

It is February 19, 1964, and we are in Oceanside, California arriving around noon. The weather is incredible, the ocean beautiful. Patricia and Christy are having lunch on the beach while I am on a run. I am inspired, excited and blessed by the opportunity I am being given. Tomorrow I report to the base to check-in and be assigned married officers housing.

It’s early Thursday, February 20th. Patricia and Christy are still asleep in our motel room. I am at Camp Pendleton, surprised to find our moving van beat us to California and a house in Officer’s Quarters is waiting for us to move into. We should be all settled by the weekend.

Meeting the Coach

I report to Special Services where I meet Coach Tommy Thompson Sr. He recently retired from the Naval Academy where he coached for 30 years.

He was a legend to me. As a young athlete, he won an Olympic Gold Medal in the high hurdles representing Canada. He is completely deaf, losing his hearing during his first two years coaching at the Naval Academy.

He gently says to me, “Son, I am glad you are here. I believe you have incredible talent. Rather than coaching you, more importantly, I believe in you and would like to be your mentor. But I need to know what your dreams are and your goals. You have to let me know what is inside,” as he touches his heart.  He spoke the way I remember my dad speaking and for a moment he sounded like him.

I thought God had sent my dad’s spirit to me through Coach Tommy Thompson. I felt Tommy also understood my thoughts, emotions, and dreams.

See you next month!

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Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota)

National Spokesperson and co-founder

Running Strong for American Indian Youth®

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