Why the Torch Burns So Fiercely
“We can’t escape our destinies, especially when laid out so perfectly” - - Cathy Oerter
There are deep echoes from my childhood that hint at my muted awareness of Al Oerter. Being the early 1960’s, you could probably attribute it to my regular diet of Sports Illustrated and Boys Life Magazine, topped off with a healthy dose of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It was not until the 1968 Mexico City Games were recapped in the New York Times with the headline, “Oerter Takes Record 4th Straight Olympic Gold Medal by Winning Discus,” that he was finally etched in my conscious memory. I was 14 years old. I cannot claim to truly know when this really all began or when it will ever end, for it is part of my collective being, perhaps, since before the day I was born.
Ed Lowe, the popular Newsday columnist, captured the origins of this story when he wrote “A Gravestone Mystery,” in his Sunday Magazine column in July, 1986. He told of my wife Karen’s discovery of an Olympic Stadium Pass to the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, the Xth OLYMPIAD, issued to my deceased uncle, Roger Pettit, who I share a birthdate with and, as a result, Roger bis my middle name. This occurred while packing up for our family of five’s move to Los Angeles, so that I could attend graduate school at the USC School of Cinema/Television. I remembered my father telling me a story maybe ten years before about Uncle Roger going to the ’32 Olympics, but I had no idea how the pass in the black leather cover had come into my possession.
Later that very same day, a close friend of mine was driving through town past an empty building lot, when he spotted what looked like a footstone to a cemetery plot. He did not know why he was drawn to pull over and step out of the car. Upon approach, he read the following on the perfect piece of polished granite: “W. ROGER PETTIT, FEB. 2,1914, NOV. 12, 1953.” With chills running down my back, I went to inspect the find, and it turned out to be a duplicate footstone of the one in my family’s plot in the cemetery across the street.
My uncle’s Olympic pass found that morning was now forever bonded to the “Gravestone Mystery,” and to me. I brought the “extra” stone to my parent’s backyard, much to the chagrin of the guys who mowed their lawn. Two months later, my family and I were settled in Los Angeles and I took the kids to see the NY Giants play the Raiders at the LA Coliseum, formerly Olympic Stadium, where Uncle Roger had sat 54 years before. I probably should have been paying closer attention to the workings of the universe.
I spent only one year at USC, but really dug into the screenwriting courses and enjoyed the mix of the analytical with the creative sides of my brain. I began writing spec scripts, found an agent, worked a number of odd “day” jobs, and, with Karen, did our best to support the family. Ed Lowe had become a good friend by this time and I tried to package his columns into a weekly TV series.
In August, 1988, I remember reading an article in the LA Times about Al Oerter and I think it mentioned that he was finally retiring from competition. The 1968 NY Times headline came roaring back. I suddenly thought that Al Oerter’s life would make for a compelling book, film, documentary, or all three. I found his phone number, called him up, told him of my intentions and asked if I could spend a couple of days interviewing him. He said, “Sure.” Al lived not too far from where I grew up on Long Island, so I booked a flight home.
It was on August 27, 1988, that I first met Al and his wife Cathy, and began what would be our over 30-year journey together. More than 25 hours of interviews were conducted, which revealed to me there was so much more to his life than even the four treks to Olympic immortality and his return to world class competition in his 40’s. With a broad brush, there was his approach to life based on the joy found in effort, amplified by his overwhelming humanity. But mostly, or simply, it was his laugh, and that piercing twinkle in his eyes.
This is the part in the story where I’d like to say I wrote the award-winning book and screenplay and lived happily ever after. The truth is, after aggressively peddling my projects week after week and meeting after meeting, all I had to show for it was some compliments on my writing skills and a routine of proclaiming “another week of false hope!” every Friday night. While pitching “Back to Olympus,” one TV development executive even suggested that I give Al Oerter an impairment to overcome to create a more compelling narrative. “What do you mean by impairment?” I asked. “For example,” the exec offered, “What if he were to have only one leg?”
By late 1989, with the entertainment industry frozen by union guild strikes, a banking job was offered to me back in New York, and I made the decision to leave LA in order to attempt to better secure my family’s future. I also thought I could effectively continue my writing projects on the side. However, I was suddenly making the long, grinding commute to NYC, working in an industry that I had shunned years earlier. I can’t say I hated what I did, but I always felt I was an outsider going down the wrong path of what I was meant to be doing. The upside was that I could earn a living and spend time on weekends doing things like coaching my kids and their friends in youth sports, and I did do that to great satisfaction (and, hopefully, theirs too). While I continued to pursue “the project,” it was so difficult with the hours and energy sucked up by my work life. I called it a bad excuse.
So, the years passed by. In 1996, I watched in awe as Al carried the Olympic Torch into Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, handed it off to Evander Holyfield who passed it on to Janet Evans. Finally, she would transfer the flame to Muhammad Ali, who ignited the Olympic Cauldron.
Nine years later, I reconnected with Al, and he reaffirmed his support of me to continue to work on telling his story, or “whatever kind of story I have.” He then told me of his near-death in 2003 from congestive heart failure and his doctor’s recommendation that he have a heart transplant. How could I have not known about this? Al was happy to say, “I’m back in the gym.” He also informed me that he had embarked on life as an abstract artist, initially painting large canvases by throwing a disc into poured paint of mixed colors. His effort, like all of his efforts, was prolific.
The last time I saw Al was in the fall of 2006, 50 years since winning his first gold medal in Melbourne. It was at a New York Athletic Club reception for “Art of the Olympians,” the organization founded by he and Cathy celebrating the Olympic ideal of blending sport with culture and education. A year later, he succumbed to heart disease, and I was back at the NYAC for “A Celebration of Life, Remembering Al Oerter.” Family and former Olympians paid tribute to who sportscaster Bill Mazer called,” The most quintessential modest man I have ever met in sports; Ever!” I felt that I had let Al down; that I had not come through with telling his incredible story to the world.
Just two weeks later, Cathy Oerter came out to our house on Long Island with a heartfelt request. She asked if I would continue to work on and write Al’s story. “More than anyone else, you got Al,” she explained. That, got me.
Reinvigorated to pursue my long-delayed mission, I conducted more interviews with key people in Al’s life, built a repository of testimonials from those Al touched all over the world and continued to collect and categorize the archives I had built in various media. However, I was working just as before in the vortex of financial services while putting Karen through two job relocations and three house moves.
In late 2011, I was diagnosed with three different forms of cancer and had five surgeries over the next four years. Thankfully, I recovered, earning “survivor” status in the process. By 2018, a consulting assignment concluded just before the holidays. I used the unplanned time off to fully devote myself to continue writing the book “Back to Olympus,” and starting a blog. I began to go through my archives of material once again to refresh my memory of everything.
Inside a metal box, I came upon Uncle Roger’s black, wallet-sized cover holding the Stadium Pass to the 1932 Olympics. I carefully worked to remove the banknote-like certificate that was sealed behind the plastic facing. As I got the pass about halfway out, I noticed a piece of blue fabric behind it. I carefully pulled on it to reveal a blue ribbon about one foot in length. It was caught onto another ribbon, gold in color, of the same length. Now that there was some room in the cover, I noticed there were other objects behind the pass.
I gently removed, not one, but two identical, thin, oval medallions, which must have been copper because they now had a green patina. Then, out dropped a tiny gold pin in the shape of a shield, still connected to its paper backing. I could not make out exactly what was etched onto these objects, so I reached for my magnifying glass.
I thought to myself, “Here we go again! How could I have not seen these additional treasures when I thoroughly examined the pass and its contents the first time 33 years prior?” I lined the three objects up next to each other and peered closely. All three had “Xth Olympiad” at the top, “19” and “32” surrounding a figure in the middle, and “Los Angeles” wrapped around the bottom. Then, I dropped the magnifying glass.
The figure at the center of each of these artifacts was of a Discus Thrower in the midst of a powerful, elegant throw.
When I told Cathy Oerter of this discovery, she wrote, “We can’t escape our destinies especially when laid out so perfectly. I always wonder about these mysteries of life that are silent yet are revealed when we get into that universal flow.”
The universe has spoken. I know what I have to do now, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.
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