Admiral Raphael Semmes spent his best years fighting a losing battle. He “inflicted considerable harm to the enemy, had fought a gallant duel,”* and generally spent the entire Civil War punching the Union navy in the kidneys (see: Confederate Blockade runners), before coming home from England to find that he had been just about the only southerner having a decent time in the early 1860s. His sailors were forced into service as makeshift infantrymen, and were thrown into the final, brutal battles of the war as canon fodder; Semmes himself was later arrested and charged for treason. He was detained in New York City Navy Yard. An ignominious end from such remarkably bright beginnings.
His legacy remains, though. A hotel named in his honor still stands on Government Street in downtown Mobile, his adopted home. It has working beds, elevators, televisions, and freshly baked cookies at the reception desk**. Romantic paintings of ships in the style of J.M.W. Turner hang throughout the lobby, the light of their sunsets eerily similar to the 5:30 AM pre-dawn glow as the sun rises over Mobile Bay.
Another heirloom of Semmes’ is the ‘Lost Cause’ movement, of which he was an ardent proponent. He reflected upon the war, and concluded that the Confederacy was a noble, patriotic, and doomed endeavor. The war, he reasoned, was fought to protect the constitution, and the rights of states to remain autonomous in their legislative affairs.
Semmes, of course, was full of shit. But can you blame him? He stumbled upon a beautiful philosophy that allowed him to look at the flaming dung heap that once was his home, and feel something other than blind rage and bitterness. He did what all men do: gave a meaning to his futile struggle, lest his existence and passions be for naught.
I thought of Semmes as I limped down Canal Street, away from the finish line of the Azalea Trail 10K. In my right hand I carried a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich, while my beaten, decrepit shoes hung from my left index and middle fingers. I felt no fatigue, but shooting pains in my left calf, and a bittersweet sadness that always seems to accompany injury.
How do I spin this? Do you want to hear that I was honored to represent NOTC? Should I say that I persevered through multiple calf spasms during the race because I was loathe to let my teammates down? How do I make this appear something other than defeat?
Undoubtedly, I was thrilled to help the team to victory, and proud to wear ‘NOLA’ across my chest. But when it seemed as though I would have to drop out of the race, I considered the shame I’d feel when coming face-to-face with the rest of the guys at the hotel. That “sorry I shit the bed” look I’d wear across my mug. I was unwilling, when it came down to it, to meet this prospect.
I felt a seething anger, as well. An anger directed at myself, at my good-for-nothing, sack-of-manure gastrocnemius, and at the universe for smiting me on a day when all my preparations portended a Personal Best. I ran my final 3.5 miles as if to tell the world and all its wonder: “sit and spin”.
This, as it turns out, is an incredibly effective tactic. I hobbled to a 32:41, just 13 seconds–or, an eternity–from my best 10k.
But to romanticize the effort would be nothing more than an exercise in revisionist history. I ran because I was too proud to stop, and too impatient to wait for another day’s fight.
Later that day, I awoke in a stupor. I lay sweating, still clothed, half-covered in sheets, and gazed frantically around the room for several seconds before realizing I was back at home, hours removed from pain, and paintings of ships, and white chocolate chip cookies. For a moment, I wondered if I’d even been to Mobile at all; if I’d just conjured it up in some odd fever-dream.
I turned slightly, and felt a shooting pain across my calf once more as I glanced upon the plaque beside my bed that read: Azalea Trail Run 10k Team Competition — 1st Place.
I smiled momentarily, and drifted back to sleep, fully in love with my lost cause.
Song of the week: Alabama — “Song of the South” (not to be confused with the racist, but somewhat hilarious, movie of the same name).
*”Raphael Semmes“. Encyclopedia of Alabama.
**Probably has several other amenities, but these were the only ones I sampled.