Wednesday, 6 April 2016
The Boys of Summer
The sweat stung his eyes as he cycled up and out of Glen Croe. The sun hadn’t hit the bottom of the valley, which was why he usually picked this time of day to train.
By the time he reached the top of the Rest-&-Be-Thankful, he was ready for the bread and cheese his mother had packed for him that morning.
From up here, in the sunshine, he felt alive and ready to take on the whole world. This was a new era for folks, it was 1913 and Stan felt that it was going to be the best of times. There was talk of war but then Stan had never known a year when there wasn’t, and why would the Germans want to attack Great Britain when they were getting ready for the Olympic Games in Berlin?
Those Olympics were going to be Stanley’s victory in cycling. He could feel it in his bones.
Lars watched as the 10,000 pigeons took to the air. What a country his homeland was, especially on this hot, humid, June afternoon. He had cycled over 300 kilometres to be here, to see the glorious Deutsches Stadion being dedicated – the glory of Germany was here today and it was where Lars would claim the ultimate prize in cycling when he stood on the winner’s podium at the summer Olympics in 1916.
There was no one to rival him, well no one close except a Britisher by the name of Stanley Hooper. He had heard many stories about Hooper but the boy had one flaw, he wasn’t German, he wasn’t from the Fatherland, and for Lars that meant everything.
Still Lars had to be sure. He’d read of the London Echo Great Britain Cycle Challenge. This was going to be a straight race between John O’Groats (what a stupid Englander name, thought Lars) and Land’s End. The winner would take home a prize of 500 guineas. Lars knew it would help him to train without a steady job - all the way to the Games.
By the time that Stanley got back home, the letter had already arrived: Stanley Edward Hooper was accepted as an entrant in the Cycle Challenge. He’d had to work double the hours just to earn the entrance fee of two guineas and now he had to wonder how he could train and work until the start of the race in August. Stanley’s family was poor, and he and his three brothers had made sure that the money kept coming into the house after his father had died in an accident. His eldest brother, Ian had joined up with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the other two boys worked as ship riveters.
Stanley made his money running errands on his bicycle for local trades, but it involved long, long hours, after which the training had to be fitted in. On a typical day he would start work at 6am and wouldn’t get to his bed until well after midnight. Some nights he was so blooming tired he would just fall sleep in the garage beside ‘Lucy’ (his bicycle).
His town had never really had a famous anyone. Well, apart from Edward McLeish who’d won a medal fighting the Boers in Africa.
There was talk of erecting a statue to Edward but it annoyed Stanley a little, because he wanted to be the first with a statue raised to him. Still if he didn’t train - and hard - there would be no Olympics, statues or even races won. He fell asleep that night cuddling his Lucy and dreaming of gold medals.
Lars and his team arrived at John O’Groats a day early. They had caught a train to Hamburg and then travelled on to the northern tip of mainland Scotland aboard a ship that had been laid on by the Chancellor himself. Germany saw this race as a chance to show some superiority to the little Englanders, – and as Lars was frequently being told - there was a war coming and England (and its despicable Empire) would be made to come under the control of the Fatherland. This race would be the start of great things which would end with only Germans standing on the podium at Berlin for all things gold.
Stanley’s dad was his entire support team unlike Lars’ huge machine. The Germans had brought someone to look after Lars’ food, two men to look after his bicycles, an acrobat from the Berlin Circus to keep him fit and to massage his aches and pains; plus several other followers.
Stanley’s father had brought cheese and bread that his wife had packed, although to be honest, Stanley and his dad had eaten most of it on the way north.
The race was to start at sunrise of the following morning – although this far north, and at this time of year it never really got dark.
There was 32 entrants in all. The organisers felt that this was the most manageable figure that could be dealt with, given the state of the roads in many parts of the race. There were 16 spaces allocated to the British and Irish, 2 to each of the French, German, Italian, Dutch, Belgian and Swiss. The balance was made up of Americans and a Canadian.
The pack had been pretty close in finishing within ten minutes of each other on the torturous route to Lochinver. A couple had dropped out due to mishaps, but Stanley and his dad were making great time and had finished in second place at the end of each stage.
Stage four was from Loch Ness to Fort William (stopping an hour for lunch) and then on to Inveraray for the night. For all the efficiency of Lars and his team, they somehow took a wrong turning a few miles from Rannoch and had headed towards Tyndrum as they exited Rannoch Moor – this led to them being placed at the back of the group as they finished that evening.
The town of Inveraray is a small, beautiful place on the shores of Loch Fyne and it’s hard to avoid anyone, should you wish to. Stanley and his father, instead of going straight to bed, were sitting by the edge of the water.
Stanley’s father’s pipe was keeping the midges at bay, which could only be a good thing in this part of the world. Midges were small insects that had one good bite in them, but all together they could prove a misery for the unwary.
“You’ll never win if you smoke, Hooper,” came a voice from behind.
It was Lars.
“I recognize you from the magazine,” said Lars who was standing to attention for no other reason than to impress Stan.
“Look dad, it’s that German bloke you’ve been telling me about.”
Stan’s dad didn’t even bother turning his head.
“Oh aye. He’s the one who got lost coming out of Glen Coe,” said his dad with a smile.
Lars looked at both of them, clicked his heels and left.
The race was a close run thing. When they got to the Lake District, Lars was several minutes ahead, but that changed as the race headed down towards the West Country. They alternated with the lead, sometimes it was Stan (with his dad, supporting) in the lead, sometimes Lars and the whole German army behind him.
Just as they approached the final hill going into Land’s End a strange thing happened, Lars was in the lead and as he looked around he saw Stan a few metres behind him. Lars slowed, or at least, he seemed to struggle, and as Lars crossed the Finish line, so did Stan. It was a dead heat.
The War came as it was intended. The Olympics were cancelled and other thoughts filled the head of Stan in the year of 1916.
Instead of getting ready to cycle in the Berlin Games, Stan was preparing to go over the top on the first day of The Battle of The Somme.
There had been a team of them who had all come to France together - The Cycling Buddies they were called, now only two of them were left alive. Stan didn’t know where David was: David was the captain of the team and the bravest of them all. Stan had heard a rumour that David had been killed over a month ago.
Stan had kept his training up, even when he was sure that the Olympics weren’t going ahead, he still needed to get out there and train.
As the trench Captains blew their whistles, Stan found himself up and over the ladder within minutes. He saw some of those who had been earlier standing shivering beside him, taking their last falls.
Stan heard a bullet wiz past his ear, forcing him to hit the mud.
The plan for the Somme had been a good one, undermine the German trenches and blow them up.
That is what had happened - it was just that the Germans had gone deeper than any of the old fools back at headquarters could have imagined. When the British troops went over the top, they were gunned down in their thousands. The plan had been to march all the way to Berlin and Stan had liked the irony of that idea.
Stan crawled under some barbed wire which was supporting two dead bodies and then slid into one of the craters created by the British explosions. He was alone thank God but he had no idea what to do next. All this hadn’t been in the plans.
Stan must have closed his eyes for a time because the next thing he knew there was a German pistol pointing right between his eyes.
And yes, you’re right, it was Lars - otherwise what is the point of this story? Stranger things do happen.
“Stan, you old Englander, it is so good to see you.”
“Lars? Is that you?”
Lars and Stan hugged in what was the strangest of circumstances.
“Well it’s not the podium but it is very good to see you,” said Stan.
“I save you once again, Englander,” smiled Lars as he slid down into the mud. For a while the two of them lay there with the bullets and smoke passing overhead.
“What do we do now, Stan?” Asked Lars. Just then a stray shell exploded on the rim of crater. Stan used his body to shield Lars.
The part of the shell that penetrated Stan’s back wasn’t obvious at first. At least not until Stan started coughing blood.
“I’ve been hit old friend,” said Stan not quite believing it.
As Lars held Stan, he smiled at his pal;
“I think we are even, Englander.”
When Stan closed his eyes for the last time, Lars took a gold coin he had been carrying and placed it on Stan’s chest.
“You win, Stanley Hooper.”
bobby stevenson 2016