Forged by Fire

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Sports are often used as a metaphor for life. Who can forget the astonishing and iconic character Forrest Gump, created by Hollywood and played by Tom Hanks? Though Forrest faced a number of challenges and even wore leg braces as a little boy, he soon escaped those shackles and earned a national reputation for his running. Forrest’s story is fictional, but there was a similarly challenged real-life athlete whose claim to fame rested on his running. To many people, his was an unbelievable feat since he had suffered a horrific accident as a little boy.   It was said this young boy would never recover, but he rejected the idea. He focused all his energy on overcoming the immense pain with which he lived. His determination eventually triumphed, and he rose to become one of the greatest long distance runners of all time. His name was Glenn Cunningham. This is the story of how he fought back against the worst that life could throw at him.

Glenn Cunningham’s first seven years mirrored those of many a boy raised in the American Midwest in the early days of the twentieth century. He was born in August 1909 on the family farm just outside of the rural community of Atlanta, Kansas. Those early years were spent on several different farms before the family settled in the town of Rolla, not far from the Oklahoma border. Like his brothers and sisters, Glenn was expected to help out around the house, and by the age of two he was helping carry pails of water into the house. He was also given the task of feeding the animals. This hard work did not stop him from trying to follow his older siblings to school. His sister once had to tie him to a tree to stop him from going any further. His desire for schooling eventually wore down his parents, and they finally allowed him to go when he was five. Raised to be on time, he and the others often ran to the schoolhouse to be among the first in their desks. Little could anyone know that this punctuality would one day change Glenn’s life forever.

The morning of February 9, 1917 began just like any other morning in the Cunningham house. Seven-year-old Glenn got dressed, hurried through his morning chores, and, along with his two brothers and sister, ran two miles in a fierce wind to the local schoolhouse. They were the first to arrive, and as such, it was their job to start a fire. Glenn’s older brother Floyd reached for the large can that normally held kerosene to light the stove. But it was not kerosene. It was actually gasoline left over from a meeting held the night before. What’s more, there were still some burning embers inside the stove. Not knowing any of this, Floyd dropped several cow chips on top of the ashes and emptied the gasoline on top. Suddenly an explosion rocked the schoolhouse. Flames consumed Floyd’s chest and abdomen while others ignited Glenn’s pants and socks. The boys rushed for the door only to find the door’s latch caught. It looked like there was no escape. Suddenly Glenn’s older sister Letha, who had stayed outside, rushed to the door and wrenched it open. Along with her younger brother Raymond, she helped Floyd and Glenn stumble outside. Despite excruciating agony, Glenn and Floyd found the strength to run all the way home. A doctor was summoned and examined both boys. He told Glenn’s parents there was no way to save Floyd; the damage was irreparable. Floyd died nine days later. Glenn’s case was almost as bad. If he survived, his life would never be the same.

Glenn’s prognosis was grim. The doctor predicted he would never walk again. It was a view shared by nearly everyone who came to visit over the next few days. One neighbor told his mother that the little boy would be a crippled invalid for the rest of his life. By looking at the boy, it appeared they were right. The flesh had been burned off his knees and shins, and the burns extended all the way up his legs to the middle of his back. His transverse arch and all the toes on his left foot were gone. The right leg was deformed and was now a full two inches shorter than the left leg. There was little muscle or sinew remaining on either leg, and the little that was left often stuck to the bandages and peeled off when they were changed. At the same time, an infection had set in. It seemed like there was only one solution. His legs would have to be amputated. Glenn was horrorstricken at the thought, and he pleaded with his parents not to do it. They were just as upset as him, and they convinced the doctor to hold off. In spite of this denial, the doctor did not expect the boy to ever be mobile again. Glenn refused to entertain any such thought. He made up his mind then and there that he would walk again.

Glenn’s determination and faith were nothing less than miraculous. It required immense effort just to straighten his crooked legs. Sometimes the pain felt “like daggers” piercing him if he moved even a little bit. He knew that if he could not even move his legs, he would be unable to stand, let alone walk. He needed to undergo physical therapy to restore circulation to the limbs. In order to stimulate blood flow, he asked his parents to massage one leg at a time. They would rub his muscles, being careful not to cause any tissue to fall off. Once he felt up to it, he began to do it himself. With blood flowing through his tiny legs, he lay on his bed and began extending one leg out as far as it would go. He would block out the pain that shot through him and keep the limb stretched out as long as possible. Then he would undertake the same process with the other leg. His legs gradually grew stronger, and he decided the time had come to practice standing upright.

Within two years of the fire, Glenn was confident his legs were strong enough to support him, and it was time to start the next phase of his rehabilitation. He practiced getting out of bed and standing next to it, but he quickly found that he had to lean on either it or on a nearby chair for stabilization. He did not let his lack of independence stop him. Over time, he gripped the bed or chair and slowly shuffled his feet along the floor next to it. He was ecstatic at being able to operate under his own power again. He looked forward to the day when he would not have to hold onto anything at all. He was not at that stage yet, but he knew how he could get there. One afternoon he was sitting in the yard when he decided to crawl over to the fence and pull himself up using the posts. With a firm grip, he gingerly put one foot ahead of the other and made his way around the yard. It soon became so much of a habit he wore a path in the grass. After a few more months he was able to walk without holding on to anything. He had achieved his goal. Friends watched in amazement as he walked down the street. They later observed that the only noticeable result of the fire was that his gait was a little more lopsided, due to the uneven lengths of each foot. He could walk, but he was in pain with each step. He needed to find an easier way to get around than just walking.

Not long after learning to walk, Glenn decided to try running again. He grabbed onto the fence posts he had used to walk and imagined he was racing an opponent. At first, he seemed to hop more than actually run. He soon proved adept enough to grab the tail of a cow or mule and run along behind them as they wandered around in search of water. He sped through the fields around his house and found that his feet did not touch the ground as often as they did when he walked. This meant that he was in far less pain and was able to endure longer distances. Shortly after the family moved to Elkhart, Kansas, twelve-year-old Glenn was seen racing through the town’s streets and alleys.   Those who raced against him saw the burns all over his body, but the moment the race began, none of that mattered. Neighborhood kids were astonished when he beat more healthy opponents. They began to urge him to compete in actual races. He knew his father opposed such “showing off,” but after he won a race in fourth grade, he decided to pursue a career as a track man. From that point on, he was a man on a mission.

By the time Glenn entered high school, he had earned a reputation as one of the state’s fastest athletes. His classmates called him the “Elkhart Express” for good reason. In 1929 he set the state record for the mile with a run of 4:27.7. At Kansas University he ran the half-mile, the mile and the two-mile, and he won both the Big Six and the national championship. In 1932 he set the national collegiate record for the mile followed by the world record for the mile two years later. Deemed the “Iron Horse of Kansas,” he competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he took silver in the 1,500-meter race. Back in the United States, he ran in races all over the country. He often competed at Madison Square Garden’s indoor track facility in New York City where he won a total of twenty-one races. In 1938 he ran his best mile ever in 4:04.4. He retired in 1940, but he continued to inspire thousands of Americans with his story. The entire nation, and especially his native Kansas, celebrated his accomplishments. At Kansas University a metal silhouette shadows the starting line at the track stadium. Madison Square Garden named him the “Outstanding Track Performer of the Century.” Finally, in 1974 he was selected to be among the first inductees into the Track and Field Hall of Fame. He died in March 1988, but his spirit lives on in those men and women who faithfully run the course, no matter what obstacles are in their way.

In perhaps the greatest sports metaphor of all time, Glenn Cunningham’s life and experiences teach us that all of life is a race; that circumstances don’t control us; and that we have to keep our eye on the finish line. In the wake of that devastating fire, he could have given into despair and accepted the futility of his situation, but he did not. Instead, he devoted himself to months of painful recovery, and not just recovery, but ultimate victory. His faith and determination to overcome never waned. Glenn Cunningham’s creed was “never quit.” It is no surprise then that his life reflected his favorite verse from the book of Isaiah. “[T]hose who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Forged by Fire

  1. What an inspiring story Jake! Once again, you bring an amazing individual to your readers and do a wonderful job of presenting the historical footnote. Well Done!

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