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John Thomas Shelley was a big man, both in stature and in his line of work. He was tall and sported an abundant girth that strained the captain’s chair where he presided over a family table seating up to 12.
JT could be firm. He needed to be. He’d fathered 10 children and was a leader in a dangerous career. But he also had a well-developed sense of humor. Those attributes probably helped him and his kindly wife survive raising their nine rambunctious boys, and a daughter who JT joked half seriously was the only sensible one among their offspring. Somehow, he also found time to be a firefighter, which culminated in a career-capping five-year appointment as chief of the Calgary Fire Department.
Even before Chief Shelley retired at age 65, his children and grandchildren were teasing him about his girth – chiding him that his belly was probably as big around as he was tall. Not surprising then, he’d be the last person you’d expect to engage in a foot race. But he did.
Soon after retiring, JT and his warm-hearted spouse, Ellen, decided on a road trip. Their children were grown. Most of them and the grandchildren lived close to home. But a few had gravitated to other locations. They missed seeing these family members, so the newly retired couple set off to visit them.
First stop was a farm owned by their daughter, Pearl and her husband, John. The couple had three children at the time, ranging in age from six to 11. JT was fond of calling them scallywags, a term of endearment he’d applied to his own offspring.
When JT and Ellen arrived for their visit, the adults engaged in their usual enthusiastic hugs and kisses. The children found these seemingly excessive shows of affection underwhelming; in their words, ‘yucky’. And that’s what led to the challenge.
“Grandpa?” Carol asked, seeking to interrupt the ‘yucky’ interlude. “Is your belt really longer than you are tall?”
“Carol!” Pearl admonished her eldest child, embarrassed. “Don’t talk to your grandfather like that.”
“Sorry, Dad,” Pearl said, glancing sheepishly toward her father.
“Oh, that’s all right, dear,” replied JT, releasing one of his trademark belly laughs. “They’re just being kids. Remember when you were that age?”
“But I heard what Uncle Roy said,” Carol persisted. “He said Grandpa’s stomach is such a long way around that his belt is bigger than he is high.”
Carol’s younger brother Jim joined the merriment. Roy, who was accompanying his parents on their trip, looked away pretending deafness.
“Yeah,” Jim chuckled. “Grandpa sure does have a big belly!”
“Shush you two,” Pearl said sharply, growing annoyed. (She called it, ‘becoming cross’.) “You mustn’t say things like that!”
“It’s okay,” JT repeated, eying his only daughter with a sly smile. “Do you mind if I handle this?”
“Sure, Dad,” Pearl replied, relieved and curious. She’d learned while growing up her father could be a stern disciplinarian, but he also had a sly and mischievous sense of humor.
JT turned his attention to Carol and Jim.
“Okay, you two scallywags,” he said. “Get over here.”
The two youngsters inched forward, now suddenly quiet, uncertain what their grandfather wanted.
“I’m going to make a bet with you two,” he said in his most commanding fire chief tone.
“What kind of bet, Grandpa?” Carol said timidly, glancing quickly at her brother. Both wondered apprehensively what their grandfather was up to.
“You think I’m fat, don’t you?” he said rhetorically. Not waiting for them to answer he added: “Well, I’ll just bet I can outrun the both of you! Do you want to take me up on that?”
“YEAH, Grandpa!” Carol cried out. She was never shy about a challenge, especially one she felt absolutely certain about winning. Carol had become known in their area for her athletic talents. She’d won several races at their school’s track and field events.
Carol and Jim exchanged a look of understanding. They quietly took into account Grandpa’s abundant girth. Both were convinced that if his advanced age didn’t take him out of contention, the size of his belly would most certainly slow him down.
Full disclosure here: JT was a big man, to be sure. And while his girth was substantial, the truth is that it was not all that much larger than the middle age spreads common among men his age. But to a couple of pre-teens with delusions of glory, his abundant belly seemed huge, offering the promise of a decidedly favorable advantage.
The challenge was set! The three lined up in the back yard.
Then, Grandpa raised his left hand in a gesture of command, calling for a pause.
He walked over to his tiny wife and removed his navy blue suit coat. He folded it carefully and laid it on Ellen’s outstretched arms. Grinning over at Carol and Jim, he undid the buttons of his matching vest, folded it and draped it over his coat. Next he removed the clip holding his tie to his shirt and clipped it onto his maroon and black diagonal striped tie, which he removed and folded with care. He winked slyly at Ellen as he unbuttoned his collar. A broad smile appeared on JT’s face as he removed his fedora hat and placed it on top of the pile of clothing in his wife’s arms. Finally, he unbuttoned the sleeves of his starched white shirt and rolled up the cuffs. He was ready.
“You guys ready?” he asked, as if he’d been waiting for them all along.
“Yes, Grandpa,” Carol replied. There was a hint of impatience.
“Well then, what are we waiting for?” he chided them.
The three lined up, their backs against a rail fence that defined one side of the back yard. The finish line would be a dirt path 50 feet away. The well-traveled path, worn through the grass of the sparse lawn, connected the back door of the farm home with the family outhouse, tucked discretely behind the garage.
“You tell us when to ‘go’,” Grandpa said, turning to Betty Ann, the youngest of the three children. Too little to be a serious contender, she was brimming with pride at being named the designated starter.
Betty Ann could barely wait for the three racers to check each other over carefully to ensure their opponents were lined up fairly.
“Ready, Go!” Betty Ann cried gleefully. She forgot to say ‘Set’, an oversight that would create much controversy later at supper.
Carol and Jim sprinted off immediately. They opened an early lead over Grandpa and quickly expanded it. Soon, Carol was ahead of Jim by more than three yards. Jim was running hard, staying a couple of steps ahead of Grandpa.
Grandma Ellen cheered Grandpa. Pearl and John cheered their children. Betty Ann wasn’t sure whom to support, so she cheered for everyone.
As they reached the halfway point, Carol had expanded her lead even more. She looked like a winner for sure. Her face glowed with confidence.
By now Jim was struggling, his lead over Grandpa rapidly dwindling. He wasn’t known as a strong runner.
Then to everyone’s surprise except his, Grandpa turned on the speed. First he overtook Jim handily. The race was quickly approaching the finish line . . . Grandpa was still several yards behind the happily smiling leader.
Carol heard the rapid fall of her grandfather’s heavy footsteps behind her. She urged herself on harder, nearing the limit of her considerable speed.
They were just a few yards from the finish line when Carol took a quick look over her shoulder. A mistake. Her glance back threw her off course, slowing her ever so slightly. It was just enough for Grandpa to pass her, mere inches from the finish line.
The race was over. By some miracle, Grandpa had won! Carol and Jim were dumbfounded, and feeling decidedly contrite.
There was Grandpa, just beyond the dirt path finish line, bent over, hands on his knees, breathing heavily, beads of sweat on a bald head encircled by a fringe of white hair. He glanced up, smiled paternally at his two young scallywags, and said not a word.
Ellen, John and Roy applauded and cheered Grandpa. Pearl hurried over, smiling knowingly, to comfort the defeated. Betty Ann applauded everyone.
At supper that evening, Grandpa remained stoic in his victory while around him everyone engaged in chatter about the race, the closeness of the contest or lack thereof, the merits of the officiating, the legal implications of the starter’s oversight and the suitability of the finish line.
Through it all, Grandpa would glance from time to time, first at Carol and then at Jim, and smile contentedly each time to himself and them. And each time that he did so, Ellen would poke her tiny sharp elbow into an especially tender spot in his ribs only she know about.
Nothing more was said about Grandpa’s belly, for a while that is.
We’re not sure who did it or exactly when, but some time later an anonymous scallywag came up with the phrase, ‘Shelley Belly’. It stuck. No one’s fessed up.
“The Foot Race” is Copyright 2014 by James Osborne. All Rights Reserved
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