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All the way with JFK, part 3: When three’s not a charm

James F. Krueger, petty officer first class, first-class conman, and our putative leader, called us together.

“OK,” he said, ‘here’s how we’ll approach it.”

“It” was the world’s largest folks march in Nijmegen, Holland.

“We” were the self-anointed Navy Long Distance Hiking Team, now in our tent in Nijmegen’s military encampment.

In fact, we had no official status as a team, had formed on a whim only two months before and, since we were desk workers, had no idea what were were doing or what to expect.

The march was four days long and had civilian and military categories of various distances. Krueger had signed us up for The Big Kahuna — 50 Ks a day, for a total of 125 miles. And there was a time limit — we had to finish in 11 hours, or we were disqualified. Similarly, dropouts and substitutions weren’t allowed, so we had to end with the same crew we started with.

“The way I see it, Day 2 will be the worst,” Krueger said.

We all nodded in agreement, as if he knew what he was talking about.

“Day 1 we’ll all be fresh and rested. But Day 2 we’re gonna get beat up, bad. And it’ll look like Day 4 is a month away. But after we’re done with Day 2, we’ll be over the hump, will know what to expect, and we’ll fly through the last two days.”

He paused, and went on.

“It’s all psychological, really. Just mind over matter,” he said breezily.

We nodded again, this time as if we knew what he was talking about. As we’d learn the only way anyone learns — the hard way — we knew as much about hiking 125 miles as we did about the whereabouts of Judge Crater. Basically, we had only two things going for us. One, we were too dumb to think we could fail. And two, when faced with imminent failure, we were too pigheaded to accept it. But none of that wold be revealed till well into the march.

When half-right is all wrong

Day 1 went pretty much as Krueger had said it would. We got through it fine and finished a half-hour before the deadline.

With Day 2, he was half-right. The discomfort we’d felt the day before was now full-fledged pain. You name it, and it hurt — my knees, my hips, my beard, my watchband. As a result, while we’d maintained our pace, it had slowed, and we got back only 15 minutes before deadline.

Since Krueger was half-right about Day 2, it meant he was also half-wrong, namely about it being our worst day: Compared to Day 3, Day 2 had been heaven on earth.

Anyone can walk 20 miles — especially if they have to. They might even be able to walk 30. But to walk 30 miles three days in a row is a completely different matter, which I realized as soon as reveille sounded at 0500.

Getting up was one thing; getting out of my cot was another. I couldn’t believe it. The simplest action — from sitting up, to moving my legs over the side of the cot, to standing up — hurt everywhere and took forever. Some guys couldn’t bend over to tie their boots; others couldn’t put their rucksacks. And still others could do everything, but sluggishly, and it hurt like hell all the while. We all helped each other get ready, hobbled over to chow and then hobbled over to the gate for our 0600 departure.

Each day, we’d marched for two hours, then taken a break, marched for another two hours, taken a break and so on. Now, realizing how bad off we were, Krueger had a change of plans.

“Today, we’re gonna march four hours before our first break. Then we’ll march another three before the next break,” he said. “That way, we’ll cover 21 miles in seven hours, so we’ll have three hours to do the last 10. Does that make sense?”

We all agreed it did. But given how I felt, and how everyone else looked, and how I knew we’d slow down, the odds of getting in under the deadline seemed at best 7-4 — against.

Good news and bad news

Day 3 was an unrelenting misery-fest. Normally, we talked to each other all the time, but after the second hour or so, no one said much of anything. We were all in our own world, which consisted of only two things: keeping the pain at bay, and putting one foot in front of the other.

We kept moving and stayed in formation, but as the day went on, it was clear we were slowing down more and more. Finally, in late afternoon when we were back in the city and getting closer to the gate, Krueger yelled, “Listen up.”

We all looked at him, there, at the front and to left of the group.

“I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news,” he said. “The bad news is we’ve got 2 miles till the gate, and we’ve only got 20 minutes till deadline. Worse, we covered the last 2 miles in an hour, so we can’t march in without being disqualified.”

Before we had a chance to process that, he went on.

“The good news is we can run in,” he said. “So we’re all gonna count to three, and then we’re gonna move out.”

He paused, then he said, “Ready?”

Some of us nodded, some said “yeah,” some said “ready.”

“I said READY?” Krueger screamed.

“READY!” we screamed back.

He raised his hand, then lowered it as we all yelled, “One!” He repeated it with “Two!” and at three we tore off.

The spectators, who lined the sidewalks each day, burst into cheers. And they kept cheering, even though after a while I zoned them out, lost in my own struggle to keep mind and body together. I knew we could cover 2 miles in 20 minutes if that’s all we’d had to do. But doing it after marching 28 miles that day, 60 miles on the previous two days, wearing combat boots and fatigues and carrying a rucksack? It was a game changer … and not one in our favor.

Interestingly, it didn’t hurt any more to run than it did to march, perhaps due to two things. One, it was a different action, so maybe I was using different muscles or the same muscles in different ways. And two, by then I may have maxed out my pain receptors, and just couldn’t hurt any more than I did.

The maddest dash … and dashers

We kept clomping our way up the street, the crowd kept cheering, and after what seemed a decade, the gate appeared, about 100 yards ahead.

“Hit it!” yelled Krueger.

We all burst into a mad dash and kept it up till we’d sprinted through through the gate. When we got our breath back, we went over to the timekeeper.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “you made it with two minutes to spare.”

While I’m sure we cheered and carried on, I can’t remember it. I only remember one thing:

“Hey, Krueger,” said one of the guys, “I kept track of our time. It took us 24 minutes to run in, and we still had two minutes to deadline.”

“So?” said Krueger.

“So,” he said, “you said we only had 20 minutes to do it, but we really had 26.”

“Yeah,” said Krueger, with a shrug, “I lied.”

“Imagine that,” said someone else, “Krueger lied.”

Suddenly, we were all laughing, laughing so hard we verged on hysteria. And if we’d kept up, given our exhaustion and pain, it would’ve been an hysteria that was only going to end in Nijmegen General Hospital’s rubber room.

Of course the laughter ended. And so did Day 4, with us finishing a glorious eight minutes early.

The Nijmegen March was an incomparable education that taught me many vital lessons.

For one, I learned that a good team with high morale is worth infinitely more than a few stars with a bunch of subordinates.

For another, I learned a lot of people’s limits are self-imposed — especially my own. After Nijmegen, much of my life became a matter of nothing more than keeping pain at bay, and putting one foot in front of the other — either literally or figuratively.

And finally, I learned that con men come in all varieties. Most are there to bilk the rubes for money, power or status. The only difference between the weight-loss hucksters, the megachurch sleazes and the live-forever gurus is their vocabulary and the sizes of their mansions.

And then there was James F. Krueger.

Completely on his own, he managed to con a bunch of desk jockeys with almost no training to believe they could acquit themselves honorably in a route march with the world’s finest infantries. And against all odds, that’s exactly what we did.

And what did he get out of it? He got no money, no power, no status — only the same intangibles we did.

So what kind of con man was he?

I’d say one of the all-time greats.

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