Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 14 Jun 2012 05:21:13 -0400

Memory Laps


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from January 2009. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

COIN, IOWA. Home isn’t a single place but anywhere you’ve lived long enough to leave behind traces of your former self. By this measure I have multiple homes – in Illinois where this life began, in Oregon where I live now, in California where my career took root, but most of all in Iowa where I grew up.

Ask where I’m from, even now while writing from the West Coast, and I’ll say without pause, “Iowa.” Ask for a more exact location, and I’ll tell you, “a little town called Coin.” I wasn’t born here, haven’t lived here since 1961 and don’t have a living relative here. But more than anywhere else I’ve ever called home, this town shaped who I have become.

I return here often in memory, but seldom in person. The true trips bring sadness at how this old hometown looks now, along with a renewed appreciation of all that it offered in the years when I needed help the most. This is where I found a sport, and soon afterward started writing about it.

Coin, Iowa, isn’t a town you stumble across by accident while driving somewhere else. You have to want to find it. If you did seek it out, you’d wonder why you bothered – unless you had a history here, and with it the ability to see the invisible.

Coin sits far from anywhere big. The nearest city, Omaha, is barely within over-the-air television reach. This is where my drive back home begins, in a rental car from Omaha’s airport. I need no map, but if I did I’d need good glasses to find Coin there. Its name appears beside the smallest dot in the far southwest corner of Iowa, five miles above the Missouri line and 30 from Nebraska.

Finding Coin requires turning off Iowa’s southernmost east-west state highway, then heading six miles farther south. This road, paved now, was gravel (“rock” to the locals) when I first rode and later ran and drove it. It was dust-clouded in dry weather and soggy-boggy in wet.

Approaching Coin, I pass through the portals of a former railroad trestle. Two rail lines, the Burlington and Wabash, once crossed here. They gave the town life, and a name for a gold piece found beside the tracks, then both railroads abandoned this route in the 1950s. Coin rests on about a hundred acres of hilly land, looking down on the East Tarkio River. Flood waters had lapped against the lower streets of town before county engineers tamed the river early in the 20th century.

Now I turn off the highway and drive uphill, into my past. Business buildings once lined the one-block Main Street on either side – a gas station anchoring either end, three cafes (one a tavern with pool hall), two groceries, two barber shops, one doctor’s office for humans and another for animals (the latter with a vet named Dr. Hogg), a milk-and-egg business (with a worker named Hatch), stores for furniture, hardware and electrical repairs (with an owner named Wiar, pronounced “wire”), a bank and a post office.

This street now looks like an old man’s mouth after a lifetime of dental neglect. Only the post office and bank remain. The other buildings are either decayed beyond safe use or gone.

A block above Main Street is the spot where I did the most living in Coin. Our family’s home stood here, across the street from the old Methodist Church. We moved from this house in 1961. We’d barely packed to leave town before the house came down, to make room for the minister’s new home that went with the new church building.

Nearby, atop the town’s highest hill, stands the former high school building. Both of my parents graduated there. So did my brother, but the school closed after my sophomore year. The building remains as a neglected and abused monument to a past that only a dwindling flock of old occupants can recall. The young of town have shattered the windows and graffitied the outer walls.

Town life once centered on the school, and school life focused perhaps too strongly on sports. Nothing brought Coin together like a football or basketball game. There were no track meets here because Coin had no track. High school enrollment dropped to 60 at the end. Most of these students played the sport of the season, so nearly everyone in town had a stake in the contests. Home crowds numbered more than the town’s population. When Coin High closed, the heart went out of the little town. Nothing could ever replace the excitement of a game night.

The basketball court that once prepared a girls team for the state tournament is locked forever. The playing field that sent a team to a state six-man football title lies weed-choked, unable even to support kids’ baseball and softball games anymore. Only an old-time runner remembers when a chalk line around this field served as a makeshift training track.

Coin’s population had hovered around 300 when our family’s leaving reduced it by six. Officially the count isn’t much lower today, but this looks to me like a ghost-town. This day I see no one, young or old, on the streets. Air-conditioning, television and advanced age keep today’s residents indoors, or they commute to bigger towns to earn or spend money.

Today I pass unrecognized through town. Most of the people I once knew in Coin now rest in the town’s cemetery. It overlooks what used to be Henderson Farm, now a final rusting place for junked cars and trucks. This sounds like a mournful part of my visit, but it’s not. From this spot I can look out over my old hometown and perform mental archeology. Through the magic of memory I can resurrect the departed, restock the farm, reopen the schoolhouse, restore the sports arenas, rebuild the family homes, revive Main Street.

I stand here by myself, but I’m not alone. I see again everyone who raised and praised me, pushed and pulled me, instructed and inspired me. Everything I would become began in this place and with these people. I honor them in the best way I know how, by recalling how their stories mingled with mine.

UPDATE: This piece became the prologue for a memoir titled Starting Lines, about my early efforts as a runner and writer in Iowa. That book led to two more memoirs. Going Far covers my California years, and Home Runs recounts my settling down in Oregon. I’ll post prologues from those books the next two weeks.

[Starting Lines and many more books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, and Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, will be serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting this September.]

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