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Running for Our Lives
In 1986 and '87 Ignored by the National Media, Gay Activist Brent Nicholson Earle Ran 9,000 Miles Around the U.s. to Raise Money for the Fight Against Aids. This Is His Astonishing Story
I will run 22 miles a day, six days a week—10,000 miles. Those who scoff, do they know how many cords of rage are stacked beside my furnace? Oh, come, Brent, they tell me, you are not even a weekend jogger. Too dangerous to do this right now, Brent, wait a few years for the climate to change. Ha! Don't they see? I want to change the climate! I want my country to feel my anger and sorrow. No, not in a straight line shall I run, not like a bullet will I bisect her—too quick, that would be, too easy. I must surround America, I must draw a great circle around her cities and forests and wheat fields, I must...find a way to hide how scared to death I am.
Oct. 18, J & M—Called Mom today. I'm going with you, she says. Imagine that, a 69-year-old grandma, straight as a sunbeam, tagging along with a gay, balding 35-year-old ex-actor ranting about AIDS. "Who else will wash your dirty dishes," Mom asks, "your dirty socks?" Come to think of it...she's right.
Feb. 22, 1986—No turning back. I've quit my job at an antiques shop, sublet my Manhattan apartment, exhausted my $1,500 life savings and begun saying my goodbyes. In the last two years I've covered 35,000 miles in airplanes and buses trying to drum up support, run 3,000 miles for conditioning, completed six marathons, finishing in blood-soaked socks and bent with pain, wondering as my mother spoon-fed me chocolate ice cream in bed how in God's name I could possibly do this every day.
No corporation will sponsor me, no sporting goods store will give me shoes or shorts to run in. A group of friends and I must sell enough T-shirts and buttons to pay for all the food and phone and gas bills. And pray that our angel, an investment banker who insists on anonymity, makes good on his pledge of $2,000 a month so we can keep our caravan—a creaking 1982 Winnebago and Mom's '80 maroon Buick—on the road.
People sneer. Just watch. I'm going to raise 10 million bucks.
March 1, 1986—Glorious day! Sunshine and scores of friends and media on the steps of City Hall to see me off. Crossing the George Washington Bridge with fists raised to the blue sky, looking back one last time at New York City. The American Run for the End of AIDS has begun!
March 10, 1986-Hartford, Conn. Whiplash winds, aching legs. Heater's busted in the Winnebago, faucets not working. Went to sleep in my clothes and jacket, hands between my knees. Woke up shivering. Warmth? Sleep? Do they matter? The AIDS epidemic is five years old, and only last year did our President publicly utter its name!
March 24, 1986—Portland, Me. Oh, God. Court is dead. My 21st friend snuffed out by AIDS, and still, on each local newscast that does a blurb on the freak passing through on his way around America, the tape gets cut before I speak the word that can save thousands of innocents: condoms! This is not a viral epidemic, it's an epidemic of denial and terror and ignorance...I speak for 20 minutes to a few local reporters, and then the people sidle up and ask, "Is it true? Can you get AIDS by drinking from someone else's cup? From a toilet seat? From a mosquito?" And then the hesitation, the fear in their eyes. Do you have AIDS, Mr. Nicholson?
April 1, 1986—Canaan, N.H. Huffing along Route 104 at the start of a 25-mile run, blisters killing me, Mom crawling along in her Buick at 7 mph just behind me, two wheels off the road and two on to give me some protection. Signs all over the car for the world to read: THE AMERICAN RUN FOR THE END OF AIDS. A pickup whips by US, pulls to the side just ahead. Three huge, scruffy men inside with dark beards. One gets out. I freeze. Mom grips the wheel, wondering how close to let him come before she tries to run him over. The man stops. His beefy hand comes out. "Hi," he says, extending a $10 bill. "Me and my brothers saw you on the news. Just wanted to give you a little something to show our appreciation."
April 5, 1986—Chelsea, Vt. Woke up this morning with 102-degree fever. Must run anyway. Mom steps in front of me. "You're not running anywhere," she says, "even if I have to tie you down." And the unspoken question, the awful one every gay man must ask of every ache, every fever: Is it just flu?
April 15, 1986—Westport, N.Y. So how did you get the idea for the run? they ask everywhere I go. What should I give them? The simple version? That my grief and anger were so great I had to pound them out through my soles? Or the more truthful, confusing one? That by Oct. 14, 1984, the night the idea flashed in my head, my acting career was all but dead; that a short, balding man with dark zealot's eyes has almost no chance on TV or on Broadway? And that my relationship with my lover had recently ended? And that I suddenly had to move out of my new apartment because the owner, a dear friend, needed to convert his building into a guest house? And that I had just done my first benefit run for AIDS that day, felt an exhilaration at the $400 I had raised and then a vague horror—that all the dead, disintegrating leaves blowing across the course suddenly struck my eyes as all the rotted human lives blown away by AIDS, and that one $400 benefit run in the face of this invisible monster was nothing, nothing? And that I came home from a club at 3 A.M. that night, full of this ravaging emptiness, and sat on a chair and suddenly heard myself sobbing and pleading for help from my father, four years dead of cancer? And that I heard his voice reply, "Follow in Terry Fox's footsteps," and knew immediately what that meant, knew that Terry Fox was the Canadian who lost a leg to cancer but still raised $40 million to fight the disease by running across his country on an artificial limb in 1980, the run eventually cut short by his death? And that maybe it wasn't really my father's voice bidding me to run, but mine? And that nothing is clean and simple—my bitterest truth, God-that nothing a human being does is ever, ever pure?
April 19, 1986—Lake George, N.Y. Ran by a busload of kids, a ball team. The bus exploded in cheers—for me! Then a man who looked like the town drunk walked up to me, about to beg a few bucks for booze, I figured. Instead he dug into his pocket and scooped out three quarters—for AIDS!
April 28, 1986—Syracuse, N.Y. This is war. Each town we enter, we meet the local organization dealing with the AIDS crisis, meet the volunteers working in the hospitals and the people suffering from the virus, hear the horror stories from the trenches. Of young men left to die alone, even their corpses left unclaimed, abandoned by their families because they are gay. Of prisoners with AIDS, handcuffed to hospital beds. Of children with AIDS, treated as lepers. Of death certificates, changed to read anything but that four-letter word. They hold our hands. They cry on our shoulders. Ashen-faced 18-year-olds who have told no one else that they've tested HIV-positive. We are strangers, safe ones to tell—tomorrow we'll be gone. Last night Terrah Keener, the 24-year-old woman who is driving our Winnebago, met a local health instructor. Poor woman! So overwhelmed from fighting this war without reinforcements that she began sobbing and shaking as she spoke and finally bolted from the room.
May 9, 1986—Lockport, N.Y. My hometown. Local cops refuse to provide me escort, the first police force to say no. Entering on Transit Road, the route my dad drove to work every day, even after the cancer had spread and his arm and shoulder had been amputated. Memories flooding back. How I never could tell him I was gay. How he never could tell me he loved me. How badly he wanted me to play sports and hunt with him, and all I burned for was the stage. How odd it is that six years after his death, here I am, my theatrical career traded in...for an athletic one. And yes, how all my old schoolmates and teachers are finally going to find out, when they read tomorrow's paper, that I'm..."Hey, faggot!" A car slashes by, a head ducks back in the window. My hometown.
May 12, 1986—Lockport. Phone call from New York. Ten weeks into the run, our money's nearly gone—and one day's revenue at the cologne counter at Bloomingdale's could fund our whole trip! And worse news, far worse: My dear friend Ignacio has AIDS.
May 29, 1986—Cleveland. Our angel comes through, $400 is forwarded to us, the run continues. Enter the business district at noon, all the executives and secretaries walking to lunch. Our yellow light flashing on the roof of Mom's Buick two paces behind me, our AIDS signs right there for all to see. And no one sees. We are invisible.
May 30, 1986—Cleveland. Incredible. Now they wave at me and beep and ask questions; now that they've seen me on last night's local news, I exist. As if nothing is worthwhile or even real for us anymore until someone on TV tells us it is.
June 21, 1986—Gary, Ind. Black people don't need to see me on TV. Black people point and clap and shout. "Where y'all goin'?" shouts a big woman today. "Ten thousand miles, around the U.S.A!" I holler, She waves westward. "Y'all go ahead on then," she says.
July 10, 1986—Milwaukee. My mother amazes me. They ask her to be a judge in a striptease contest at a gay bar. "Sure," says Mom, and then, when her choice loses: "Just because he stumbled stepping out of his pants, that doesn't mean he wasn't the best one up there." People can't resist her. She slices through prejudice, through the walls of gender and age, gives AIDS a kind, wrinkled, normal face. "Parents!" she cries at our press conferences. "How can you turn your backs on your dying sons? Look at their faces! Don't you see? They're still the little boys you once held in your arms. Don't blame yourselves or them for their homosexuality—it wasn't your mistake, it wasn't their choice, it just happened. Hug them! So you can sleep at night, hug them!"
Where does her compassion come from? Perhaps her 27 years as a teacher, or growing up the daughter of a Methodist missionary, living for eight years in China as a child and then on a Cree Indian reservation in Canada. Gay men with haunted eyes, estranged from their loved ones, stare at me in envy, then at her in wonder. I'll look back a moment later and find them crying in her arms.
July 12, 1986—Waukesha, Wis. Bladder killing me. Aches as if I have to urinate badly, but nothing comes out when I try, and it just grows worse and worse each time my feet strike the asphalt. How long can I do this? Waking up each morning cramped inside the Winnebago, an icebox when it's cold and an oven when it's hot, my narrow bed two-feet-of-aisle space away from my mother's. Washing up in a KOA campground bathroom buzzing with flies, wolfing down a few of Mom's poached eggs, scribbling a few notes and postcards to friends, bandaging my feet, always pressed to run in order to reach another town in time for another press conference. A few local reporters waiting, sometimes the mayor, sometimes no one at all. No national media. Oprah says no, Phil says no, Koppel says no. Does the runner have AIDS? they ask. (As if a man with AIDS could run 22 miles a day.) He doesn't? Well, then it's not that big a story. Popping eight Advils a day to hush the terrible pain in my legs, diving into roadside ditches to avoid tractor trailers, eyes peeled for lunatics, dogs, snakes. Changing my sweat-soaked sneakers and socks three times each day, hopelessly trying to keep my feet from staying wet and soft and blistered. Stoking myself through the miles, chanting my mantras when the muscles and tendons begin to scream, first the Christian Science Statement of Being, then the Lord's Prayer, then the 23rd and 90th Psalms, then the Hare Krishna mantra, then my Edgar Allen Poe mantra—"All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream"—and then my own little jingle, "The American Run for the End of AIDS...The American Run for the End of AIDS!" Floating along for a mile on a thumbs-up from a cop or passerby, a horn beep or wave or a "Go for it, man!"...And then all that obliterated by a single "Off the road, faggot!" by one heart-stopping scream of "C—sucker!" At night gulping down a meal, hopping in the car, addressing another group, walking cold into two or three gay bars and trying to convince people who've come to forget reality, to stare into its bloodshot eye. Coming home at 1 A.M. exhausted. Lancing my daily crop of blisters with Mom's sewing needle, letting the pus run out, soaking them in raspberry tea and iodine. Dozing and waking with sheets and blankets in a tangle, my head full of half-remembered dreams. Dreams of AIDS and death, of being unable to finish the run, of coming home to New York and being seen not as a hero, but as one more dead faggot in a mahogany box.
Aug. 1, 1986—Sioux Falls, S.Dak. Call home. Jim's dead. Tom Proctor's dead. Francis and Russell have AIDS now too. Horror, grief, rage.... One American dies from poison in a Tylenol capsule and the whole country mobilizes, 23 heterosexual males die of Legionnaires' disease and the government sends investigative teams on the double. But tens of thousands of gay men and intravenous drug users die, and no one cares.
Aug. 2, 1986—Murdo, S.Dak. Ran tonight for the first time in the dark. A universe of stars above me, miles of silence and nothingness around me. Let go of your anger, everything in the night whispers. Give up your rage. No, God, I can't. I can't—what do I have left to fight with if I surrender my rage?
Aug. 5, 1986—Bad Lands, S.Dak. I've had it all wrong. We're not a land of spirit-less, sleepwalking cadavers, we're not. So many small kindnesses, so much more love than hate. The little boy dying of leukemia who gives me $10 today and says, "Mom, I want him to win that race," the men and women who hand me towels, Popsicles, cups of soda along the road. Most people in this country truly care...it's just that they feel so helpless.
Aug. 9, 1986—Sundance, Wyo. Bladder pain won't quit. One doctor calls it prostatitis another calls it a urinary infection. Terrah calls it the curse. None of their pills make it go away.
Sept. 7, 1986—Tarklo, Mont. Call from home. My friend Jimmy, dead of AIDS. Tom Wad-dell, the U.S. decathlete in the '68 Mexico City Games who organized the Gay Games, a man I deeply love...has AIDS too. And here I am a thousand miles away, running in the sun-shine, gulping the sweet air. Why do they die and I live? Why am I obsessed? Is my anguish like that of the Jew not killed in the Holocaust, is my pain survivor's guilt: Are you punishing yourself, Brent Nicholson Earle, for being alive? Or for being gay? Am I doing it for ego, to be applauded, hugged? Why does this thought keep stealing into my head, that I've never really belonged, that even now, by not having AIDS, I'm an outsider even in the gay community? Am I doing it to run away from relationships, from theater, from commitment, am I running off to save the world in order not to sit still and look inside myself?
Nov. 11, 1986—Santa Rosa, Calif. So this is how it happens. On a golden afternoon amidst the produce farms in northern California. A thin man standing in a driveway sees me running, reads the signs on Mom's car, pulls a shotgun from his pickup truck and points it at me. I am even with him now. I stare ahead at the road and the trees and the birds. I am a little past him now. The flesh on my back waits. Fear is a magnet, it attracts the thing feared. I must not glance over my shoulder. I listen to my sneakers strike the asphalt, to my breathing. At last the road bends. My body starts shaking.
Nov. 27, 1986—San Francisco. Escorted by a gang of gay and lesbian motorcyclists, we cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Mom on the back of Mistress Kathy's Harley, of all things, wearing a borrowed studded leather vest!
Dec. 10, 1986—Monterey, Calif. AIDS is not an issue here, the local journalist told me two days ago. His newspaper runs no article about me. Yesterday a Monterey man killed himself by jumping off a bridge. The man had AIDS.
Dec. 15, 1986—Morro Bay, Calif. The curse still wracking my bladder. Blisters the size of silver dollars on the balls of both feet. I'm about to start my run hand-in-hand with a local 5-year-old boy who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, when an evangelist minister steps forward. "Why are we protecting homosexuals?" he demands. "They are the ones perpetrating this disease. Read your Bible." No, I refuse, I won't let them smuggle God over to their side. "I'm running to save lives, not to pass judgment," I shout back. Weak...much too weak. I squeeze the child's hand and run into the headwind, cursing myself the whole run for what I didn't say.
Dec. 29, 1986—Santa Monica. "Hope you die, faggot!" "Get out of the way, queer!" Fifteen miles from Malibu to here, the most savage day of the entire run. Young men in BMWs and Cadillacs screaming at me as I fight my way up steep hills. And the old conflict burns: Lower myself into their gutter by screaming back...or remain mute, as I did when they called me a queer in high school, out of shame and weakness.
Feb. 7, 1987—Tucson. Disc jockey asks us to leave his bar. We're ruining the mood.
Feb. 20, 1987—Pie Town, N.Mex. Continental Divide. Blinding blizzard. Wind-chill factor-10°. Bowels on fire with diarrhea. Not a car on the road except for the cop who stops to ask if I'm crazy. Calling out to the dead, calling out to my dad, begging them to help me keep going.
March 1, 1987—Albuquerque, N.Mex. One-year anniversary of the run! Warm enough for shorts. Beautiful children on the roadside waving and urging me on. Feet light as feathers, joy in my heart. Made love this morning, as carefully as I could, to a wonderful man with AIDS. March 5, 1987-El Paso, Texas. The curse returns, diarrhea returns, eating dust, peeing blood. God, what is wrong with me—is it...? HIV test at the clinic. Negative. Urinary-tract tests. Negative. It's the constant pounding and fatigue, says the doctor. Maybe you should quit, says Mom. No! Only one way to forget what you see in a war: Keep moving....
March 26, 1987—San Antonio. Man at Laundromat: "Did you see this morning's paper? Some damn fool idiot's running around the entire country to fight AIDS." Mom: "Would you like to meet the damn fool idiot's mother?"
March 30, 1987—Austin, Texas. Roadside message scrawled on a piece of cardboard: "Hey, runner. Even if they cure AIDS, it won't make being gay OK. Read Romans, Chapter 1. If it's not true, why are they dying?"
April 9, 1987—Houston. Francis is dead. Steve is dead. No answer at Tom Waddell's for days—could he too be gone? The horror of this disease: A few months go by without hearing from any friend, even the most robust, and your heart starts hammering as you dial his number. Visited the AIDS ward at Jefferson Davis Hospital. Lord, I've never seen such suffering. Stood next to the bed of a shell of a man. Up shot his skeleton arm, gripping my wrist like a steel claw, his eyes devouring mine, his other hand etching circles around his heart.
April 10, 1987—Houston. Cop escorting us refuses my offer of water, leaves my offer to shake hands hanging in the air and turns away. No! With each step of this country I cover, with each mouthful of her dust I ingest, I become more and more adamant: I am gay, but I love this country. I am part of it! Do you hear me? I am Brent Nicholson Earle, a gay American patriot!
May 1, 1987—Lafayette, La. Here the enemy is us. At 11 P.M. I enter a gay bar with Bill Konkoy, the former general manager of the Big Apple Circus, now our director and the organizational wizard who has kept this run alive. We go to the microphone and try to speak about AIDS. People glare at us and turn away. We pass out literature. They let it drop to the floor. We walk out. Dead silence. Their eyes drill our backs.
May 4, 1987—Baton Rouge, La. Mom meets a man with AIDS. He has lost his job because of it, run out of money, slept on a friend's sofa and finally gone home...to a mother waiting at the door with a stack of paper plates to eat off and a bottle of Lysol, with orders to disinfect the bathroom each time he uses it.
May 17, 1987—Mobile, Ala. Paul Pop-ham, the ex-Marlboro model and Vietnam vet who was the first president of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and helped inspire this run, is dead. I wake on a soaked mattress, rain streaming through a leak in the Winnebago. I long for this run to end—and I dread it: I've never been so focused, so fulfilled in my life.
May 24, 1987—Pensacola, Fla. An oasis. Hugs, love, support everywhere we go. Dumb questions are dwindling, people are changing their sexual habits. Damn it, we're finally making progress.
June 25, 1987—The Everglades. Dean's dead. Mom furiously stitching and painting panels for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Up at 3 A.M. in order to eat and digest and be on the road by 5 in order to be out of this head-pounding heat by mid-morning. Why am I doing this—is it a bargain with God so he won't take me too? Air conditioner can't be used at 7 mph, mosquitoes swarming in the Buick. I pause for water, Mom glares at me over the steering wheel and pleads, "For God's sakes, hurry up!"
July 5, 1987—Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Progress? Why do I delude myself? Driven by a volunteer to an "underground" AIDS hospice—"Shhh. Tell no one. If the neighbors learn it's here they'll go berserk." Enter the hospice, sit in the living room, stare at a movie on TV about space aliens with huge, discolored heads. Look up, see AIDS patient coming at me whose head and face are covered with oozing purple lesions, so grotesquely swollen his eyes are barely slits. My head swivels from the alien on TV to the human being three feet away—turn it off, I want to scream, turn it off, turn it off! The poor man starts sobbing. I say goodbye, reel out the door. I call Tom Waddell, he tells me he'll be dead in a week or two, so this is goodbye forever. I suck in the hot, moist air, clench my teeth and head back to the gay bar to gather the $400 we've collected for the night. But the volunteer I left it with is drunk and stoned and has stolen all but $54 of it. Scream at him, burst into tears. To bed at 1 A.M., up at 3 to run....
Aug. 11, 1987—Metter, Ga. Diarrhea back. The curse back. Suffocating heat. During the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights I'll run a marathon around the Supreme Court to protest their antigay decisions. Call home. Michael has AIDS. Ignacio dying. Can't sleep, crying in bed. Up at 3 A.M., dogs chasing me in the dark.
Aug. 14, 1987—Macon, Ga. Call home. Ken sick. Narup dying. Fritz dead. Frank dead. Tom Waddell dead. Dear, sweet Ignacio...dead. No tears left, no rage, no horror.
Nov. 1, 1987—New York City. The finish line. Twenty months, 35 states, 200 communities, over 9,000 miles, 35 pairs of sneakers, $100,000 overhead, $300,000 net raised for the cause, 25 more friends dead. Not a word in the New York papers, not a morsel of national press. Another human being dead of AIDS every half hour. Poor fool, who vowed to change the world and raise $10 million.
March 30, 1989—New York. Can it be a year and a half since I finished the run? It still seems too big and blurred to make sense of, too full of paradox for me to explain what it has done to my life. My watch beeps twice a day to remind myself to think of the dead. I have been arrested twice for civil disobedience with an AIDS protest group named ACT UP, I spend four nights a week at AIDS functions, have jumped up at a press conference and screamed at Governor Cuomo to act. But to be honest, none of it is as good as the run. And even the run wasn't good enough.
June 12, 1989—New York. Test results came back today. I'm HIV-positive. Now the real race begins.
—From interviews and the journals of Brent Nicholson Earle
March 31, 2015
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