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An Experience That Lights Up the Soul

January 16, 2002|BILL PLASCHKE

Did you see who was handed a flame?

Amid hundreds of heroes, a lousy storyteller.

A guy who sees Olympic rings and thinks, five iced crullers. A guy who can't ski. A guy afraid to light a match.

Yet Tuesday they gave him an entire flame, in a torch, down on the corner of 14th and Stanford.

Asked him if he could run two blocks with nobody chasing him. Asked him if he could do it while holding a three-pound weight that was not imprinted with the words, "Rocky Road." Asked him to please not burn the city down.

He said he would try. It was an honor for the torch to pass through his town on the way to Salt Lake City next month for the Winter Olympics, so he would try.

But sitting on the shuttle bus with other Olympic torchbearers early Tuesday afternoon, his legs were cement and his will wavered.

He didn't belong. He knew that now. They picked the wrong guy. How could he do this?

Sitting across from him on the bus was an 80-year-old torchbearer who teaches inner-city children to ski.

Behind him, a torchbearer who gives life to premature infants.

In the middle of the bus, a liver transplant survivor. And in the back row, a kid who beat Hodgkin's disease.

"So why are you here?" someone finally asked the storyteller.

"I'm not sure," the storyteller said.

As Olympic moments go, the start of this story carried all the emotion of a slalom preliminary, only without the annoying beeps.

"Hey, you wanna carry the Olympic torch?" asked the storyteller's boss.

"For the United States?" said the storyteller.

"Well, um ... " said the boss.

The torch, as the storyteller was quickly reminded, is not about countries.

That is its beauty. That is the one thing that separates it from virtually every other part of the Olympic movement, including those five rings.

The torch does not recognize differences in continents or language. It is the same torch whether it is held by the doctor from West Covina or west Africa.

The flame is one color, and many colors. The hands that hold it can been old and wrinkled, young and smooth, brown or yellow.

The only requirement, it seems, is that those hands be strong.

The storyteller looked at his hands. They were not particularly strong.

These hands had never cured a child or rescued an animal or bettered the world.

These hands, even while wearing gloves, had no right holding the most endearing symbol of the world's most important sports event.

The storyteller signed up anyway. He thought it would be fun.

He filled out forms and affidavits. He promised he would not use the torch as a croquet mallet, a birthday candle, or to defend himself against Shaq.

He promised that, for his entire two-tenths of a mile, he would keep his head up and his shoes laced.

One day last week, a package carrying his torchbearer's uniform arrived.

The storyteller's wife unwrapped the box, her eyes darting from the uniform to the storyteller's belly, uniform to belly, uniform to belly.

Then she screamed.

"It's torn?" the storyteller asked.

"It's white!" she shouted.

One crash diet later, the storyteller was rumbling along the streets of Los Angeles with a busload of heroes, a piece of flatware among this city's finest china.

Again, they asked, "So why are you here?"

Again, the storyteller couldn't answer.

So they told him.

Said the doctor: "You're here because everybody touches somebody."

Said the AIDS fighter: "Everything we do affects somebody else."

Alicia Keller, a torch cheerleader who has accompanied it around the country, stood in front of the bus and ended the debate.

"Each of you is here because somebody has seen the flame within you, and your power to spread that flame," she said. "That's what this day is about."

She gently held up an actual torch.

"Read it," she said.

There, in letters that streaked toward the shiny metal base, were the words, "Light the fire within."

As the shuttle pulled up on the corner of 14th and Stanford, the heroes sent him off not with stares, but cheers.

Moments later, the flame arrived, in the hands of a wide-eye high school girl running in memory of friends who had been killed in an auto accident.

The storyteller tipped his torch, and the fire jumped. Now, it was his.

"Remember," Keller had said earlier. "For those few minutes, you will be the only person in the world who has that flame."

The storyteller remembered. As the orange and blue heat flapped wildly in his face, he did the only thing he could think of doing.

On an oily patch in the middle of 14th Street, he dropped to one knee.

It was only for a second. He figured he had to thank somebody.

And then he was off, jogging between rows of aging warehouses that suddenly awakened with faces and hands.

Through the flame, he could see the smiles. Even with the whirring of the security motorcycles, he could hear the cheers.

It didn't feel as though he was carrying the flame. It felt as though he was the flame.

The more he stretched out the torch in his left hand, the louder the cheers. He stretched out his right hand, more cheers, as if he were carrying two torches.

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