Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Hi, this is Carl Touchstone...."

Dr. Carl Touchstone

In 69 years, I've had a half-dozen or so "good friends" and maybe four mentors. In only one case were they the same person - that's him in the picture - Carl Touchstone - my friend, my mentor, and a man that has never been far out of my mind since we met more than thirty years ago.

I could tell stories about him for hours, maybe even days, and never repeat myself.  In fact, if you want to read a bit more about him, check out …don’t sayanything.  My objective here is to tell you how we met, and I will limit this post to that one event and the impact it has had on my life.

In 1979, I was the managing partner of a car dealership in Laurel, Mississippi. I was 35 years old, desk bound, and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I was always the first one to work; my office manager, Johnnie Taylor, was usually the second to arrive. One morning, in June 1979, I looked up and saw her turn off the street in front of the dealership and head back to the employee parking lot. Immediately, I returned to the never ending stack of paperwork on my desk.

A few minutes later, I realized Johnnie hadn't come inside. I got up, walked outside, and found her still in her car. She was clutching her chest and could barely talk. In minutes, the ambulance arrived, and she was whisked away like she had never been there.

Johnnie, who had never had a hint of a heart problem was given a 50-50 chance of recovery. A week later, on a flight to Kansas City where she was scheduled for open-heart surgery, she died. I thought about little else during that week. We were about the same age, and we both smoked. I figured that if I didn't do something, I'd go the same way. So I decided to take up running.

On July 2, 1979, at 9 pm, just eight days after Johnie's heart attack, I walked out of my house, flipped my last cigarette into the dark and began jogging down the street, thinking to myself, I'll run a mile or two until I get used to this and then begin to increase the distance. It's a good thing I chose the downhill turn from the house, or I'd have never made it the 1/4 of a mile I ultimately managed. The struggle served to convince me that I had to stick with it. However, two months later, hurting in every joint, and with no relief in sight, I was seriously thinking of hanging it up; figuring that death from some cigarette-related disease couldn't be as bad a death from running.

I was probably within a few days of giving up running when, minutes after arriving at work, the phone rang. I answered and heard, "Is this Bert Carson?"

"Yes it is. Who is this?"

"This is Carl Touchstone. You don't know me. I live here in Laurel. I'm a runner, and I've heard you're a runner. Is that right?"

Suddenly, I forgot all of my aches and pains. I forgot that I was about to give up running. I took a deep breath and said proudly, "That's right, I'm a runner."

"Great," he said. "Let's meet at the high school track and run a few a laps."

I quickly agreed, and we met that very afternoon. I had run from my house to the track, less than a half-mile, and it had taken everything I had to get there, but I didn't let on that I was hurting. We ran a mile together, and I noticed that it seemed that Carl was really pushed to the limit - why, I thought, he can barely keep up. When we finished the four laps, we shook hands and he said, "You are good. I really appreciate you running with me."

Western States 100 (miles) June 1988
Much later, I realized that Carl had also run to the track from his house, about three miles away. After our run he ran back home, met some of his regular running buddies, and they knocked out a 9 mile loop that was known as the Garbage Dump Route.

It was the beginning of a friendship that continues today even though Carl passed away on June 5, 2000, because you see, my friend Carl is with me every time I lace up my running shoes, and he always will be.

Every person who ever crossed his path was better for the experience - I'm damn sure glad I was one of them.


  1. Oh, that's just so heartwarming. I feel for your loss, but as you say, he's still with you forever. A friendship like that comes around once in a lifetime. You are very fortunate, indeed.

    1. Maybe more than once if you're really lucky, and I always have been.
      Thanks my friend.

  2. All of us touch so many people, so glad one touched you so positively, Bert! We remember and cherish the people who touch us deeply, and don't give a second thought to the people who touch us on the surface only. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Mary Kathryn,
      More times than I count I've had people come up to me after hearing me speak for thirty or forty minutes, and gush, "You've changed my life."
      I appreciate the sentiment - I appreciate anyone who takes the time to hear me speak, or read something I've written, but I know what it takes to change someone's life - you have to live part of it with them.
      Carl's phone call didn't change my life but it opened a door that allowed us to travel together for a while. On the way, my life was changed.
      Thanks for the kind words my friend.

  3. Carl was on of those rare human beings that you could absolutely count on, like my husband. They were actually two of a kind - funny, a little crazy, generous, and willing to give it a go. I didn't know him but for a short while, and so it amazes me how often I still think of him. He left us with a parcel of funny stories and the joy of having called him friend.