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GOING THE DISTANCE

By: Vincent DeLuca

T

he Park La Brea apartment complex has the distinction of being the largest housing development west of the Mississippi. It rises up from the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, looming larger than the dinosaurs that once roamed the area. And like the prehistoric residents of old, many of its current inhabitants share a reptilian cold demeanor. Park La Brea residents go to great lengths to avoid any and all contact with one another. If the physical proximity of passing in the hall seems to require an acknowledgement and a greeting, neighbors reach for smartphones to check social media.

I am no different. In the years I have lived at PLB, I have learned the names of exactly two of my neighbors. Other than an occasional “hello” with these preferred residents, I have no communication with the many thousands of inhabitants who come in and out of the buildings each day.
My resistance to engaging with strangers changed on the day I encountered a very special man.
I had noticed him in the mailroom. He does not reside at Park La Brea and is impervious to the residents’ distaste for one-on-one communication. Instead, he manages to engage everyone in lively and warm conversation – even when his interlocutor mistakenly thinks he doesn’t want one. Johnnie Jameson is the postal worker who delivers the mail to my building.

Pretty much everyone loves to receive mail. Each time I open my mailbox, I do so with a tinge of anticipation, hoping to find something besides solicitations to apply for credit cards and consolidate my student loans. I hold out hope for something truly personal, possibly even hand-written and lovingly crafted only for me.

While these intimate missives are rare – each day, as Johnnie delivers the day’s packages and envelopes, one receives that personalized piece of mail that is tacitly longed for. To us unsociable, standoffish professionals, Johnnie delivers a warm salutation addressed by name. “Well good day to you, Mr. DeLuca. And how are you, sir!”

I have been amazed to see the power of his simple greeting. Everyone is drawn in: buttoned-up corporate types running late to their meetings, film industry executives screaming into their cell phones as well as mothers hurrying to play dates – all are stopped in their tracks. When they encounter Johnnie, residents’ faces light up with a smile – thankful for a brief but heartfelt moment of true human connection. I too fell under Johnnie’s spell and a kinship grew each time he called me by name. I began to look forward to collecting the mail in the hope Johnnie would be there.

One day, as I heard, “Good day to you, sir!” I noticed “26.2” tattooed on the back of Johnnie’s calves. I understood that I was in the presence of someone truly dedicated and enquired how many marathons he had completed. Johnnie responded with his usual laid-back poise, “29 and I’m about to do number 30.”

The very thought of running that many miles made my head spin. But instead of collapsing in awe, I went to my apartment, grabbed my camera and started filming that very moment. Thus started the documentary “Mile 19” and a friendship with one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met.

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Johnnie Jameson was born in the projects in St. Louis. In the sixties of his youth, St. Louis was a hotbed of turbulence. The inner city had fallen into a state of decay, which caused tensions to build among the city’s many disparate communities. In our interviews, Johnnie described horrendous accounts of poverty, racial segregation and violence. These struggles culminated the dreadful day he received notice he was drafted as an infantryman and would be sent to the frontlines of the Vietnam War.

As a grunt in “the jungle,” Johnnie’s primary duty was to sit watch on a hill and shoot any living creature that came in view. After months of this dehumanizing occupation, he became desperate for even a short reprieve from the inhumanity of his assignment. He was aware that Army protocol required sick soldiers be sent off for examination and, therefore, told his supervising commander that he had contracted “The Clap.” His commander’s skeptical reply was: “Who the hell you fuckin’ out here?” Despite his patent disbelief, the officer was obliged to release Johnnie to a medical base for testing. While Johnnie was out of the field, being checked for a non-existent ailment, the soldier covering his patrol and his commanding officer were ambushed by mortar fire and killed.

The Vietnam War provided dozens of similarly appalling memories, all of which resulted in severe anxiety and profound emotional torment. For 15 years after returning from Vietnam, Johnnie was haunted by the atrocities he had witnessed and the violence he was forced to perpetrate. He would spend the night fighting invisible enemies in his sleep and wake to find his bedroom in utter disarray. Johnnie tried to get a handle on a PTSD that seemed unshakeable – but it was too deeply rooted, too central to the person he had become.

While trying to accept this would be the permanent state of his life, Johnnie stumbled across a source of unexpected relief. In 1984, the City of Los Angeles decided to use leftover funds from the LA Olympics to launch a marathon. On a whim, Johnnie signed up. On March 9, 1986, Johnnie took his first step towards healing. The physically grueling undertaking brought peace to Johnnie’s mind and heart and helped him cope with the inner demons, which had plagued him since the war.

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Over the last three decades, Johnnie has raced more than 812 miles. The memories of Vietnam have been losing their hold on him with each passing mile. The marathon has brought healing to Johnnie’s life by allowing him to be a part of something larger than himself.

Johnnie had tried in vain for years to overcome his struggles. He attempted by sheer force of his will to block the toxic effect Vietnam had on his emotions and thoughts. The marathon took him outside of himself – away from internal turmoil into restorative connection with the wider world. He discovered the transforming power of joining throngs of people pressing on to a shared goal, encouraging one another to persevere to the finish line, and rejoicing in one another’s accomplishment. That sense of community and shared humanity was both cathartic and exhilarating and, over time, changed his worldview. Johnnie understands that, like him, many runners participate in the race in order to overcome their own personal Vietnam. The human connection he feels from the marathon transcends race, socio-economic status, religion, and gender. Over the years, it has reshaped his understanding of life from one of suffering in solitude to one of optimism and hope.

Today, Johnnie lives the spirit of the marathon on the other 364 days of the year. He believes in the healing power of community and human connection and aims to build that same sense of shared humanity and kindness in every facet of his life. While other people are busily going about their day, Johnnie looks for opportunities to share this truth. In his work and his demeanor, he gives selflessly and receives unlimited joy from something as simple as a reciprocated smile.
We can all take a page from Johnnie Jameson’s book, “life ain’t nothin’ but a grind, but love can get us through this marathon.”

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