Nonfiction is the new black
Billy Mills was just a face in the crowd of nearly 30 runners at the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. His best time was nearly a minute slower than the race favorites.
Part-Lakota Sioux Indian, Mills was a scrawny kid, who had grown up in poverty and racial bias. Whites regarded him as an Indian. Indians sneered that he was part-white and therefore not one of them.
His father had encouraged the boy to envision a better life: “You have to look deeper, way below the anger, the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, way down deeper where the dreams lie, son. Find your dream.”
Mills began finding his dream when he discovered his talent for running. He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas. Then he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team.
Still, no one expected anything of him. He asked for shoes from the company that outfitted American runners. Sorry, he was told. We only give shoes to potential medalists. You don’t qualify.
Mills kept a diary. Six weeks before the 10,000 meter race, he wrote “I’m in great shape….I’m ready for a 28:25 [twenty-eight minutes, twenty-five seconds].” He had never run that fast. Nor had any American. Nor anyone in any previous Olympics.
The gun sounded. As each of the 25 laps rolled by, more and more runners fell off the pace. At the start of the final lap, Mills was one of three runners still in contention. As they rounded the first turn, Australian Ron Clarke shoved Mills out into the third lane. Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia took advantage of the opening and pushed his way between the other two, knocking Mills off balance for a moment. As the runners headed down the final straight, television cameras showed a tight battle between Gammoudi and Clarke. Mills was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly the television announcer screamed “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” Mills bounded back into the picture, passing Clarke and then Gammoudi almost as if they were standing still. He maintained his pace to the finish line, five yards ahead of Gammoudi and ten in front of Clarke. His time of 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds was virtually identical to what he had visualized. He remains the only American to win the 10,000 meters at the Olympics.
Mills crossing the finish line in the 1964 Olympics.
Watch Mills run the final lap
Jim Whiting is a walking encyclopedia. He has written more than 180 (count 'em!) books on many subjects. You can learn more about him here.
During the Civil War, soldiers loved to eat and to sing. One of their favorite songs was about food they hated: “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” It was a parody of composer Stephen Foster’s popular 1854 tune “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Hardtack was a thick cracker that formed the men's basic ration. Nearly every soldier received nine or ten every day. Hardtack lived up to the “hard” part of its name. Soldiers often had trouble crunching the rock-like crackers and gave them nicknames such as “teeth dullers,” “sheet-iron crackers,” “jawbreakers,” and so on.
According to a popular joke, a soldier bit into a piece of hardtack.
“I found something soft!” he told his comrades.
“What is it?” they asked.
“A nail!” he replied.
To make hardtack easier to eat, soldiers often bashed the crackers with the butt end of their rifles. They scooped up the crumbs and mixed them with bacon grease and salt pork to make a kind of mush called skillygalee.
Hardtack had another nickname: “worm castles.” Worms frequently burrowed into the crackers. To get rid of those little wrigglers, soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee. The hardtack fell apart and the worms floated to the surface. Sometimes the men had contests to see whose hardtack had the most worms. Reportedly, the record was 32!
Not everyone threw the little creatures away, though. One soldier explained that “They eat better than they look, and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.”
If hardtack had all these problems, why was it such an important part of the soldiers’ daily diet? First, it was easy and inexpensive to make. Every day 3 or 4 million crackers popped out of bakers’ ovens and were shipped to the armies in the field.
Second, hardtack hardly ever spoiled. In 1898, U.S. Navy sailors in the Spanish-American War chowed down on hardtack baked more than 30 years earlier during the Civil War.
Third, the crackers didn’t weigh very much. Soldiers could carry enough hardtack in their backpacks to eat for several days.
Soldiers joked that they could stitch together crackers to make a bulletproof vest, though it’s doubtful that anyone actually did. Maybe they should have. In 2010, college students performed an experiment by firing pistol shots into chunks of hardtack. They were astonished to find that the crackers stopped the bullets!
© Jim Whiting, 2014
Jim Whiting has written 250 nonfiction books. He's known as Washington State's most prolific children's book author.
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