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Recalling Joe Quintal - the man, not the field

I have to tell you, I sometimes do a double-take when I see the name Joe Quintal in a Daily Republic headline.

I have seen the name quite a bit in headlines over the past year or so as the community discussed improving the old facility. I know a bit about the current events issue, but when I see the name in the paper, the first thing I think of is, well, Joe Quintal.

A.A. Joe Quintal was around long before there was a Joe Quintal Field. Wait, that's not quite right. The field was there, too, I guess. It just wasn't named for the dapper little man who used to wield a wicked starter's gun at track meets in Mitchell every spring that I competed for the Chamberlain Cubs.

Traveling to Mitchell for a meet was a treat. I know people talk about the sad shape of the facility, and I confess I've not been there in years. My last competition there was in the regional track meet in the spring of 1962. I barely held off a fast-closing Parkston kid to win the 440-yard dash, and I ran the last leg of the last relay of the spring at that field. I know the Cubs' mile-relay team qualified for state that year, but I don't remember beating the Kernels, the team that would have been our toughest competition in that event. If we had taken first, you'd think I'd remember breaking the tape, which was actually just a thick piece of yarn. It wasn't as if that happened so often that I lost track of winning a mile relay.

When I say a track meet in Mitchell was a treat, I mean the place had a cinder track. Not every school that hosted meets could make the same claim. Chamberlain, in fact, didn't host track meets in those days. We didn't have a cinder track. We didn't even have a dirt track. We practiced down at the baseball field and thought we were in heaven when we arrived at a town where the track was a packed, chalked oval of any surface.

What I'm saying is, when we town kids came to the city, we were living large on real cinders. Our spikes would crunch as they bit into the track, and sometimes small bits of cinder would hit our shins if we were following another runner closely and his spikes hit a soft spot in the track. It was a hoot, I'll tell you. It made running two or three quarter-miles and maybe an 880 leg of the two-mile relay just a walk in the park.

What I remember most about meets in Mitchell, though, is sitting in the blocks waiting for the starter's gun. Joe Quintal barked his "on your marks," and "s-s-e-t-t." Then he had the longest pause as he waited for each of the competitors to quit fidgeting and fussing around and hold the position. I could never learn to slow my action, so I'd be up and set while the other guys were just starting to think about raising their knees from the track. I don't know how most runners feel, but just before the gun, I always felt as if my legs were going to collapse. I also felt as if my next breath was never going to come, and the combination of feelings led to the edge of a panic attack. In that moment before the pistol sounded, I sometimes imagined myself crumpling forward in my lane, unable to move my legs or catch my breath.

Then Joe would fire the pistol, and somehow my leg would move, I'd take a step, then another, a breath and another, and first thing you knew it, I'd be off the last turn and down to the finish line.

Years after the last time I waited for Joe Quintal to fire a starter's gun, I formally met the man. He was in Pierre as a member of the state Senate when I arrived as a cub reporter in 1969.

We talked legislation sometimes, but now and then we talked sports. During one of those conversations, I told him about waiting on his set count. He just laughed and said, "It probably wasn't as long as you thought."

Terry Woster's column appears Saturdays and Wednesdays in The Daily Republic.