They were still flickering early Sunday morning, long after most of Carson City had gone to bed. More than 400 candle-lit white bags called "luminarias" circled the football field at Carson High School, each representing a victim who had either succumbed to, or survived the ravages of cancer.
Officially dubbed the "Relay For Life," the event was organized by the American Cancer Society and Martha Aston Walker, that group's development director out of Reno. Some 16 teams were on hand for the relay that began Saturday evening at 6 p.m. and lasted until 10 the next morning. The only real rule for the night required at least one member from each team to be on the track during the 16-hour fund raiser that garnered more than $20,000.
Most of the teams set up camp beside the football bleachers. Our team was 10 or so strong and our greatest challenge would be finding volunteers to be on the track during those predawn hours when most people my age had long ago gone nighty-night.
Most of us on the team don't generally see midnight much anymore. And when we do it takes six days to recover.
The real festivities (band, clown, games, etc.) lasted until 10 p.m. or so Saturday. Then the children who had come to help their parents remember started to fade. My own two children nodded off soon after the Hoola Hoop contest had ended. Their mother loaded them into the car and took them home, knowing full well that if she left them behind with me she'd have three basket cases on her hands by morning.
Soon the teams were down to only the hardy souls who opted to spend the night track side. Gary Ailes was the organized one on our team. He had come to the field early Saturday and set up our giant "lean to" tent strategically located next to the massage chairs. Gary also brought a brand-new pair of running shoes he hoped would take him many laps around the quarter-mile track in comfortable fashion. I suspect Gary would have made a fine candidate for the "Survivors" television show.
Gary's fellow school board member Bob Crowell was on hand early in the evening without his pet pig. We were hoping the pig would provide the spiritual lift we'd need to sustain us, but Bob said the pig refused to leave his back yard, even for a cancer fund raiser. "When we sell our house the pig's going to have to be part of the deal," explained Bob.
My fellow teammates also included Carson City Rotary Club (the noon club) president John Tatro, his brother Tom (yes, there really is a Tom and a John), local community activist Kathy Jordan (who probably has enough energy to run laps for the entire 18 hours), school district superintendent Jim Parry, assistant superintendent Mary Pierczynski (herself a cancer survivor), and Justice Court Judge Robey Willis (often referred to as the "Running Judge" for his propensity to run more miles than a man in his right mind ought to run).
It's difficult to sleep on a high school football field. Especially when you've been out of high school 30 years. And especially when you know you've got an hour before someone taps you on the shoulder signifying it's your turn to hit the track.
Tom Tatro introduced us to Sunday by running several laps between midnight and 1:30 a.m. He was smarter than the rest of us and drove home to his own bed when he'd completed his stint.
John, Kathy and Gary, who stayed the night not far from my air mattress, sent me out next. It was a quiet time and I walked so that I could read the names on the luminaria bags. I spotted the name of Brett Ruiz, a young and special Carson City boy who'd lost his own courageous fight against cancer last year. A shooting star streaked across the moonlit night and I wondered if Brett was watching from some special place where pain was never present. Perhaps my own sister, who was taken by cancer not many years ago, was sharing the sky with Brett and those many, many others we've lost to this killer we run laps to stop.
Someone relieved me at 3 a.m. and the next thing I heard was Mary Pierczynski's voice as she delivered hot coffee to the camp sometime around 5. She and Jim Parry walked the track until sunrise. Jim said he'd noticed that all but one of the candles had gone out and he wondered who that last flicker belonged to.
Many, many others also gave of their time and money over the weekend for the fight against cancer. Pat Williams was the local chair for the event and did a heroic job. Debbie Young and her gang from the Sunset Rotary Club cooked hot dogs and hamburgers most of the evening and when they were done stayed all night to walk their laps. The Soroptimist Club and Republicans For a Cure were also among those chipping in for a good cause.
In the scheme of things, a sleepless all-nighter under the stars with some wonderful human beings is a small sacrifice compared with the fight millions of cancer victims and their families must endure each day.
Perhaps one day we won't need so many candles.
Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.