Curtis Parrish used to joke with people that he was going to live for the best stories possible.
Not that it ever occurred to him that he might turn out to be one of them.
But it’s all there in his tale, really. A common man – aimless, a little broken – radically alters his very essence with a call to sacrifice and service. Duty takes him to the two most dangerous locales on earth, where every day is an ambush in the making and every night is spent in fitful sleep next to the reminder of man’s damnable capacity for destruction.
He endures pain and loss, and in the inevitable search of soul, he discovers his true desire and a new path – which is really his original one, only this time dressed up with purpose.
And it all happens between freshman and sophomore year.
Today Curtis Parrish runs for the last time in the colors of the Community Colleges of Spokane at the Sasquatch’s conference meet in Gresham, Ore. This is a story in itself in struggling to overcome – Parrish has all of 5 feet, 7 inches of body to scale a row of 42-inch hurdles, which appear to come up to his armpits.
But he figures to do well enough. He’s among the conference leaders in both hurdles races and placed in both the last time he ran in this meet.
Seven years ago.
Some of the athletes he competed with then have master’s degrees by now and have married and moved on. Of his current teammates, a few were in grade school when he was a freshman.
“I had to tell a coach the other day, ‘My last year running for you, I’ll be 30,’ ” Parrish laughed. “That really does set everybody back a little bit.”
Yeah? Then they should hear what he’s been doing all these years.
Parrish came to CCS from Toppenish in 1999, all of about 120 pounds – “a walk-on, the No. 7 hurdler,” he said.
He worked his way up on the track, but just about nowhere else.
“I didn’t have much going for me,” he said. “I wasn’t much of a student as a kid – in fact, I’ve spent most of this year making up for the mistakes I made then. I was really in a funk. I left school. I was mowing lawns for a living. I wasn’t training. I had no direction at all.”
Then came 9/11 and “like the rest of the country, I took it personally,” Parrish said.
So he had his direction: He would join the Army. Feel free to indulge your Bill Murray/”Stripes” visuals, but Parrish had a darkly comic one of his own.
“When I moved back home that winter, I had to move in with my folks,” he recalled. “I made it about four days. I couldn’t take it anymore. Man, do I dislike my hometown. God, it was boring. I was going to (enlist) to become an underwater engineer, a combat diver. But the waiting list was six months to get into school. I asked, ‘What do you have to get me out in a couple of days?’ “
He was told he could be a cavalry scout. Five days later, he was on a plane to Fort Knox.
Within a year, he found himself stationed at Camp Garry Owen in South Korea, 10 miles from what he called “the largest battery of artillery the world knows.” He would take runs along the DMZ.
Returning stateside, he spent two years in Georgia before being shipped to Iraq as part of the third phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As Parrish explained it, the job of cavalry scout “is to gain contact on the enemy, maintain contact and relay all the information to the following forces.”
They operate in small groups, sometimes as few as three and no more than 15, looking for enemy positions. He averaged two missions a day, of no less than four hours apiece, from a checkpoint 10 miles south of the airport – “the most-hit location in Baghdad at the time.”
“In Vietnam, the average life span for a scout was about seven seconds after they hit the ground,” Parrish said.
“In Baghdad, armor extended our value. But I was in spitting distance of mortars impacting me. The only thing that saved me was that they didn’t go off.”
As Parrish is probed for details of his 2005 tour in Baghdad, his tone is almost matter-of-fact because he’s tried to make them – the danger and the death – matters of fact, and no more. He dismisses the notion of heroism. He doesn’t struggle to make sense of any of it as much as he is determined to let it go.
Sometimes he succeeds.
“There were some that got me,” he said. “There was a man and woman in my unit, married. They were walking to lunch one day. She was a few feet ahead and a mortar came down and hit him, and she had to watch.
“You don’t get used to it, but people die. I knew I was going to war. The first few months there, I went to all the funerals. It was required by the unit that we all be there, but after about seven of them, I couldn’t do it anymore.
“It was easier to just forget about it and move on.”
Besides, it was his choice.
“I knew when I joined I wasn’t going to be a cook,” he said.
“I wasn’t going to be a mechanic. I couldn’t see joining and not carrying a weapon every day. If you join the Army, where else are you going to have the best stories but on the front lines? I just happened to find the job that put me ahead of the front lines.”
Gung-ho as he might have been to join, Parrish adopted a mostly apolitical posture once he was in – that is, it wasn’t just an adventure, it was a job. He tends to leave it at that even now.
“To be honest,” he said, “it was just a time in my life.”
And in the end, no happier a time than the funk that nudged him into the service in the first place. Engaged to be married when he went to Iraq, he came back and “wasn’t engaged anymore.”
He didn’t have a career, there being little demand for cavalry scouts in the help-wanted ads. And there was still that itch he hadn’t completely scratched at CCS.
“He would e-mail every once in a while,” said Sasquatch coach Larry Beatty, himself an old intermediate hurdler.
“It was ‘I’ll be back’ and ‘Will you still spot for me?’ and I’d e-mail back, ‘You bet.’ You try to be kind to one of your former kids, but there was no way I expected him back. Life takes over, you know?”
But for the past four years, what occupied Parrish’s thoughts often as not was resuming his track career and his education, with an eye on teaching and coaching. Naturally, when he showed up at Beatty’s door last fall, he was too eager. The coaching staff had to rein him in when his training exceeded 35 hours a week, and he developed a world-class case of shin splints.
“There were days I couldn’t push the pedals on my Jeep,” he said.
And still his times have come down. He’s run the 400-meter hurdles in 53.78 seconds – at an NCAA Division I school, that’s about a second off qualifying for the regional meet. As a hurdler, jumper and decathlete, he has attracted interest from Eastern Washington and Idaho, among others.
Like his favorite race, life has brought him full circle – well, full oval.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” he said. “But to fight my way back to where I am now is as good a story as any of them. Nobody expected it – not the coaching staff, not my ex-fiancée, you name it. They thought it was this big joke. It hasn’t been.
“I’ve got nine schools recruiting me right now and that’s great, but even better is that I could actually come back and be worth something to this team.
“This will always be a big part in my life.”