The First Televised Summer Olympics
The following is an excerpt from my novel, The Longest Night, published earlier this year by Random House. The book takes place in 1960, Idaho Falls, and centers on Nat and Paul, a young Army couple. In this excerpt, Paul has just been deployed in the summer of 1960, and Nat is left at home with their two young daughters. Lonely, she’s developed a friendship with a local man, Esrom, who in many ways is everything Paul is not.
One afternoon, Nat, Esrom, and her girls huddle around their brand new TV to watch the Australian swimmer, Dawn Fraser, take gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics, the very first televised Games. It’s hard to imagine now that there was a time that Olympic coverage wasn’t easily available to us, but in many ways the scene is meant to feel timeless. I hope it captures the way the we feel caught up in the Olympics, the emotions that we lay on these incredible athletes, and how they become a part of our lives for these fleeting weeks.
In Nat’s case, the emotions of watching Dawn become directly mixed with the adrenaline and anticipation she feels from being with Esrom.
This month, the world watched and cheered as Katie Ledecky made history, as Simone Biles became a household name, and Michael Phelps completed his incredible Olympic journey. Just as in 1960, they provide us a way to feel connected with the outside world, to be inspired, and experience something truly remarkable — even if back then it was from a newfangled magical box that projected moving pictures in your living room.
Weekends were quiet and lonely for Nat since Paul had gone.
Weekdays, the world was full of women out running their errands, bobbing babies on their hips, smiling and shushing and scolding, eager for adult conversation. Come Saturday, however, the women of Idaho Falls were solidly booked up. Their husbands were home and it was as if they didn’t even see Nat on the street with her daughters, or if they did, they gave her a quick hello with a slightly pitying glance. Men had the amazing ability to keep women busy, to fill up their minds and thoughts. One man in the house crowded out everyone else.
As they hit the halfway point of Paul’s deployment, then passed it, Nat made a long paper chain to hang across the inside of the front window, as the army wife pamphlet had suggested. They would tear off one ring of paper a day until Paul returned. Each torn oval was a relief, a wafery rip of satisfaction, its flutter into the wastebasket like a banished butterfly; we won’t be needing you anymore.
The girls’ nearly constant requests and non sequiturs intensified when they were just stuck around the house. One afternoon Nat found herself glancing at the round wall clock so obsessively that she thought she might actually scream. And then she did. She let out one frayed, bizarre shriek and the girls, hopping around the living room, froze. Nat got up, fetched a dishcloth from the kitchen, and draped it over the clock face.
That night after she put Sam and Liddie to bed, she slumped onto the couch feeling the odd mix of wired and exhausted that she’d come to expect most evenings, and wondered what in the world to do with herself.
Each night she was physically and mentally worn out but spiritually ready for some kind of part two, an aspect of the day that never came.
Music sometimes worked. But nothing worked quite enough.
She longed for the daily relief of Paul’s homecoming, how the girls’ high beams of attention would swing from her to him for that brief and blessed time. She missed his short, unexpected laugh when the girls did something funny, or when one of her anecdotes struck home. She missed the warmth of him in bed, falling asleep with his hand on her back. But now he was gone, and his absence was like a suction in her chest.
But some part of Nat also held back, knowing that when Paul got home everything would change, for good and bad. She did not feel that she was wronging Paul by having Esrom for a friend, yet she knew full well he wouldn’t like it, either. Then again, there was always something Paul didn’t like. It didn’t matter anyway; she wasn’t going to stop. He was her only respite from the loneliness right now; when Esrom came to the door she felt her heart swell with happiness, and when he left she moped like a child.
At the end of August, the Summer Olympics were held in Rome, and to Nat and the girls’ amazement these were actually shown on TV. This had never been done before and everyone was abuzz with it, grocery shopping at the PX, riding the bus: Did you see the opening ceremony? Did you see those shots of the Colosseum? The events were recorded during the day and flown to the CBS studio in New York each night, and every morning Nat and her daughters awoke and headed straight to their magical box to watch real footage of the athletes.
Nat was captivated by the women’s swimming, and Australian Dawn Fraser in particular. Dawn Fraser was like Superwoman. In plain clothes — collared shirtdresses and pumps and everyday polyester pants, posing for photographs — she could have been any other freckly young woman, cheerful, square-chinned, perhaps with slightly rounder shoulders than most girls; but in the water she was a rocket, a jet, something propelled by science or magic and not mere human muscle and effort. Fraser had won all golds and silvers in the 1956 games four years prior, and big things were expected of her.
Esrom came by one afternoon just as the TV announcer was working up to the women’s 100-meter freestyle. He stood gabbing at the door in his usual easy manner, when Nat realized she was going to miss the race if she didn’t get back inside, so she grabbed his arm and dragged him into the house.
The girls came hopping over with Esrom, Esrom piping every which way. “Is this pajama day?” he asked. “Where’re all the pretty dresses?”
Nat looked around and realized that things had gotten a bit out of hand: There were dishes in the sink, the girls were still in their nightgowns, hair back-combed by sleep and never fixed, teeth a bit scummy from eating licorice whips and watching the world’s finest athletes for half the day.
“Haven’t you been watching the Olympics?” she asked.
“I don’t have a TV.”
“Do you like sports?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “What’s this, a swimming race?” He sat on the floor, Nat beside him on the couch, the girls clambering knees-elbows-hair against his face and neck, and Nat didn’t even tell them to settle down.
“It’s the women’s swimming,” she said. “That’s Dawn Fraser from Australia.”
“It’s hard to tell them apart — ”
“Lane four. She’s favored to win.”
“Shouldn’t we root for the American?”
“You can if you like,” Nat said. She grinned at him. “It might be fun to root against you, actually.”
“Well, all right,” he said. And when the gun went off Nat cheered for Dawn Fraser, and Esrom and the girls, not even knowing which lane they were supposed to focus on, shouted, “Go America! Go America!” at the tops of their lungs.
It was silly — really, it was ridiculous — but watching Dawn Fraser swim, Nat wanted her to win with a nonsensical fervor, as if Fraser’s success had some kind of bearing on her own, placid life.
She clenched her fists, she felt short of breath as Fraser and Chris von Saltza pulled neck and neck, fighting for the pool wall with all they had, their arms spinning circular froths of water. A dozen men in suits, holding stopwatches, stood poised above their heads. The world had paused to watch these women swim. Fraser and von Saltza touched the wall at what looked like the same moment, and, as one, the men bolted from the poolside to confer. The whole thing had lasted only one minute and one second. Nat grabbed her own hair, awaiting the verdict. Esrom reached up and touched her arm and said, “You okay there?”
A minute later the newscaster’s head and shoulders appeared and in his cultivated voice announced that Dawn Fraser had, for the second Olympics in a row, won the women’s 100-meter freestyle, and Nat stood, yelling with joy.
Instantly, Sam and Liddie took on Nat’s happiness as their own. It was mayhem for a few minutes until the three of them quieted down. The girls were bouncing all over the couch, so Nat eased beside Esrom onto the floor, despite his protestations that it was too hard and so forth.
“Goodness, I’m not a princess,” she said. She pointed at the TV, where assistants were wreathing the podium for the medals. “Did you see her? Did you see how amazing she was?”
“It’s so hard to swim like that.”
“I actually thought they were going to swim maybe six or eight more laps.”
Nat looked at him to see if he was joking. “No,” she said, “it’s a two-lap race. But they swim all-out the whole way. It must feel like sprinting a mile.” She suddenly felt almost teary over what had been accomplished, over how great it must have felt to swim that way, to get into the water and move all your muscles at once and breathe fast and ragged till you thought you might die. And with everyone cheering like crazy on top of it, studying you through binoculars from the stand, breathing along with you because they wanted so badly for you to win.
“You know, I had an idea,” Esrom said. “When the girls are a little older, you could lifeguard at the pool.”
She turned to him with a delayed reaction, trying to put together what he’d said. “I could be a lifeguard?”
He started to stammer as if fearing she found this laughable, as if it contained some fault he hadn’t anticipated. “Well, you know, they always need lifeguards. The lifeguards get to swim for free when they get off work.”
“Thank you,” Nat said, wanting, for a delirious and stupid second, to lean over and kiss him. She was still embarrassingly choked up from the joy of Dawn Fraser’s win, from her mild case of lonesome self-pity, from the end-of-summer blowing through the air and leaves gathering on the windowsills and doorstep.
He studied her. “Are you all right, darlin’?” he asked. His voice was unbearably fond and kind, and she couldn’t stop herself from sliding beneath his arm, resting her head on his shoulder, and taking his far hand in her own.
He froze; she felt his heart speed up beneath his shirt and he kept his arm somewhat stiffly in the air, as if he were being held at gunpoint. Then he settled his arm onto her shoulders, loosely, and this sent such a charge of closeness and contentment through her that she shifted position just a hair every minute or so to be against a different part of him, cheek on shoulder, chin on clavicle, eyebrow against the warmth of him through his shirt. It was a muted ecstasy of affection. Even in its restraint it made her heart pound because it was so wanted and so new, but also nothing, of course; so they watched that way as Dawn Fraser and Chris von Saltza and Natalie Steward climbed in bathrobes onto their podiums, and the stodgy, brassy Australian national anthem, which neither of them had ever heard before, cackled through the speakers of the television set.
The Longest Night is excerpted here with permission from Random House. Much to my joy and surprise, the novel was an Amazon debut pick and was recently named one of the best books of the year so far by Amazon (thank you, Amazon!). Additionally, it was a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick (thank you, B&N!) and was recently long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. You can follow me here on Medium and on Twitter @Andria816. To watch Dawn Fraser’s gold-medal winning race, visit the Olympic Channel. (Notice how many of them swim without caps!)