The following events happened in order at the Best Birkie Ever:
• Broken pole early in the Powerlines;
• Yelled at by my fellow Birkie Fever suffering skiers for overly splayed skis while trying to ski up the Powerlines with one pole;
• Yelled at several times as a “cheater” by for running up and down the Powerlines after being yelled at for overly splayed skis. (Have you ever tried running in the soft snow along the ungroomed edge of the Birkie trail, wearing ski boots while carrying skis and one unbroken pole? It sure didn’t feel like cheating.);
• Had to wait more than five minutes, until the next wave approached and passed, for an elderly gentleman volunteer at the Powerline aid station to return with a replacement ski pole;
• Continued with the replacement pole which turned out to be several centimeters shorter and a few pounds heavier than my unbroken pole;
• Stabbed in the thigh by a fellow skier’s errant carbide tip, drawing blood;
• Had a binding flipped open by an errant ski basket, releasing my left ski into a crowd of volunteers at a feed station. (Darn thing, all on its own, skied the slight downhill straighter and a lot faster without me.);
• Caught a ski tip on the orange mesh along Main Street 20 or so yards from the finish;
• Finished slower than any other Birkie, before or since, by over 35 minutes.
The good cause
So why was this the best Birkie ever? Because Bob was there with his wife, Carol.
Bob and Carol Harrsch were the parents of Rob, a friend of mine who I met in eighth grade. By the late 1980s, Carol’s macular degeneration had advanced to the point where she could no longer drive. Their home on Lake Windigo, seven miles south of Hayward, had to be rigged with special aids to help her live day to day.
In the Summer of 1993, while we relaxed on the porch overlooking the beautiful lake she loved but could no longer see very well, Carol spoke the following words I’ll never forget: “It’s like watching yourself go blind.”
Her words inspired me to work with Carol to raise money for the Deicke Center in Wheaton, Illinois, a clinic that specialized in macular degeneration research as well as developing gizmos to help those afflicted make with limited central vision.
With the help of my buddies in the legal and ski communities, Carol and I raised over $6,500 in pledges. All I had to do was finish the 1994 Birkie filled with the calamities outlined above; calamities that paled in comparison to what Carol and other sufferers of macular degeneration have to cope with every day.
Carol was at the finish line that Birkie day along with my wife, my friend Rob and his wife, and Erik and Emily, grandchildren of Bob and Carol. But also at the finish line was Bob Harrsch, who perhaps hated cross-country skiing only a little less than standing out in the cold waiting for his son’s friend to finish 31 miles of cross-country skiing.
The war hero
Here’s the thing about Bob. He was one of those exceptional young men who, as World War II involved the United States, became a First Sergeant in the Army, 463rd Anti-Aircraft Artillery, 79th Infantry. He suffered a serious back injury while training during a blackout in the Mojave Desert and could have been discharged, but instead insisted on rejoining his men. He witnessed a neighboring Liberty ship destroyed by a U-boat’s torpedo during transport to Europe. He landed on Utah Beach during D-Day operations, marched through Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was one of the troops who helped liberate a concentration camp near Rheims, France. He led his men in their advance that was ahead of General Patton’s advance, shooting down enemy warplanes so they couldn’t attack the Allied ground troops, and his unit was the first to shoot down a jet.
When he returned home, there was no ticker-tape parade as has been often depicted on old news reels. But there was opportunity with the GI Bill. And there was Carol, whom he married and lived happily with until she passed the day before the 2004 Seeley Hills Classic.
The Nazis couldn’t kill Bob. Neither could heart-valve replacement surgery. A stroke, three carotid artery surgeries and a coronary bypass couldn’t do him in either. However, at the age of 92 and a half, Bob Harrsch died on July 22, 2013, in his beloved home on the shores of Windigo Lake.
By 1994, I knew Bob had a respected military history, but I never knew how well-respected until 2008. My wife is a court reporter official, and court reporter associations are involved in veteran history preservation through the Library of Congress. On January 12, 2008, I sat down with Bob and his eldest daughter, Maryalice McHugh, and together we interviewed Bob, recording his words for about two hours for my wife to transpose later into a transcript to be sent on to the Library of Congress.
While I have given you an outline of what he did in the Army, you just can’t get the feeling and the sense of a veteran’s experiences until you sit and listen to his or her words. For example, Bob’s anger was palpable at the mention of Holocaust deniers (“I was there. You don’t forget the sight, the smell,” he said.) And his compassion for his men was so heartfelt as he recollected who had died and who still lived.
What is a Birkie race to a man like Bob Harrsch? Perhaps he thought we were all nuts. What he didn’t think was crazy was any and all efforts to help his wife and other sufferers of macular degeneration, even with the assistance of a man in lime green Lycra tights.
I’ll miss Bob and his immense collection of John Wayne movies. And I’ll always admire his family for the support they showed each other. Maryalice, for example, provided Bob with the compassionate care he needed to spend his final days in his beloved Hayward home among family.
If someone like First Sgt. Bob Harrsch thought the 1994 Birkie was particularly special, who the heck am I to argue?
You're a good man, Bob Harrsch.
Bruce Steinberg is a father, husband, lawyer, novelist and silent sports enthusiast in St. Charles, Illinois. He encourages readers interested in preserving a loved one’s military history with the Library of Congress to go to www.loc.gov/vets. And if you visit this website, please look up “Harrsch, Robert Clarence.”