Robert’s childhood hero was an Indian marathon runner named Longboat. Wanting to emulate his idol, Robert wished that his own skin could be red, or “any color but pink.” At twelve, Robert decides to complete his own marathon by running around the block twenty-six times after supper. Mrs. Ross and the maid are sure that he will die, but Tom encourages his son.
This flashback serves as a contrast between Robert’s current circumstances as a soldier and the innocent mindset he had as a child. It also shows, however, that Robert has always been motivated by a desire for honor and status—just as he now idolizes Taffler for his heroism, he wanted to embody Longboat’s athletic prowess.
Robert faints with jaundice on his twenty-fifth lap, and Tom helps him through his illness by telling him stories every evening. He watches as Robert takes off his pajamas and smiles at his yellow skin. Tom smiles, too, and thinks of when he climbed a church steeple when he was ten and saw “the world spread out around him like a gift.”
Again, this passage shows how innocent and free Robert was as a child compared to the regimented, dangerous life he now faces in the army. It also demonstrates the danger of being consumed by a desire for glory and foreshadows Robert’s tendency to take this motivation too far.
The narrative shifts to describe a photograph of nineteen-year-old Robert, looking posed and serious in his army uniform. In the photo, Robert seems to be imagining the romantic glory of his own death if he is killed in battle, conveying the message that “dead men are serious.”
This photograph is another contrast between Robert’s adulthood and childhood, as he has grown from the carefree child in the flashback into a serious man. The fantasies of his own death suggest that Robert now glorifies fighting and dying honorably in the same way that he glorified athleticism as a boy.