Sunday, June 01, 2008

In a faraway place, a tear is shed for fallen racer

"It just blew my mind being up there. The scenery is crystal clear and the only noise you hear is the cracking of the Khumbu Glacier," says Houk, who left his home in Alabama on April 28 to fulfill a lifetime dream.

For his 61st birthday, his wife bought him a ticket on an airplane that took him west, over the Pacific Ocean, into Kathmandu, and to Mount Everest where he began his trek up the mighty mountain.

Accompanied by his guides and dragging along a large rucksack stuffed with enough clothes to last him for the three-week journey, Houk walked five to six hours a day and rested at night. On the seventh day, he reached the little mountain village called Gorek Shep, which led him on a path to the Base Camp and an area where a series of prayer flags mark a memorial site.

"There's this flat knoll on top of a hill where the Sherpas people of Nepal honor their dead. They are a very superstitious people and they say when the winds are blowing, it's supposed to be good luck," he says.

"That's where I left Connor's bracelet. That's where I left his picture. Then I shed a tear."

Houk is a corner marshal at the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, where the 14-year-old boy from Saratoga Springs was fatally injured on a Friday afternoon in September. On June 1, Connor LaFrance would have been 15 years old.

"At Barber Motorsports we've got 17 turns, or corners. We're flagmen. I was working corner two that day. You can see them coming up out of the pits, but still not up to (full) speed. As I remember, it happened at corner 10. I heard he lost control of his bike somehow and shot straight into the Armco retaining wall."

LaFrance was transported to a trauma unit nearby where he was kept alive for six hours.

It was long enough for his mom to fly to Alabama and kiss her son goodbye.

"It really affects you when you know this is someone who is 14 years old, his future ahead of him, in the prime of life," Houk says.

He secured a wrist bracelet after donating to a charitable fund that was organized in Connor's name and contacted the boy's parents to get their consent for Houk to place the bracelet at the memorial site on Mount Everest.

He was subsequently given a photograph of the boy, which was packed into the rucksack alongside the bracelet that he placed at the memorial on the mountain earlier this month.

"I felt that I just had to do something in his name. In Connor's honor," says Houk, who returned home from the three-week journey last week.

"It wasn't much, but it was something I needed to do."

By Thomas Dimopoulos
Published in The Post-Star, Friday, May 30, 2008