The images of the Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames Monday hit particularly hard for those of us who have been inside that magnificent shrine.
I have had the good fortune to tour Notre Dame twice, as a college student and many years later as a father who wanted to show it to my two daughters. I’m glad they got to see it before the fire toppled the spire.
But years before I made it to Paris and laid eyes on it, I became enamored of that cathedral. Why? It was Quasimodo, the bell-ringer.
In high school, I read Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” published in 1831. (Hugo called the cathedral “a vast symphony in stone.”) But I also watched, many times, the 1939 movie version of the book, starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. Lon Chaney Sr. and Anthony Quinn portrayed him in other versions but, for me, Laughton was the one who fully embodied the main character’s suffering and dignity.
Like Frankenstein’s monster (portrayed poignantly on screen by Boris Karloff), Quasimodo was misunderstood, feared and despised. Hugo quoted people calling him an “ugly ape” and saying, “’Tis the devil himself.” Another said to him, “Thou art the finest piece of ugliness I ever beheld.”
But Quasimodo couldn’t hear them; the big bells of Notre Dame had made him deaf. Although he was aware he was misshapen and difficult for others to look at, he fell hopelessly in love with the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (played by Maureen O’Hara opposite Laughton.) When she was accused of being a witch and facing death by order of the cruel archdeacon, Quasimodo swept down into the public plaza on a rope, snatched her and carried her back up into the cathedral, shouting, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
Alas, the movie ends with Esmeralda riding off in the arms of the handsome Pierre Gringoire. The forlorn hunchback watches from the cathedral’s ramparts, then turns to one of the stone creatures beside him and asks: “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
In late August 1971, during a summer spent backpacking across Europe with my brother Ben, I made it to Paris and Notre Dame. This week, I dug out of the attic my travel journal describing that visit: “Climbed to the top for a Quasimodo view. Cool animal figurines, curved staircases. I let my imagination go and envisioned Hugo’s hero roaming atop the facade...”
I bought some postcards of those “cool figurines,” and that was almost my undoing. That night my brother and I ate at a place on the Left Bank advertising “chips” that turned out to be potato sticks out of a can. And the chicken was cold and the hamburger raw and the beer “outrageously expensive,” I reported.
And so what did we do? We left 20 francs on the table instead of 24, the protest of two young American rebels. “We tried to walk out nonchalantly. But after 30 yards, I had the misfortune to drop the three Notre Dame postcards out of my pocket. As I stooped to pick them up, I heard an ‘Alors!’ behind me and turned to face the angry waiter! He grabbed hold of my sweater. I hung fire for a stunned second, then pulled loose and sprinted away, shouting to Ben: ‘Run! He’s chasing us!’”
We could run fast, especially when being chased by an angry French waiter through the streets of Paris. He never caught us.
Ben has famously maintained his running habit through the years. Last Monday, along with images of Notre Dame aflame, TV screens were showing us thousands of runners in the Boston Marathon. Ben, who is 69, completed his 52nd consecutive run of that 26-mile course, continuing to add to the all-time record for that event.
When I spoke to him Tuesday morning, after he had made it back home to Bethesda, Md., his voice was hoarse from the cold he had come down with three days before the big race. As usual, he was bemoaning the time it had taken him to complete those miles but glad he had made it to the finish line and maintained the streak.
Way back in the early years, he could run those miles as fast as if a Parisian waiter were chasing him. His personal best came in 1981: 2 hours, 27 minutes, 26 seconds. But in 2002, he came down with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder causing involuntary muscle contractions. It affects his running motion.
This year, he was also dealing with a sore left knee and a cramping right calf. “I knew after two miles I had no gas in the tank. I didn’t have the get up and go.”
But his old friend Leeland Cole-Chu, who became a judge in New London Superior Court, ran every step of the way with him, providing encouragement. And Ben’s son Evan ran beside him for the final eight miles.
The weather was relatively balmy compared with last year’s running, which was done in a cold, driving rain, a temperature hovering around 30 degrees and a headwind of up to 15 to 20 mph. Ben’s time then was 5 hours and 46 minutes.
This year, with that vexing knee and calf and head cold, Ben finished in 6 hours and 5 minutes. At times toward the end, as his calf kept cramping, he had to walk.
“Thank God for the tailwind this year or I’d still be out there,” he said.
Now his body has a year to recover, as the people of Paris work to rebuild their 800-year-old cathedral.