Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The (Petra) Long And Winding Road - R.I.P. My Friend

I met a lady named Petra Long in the mid-1990’s, before MySpace or Facebook, in an unauthorized Yahoo newsgroup for Seekonk Speedway.  She was a moderator and we hit it off as friends via the web board. Having my years of race officiating experience, I helped try to interject logic into some of the heated discussions of race events at Seekonk, even though I wasn’t in attendance, but I could look with logic and no biased opinion, which Petra very much appreciated. After a year or so, I finally met Petra and her driver, Ken Bamford at Seekonk one hot summer night. We all hit it off immediately and a true friendship blossomed.

Ken was successful at racing, athough underfunded, in two divisions, Pro Stocks and Late Models, but was in the twilight of his career, with his last feature win being nearly twenty years prior. He later returned to victory lane after his long drought and I was so happy for both Ken and Petra that the next week at an ISMA race in Canada, I asked all of my ISMA drivers sign a congratulations card for him. Unbeknownst to me, as I was having the card signed, Ken was on his way to winning his second feature race in a row over in Seekonk. I sent the card and it meant a lot to both Ken and Petra. To my knowledge, the card is still hanging in Ken’s office.

Living two hours apart, we didn’t see each other often enough, but we did spend many hours conversing about racing and the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

A short while later I was a guest of a friend at Seekonk Speedway for the weekend. He introduced me to a key Seekonk official and we seemed to hit it off on a professional level. Minutes later I caught up with Petra. I mentioned how I had met the official and what a nice guy he was. She informed me “Yes, he really is a nice guy, but watch out he’s a real head case.” Within the next decade, this would become one solid piece of advice I wish I had not chosen to neglect.

Fast forward to late 2005, I had started my transition but it was still not known to the majority of my closest friends, family, or co-workers, never mind the general public. But within months the changes were coming faster than even I had anticipated.

I was getting over tired between the printing company, Newbury Comics, NEMA and helping the Douglas 23 racing team. I had little free time to myself, unless a race day was rained out. But even racing, my former true love, was taking its toll on me, something I had been involved with for over two decades. I wasn’t happy going to the racetrack and I was counting down to the time to return home from the moment I left the house. I loved the people I was around at the track, but I just couldn’t be true myself outside with everything I was experiencing inside.

The pressure finally got the best of me. On the first day of my summer vacation, I just broke down. I couldn’t handle the pressure and being slowly molded into an “it.” Plus my ‘vacation’ meant spending three days at a racetrack, twice with the Douglas boys and once with NEMA. Not exactly a ‘vacation’, in my eyes. I spent the afternoon sobbing uncontrollably as I really thought I was going to throw in the proverbial towel at this point. I left the following post on Cynthia’s old secret MySpace page.

Dear Friends,
I know this isn't going to be read, but I want it posted on public forum in case something "stupid" happens.

I can't take it too much anymore. I realize I'm sooooooo much better now that I'm on the hormones. But in all honesty, the seven months of happiness, are still having a hard time overcoming the 41 years of hell.

I didn't ask or seek to become "the freak" but lord knows it's too overwhelming. I have a lot of great friends and over the past few months have really learned how to separate the real ones from the fake ones. I do not wish my condition on anyone. It's living hell.

But I honestly don't know how much more I can take. I'm breaking and I'm breaking apart bad.

Thanks for being there and thanks for the kind words. If I have to suffer another 41 years, there's just no f'ing way.

I'm sick of crying and I'm sick of fighting this alone.

Just minutes after I posted the above Petra contacted me via something unrelated on e-mail. She was not aware of “Cynthia” but she knew by the tone of my e-mails that all was not good. We traded e-mail for a while but Petra, whom I have the utmost respect for, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell a racing person what was truly wrong with me. I did manage to admit that I was probably going to be ostracized from racing very soon and it was people like her that I would miss the most.

Petra sent me the most amazing reply from and her and Ken.

I don't know what turns have come about in your life and racing for you to come to this point, and all I can do is tell you how I dealt with such a turning point (life and racing). I redefined my goals and, like you, realized that the people meant more to me than the checkered flag or my accomplishments on the track. I have chosen to spend my time with guys who really need the help ... guys who probably won't ever win a race, or another (like Ken) ... either due to money or talent. Others ask "what are you doing with him?" However, they truly appreciate your presence and contributions. And if one night we do win, just think how grand it would be. Checkered flags don't define what I can do or who I am. I just really love seeing my friends every week.

Maybe it's time to redefine how you can get what you love about racing without the things that have made you "hate" it. You are and have been a significant part of so many aspects of racing, I truly believe the sport would suffer ... but most of all ... it would be a great loss to the people you love so much, including Ken, and especially me.

Do you know how much that card you had signed for Ken when he won his first race meant??? He has it in his office hanging front and center. He treasures it and I do because of the thoughtfulness that was behind it. I'm sure you have touched many in the same way.
And just so you know, I also feel a special connection with you. albeit internet ... but I've always felt I could say anything and you'd be there REALLY listening. 
Petra Long 7/9/06

I knew Petra was correct and it felt great to hear something so reassuring. Especially from someone in racing, that I in reality had only met in person a dozen or so times but corresponded with often. She unbeknownst to me, being the smart lady she is, read between the lines of what was going on with me, in that days e-mail exchange.

The next month, the Modified Racing Series had a rescheduled race from an earlier rainout at Seekonk Speedway.  Though Ken wasn’t racing at Seekonk this week, Petra came to the event just to check up on me. I was fine mentally by this point but I didn’t truly come clean about my gender dysphoria to her at this point. I couldn’t. I certainly said everything alluding to it and around it. But I never just directly blurted it out. After Petra left, internally I felt bad for not just opening up to her face to face. It was a dumb mistake on my part. The next day I e-mailed her, apologized and told her what I should have told her the day before. Her friend John was becoming Cynthia.

Petra replied

Don't worry ... I will keep your confidence. However, you should know I discussed what I thought with Ken before the mod show. I told him how sad you were in your e-mail, what I thought, and he knew I went to Seekonk to see how you were. When he asked, I told him I was pretty sure, although you didn't actually confirm anything. He and I are on the same page ... we just want our friend to be happy. No judgments from either of us. We just feel bad that you feel you will be ousted from the racing community ... but do what you need to do for Cynthia. Your friendship is important to me and I hope you never feel the need to keep something hidden because of what I might think. I'm on your side. 
Petra Long 8/3/06

Ken retired from racing and sadly Petra became very ill with Lyme disease, forcing this two time NASCAR Mechanic of the Year into premature retirement. We went quite a while without seeing each other, but once she was strong enough to visit the race track, we always picked up conversation right where we left off.

In February 2008, approximately one week after my life changing surgery, while lying in recovery at a Montreal convalescence home, I received the most beautiful e-mail from Petra.

E-mail from Petra Long

I know I'm not on your list of close supporters but I have been thinking of you. I would have been in touch sooner to wish you luck before hand but I've spent most of the last 3 months in and out of hospitals ... I haven't written anyone.

From your blogs it sounds like you achieved everything you wanted and needed to begin the life you were meant to have. You are blessed and lucky you found the way and have so much support through it all. You're friends sound great. There are so many people who wish they could start over and overcome there regrets in life. It takes and enormous amount of courage to do that and most of us don't have it.

I guess what I am trying to say is that you can be proud of your life choices and the courage it took to make it happen. I'm sure you ill inspire many others in the same situation and also inspire others to go after other things they always wanted in life ... even if it's just going back to school for a career change, quitting the job they hate, or getting away from the partner that is keeping them down in the gutter.

Best of luck in your future endeavors. Hope you find everything you're looking for. I know I won't see you much because you are basically out of the racing loop but I'm cutting back myself.

Hugs and kisses. I know you are in good hands. Anyone who calls themselves the MCM has got to be cool.
Love Petra 

That is when I had learned that Petra had been sick. We had both cut back on our racing commitments but we still managed to see each other at the track and stay in in contact. She also played the middle person in a good natured verbal teasing between Ken and I. I a Boston Bruins fan and Ken a fan of the dreaded Montreal Canadiens.

 Just this past summer, we were talking at Seekonk one evening and the subject came to music, mostly The Ramones. We discovered that many years before we met, several times we were at the same Ramones concerts at the Living Room in Providence. Our mutual world was even smaller than we had previously thought.

Petra passed away unexpectedly earlier this week. I will miss her greatly. I already do. It was only after her passing the I learned that she had a love animals that matched my own.

Over the span of our near twenty year friendship, we usually reconnected at southern New England race tracks, but most often at her home away from home, Seekonk Speedway. When I return to Seekonk on July 1, it’s just not going to be the same without a big hug and a lot of  laughs coming from Petra. For certain, she’ll be there, if only in my heart the entire day