click here for The Monkey King
Every fall I prepared for war, and when I entered middle school, I had to become a whole new type of soldier. As I contemplated life on my walk home, and vowed that I would never crap my pants again like I had done in fourth grade, I looked around and saw bursting plants, mostly well-kept houses, and the rushing water of Tenakill brook.
What would this new school year bring? I wondered. And how long until our first break?
I wanted to divide up the coming school year into a calendar of holiday vacations, but when I got to Thanksgiving, my mind uncontrollably turned towards wrestling.
Closter Wrestling was the District Champion since before I put on my first ill-fitting singlet and stepped onto the mat. We wore the team’s record proudly on our backs. Lucky for me everybody got a sweatshirt, even if I’d never won a match before. Coach Kenny was a relentless drilling machine who turned the average into the exceptional, and the gifted into prodigies. “Shoot, sprawl, cross-face, spin, take ankle and knee, then drive!” I can still hear him now, and I can smell that special mixture of cologne and sweat. To me, it was the scent of heroes.
Practices were sometimes private, no parents, only coaches and kids allowed. The same room that was a flurry of middle school physical education during the day became a disciplined Agoge at night. Can’t make weight, then get your winter jacket on and we’ll pile mats all over you until you beg for water. You keep getting taken down, then we’ll sprawl all night until everybody can hop away from danger like fleas near a fire. Don’t like wrestling, then go home, buy a basketball, and forget we ever existed. But if you wanted what Kenny wanted, to have 1984 emblazoned in snow white lettering on the back of that dark blue hooded sweatshirt, then you better not just repeat the following, you’ve got to live it:
“Who’s the best!”
“Who’s number one!”
If things don’t go the way you’d have liked in a match you better bridge on your head, bridge like hell, and pray the buzzer goes off before the ref smacks the mat and blows his piercing whistle. Being pinned was like being drawn and quartered, only you didn’t die. Everybody just saw you writhe, worm-like and helpless. The other guy’s hand gets raised, and now you only hope that nobody sees your tears. I cried because I knew I had the desire that Kenny wanted. I was so full of desire my eyes could well up before the action even started. But there was more to life than wrestling right? There was Scouts on Friday nights after practice, cartoons on Saturday mornings, church and Kung-Fu Theater on Sundays, new comic books every month, Christmas Break, and of course there was school, where most of our precious adolescent time to learn, grow, and become socialized, was actually spent.
The first day of the Sixth Grade came in a moment that smelled like Number Two pencils, translucent hair gel, and Tang - the drink of astronauts. It wasn’t that bad. Separate classes, a gym uniform, and girls from two other towns were all things I knew I could get used to. I walked home humming a Man O War song and savored the free afternoon.
Valhalla… That whole beginning month of middle school was actually good. The gods await me… I had the hots for Kirsten, a Swedish looking chick who wore all denim all the time. Her hair was basically punk, and she was tough. Open up thy gates, embrace me!She didn’t even look at me, but heck, I had three whole years to get to know her. In September I smiled at her, and wondered what she thought about wrestling.
It was the second month of school when I started to get nervous about bullies, grades, girls, and my signature sport. A lot of kids had gone to wrestling camps over the summer. I didn’t work out as much as I should’ve, and still couldn’t do a pull-up. Would I ever have muscles I wondered? Should I have consumed that much ice-cream, ice-pops, and icing coated cakes all summer while hiding out in shady areas around our town pool readingSoldier of Fortune, Black Belt, and Boy’s Life?
That Tuesday was chilly, and I wore my new denim. The jacket had a red flannel lining and was way too big. I’d grow into it by the Eighth grade. I could see my breath that morning and put my collar up to my ears for wind cover.
It was October 30th and the chill had pulled goose bumps up from both of my squishy arms as I put on my gym uniform. A kid named Jamie Kingman got his shorts pulled down to his ankles that day. His underwear came down too, and anyone who was compelled to stare and gawk, like some people do at traffic accidents, could see it all. Throughout this kid’s catastrophe the squeaks of sneakers on a waxed floor never lost their maddening cadence. Girls let out siren screams, and boys hurled laughter like icy snow balls, right at the eyes.
Those ceilings must have been forty feet high; or was the court forty feet deep? The room felt like a cavernous well for teachers to throw us into and watch us tread from on high. I always thought that kid who got pantsed looked like Pete Rose, the famed base stealer of games my father watched.
The P.E. teacher had left the green metal door open. Typically when that portal closed it was as if we were being locked in a giant shipping hull, only to be released when we arrived at the shores of mathematics, language arts, social studies, French, art, or music. The door never closed that day; as if it was all part of the class, an external motivation to participate and keep moving.
I wished we had done weight training instead of trying to dodge flame red bouncy balls. The school’s air pump was industrial, like the style of the whole building, and filled everything it exhaled into to skin stretching capacity. Jamie stood in shock as a hard rubber orb ricocheted off the back of his head. His crucifixion seemed complete.
The acoustics in there were remarkable. I put my back to the grey matted wall and it seemed to help things quiet down. I had the weird notion that we were all victims of a witch’s spell, shrunken, and stuck in a polished wooden prison jar to suffer as entertainment for her giant mentally diminished offspring.
Jamie’s face contorted in pain, just as Charlie Hustle’s did when he slid into a base, only Jamie wasn’t making anything close to a winning move. He was crying, and in shock, and beyond the point of embarrassment. I made a mental note of who did what; the laughers, the screamers, those who removed themselves from the scene, and the criminals, who slyly covered their tracks by finding more balls, and pegging more victims.
No one had a reference for such cruelty. There were always fights and pranks but nothing so humiliating ever happened in Elementary school. Everyone continued to scream and play and run for their lives that day. Jamie fell, then went fetal, and finally pulled up his shorts before he disappeared up the iron staircase and into the clammy concrete bathroom.
The locker room had been painted a dark hunter’s green decades earlier. To me those rooms, with their whining light bulbs, banging pad locks, and unidentified shadows, smelled like wet socks all the time.
In Social Studies my mind wandered. The class burst out laughing and the teacher sipped soup from a small metal cup. His tongue flicked out from underneath his thick mustache to catch the liquid that had clung to the furry mass above his upper lip in frothy bubbles. He called me an "absolute buffoon" for some reason, so I went back to thinking about ninjas.
Mr. Grammerdean’s boring blue-grey Member’s Only jacket gave me justification to daydream at will about ancient assassins. C’mon, I thought, this guy wants to be like Magnum P.I. Watch one of Chuck Norris’s movies man. I felt inside my right pocket for a small candy bar, peeled its wrapper, then ate it with my hand on my chin as if I was contemplating whatever the hell he was saying about colonial life. I looked out the window, passed the taped paper skulls with colorful teeth, and saw that the house across the street from the school had put a sheet over a stool to make it look like a ghost.
I doodled swords, war hammers, and nunchucks all over my binder to try and manage the slow pace of the day. When I burst out the back door with Jon the air smelled scrumptious compared to the brick factory of the mind we were ordered to attend five days a week. Orange and black decorations hung from doors and filled up all the store windows in town. Several jack-o-lanterns had already been smashed or smeared with monosyllabic graffiti written in shaving cream: The curse words were of course accompanied by the inevitable phallus, two giant balls and a helmeted tube, always giving the appearance of a canon with two bulbous wheels.
I wanted to make plans for Halloween night, devise a mission, maybe map it out, and to forget the day. Jon had another concern to address though. “If that happened to you, what’d you do?” he asked me as we shouldered our assignments and left school feeling paranoid and less confident than ever about our place in the social order.
A Force of One, which starred Chuck Norris and Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, flashed before my mind’s eye as an instantaneous answer to his question. The slow motion scene where he busts a crate of cocaine open in midair with a spinning back-fist explained what I wanted to do to people who preyed upon others by pantsing them in gym class. A white cloud of the villainous Sparky’s evil addiction dispersed outward in the scene I remembered as Chuck Norris’s kiai scream sounded off vengeance and victory.
“Maybe a spinning back-fist,” I coolly responded. ”Anybody tries to pull my pants down WHAM!”
“Awesome, but do you know how to do a spinning back-fist?” Jon questioned realistically.
“No, not really, my parents still won’t pay for Karate. Maybe if I do really good in wrestling this season…”
Right there, on the sidewalk, and under a cave made from hanging Willow branches, their leafy whips scraping gently against the concrete, we both squared off with imaginary opponents. We spun in slow motion and attempted the drawn out war cry that was in A Force of One’s culminating moment.
The world was moving outside of our green umbrella, and I glimpsed it in images and heard it in snippets. A fast black car blasted the amazing guitar solo “Eruption” then disappeared beneath the green light of the intersection. As the car flew by I wished Van Halen had stayed back to complement the martial arts moves we pretended to be masters of.
More cars sped by, probably even a school bus or two, but we were hidden, and surrounded by the protective arms of nature. We were in synch with The Way, and suddenly I was the monk Caine instead of Chuck Norris, and any thoughts of competition and winning were gone. The meditation of play was without time, innocent, and immaterial. I wanted it to last longer but Jon’s aggressive body language brought me back to the heavy feeling of the real world.
The tree started to win the fight against him simply because he was attacking it instead of flowing with it. The whip-like branches continued to caress but Jon acted as if each leafy touch was a sting on his back. He began to thrash at branches that grazed his neck. Where had his imagination gone? To me it felt like a tickle and I tried to hold on to the feeling of effortlessly throwing back-fists, spinning, and back-fisting some more. Jon, in contrast, started to rage like Bruce Banner with jock itch. Leaves began to tear and fall. The more he pulled on the vines the more they whipped at him.
“Jon! Take a chill pill. You’re seriously spazzing out!” I let him know just in case the spell of rage was unconscious.
“Don’t call me a spaz dick head!” Jon retorted in a way that startled me and said that he was more worked up than I thought.
“I’m not! And you’re not even doing the back-fist right,” I informed him in a tone that was too judicious to come from such a rank amateur.
“Like you even know how!” he shouted and then, to my total surprise, went for it. His eyes became a small animal’s, mean and without remorse. Jon had very thin eyes and hated it if you ever asked him about being any nationality accept Italian. His slits stretched as if blinded by some bright light, and hid his brown irises even more deeply. His hands reached out towards my belt line. He was going to pants me right there and then, on the sidewalk under the draping willow trees of Durie Avenue.
He hunched low, and for the second time in the day I saw Pete Rose, grimacing as he slid chest first into home base. Only Jon wasn’t sliding, he was tackling; diving in violently so that he could take hold of my authentic army issue pants and drop them to my ankles with the force of his body weight. I forgot the back-fist, and Chuck Norris vanished from my consciousness. Caine too was gone, leaving me only with physical memory to defend myself.
Closter Wrestling had taught me to sprawl when someone attempted a double-leg takedown, so that’s what I did. My legs didn’t shoot backwards like a fast cricket’s, as some of the best wrestler’s legs may have moved. But Jon didn’t shoot in on me as if he were an insect or a state champ in the making. As my legs disappeared my chest, like a plump Thanksgiving turkey’s, dropped upon his back and sent him crashing down to his knees. I felt his hands take hold of my camo pants and squeeze with so much force that his fingernails scraped through to my thighs. He must have quickly let go of the idea of pulling my pants down because he began to charge and lift. He wanted to take me down, as if it were a wrestling match and he’d earn two points. Under the nurturing shadow of the local dendrology my left arm, soft and chubby like the white meat of a juicy cooked bird, pressed itself just under the bridge of his nose, and stopped at least his ability to pick me up off the ground. Despite the pain in his face, apparent from his whining grunts, Jon kept up his charge, fueled by some primal fear that turns good kids into bullies, and bullied kids into psychos. I felt myself slide back, out of the leafy cave, and into the bright autumn light.
Jon wasn’t going to stop until I fell down. The rough sidewalk became a concrete track for the Maranzano Express. My black Reebok high-tops slid without much traction. I had played it cool that day and hadn’t connected the Velcro straps around my ankles. I hadn’t tied them either and realized this mistake when the left sneaker stuck for a brief moment, and allowed my foot to exit its premises. My sock touched down then picked up quickly after grazing something pointy. My right foot, my left forearm, and my belly defended me. For some reason my free hand raised up like a bull rider’s, strangely flamboyant and utterly inefficient.
Maybe Jon had what my dad insisted I didn’t - “killer instinct.” A car honked and scared off the last remnants of play. We were now in the light, and visible to anyone who cared to look. My retreating fatigues had exposed a quarter moon, which was unfortunately expanding towards full. I hopped backwards, like a one legged rabbit might, for my life and for my dignity.
“Hey!” was accompanied by the revving of a car’s powerful engine. Jon let up a bit, but held onto my clothes as if they were his and he wanted them back. As combatants we paused and looked at the beautiful inky black Trans-Am that idled before us. The vehicle could have been a mechanical panther, forever in a low dangerous crouch. I was surprised it turned around and stopped to say hi to us. A golden eagle was painted on its enormous hood and Van Halen continued to hum from within the leathered interior. Could it be Hank’s friends, come to maturely break up this mad tussle and allow me to get home in one piece?
I turned my head and acknowledged our audience without letting up too much on my defenses. These weren’t the university bound buddies of my oldest brother. A guy in a leather jacket who had a thickly layered head of hair extended his torso out of the passenger window. Beneath his fluffed mane was a greasy painted face, like the walls of the boy’s locker room, he wore a thick layer of hunter’s green. His arms lifted in what I hoped was some sort of new older-kid greeting. I raised my bull rider’s hand higher and waved a howdy. When I received only a white eyed stare back I looked down to Jon’s body kneeling below my waist and wondered what we must have looked like.
From the painted rocker’s hands flew white ovals. I began to topple backwards as Jon let go. My bare ass felt a sting as it hit down hard. My neck suddenly pulsed with pain and oozed grotesquely. The Trans-Am rider was the Green Goblin, possessed, a day early, by the dark magic of All Hallow’s Eve.
“Fagots!” is all I heard as the ballistics flew. The first one had blasted my neck and left it throbbing, scratched, and slimed. Another projectile hit my arm. I turned away, and found myself frozen, curled up, and at their mercy.
Damn that hurt. Yoke slid across my clavicle and down my shirt. Where was Jon? He had disappeared back under the willows and was probably wading through Tenakill brook, taking one of the many shortcuts home we had devised in case of just such an emergency. Jon was not Special Forces material. Leaving a fallen comrade would be unthinkable for a real soldier. Who was I though? No better than the kid in gym class who died symbolically under the watchful eyes of half the sixth grade? I didn’t run for cover, but I didn’t stand and fight either. I showed no bravery at all.
It felt strangely as if the shelling I endured had been lethal, and I now remained as an apparition. When I got home I sprayed my jacket with the garden hose and hung it up to dry in my room on a chair. The t-shirt went deep into the laundry basket. I went down into the basement and didn’t want to come upstairs until I was called for dinner.
The subterranean smell and poor lighting was welcoming to me. I found Van Halen’s signature cassette and blasted it on the boombox. When “Eruption” played I was doing pushups; mostly from my knees like a girl would, but I was almost up to twenty-five. I dreamed of being unstoppable one day.
No one else found out about the egging incident, and the next time I’d wrestle with Jon would be the first practice of the season.
I’d like you to get a sense of what I was walking into when I talk about Bergen County New Jersey’s recreation wrestling in 1983. Create a Venn diagram in your mind please. Imagine a fat man with bright eyes, clothes always saturated in sweat, who was capable of motivational speeches that not only left wrestlers frothing to win, but their parents as well. He was my coach, and I can say unequivocally that I would have followed him into fire if he asked me to. Now picture a thin man, with rooster styled gold/blonde hair, dressed in entirely purple, his sweatpants tight, his high-tops laced loosely with thick colorful laces. This was our rival team’s coach. The only common denominator I could see in these two was that they ran junior wrestling teams. Other than titles they mine as well both have been from different planets. The animus between them had grown over time, and would come to an interesting climax in my sixth grade year.
We were Closter Wrestling, sponsored by some modest local business, and Coach Kenny wanted us all to be victorious gentlemen. They were the Garfield Boilermakers, and they wanted to drown the opposition in fear. They nicknamed themselves The Purple Wave, and by the time the first practice was over we all had clear directions about how gentleman should handle their nemesis.
Jon and I walked home, still perspiring, our mat sneakers dangling from our necks. A thin layer of ice coated the sidewalks and allowed us to slide every few steps. Christmas lights were glistening from evergreens and gutters. Our first competition would be a mini tournament, just for fun, and sponsored by the Boilermakers. It was before the actual duel-meet season started. The event was a show of good will by the Purple Wave, a way of saying, let’s have a great season, and scout out the competition so we know what we’re up against come Districts. Closter had done the very same thing the year before. Things had gotten ugly, not on the mat, but in the stands. Garfield parents flipped Kenny the bird on an alleged bad call so he ended the tournament and sent everybody packing. Kenny wasn't buying their philanthropy angle this year, and trained us as if we were going into the Olympic finals, against a very competent enemy.
“If any team can take what we earned last year, it’s these guys,” our leader had practically whispered to us as we sat panting. “The question is, we’ll you let these rude…” then he looked over both shoulders almost comically, but we knew that he was seriously checking to see if any of the “goody-good” parent population as he called them, were watching, “scummy, sons a bitches take it from us!” Silence fell over the humid hole that was our training ground. “Well? What’s your answer!”
“No!” we screamed.
“What are you a bunch of girls. My daughter’s louder than you and she’s seven. Now what’s your answer!”
“NO!” shouted up from that petri dish for the growing infection that was our desire to win. We wanted to smear the purple wave across the state.
When the day did arrive, I put my hood on, and prayed I didn’t have a match. The Boilermakers were terrifying. Multiple thin dirty mustaches, dangling earrings, mohawks, braided tails, and at least one real tattoo. Their coach had manicured his Jon Waters style mustache and his platinum blonde mullet. The sweatpants were tight as ever, and of course, purple was everywhere. Within the hour brackets were made and I was convincing myself I’d be a spectator. My stomach began to loosen its knots as Jon told me “I don’t have a match either. Sucks!”
“Yeah, I know right. I really wanted to pin one of these chumps.”
All was well as the bantams fought cub-like in the circles. We stretched, and our eighth grade captain led us in warm ups. When the last jumping jack was done we huddled. Breathing as one hooded mass Kenny’s voice echoed suddenly from the middle of the pile, “Who’s the best!”
“Who’s number one!”
I got so worked up I needed a drink of water. Thank God I wasn’t wrestling I thought to myself. I’d train hard and get ‘em next time. I stood and scanned the room. Our chant got a few of the purple ones upset, and one guy in particular looked like he was having a fit. This opposing wrestler turned out to be their team captain, and was fired up because he wasn’t on any of the brackets. Kenny was accused of ducking him by their coach, and the kid was under suspicion of being “on something” by some of our goody-goods.
Garfield’s captain was a miniature version of their leader. He wore his hair in deadly looking spikes and clad himself in a carefully ripped purple shirt. Only for a second did I entertain the possibility of what would happen next. There was no way I’d have to wrestle an eighth grader, who was their captain, who competed in states the year before!
Kenny called us in. I hid deeper within my hood. “These guys are…” here he went into whisper mode, “bitching because their star spaz doesn’t have a match. I say too bad, it doesn’t always work out. But, I told them I’d ask. Does anyone who doesn’t have a match want a match?”
“I already called my dad to pick me up,” said Maranzano instantly.
“OK, anybody else?”
A strange stillness filled the huddle.
“Raise your hand if you don’t have a match!”
Three hands went up, but mine was the only one eligible. Either they were way too heavy, or far to light. I was the closest in weight, even though my mass was fat, and his was stringy sinew.
“Philliou, you want this?”
What wins right? Didn’t I have desire? If I did wasn’t there only one thing I could do?
Kenny walked me over to the other side, his hand on my shoulder. It was already worth it.
“No way Ken,” the opposition’s coach told him. “Your kids gonna get hurt.”
“You wanna match or not?”
The purple coach chewed gum and smoothed his lip hair with two fingers from the same hand. “OK,” he said as he looked over at his prized killer, “you got it. Match is on.”
All the matches started and every coach became occupied with one of the four mats. I hadn’t taken off my hood and could only stare at my guy through my soft helmet as he warmed up on the other side of their gym. He moved as if electricity continually shocked him. I saw what the warnings were about. He moved and moved and didn’t seem like he would stop until I was pulverized; the match hadn’t even started yet! He dipped one knee gracefully and shot up like a spring to simulate his takedown. I tried to touch my toes and did more jumping jacks. My mind wandered, my mouth became totally dry. Would I shit myself? That would be terrible in a singlet.
“Philliou. You’re up man,” said the assistant coach, Joey, a college age guy who wore original converse sneakers and a white t-shirt every day. Kenny only said nice things about him so I trusted him.
“Where’s Kenny?” I asked.
“Mat number one. I’ll be here for you. Don’t worry Nick, you’ll do great.”
As I stepped to the line, bent over in the circle of combat, I looked up and into the eyes of destruction. His whole body was shaking, especially his fingers, like he was imploding and was going to explode when the ref shouted “Wrestle!” I extended my hand. The customary shake was fast, almost as fast as his takedown. His head disappeared beneath my center and before I had any chance to sprawl I was in the air then landing hard on my back. Three seconds is all it takes in wrestling. But those three grim seconds never came for me, and I have never been able to truly explain what really happened that day in my match against the team captain of the Garfield Boilermakers.
My body became light, and so did his, despite his vein popping struggle to hold me down. My hips lifted without effort. I’d had dreams that were harder work. My back completely arched, yet felt no exertion whatsoever. I was upside down, balanced only on my toes and the very crown of my head. I could see an inverted Coach Joe, eyes very wide, mouth agape, seemingly in a state of perplexed shock. I was confused too, but not pinned. I defied gravity, with a vicious competitor who tried with all his might to pin me, who outweighed me, had more experience than I did, and was possessed of much more raw physical strength.
A fluke escape could be explained, a burst of energy from a fat kid was possible, but I continued to rise higher. My head lifted six inches off the mat, and I floated, weightless, like an astronaut in space. Peace, like slow moving clouds, filled me. I was present and blissful as I lifted the Purple Wave’s star grappler towards the ceiling. Having never experienced such a thing before, both being weightless and overcoming an opponent in a match, I simply turned, as we had done a hundred times in practice. My move left my opponent on his back and me in the dominant position. The whistle blew, the hand slapped, and I had won. The ref raised my arm and Garfield's captain pulled away in protest. I felt no animosity towards the other competitor, nor did I feel boastful pride in my victory.
Assistant Coach Joey was the only witness that day as far as I know, but I didn’t want to inquire. I simply put my hood back on, sat in the good feeling that still buzzed around my body, and wondered. I was thankful for what had transpired, but what did happen?
I have not given up on this experience, yet it is not a mystery that plagues me with confusion. I have a reference in my body for something special. I have experienced total lightness and perfect strength. I have known the blissful present, and unlocked, if only briefly, a great power that can transcend this imperfect and sometimes ugly physical world. When I was eleven years old I didn’t always have an easy time with things, but I had heroes, real and imaginary that I looked up to. Coach Kenny was one of those heroes, and I am truly thankful for his tough practices and his very pure desire to see all of us dream big, and always reach towards our highest potential.
The Monkey King
Virtual avatars are the coolest until Han is introduced to the reality of MMA, hybrid assassins, Monkey Kung-Fu, and his own father.