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 reading Soldier 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.
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.