Pig farming. If you don’t know what else to do for a living, try pig farming. If you treat pigs well, you’ll be happy.
“Are they really going to stop having wrestling in the Olympics?” she asked, shocked by the possibility, I hoped.
I smiled and said I was going to practice my Miranda rights, and I smiled silently. I didn’t her hearing what I had to say about that.
I finished my junior year of high school attended the downtown Junior Olympic wrestling camp for two weeks early that summer of 1989, hoping for a spot on our Junior Olympic team that would travel to the midwest for nationals. Rival schools united at the camp and became one team representing Louisiana, and I was able to train with the best from each school all day every day and felt I was ready to test myself nationally.
Big Daddy’s health plummeted just before the wrestling camp, and the Partins moved him to a nursing facility in Florida, and Aunt Janice moved there with him to help ease his mind for his inevitable death, and she began working with Hospice, the nonprofit organization that helps people prepare for passing. He knew he was dying. His body was fragile and his mind was faltering. Walter Sheridan heard, and called to offer his assistance and assigned a local FBI agent to check in every few days to see if Big Daddy said anything they should hear.
Coincidentally, by the end of wrestling camp, both Granny and Uncle Bob developed cancer and their diseases progressed rapidly and I stayed in Baton Rouge to help care for them. I had heard about Hospice from Aunt Janice, and when they asked me to train with them I realized that they would die. I probably didn’t understand death yet, having only experienced it with Anne and a few of Wendy’s rescue dogs I had grown attached to, and I studied Hospice programs with the intention of understanding why Aunt Janice and Grandma Foster seemed sad ever since Big Daddy had gone to Florida.
Granny had throat cancer and Uncle Bob had spinal cancer. Wendy tried her best to help Granny, but didn’t have the energy to care for her and drive me to wrestling practice and visit Uncle Bob, so I stayed with Uncle Bob in his hospital room and then moved in with him and Auntie Lo when the doctor’s said there was nothing to do but keep him comfortable. I spent days and nights tending his bed sores and checking his morphine drips and cleaning him after he peed and pooed from his permanent spot on the couch. I heard that Granny was just as sick, mostly from the chemotherapy and radiation that hoped to kill the cancer cells faster than the healthy ones, but still able to cook for herself. Mike was the perfect boyfriend, and cared for Wendy and arranged his lifestyle to support her. But, she still had a nervous breakdown, and though she would no longer even think about slapping me, she said many harsh things about how I had ruined her life and how now that I was 16 I should be on my own, like she was when she had me. She said that Uncle Bob hadn’t been there for her, so she didn’t see why she should keep sacrificing her time for Granny and him. She said that her and Mike wanted to build their dream house in a new, secluded and exclusive golf course north of Baton Rouge and east of Scotlandville called Saint Francisville, still close enough to chemical alley for her to work as long as she didn’t have to keep driving me to school or wrestling. She said that they’d move as soon as I graduated the following year, and that I’d be on my own then.
A few weeks later, after many long nights and a drunk Auntie Lo bawling every afternoon before passing out, Uncle Bob died. We had spoken candidly throughout, especially about Wendy’s nervous breakdowns and why he didn’t take care of me when she abandoned me, and Uncle Bob died without regrets. He said he had never had children, and he and Lois liked their lifestyles and had accepted Wendy temporarily and me temporarily and that he would always be a Good Samaritan, but even the Good Samaritan only paid for the inured man’s care, he didn’t invite the injured man to move in with him and become a surrogate caregiver. Uncle Bob said he did what he did to keep his household happy, and that he would never tell someone what they should do, but that he’d die without regrets and that felt good and was the only advice he ever gave anyone: live a life without regrets.
The week before he died, we stayed up all night as usual, because he wasn’t sleeping regularly and had declined taking morphine after realizing he had become addicted. He couldn’t drink alcohol because his body wouldn’t accept any food or liquids, and he joked that we should attach a bottle of Scotch to his IV bag.
“I drank and smoked every day since I was 14,” he said, matter of factly. “And I always avoided deserts. Fifty years later, my liver and lungs are fine, but I have high blood sugar and suddenly developed incurable cancer.” He sincerely appreciated the irony, and had agreed to donate his body to science so that engineers and doctors could study it and help other people; or, perhaps his liver was good enough to donate to someone else, a relatively new procedure. He and I chatted about all of the equipment hooked up to him and how similar it was to his gadgets at home.
He loved his watch, and though he had grown too weak to move his arm, he held it in his fingertips and let his shaking hand keep it working. His hand had been shaking ever since he had stopped drinking, though it had stopped temporarily when he was on morphine. Though his body was dying, his mind was still alert, and we’d chat about television or science or magic; I had begun inventing my own illusions by then, and I had performed some of them for the children’s wing of his hospital a few times a week, and, selfishly, it was nice to have an adult in my life who knew that and was trying to help me, even if only by talking with me about my interests. Something about knowing Uncle Bob was dying and yet still interested in me endeared me to him, and I was happy to live at his house that summer and stay up with him watching television.
A few days before he died, we watched an all night marathon of James Bond films, though that was a minomer because by 2am the television station stopped broadcasting and only black and white static showed on the screen. Every night when that happened, we’d simply talk until around 5am, when Auntie Lo would wake up and make us breakfast. The night of the James Bond almost-all-night marathon, we had watched Live and Let die, with Roger More as James Bond and set in the swamps of Louisiana, and of course we talked about New Orleans and VooDoo and all that jazz; and Diamonds are Forever, with Sean Connery, who wore the same Rolex Oyster Perpetual as Uncle Bob.
“See, Jason,” Uncle Bob pointed out. “Reliable. Discrete. That’s what a secret agent would choose.” I couldn’t deny that. My Pac Man watch had long since died, and the digital numbers on my new Casio G-Shock were already beginning to fade when I used the stopwatch for wrestling practice drills, an early sign that the battery was weakening. And, like the fad of the time, my watch was big and bulky and brightly colored, not thin and eloquent and remarkably unremarkable, like Agent 007’s.
But Uncle Bob wasn’t attached to anything, and was ready to die. He rarely said the same joke or proverb twice, and I had learned to listen to each one because I knew he wouldn’t say it again, but he had been saying the same thing for a few days now.
“When I die, I’d like someone to rent a U-Haul and tow it behind the hearse and drive around the neighborhood,” he always paused to allow time for a visual image, “so that people will know I was taking everything with me.” He’d smile sadly rather than laugh, but his smile was genuine and he truly felt that he was imparting his final words that summarized his 64 years on Earth.
You can’t take it with you, and live a life without regrets.
He died on August 8th, 1989. His watch stopped ticking almost exactly 24 hours later. He had left it to me, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear it and was busy helping clean Auntie Lo’s house, because everything Hospice had warned me about came true, and the couch in front of the television reeked of excrement and death. The whole house smelled of death, and I kept cleaning it and keeping the windows open and trying to keep Auntie Lo from burning the house down; she had began smoking his remaining Kents, even though I had never seen her smoke before, and she said she didn’t want them to go to waste, but she kept passing out with half-smoked cigarettes still burning in her hand. I’d put them out, and drag her to bed and open windows and try to clean the smell of death from their upper middle class home.
Uncle Bob donated his body, so there was no hearse and Wendy wouldn’t let me rent one and a U-Haul, but I wanted to share his joke with people. I tried to say it when I gave the eulogy at his funeral, but I broke down in tears after getting to the part about all the people from his work and golf club that visited me and told me stories about what an honorable man he had been, and how he had excelled as a manager and friend. I clutched my written speech so tightly it creased and remained shut in the middle, but even if I had kept it on the church’s podium I wouldn’t have been able to read it through my tears. I fell to my knees and bawled in front of a crowded room, oblivious to everyone, and would only allow Mike’s mother, Mrs. Richard, to touch me; she opened her enormous flabby arms and embraced me and cried with me, and she kept saying she was sorry for my loss and wished Robert peace, and that I was an honorable man for taking such good care of him all that time. When I finally pulled away, I saw that her nice dress was soaked with my tears and snot, and that her eyes were puffy and red and yet still looked at me with love in her heart. In the bathroom mirror, I saw that my face was dented and impressed with the rosary and cross she had worn to Uncle Bob’s funeral.
The result of me listening to Uncle Bob during the final two months of his life and deciding to live a life without regrets is documented in court records of 19th Judicial Court, East Baton Rouge Parish, on August 28th, 1989. I remember the day clearly, and still have the paperwork in an old box of childhood memories.
Judge Robert “Bob” Downing peered down his nose at my paperwork then looked up at Wendy and me across the top of his reading glasses. He paused, then looked back down his nose and reread my request. A few seconds later he put down the paperwork, took off his glasses and rested his arms on his large wooden desk and leaned forward. He sat silently for a moment or two, calm and not judging either of us.
“Miss Partin,” he began, “this is the first time I’ve been asked to emancipate a youth at their request.” Wendy looked up with a sad look on her face and quickly narrowed her eyes and looked back down at her lap where her hands held each other tightly.
Judge Bob leaned back in his chair so that he could see us at the same, took a deep breath, and said, “Usually, a family requests a youth’s emancipation in order to release themselves from legal responsibility. In those cases, the youth has a history of delinquency. But, in this case, Jason has requested emancipation so that he may obtain a driver’s license in order to continue working and going to school, where he has a C grade average and is active in several sports and activities, and he wishes to graduate high school and join the army for the college tuition program. You have refused to sign his driver’s license permit, and you have refused to sign his army contract, and you request that he leaves your home as soon as he graduates, which would be six months before he is 18 and legally able to sign his own contracts, therefore he believes his best choice is to be emancipated now.”
He paused, and we all sat in silence for a few moments. Wendy looked up again, then looked back down and focused on her hands, subtly scratching her left fingernails with her right. She had done the same thing when wet with my principals, when I used to get in trouble at school. But that was a long time ago. Two years. Maybe less. But a long time for a 16 year old.
“Miss Partin, once you sign this, Jason will cease to be your legal responsibility. This can not be revoked. I need to ask you again, are you sure that you have no objections?”
Wendy was frowning, and her jaw was tight, and she stared down at her hands and wrung them back and forth and said she didn’t object. She looked up at me, her lip trembled, and she added, “He’s just like his dad,” as if that explained everything, or somehow vindicated her. She had always said that. At our one attempt at family counseling in the months after my dad was arrested, she just kept repeating that I was just like him without explaining what it meant. I only went to counseling that one time, but Wendy returned once a week for an entire semester of school and never explained herself other than to say I looked just like him, and there was no denying that.
“Jason,” Judge Bob said, looking at me over his glasses. “Do you have anything to add?”
I had brought all of the evidence I could in one of Uncle Bob’s eloquent attaché case, but Judge Bob had already seen it. I had a copy of my report card that he hadn’t noticed I had forged and changed the D’s to B’s; newspaper clippings of me wrestling and performing magic; several postcards from my dad without return addresses and postmarked from failed border crossings all over the country, where he wrote about being descended from Native American’s and that explained his dark hair and eyes, and of mystical visions from mountain lions, and becoming a lawyer and doing better than the public defender asshole who let him go to prison.
I looked at Judge Bob and said that I didn’t. I said nothing had changed since I first filed for emancipation a month before and I had first shown him my evidence. We still hadn’t heard from my dad, Granny was too sick from chemotherapy and radiation, and Grandma Foster was too old. Uncle Bob was dead, and Auntie Lo was a drunkard. Wendy had been much nicer the past few years, but I had seen her go through periods of ups and downs and I was ready to be on my own. I wouldn’t have any regrets in life, other than not insisting that we rent a hearse and U-Haul.
Judge Bob took off his glasses and leaned forward and rested his weight on his forearms. “Jason, I admire your initiative. Not many youths come from a family with as much trouble with the law as yours, and even fewer change their situation for the better.” He had known both my dad and his father. I had told him about Uncle Bob, and that’s when he told me his first name was Robert, but that friends called him Bob, and he didn’t seem to mind that I called him Judge Bob.
He looked back at Wendy and said, “We haven’t heard from Mr. Partin, so all we need is your signature here…” he slid the single piece of paper to her. She signed it and pushed it back towards him without looking at either of us.
“And Jason, we need your signature here…” He slid the paper to me and I pulled it to my side of the desk and signed it. I looked him in the eye, smiling, and he smiled back. I wasn’t necessarily happy – I had inherited my grandfather’s smirk – but I was glad this was over. A month was a long time to wait to become an adult.
“Thank you,” he said. He put on his glasses, looked at our signatures, and signed across the bottom. He picked up a heavy stamp and pressed it across his signature, creating a raised seal from the State of Louisiana. He said to keep that one with me, but advised me to have a certified copy left in the courthouse records, and to take a copy to the recruiter. I said I would, and he stood up and signaled that the court session had ended.
He thanked Wendy for her time, stuck out his hand, and said, “Mr. Partin, I wish you luck.” I shook his hand and thanked him. Wendy didn’t say anything. We left the courthouse together, and parted ways without saying anything more.
Andrea was waiting for me in her dad’s van. She smiled when I walked up and called me Mr. Partin like Judge Bob had said he would. I stood up straight and exaggerated a contrived attempt to look mature, and she laughed that deep, genuine laugh I had grown to love. I hopped in the van and she cranked the engine and pushed in a new cassette she had just bought, Guns N Roses “Appetite for Destruction,” and we drove blaring Slash’s now legendary electric guitar and Axl Rose’s high pitched voice screaming the build up to one of the 80’s most famous songs about life in Los Angeles, the concrete jungle, and the drugs that were easy to find there:
Oh my God
Welcome to the jungle, we got fun and games
We got everything you want, honey, we know the names
We are the people that can find whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey, we got your disease
We rocked out for a while, singing Paradise City at the top of our lungs, then she switched tapes and put on Metallica’s And Justice for All. She always liked pointing out the lyrics, and said Justice for All exemplified what had happened to my dad, as a way to defend him and soften my growing disdain for his choices. She smoked marijuana and so did most of her friends and many of her friends’ parents, and it didn’t seem like something you should go to prison for two years for, especially the crappy shake that led to my dad being labeled as a drug dealer. She acknowledged that he was an odd person, but agreed with a lot of things my dad did or thought, like being vehemently opposed to the military and to war. She believed that what she called ‘the war machine” was fueled by greedy people in corporations that had too much influence on government, similar to what my dad always said but with fewer curse words. She told me that Metallica’s And Justice for All was a line from the plege of aligiance, which neither of us spoke or stood up for in school, and was a sardonic statement on social justice that reached millions of angry teenagers and let them see what was happening. But, when she turned up the volume and blared Metallica in her dad’s van with its bass box and amplifier, she stopped talking to me about my dad or social justice and she focused on the music. She was passionate about heavy metal and hard rock with thought provoking lyrics, and she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel to Lars Ulrich’s rapid and complex drumming and sang along with James Hetfield’s deep and gnarly voice.
Lady justice has been raped, truth assassin
Rolls of red tape seal your lips, now you’re done in
Their money tips her scales again, make your deal
Just what is truth? I cannot tell, cannot feel
We called her Leah, like Princes Leah from Star Wars, because she was gorgeous and fearless like Princess Leah, and she had even dressed like “sexy slave Leah” from Return of the Jedi on Halloween and at a few comic book conventions. We had been boyfriend and girlfriend a few yeas before, and I had lost my virginity to her the first night her dad had let her use his van to drive us to her senior prom. She was a couple of years older than I was, but we had a lot in common and seemed to remain best friends despite her spending more time away now that she had begun college in at Southeastern Louisiana University an hour away in Hammond. Her dad had worked for Big Daddy’s NASCAR raceway in the 1960’s, originally called the Pelican Speedway after Louisiana’s state bird, it was built by Big Daddy using materials Teamsters from Local #5 stole from construction sites throughout the southeast during a recession; no one knows where Big Daddy got the money to pay his Teamsters and the construction crews to build the Pelican Speedway, and no one seemed to care. When the Louisiana economy dipped or gas prices rose and ate into the profits of truck drivers, Big Daddy had always found ways to give work to his Teamsters. And when Leah’s dad was hurt on a legitimate job site, Big Daddy had personal persuaded the managers to honor their workers compensation policy. Since then, her dad’s back almost always hurt and he limped slightly, but his compensation check from the company’s insurance had kept their household together. He adored me because he said he was indebted to my grandfather, and he loved watching me practice magic tricks. Her family was happy to have me stay with them.
We pulled up to their house and parked between some of the older cars perpetually parked in the front yard, projects to be repaired one day. Her dad was squeezed between piles of unfolded clothes on the living room sofa, watching Star Trek, The Next Generation on television. Above the TV was a full sized Klingon battle blade he and Leah had made in their garage workshop for a big New Orleans comic convention. Leah always joked that she was bi, appreciating Star Wars and Star Trek equally as much.
Her little sister was changing her new baby’s diaper on the dining room table beside yesterday’s mostly empty box of pizza, one of the cheap ones stacked for carry out after work hours that came in packages of two. In the kitchen, her mother was making room in the refrigerator for something and called out greetings to me and asked if I’d like any pizza. I said no thank you, that I was keeping my weight down for wrestling, because I had felt one of the pieces of pizza and it was cold and stiff and rigid and smelled like it had been there more than a few days. Her dad peered over his glasses and animated his face and asked if I had any new magic to show and I walked over and showed what I was working on, and he laughed until he had to take off his glasses and wipe tears from his eyes. As usual, he asked how my grandfather was doing and I told him “he’s the same as always.” He always asked about Big Daddy, and I always answered with an equivoque.
“Did you know he could have been governor, if he had had a college degree?” he’d ask me, rhetorically. That was a common sentiment in the newspapers for many years, and I had heard a few friend’s parents mention it before.
“He was a big man!” he’d say, smiling in awe and raising his hands and widening the spread to show broad shoulders above his head. “And no one messed with him. No one!” Most men whom Big Daddy hadn’t beaten or kidnapped were enamored by his prowess and charm. I could do no wrong in the eyes of Leah’s family.
I never talked about seeing Big Daddy after he was released, except with Leah. She had spoken to me immediately afterwards, when I didn’t have the words to explain what had happened but she had listened to me try, anyway. Over time, the story would evolve as we saw movies or read books that expanded our vocabulary or imagery, but it was always the same story that I hadn’t known how to explain. For example, when we watched “Time Bandits” on her family’s VCR, I saw a scene where God is chasing midgets who stole a map from him, and the special effects are that God’s a giant head and it dominates the screen and the midgets are trying to run away but keep getting pulled towards God’s head or God’s head is somehow filling their entire view. I paused the VCR at that scene and re-explained that day with Big Daddy.
“It was like that!” I said, emphatically pointing at the television with the now frozen screen, a partial freeze on the VCR tape that left a streaked image of the midgets; and though that term is considered unacceptable now, it was how we saw it then, and I didn’t think much of it. I was more focused on the head of God.
“His head! It was all anyone could focus on!” I paused and looked down and bit my lip and said, “No, not his head. Not his face.” I paused again. “His eyes? Smile?”
I uttered a curse word and Leah braninstormed with me based on previous examples and some role-playing from our theater improve class at Belaire High School. The rules are never dismiss something, and built off of it. Yes, and…
We accepted that the experience was a combination of the midgets being pulled towards God’s “essence” and a scene from Star Wars that we could imagine happening if Darth Vadar had come home from prison physically weakened but still strong in The Force, and how the Boa Constrictor mesmerized the boy Mowgli in 1967’s cartoon “Jungle Book.” It was the best summary we could agree upon based on shared experiences in the two years since I had met Big Daddy and decided to never be like a Partin again.
Leah and I walked down the hallway her room, side stepping around piles of clothes and blankets, and I tossed my small backpack on her bed and hopped over onto it. She opened her rat’s cage and made cooing noises at them as she held out pieces of rat food for them to nibble from her fingertips. I hadn’t met them yet.
“This is Meth,” she said, holding up the male. “And this is Amine,” holding up the female. She explained that responsible pet shops only set rats in pairs because they’re social animals that suffer when confined alone, just like humans. She made a quick reference to cruel prison practices – her dad had done a brief stent in jail for drunk driving – and said that if society could be judged by how they treat their children and convicts, people could be judged by how they treat their children and rats. Her rats were named after a new drug she was enjoying, methampetamine, which helped her stay focused on school.
She put Meth and Amine back in their cage and hopped on the bed beside me, extending her elbow towards my chest like a television wrestler, a joke she started doing after I told her about my experiences in Simpson’s fifth grade gym class, which was so long before that even I joked about it now. I deflected her elbow using the circular motion from The Karate Kid that everyone I knew had practiced after seeing the movie, and her momentum carried her past me and I rolled on top of her and was about to pin her arms down when she continued moving and rotated and grabbed me and threw me off the bed and onto the pile of clothes. She was beside me instantly with her hand made into a fist that she thrust towards my face, and I automatically deflected it using the same rotary motion, the “wipe on, wipe off” muscle memory to deflect straight on attacks. It works. I deflected her punch and bent my wrist to catch hers like in Kung Fu’s “stick hands” move, and I pulled her forward using her own momentum and rotated until I held her face down on her clothes and we were both laughing and she reminded me to stop pausing after rolling her and to seamlessly transition to offense from defense, and she was able to throw me because I paused.
She used to be able to beat me badly. A year earlier, at her prom, I had reached under her blouse after an infinite amount of time kissing her, and she had moved my hand down and said, “No.” A bit later I tried again, and she had moved my hand down with more force and an unambiguous, “No!” But I was a silly young boy, influenced by popular culture that showed the way to win over a girl was to be forceful and consistent or mischievious and untruthful; in Revenge of the Nerds one of the nerds put on a Holloween costume and pretended to be a girl’s boyfriend and that made her realized she loved him, and in High Plains Drifter Clint Eastwood simply threw a woman down and raped her and she realized what a strong man he was and became enamored with him. I had even watched High Plains Drifter with Leah’s dad, and no one thought that was a bad way to treat a lady. But, Leah disagreed, and on my third attempt to feel her breasts she twisted my wrist and doubled it back on itself using sticky hands and tightened her grip until I writhed in pain and embarrassed surprise and promised to never do it again. I didn’t. I wasn’t the smartest kid in school, but I was wise enough to be wary of Leah’s wrath. A few months later she guided my hand under her shirt and I confirmed it was ok, made a poorly received joke about choosing just one to do the trick, and I lost my virginity to my best friend at age 15 in her dad’s van with Van Halen playing in the background.
Unfortunately, soon after i lost my virginity to Leah, I continued my pursuit to not be like a Partin and began shadowing other peoples’ families, searching for what I shold do. That’s when I started attending magic meetings and visiting Mr. Samuels and Dr. Z’s homes. But I also shadowed other families that didn’t provide lasting guidance, including my friend, Clay, whom everyone called Mad Dog, and his family of Jimmy Swaggart devotees who seemed full of love for each other and like the type of family I’d like to emulate. At one of the Swaggart revivals they took me to, everyone expounded on the ills of premarital sex and how loose women will ruin a man, and for some reason that I attribute to temporary insanity I broke up with Leah. I realized my mistake after Swaggart was arrested in his car with a hooker and pile of pornography magazines and even Mad Dog questioned the church. But, Leah wouldn’t have me back as anything more than a friend, and because her family treated me so well we had become akin to brother and sister, though part of me hoped she was like Princess Leah in the first Star Wars and kissed her brother. I’d be ok with that.
I was 16 years old the summer of 1989, and I wanted to wrestle and wanted to leave Louisiana for no reason that I was young and wanted to see the world. I felt that way the same way I had temporarily felt conviction from Jimmy Swaggart’s devotees, but my conviction to leave was different because it came from within myself and wasn’t other people telling me what was best. In fact, few people left Baton Rouge and no one I knew suggested it as a solution to changing your situation; as the Janis Joplin song sang, people became busted flat in Baton Rouge and never seemed to leave. But I realized I wanted to explore the world. I though I’d perhaps become a professional magician, but for some reason I felt I wanted to do something remarkable. I had felt that way ever since meeting Big Daddy. I had recognized that my original explanation of being terrified had been replaced by mesmerized, but that wasn’t accurate, either. I was alert, and I had realized the difference by experiencing the intensity of six minute wrestling matches where I was alert and focused and nothing else mattered except being aware of my opponent, but everyone else was mesmerized by the same force that drew my attention towards Big Daddy’s essence. Everyone laughed and spoke more freely than I had every heard them speak when he wasn’t around, and everyone had laughed at his many crimes and joked that he could fool anyone, even the Kennedys and Hoover and a long list of mafia bosses and juries of specific trials. Even the supreme court justices had been fooled! All except Earl Warren, and I felt a bit like Earl Warren, able to see Big Daddy for who he was, and I had been transfixed by the energy of the room and fascinated that no one else was seeing what I saw. And I wasn’t frozen, but everything was in slow motion. It felt similar to how I felt when I wrestled the best, now that I had begun to recognize the sensation. Somehow, I felt that was like a superpower, and somehow it empowered me to look for loftier goals that were farther away, and even though I was training hard in wrestling practice I had also joined the cross-country track team after Coach said it was a good way to get in shape and drop weight, and I was attending swimming practice because it strengthened my shoulders and back and also because several girls I liked were on the team and wore bathing suits to practice. I also remained in theater club, where Leah and I had spent a lot of time. We had remained close friends and nothing more, and I gradually learned the value of being a nice guy with patience and persistence with all young ladies, especially in swimming and theater where the ratio of ladies to guys was much, much more favorable than in other activities; if there’s any lesson to shy young people reading this, that was it.
After I was emancipated, I stayed with Leah’s parents and she drove me around to take the army’s physical – the government paid for that – and to sign my contract. She was starting college an hour away in Hammond, at Southeastern Louisiana University, but her dad had given her his old van and she had a few weeks before she’d leave for campus housing and was happy to help. I signed the contract and ensured I’d begin in September of 1990, allowing time to wrestling in Junior Olympics and compete in the state magic tournament again. All I had to do was register for my senior year of school, a detail Wendy and I had overlooked when Uncle Bob and Granny became sick. Leah dropped me off at Belaire in the weeks before school began, when teachers were at school preparing for the fall semester.
I arrived before the front office unlocked its doors for visitors, so I walked around back to the row of trailers now used for overflow classes and Coach’s driver’s ed office, and smelled cigarette smoke. Menthols. I smiled and prepared myself. I walked softly around the annex classroom and saw Sarge, Belaire’s security guard and ROTC drill instructor, smoking a filtered Kool. He was in uniform, and the 82nd patch was on his right shoulder, a “AA” for “All Americans” and a tab that said “Airborne. He saw me and exhaled a stream of smoke towards the sky, and smiled a toothy grin, unashamed that I had caught him again.
He used to catch my friends and me smoking at the same spot, and only reported those of us who were cocky or unable to see that they were expected to follow rules. The first time I walked out of practice late and caught him, he just laughed and joked about our different roles at that time.
“What up, Magic Man? Got anything new to show me?” He asked with a tone that was hopeful and not at all like a routine, even though we had met like this many times over the years.
I said sure, and asked if I could do something with his cigarette. He tapped his finger to flick off the ashes, and handed me his half smoked Kool. I broke off the filter and said, in mock sarcasm, that he was a sissy for using one. He laughed, but didn’t take his eyes off my hands. I told him smoking was bad for you, held his lit cigarette in my right hand, stared at it for a moment, then shoved it into a small opening in my left fist, between my thumb and first finger. I winced in discomfort, and blew a few puffs of air towards my fist to cool it off.
As Sarge stared at my left hand with eyes wide open and a shocked look on his face, my right hand naturally fell to my side, and I slipped my thumb into my back pocket, quickly pulling it out but leaving the metal thumb tip with Sarge’s crushed cigarette inside. The filter wouldn’t have crushed enough to fit, and I had attended a magic lecture where the professional magician suggested calling someone a sissy to justify breaking off the filter. I bought a thumb tip from him and practiced with rolled up pieces of napkin before showing anyone. I had never used a lit cigarette, and was pleasantly surprised that the tip worked.
My right hand came back up, palm forward and fingers spread, and I unnecessarily asked him to watch carefully. I opened my left hand to show it empty. Instantly, Sarge shouted “Holy Shit!” and cursed ineligibly and laughed and danced around and looked towards the sky and laughed some more and said he never got tired of my magic tricks.
While he was dancing around, I reached into my back right pocket again and felt for the new Kool next to the smoldering thumb tip – I hoped it wasn’t burning a hole into my butt – and pulled out the Kool in thumb palm. I had put it there in case I saw Sarge.
When he stopped laughing and was looking back at me, I stared at a spot in the air between us and reached out with my hand and produced the new Kool. He went into another fit of laughter and dancing around, took the Kool, lit it, and took a few drags as his chuckles calmed down.
After what was probably his final chuckle, he asked, “So, Magic Man, are you Airborne now?” I showed him my contract, and he took it and stuck his Kool in his mouth so he could trace the words with a finger. He called that the “fine print.” He was the only one I had asked for advice about joining the army, and he had told me again and again to make sure that everything I wanted was written down, to never trust a recruiter, and to enjoy all the pussy I could now, because after I signed the contract I’d go to Fort Bragg, home of 45,000 soldiers, where, according to Sarge, “Even fat women can be choosey.” It was home to America’s 18th Airborne Command, the 82nd, Special Forces, and Delta Force; and only one small town nearby, where extremely satisfied young ladies didn’t suffer the insecurities of high school girls vying for attention.
Sarge finished reading the fine print, and said, “Man, you’re giving up $200/month. Not many of you young men do that.” Most of the seniors I knew at Belaire last year choose the sign-on bonus instead of the college fund, accepting a thousand dollars now instead of giving $100/month, much less another $100 for savings bonds. But, they didn’t have Granny teaching them about retirement savings and what she called “delayed gratification” towards more freedom than I could imagine at 16. They didn’t understand what a 3,000% rate of return was.
“What you gonna study in college? You could use that head of yours to do anything you want.”
I told him I wasn’t sure. I didn’t really understand what college was. No one in my family had even graduated high school, much less gone to college. All of my teachers had college degrees, I assumed, but none of them inspired me to be like them. In fact, they were all pudgy, except for Mr. Vaughn, and they seemed tired or grumpy all the time. And they were hypocrites, suspending kids for smoking when I could smell cigarettes on their clothes every morning. They were uninspiring.
Bill had gone to college, but I hadn’t seen in in the years since my dad was arrested. Wendy’s boyfriend, Mike, had gone to college. He was even valadictorian, which I knew about because even Belaire had a valadictorian and saladictorian. They were the smartest kids, and, like Mike, were nice but uninteresting. Like Mr. Samuels. People like Sarge were fun. The only person I knew who was fun and had a college degree was Dr. Z, and he told me that he went to school for 12 years to become a doctor, and I couldn’t imagine that because I had only just begun the 12th grade and couldn’t imagine repeating a lifetime of school. I told Sarge that saying I’d go to college felt right, even though I didn’t know much about it.
“Man, you’ll do fine,” he said, his tone shifting to imply he wasn’t talking about college any more. “I’ve seen you at practice. Basic training won’t be nothin’ for you. But wait until you get to the 82nd and do your first jump. Man! It ain’t nothin’ like they show you on TV or that pussy shit in Airborne School. You’ll be crammed inside a C-130 with 80 pounds of guns and ammo strapped to your ass, and 64 ‘troopers on a one way trip anxious to shove your ass out the door at 4AM when everyone’s tired and cramped and airsick and wanting to do anything to get out of that bird. No one’s slow ass will make them wait on getting out!”
He laughed hard and shook his head, then said, “And forget that 1,250 foot jump in Airborne school. Ha! We jumped from 800 feet in training, and 450 feet in combat. Barely enough time for your ‘chute to open. It takes 250 feet before your ‘chute opens. And when it does… Man! It yanks your balls so hard that you’ll wish you were back in high school playing with ‘em gently. Then it takes 200 feet to slow down enough to not break your leg when you hit the ground and roll into the fall. But fallin’ fast is a good thing when enemy’s shootin’ at you in the air. Man! You’ll wish you were fallin’ faster when those bullets start flyin’ by your head! But you’ll still be glad you’re outta that bird.”
I didn’t understand most of what he said, but I was caught up in his excitement. His hands were flying as he talked and his eyes were on me, but his mind was in the past. He definitely enjoyed having an audience, probably the same way that I enjoyed talking about wrestling tournaments with anyone who would listen.When he finished talking about parachuting, we chatted about things I don’t recall until I asked him if he knew where Coach was. Sarge said probably the gym or the Driver’s Ed annex building. I thanked him, said goodbye, and went to the gym that was shared between the wrestling mats and the football weight room.
The gym was empty except for Coach unrolling the mats. His tiny, squat body somehow manuevering the unweildy mats out of summer storage and onto the gym floor. After a few months of storage the foam wanted to remain rolled up, and it usually took a few of us to flatten the three sections so they formed a smooth mat. I called out and Coach stood upright – at least as much as Coach could stand upright, because he had a perpetual hunched appearance – and he smiled and said, “Magik! Good to see you!” He waddled towards me and extended his hand, and I reached out and and shook it and he clasped my forearm with his left hand and held it there and asked me if I was ready for school. I said yes, and that I was going to register for classes later that day, that I had missed registration when I was caring for Uncle Bob.
“Good,” he said, still holding my hand and gazing intently up into my eyes. “One thing, Magik. You’re co-captain now. I expect you to earn a B average this year.” I said OK without hesitating or thinking what that would mean. Coach had never told anyone what to do, only that he expected something from someone and it was never something they couldn’t accomplish with focus.
Louisiana required at least a C- or better to compete in sports, and I had ended the 1988-89 season with a 1.89/4.00, barely a C-. I had failed geometry and chemistry for the second time each, but had made A’s in theater, public speaking, and civics; American politics came easily to me, and the teacher for theater and public speaking, Miss Tichelai, allowed me to perform magic and build special effects for shows in theater class, and allowed me to analyze and discuss heavy metal music lyrics in public speaking class instead of the traditional books and poems most kids discussed. I had a D average for high school overall because I had failed most of my classes my 9th grade year, but Louisiana rules only applied one semester at a time.
Coach heard me say OK and kept his gaze fixed on mine for a moment to ensure we had communicated, then released my hand and patted my arm and told me Mr. Vaughn was in the principals office and could arrange my schedule. I thanked him, and reminded him that he had said I could open up practice before school began. He said he had a stack of paperwork for me in his office, that he had arranged for Belaire to be a summer training camp with insurance from Louisiana’s office of USA Wrestling that allowed kids to participate from any school if they signed a waiver. I had taken some time at the end of 1989’s season to visit 8th graders and recruit a young team and they said they’d come to practice beginning in August, and I had called a few of Belaire’s older wrestlers had they agreed to meet early and practice at least twice a week until practice officially began in late October to early November. Before then, practice began when football season ended in either October or November, depending how successfully they competed, and Coach was free to focus on wrestling.
We entered the annex and Coach asked me to wait. He fumbled around for something on his desk, and I smiled because I knew what was about to happen.
“Hey Magik,” he said in his raspy voice, smiling so mischieviously that anyone watching would know he was up to something. “Watch this…”
His left hand came up, palm towards me, with a business card back-palmed and poking from between his thick stubby fingers. He smiled a sly smirk, his light grey eyes twinkled, and he snapped the card into existence. Poorly. Like every other time. And I loved it, like every other time.
I took his card and saw that it still said “Dale Ketelsen, Driver’s Education Teacher, Belaire High School.” I never asked why he didn’t add wrestling coach and assistant football coach, and he never asked about my home life. That’s probably part of why I felt so comfortable around Coach.
When he stopped chuckling and was paying attention, I made his card disappear. He laughed, patted my upper arm, and repeated that it was good to see me. I had grown to like hearing that: someone was happy to see me. I felt good whenever he said it and he said it often for many people and meant it every time. He handed me the waivers for Belaire’s summer wrestling camp and I tucked them inside my backpack.
Coach told me, “I’ll be dropping off some mat cleaner at a few schools. After you see Mr. Vaughn, you can join if you’d like.”
I said yes and trotted off to the principal’s office.
Coach Vaughn was a track coach until he became vice-principal, similar to how my Uncle Joe had been Zachary’s football coach until becoming principal. I felt that coaches made the most effective leaders because they facilitated excellence rather than told people what to do, and Mr. Vaughn exemplified the role of facilitator. He had suspended me three years before because he was fair and consistent with everyone, but he had never spoke harshly to me or criticized me, even when I repeated mistakes a few times. He remembered my name, which was challenging with 300 kids per grade. But, like everyone else, he called me Magik, though he liked referencing my name with regard to Jason and the Argonauts from Greek Mythology. They were a ship of the world’s first super heroes, and their captain, Jason, had led young heroes that were unknown then but would become famous, like the legendary Hercules. It was a classic hero’s journey, and Jason faced many challenges to find the Golden Fleece and claim his right as king, and along the way his crew gained the skills that would one day make them famous. He said I was learning from Coach and making a fine Jason. I told him Jason got hit on the head by a board from his ship and died, but I hoped to do better and that I preferred stories about Hercules, who wrestled Antaeus, the son of Poseiden, the Lord of the Sea, and Gaea, Mother Earth; Antaeus challenged all passerbyers to wrestle, and he gained strength from touching Mother Earth but Hercules defeated him by, as Coach suggested, removing Antaeus from his base and therefore able to manipulate him.
“Well, hello Magik!” he said when I walked into the main office. I said hello and we chatted a bit about mythology.
“How do you know so much about ancient Greek but keep failing classes?” he asked, rhetorically. We had had that conversation many times over the years. I didn’t know what to say. Some things interested me and some things didn’t, and nothing required of me had ever interested me. I had inherited some of my dad’s resistance to authority, but I enjoyed wrestling enough to do the bare minimum. Besides, most of school was regurgitating whatever a teacher said, and I had a good memory and had even studied memory techniques from Harry Lorayne’s books on magic and memorization methods. But I never had a need for geometry or chemistry and disliked how the teachers led their classes and found ways to miss class often.
I shrugged and said I wanted to register for senior classes, and he said he had already done it and asked the secretary to pull my schedule out of her filing cabinet. I glanced at it, and saw he had been generous; I was in mostly easy classes, except for geometry and chemistry. I’d take Miss Tichelai again, which was sure to be an A, and woodshop, which unequivocably would be an A because I had learned so much from my dad. But as I stared at my easy schedule, I felt something stir deep inside me and motivate me to ask Mr. Vaughn to change my schedule. I said I’d like to swap theater III and woodshop for physics and calculus. It seemed like the type of challenge a co-captain and soon to be paratrooper would rise up.
“Physics and calculus?” He paused and looked at me for a few moments to see if I was joking. “You know, geometry and chemistry are prerequisites.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I had surprised myself with the request, and for a brief moment I almost recended it and accepted the easier schedule. But suddenly I found myself reaching into my backpack and handing Mr. Vaughn my emancipation paperwork and army contract, and as he read it I spoke freely and almost incoherently about being an adult and able to make my own decisions and, as much as I hated rephrasing the army marketing line, I said I wanted to be all I could be.
The line was corny, but the sentiment was truthful, and Mr. Vaughn must have sensed that. He reread my contract and asked about the college fund and I told him my logic and he stared at me silently for a few moments, then asked the secretary to change my schedule and swap Theater III and Woodshop for Physics and Calculus. He told me I’d need the ACT test for college – the Academic and handed me a study guide from a bookshelf in the office. It was a test most seniors took in the spring consisting of a 35-minute reading test, 45-minute English test, 60-minute math section and 35-minute science test. Your ACT score plus your grade point average determined which colleges would accept you. I had used a similar book to prepare for the army’s ASVAB test and, to my surprise, had scored the maximum score; the recruiter had even asked if I wanted to join something other than infantry, because a perfect score on the ASVAB would let me enter any vocational program in the army. That’s when I first began considering everything as a challenge, and probably why I spoke up when I saw the schedule made for me based on how I had been before spending the summer with Uncle Bob. I accepted the ACT study guide and went back to the annex to ride with Coach.
We loaded fungicide and mops and a big bag of headgear into the back of Coach’s Ford and drove down the River Road towards New Orleans, stopping at rural schools deeper into Cajun country, with names like LaPlace, Welcome, Donaldsonville, and St. James. At every school, Coach shook hands with everyone he met the same way he shook my hand and told them he was happy to see them, and he meant it every time. We wouldn’t linger, and sometimes kids helped us unload, but mostly coaches were by themselves preparing for their semester and were happy to see Coach and receive supplies that their school didn’t have budget for.
Our last stop was in Baton Rouge at Capitol High School, near the state capitol building and where Sonny the drug dealer had lived. Their coach was a massive man without experience wrestling, but he was an exceptional facilitator and took his team to wrestling camps and had a large and supportive group of alumni wrestlers who came after school to help the team. Coach shook his hand, which was massive by comparison, and said he was happy to see him.
We unloaded the supplies, and Capitol’s coach asked me which weight class I’d be that year. I said 145 pounds, and he chuckled and wished me luck, saying that Hillary had gained muscle over the summer and would be wrestling 145. Hillary Clinton was Capitol’s captain and a three time state champion who placed in national tournaments every summer. I had never been in his weight class, but I had been beaten badly by him a few times when either of us went up or down a weight class at a tournament, sometimes only to balance out the points for our team when we were shy of some classes. But I didn’t think much of it, and hopped back in Coach’s truck and soon we were flying down I-10 back towards Belaire.
I held my hand outside the window like an airplane wing and watched my hand fly up and down depending on the angle I held it. My mind was wandering, and I turned to Coach and asked, “Coach, why didn’t you compete in the olympics again? Everyone says you could have earned a gold, and the only reason you didn’t was because you were paired against Doug Blubaugh.” I had learned from other coaches that Doug had beaten Coach and Coach was knocked down to the loser’s bracket and eventually won third place. Doug had beaten him by one point and went on to win first and then to pin all of his opponents in the 1960 Rome Olympics and earn a gold medal.
“Well,” Coach began. He never answered questions concisely. He remained silent and focused on driving down the I-10 offramp. He stopped at the red light and held up one hand with a finger pointed upwards, a sign that he was about to share something personal.
“You see, I had wrestled four years in college by then.” The light turned green and Coach placed both hands on the disproportionately large steering wheel and slowly turned left onto Airline Blvd. He brought the truck up to speed limit, then gestured with his hand again.
“When Doug beat me, I was upset.” He returned both hands to the wheel and thought about what to say next. “But Doug came into the locker room and saw I was upset and said to me, ‘Someone has to win third, and it might as well be you.”
Coach drove in silence for a few moments, and I began to think that was all there was to his answer. He was known for ambiguous or esoteric answers. But he continued.
“I relized he was right, and I went out there and did my best and won third.” First and second compete, and third trains with them and joins the team as an alternate in case one of the team members gets sick or disqualified.
We came upon another red light and Coach stopped and looked at me. “After Rome, I returned home to Pat and we were expecting Craig.” The light turned green and Coach focused on turning onto Florida Blvd and then said, “And I figured I had done my best at every step, and now it was time to be the best husband and father I could be.” He flicked his signal and peered at his rear view mirror until it was safe to change lanes. “So I focused on that and got a job coaching.”
He paused in a way that meant he had nothing more to say about the matter. I thought about what he said and didn’t quite see his logic, and I asked, “What about coaching another school after LSU disbanded?”
“Well,” he began, and over the course of a very long time he explained that after his kids reached a certain age, he and Pat focused on them and they were most important to him. And by then he was a deacon at his church and had grown to appreciate Baton Rouge, and he was supporting both now, especially by growing the Louisiana kid’s wrestling community via Louisiana’s chapter of USA Wrestling. He felt satisfied and had no regrets.
“Besides,” he said with a smirk. “If I had left Baton Rouge, I wouldn’t have met Louisiana’s most famous magician.” He smiled and winked at me. He was referring to a series of newspaper articles about me and magic, including a Sunday full-color edition focused on me and the shows I had performed for kids at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital while Uncle Bob was there, and the kids at Parkland Mental Hospital when Debbie was there. Few people read the newspaper, even back then, and I was happy whenever someone commented on my brief moments of fame. I sat silently, playing with my hand and the wind, and Coach focused on navigating past the cheap apartments on Florida Blvd and through Belaire subdivision, and e parked his big Ford next to my tiny Fiero and we said our goodbyes. I walked away reflecting on how Coach and Uncle Bob both lived lives without regrets, and that felt better than any career or life advice I had ever heard from anyone else. I felt that something special was happening.
In late December, I won second place in Belaire’s Christmas tournament. Coach hosted the Thanksgiving and Christmas tournaments, a tradition he had picked up from his high school coach in Iowa who liked to ensure that kids without holiday plans still had something fun to do in their community. The tournaments were sparsely attended and the Capitol lion and were an opportunity for me to increase my seeding in bigger tournaments.
I almost always met Hillary Clinton or Frank Johnson in the first bracket of bigger tournaments. Hillary had already defeated both Frank and me six or seven times that year. He pinned me every time, yet Frank had scored against Hillary a few times and had even lasted a full three rounds for a total of six minutes against him, which was rare in Louisiana. Hillary pinned most opponents. Because Frank did a bit better against Hillary, the coach’s usually seeded me so that I wrestled Hillary in the semi finals and Frank didn’t see him until finals. Ocassionally, Frank and I would meet in tournaments where Hillary wasn’t around, and we were evenly matched and usually defeated each other by only a point or two after three full rounds.
But, I was getting better. I had consistently beaten Frank twice in a row, and even lasted six minutes against Hillary once. I had placed second and third in a few small tournaments, and had even won surprise victories against a few guys who had won regional and state titles over the years.
After the Christmas tournament, I used a copy of Coach’s key to enter the wrestling gym and work out over the Christmas break. I had made at a Vietnamese general near school known to ignore school keys engraved “do not copy” and was too young to realize that I would have broken Coach’s trust had he known. I jumped rope, lifted weights, and practiced shooting across the mat and throwing the weighted throw dummies and bridging and rolling away from someone trying to pin me. I hadn’t been pinned since our dual meet with Capitol, and I spent extra time strengthening my neck with a weight machine and practicing arching onto my head and rolling imaginary opponents off me and onto their backs.
After practice, I sat in Doc’s office and carefully cut the training tape away from my fingers and knees and sat back in one of the coach’s chairs and turned on the giant television and relaxed for a while. I can’t recall what was on television, but the set only picked up three channels of mainstream broadcasting, so it was probably a popular Christmas special that played every year, like the claymation Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and a bunch of elves helping him, or the real life A Christmas Story about a kid who everyone said would shoot his eye out with a BB gun. Whichever it was, I was only half paying attention when the news interrupted and began showing live images of the 82nd Airborne invading Panama and capturing President Noriega, citing Ronald Reagan’s continued War on Drugs. I leaned forward and listened.
On December 20th, 1989, the 82nd Airborne’s Quick Reactionary Team was on two-hour notice as usual when President George Bush Senior, who had been Reagan’s vice president, called for an invasion of Panama to capture Noriega, claiming he was working with drug cartels and charging him with racketeering and drug trafficking.
The invasion was called Operation Just Cause and involved almost 30,000 U.S. troops and led by units of the 82nd Airborne Division who parachuted into Panama under fire from Noriega’s 16,000 soldiers. The United States sent over 300 aircraft, including C-130 Hercules, an older prop driven airplane that carried some of the paratroopers, a few AC-130 Specter Gunships, Hercules packed with an arsenal of heavy machine guns and even a 105 mm Howitzer artillery cannon that could be fired at the ground in mid-flight thanks to an elaborate system of springs and pulleys, several of the newer C-141 Starlifter jets that carried more paratroopers than the C-130, and even a few C-5 Galaxies, the world’s largest aircraft unless you counted the two experimental Russian Condors. The C-5’s carried belly fulls of tanks and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and a new type of jeep no one had seen before and Panama was it’s introduction to America, the AH-64 HMMWV, pronounced HumVee. Panama’s soldiers fired upon the airplanes flying overhead and our paratroopers as they fell from the sky from 400 to 800 feet above. Survivors landed and assembled and overwhelmed the Panamanians guarding their airport, and American planes began landing with tanks and helicopters and an overwhelming amount of firepower, and within 24 hours America had overthrown Panama. But, Noriega had retreated to his compound and was being circled by the 82nd, who planed to wait him out and capture him alive.
I watched the news for a while, and when they resumed regular programming I leaned back and sat quietly with a calm mind, unsure how I felt or what to think.
The invasion dominated news and conversations over the next few days, and I had many opportunities to ponder my future. I felt I’d like the 82nd. They were showcased by the news and interviewed by reporters, and everyone kept showing videos of them surrounding Noriega’s compound and not firing upon it with a Specter gunship or with any of the .50 caliber machine guns on their HumVees. Instead, they were trying to get him to surrender by surround his compound with massive speakers and amplifiers flown in from America and landed on the captured airport, and they blared Hard Rock and Heavy Metal at him 24 hours a day, depriving him and his guards of sleep and introducing mainstream America to Van Halen’s 1984 album and it’s prophetic songs, “Jump!” and “Panama.”
They blared those songs night and day, and though no one ever said so, I’m pretty sure Noriega learned those lyrics very well, perhaps on a deeper level than even Leah and I could understand.
Leah loved seeing it all on the news, and though she had strong opinions against the government’s “war machine,” as she called it, and all the weapons glorified on the news, and how that just made those company’s stock prices rise; she had been talking about a lot of things I didn’t understand ever since beginning college, and I was learning by observing how she was changing. I pondered college, briefly, but Leah adored the 82nd’s choice in music so much that she stopped talking politics and pulled out her old 1984 cassette so we could listen to the entire album and debate the merits of Van Halen before and after David Lee Roth had been replaced by Sammy Hagar as the singer on their recent 5150 album. Leah had stronger opinions about Van Halen post David Lee Roth than she did about the military war machine, but somehow I wasn’t listening much to her. I kept watching the news, probably more than any other high schooler and possibly more than adults who become immune or blind to the consequences of things they see in the news. Something was changing in me as I watched reporters interview 82nd paratroopers, and I began to realize that could be me one day.
I hadn’t been perfect, righteous, or even simply good since meeting Big Daddy. I still stole things and lied, though lying was usually a response to being asked personal questions about my family or how I did a magic trick and not planned as deceitful. But I had stolen things recently, an old habit from when I was first given my nickname, Magic Man, which had morphed into Magic Ian, a play on my middle name and magician, to Magik. At first, kids liked that I could steel things from stores using sleight of hand or the clothes I had modified to vanish tennis balls in my cups-and-balls routine. Then, I learned to make conterfit money using methods of making $1 bills look like $20’s by gluing two corners of a $20 onto a $1 with rubber cement, which remained flexible when dried, and leaving the bills in my pant pocket when washed. I had learned that part from one of my dad’s friend’s who conterfited money by “laundering it,” a joke and play on words for people who stole money, but in his case he put fake money in a washing machine to make the texture more like real money, and if a bill didn’t feel unusual and had an obvious $20 corner, I had never met someone who looked for Andrew Jackson’s face on the $20 and realized it was George Washington’s face in the worn out bill they held. I had been caught, but, like Big Daddy had taught me, I had remained calm and smiled and talked my way out of trouble every time. Now, watching reporters interview young men and celebrate them as heroes, I wondered what the world would feel if one of those heros had stolen and conterfited money. I remembered meeting Big Daddy and wanting to be a better person, and I recalled how I felt when the team elected me co-captain, and I felt that I would let the team down and represent Coach poorly if anyone knew about my discretions, and I imagined that if I continued becoming a better person I, too, could one day be interviewed on international news about what it’s like to lead a team into battle.
I began to train harder, and skipped a few meals rather than buy lunch with conterfit bills. I was barely eating, anyway, because I had grown a bit and struggled to keep my weight at 145 pounds, but after tournaments the team usually splurged on a big meal to celebrate and I’d pay for mine with stolen money. For the next few weeks, I skipped those meals and said I was growing and cutting weight and wouldn’t eat, which turned out to be true.
I was growing, and I stopped lifting weights so I wouldn’t add any more muscle. A new USA Wrestling rule added two pounds to spring weight classes to account for growing young men, so I had some leeway, but I still couldn’t make weight without fasting for at least a day and working out in a rubber suit to sweat out a few pounds before weighing in. I felt it was a lot like Vision Quest, and the focus on wrestling Hillary Clinton kept me from focusing on hunger pains, and when I was too exhausted to train more and could be tempted to eat, I turned to my math and science books as I tried to keep my grades up.
March approached, and the Baton Rouge City Tournament was two weeks away. It was larger than the regional tournament because regionals split schools into different divisions based on student population, trying to give smaller, rural schools a competitive advantage among each other, but the city tournament included all of the schools and was more prestigious and more physically challenging because the brackets were so filled that we’d wrestle many more times than in smaller tournaments or even the filtered state tournament.
I was overweight by four pounds, even with the two pound allowance. I stopped eating and trained harder, using my key to stay late and drill moves on the mat every evening and jogging to school every morning and working out for an hour before my first period class. My grades had dropped, but I was still at the B average Coach requested, and Leah tutored me whenever she came home from Southeastern; which, unfortunately, was less and less often as she developed friends in college. I didn’t dwell on it much because I was focused on Hillary Clinton and my physics exams; I maintained an A in physics, and was surprised to realize I enjoyed the subject and the type of kids who volunteered to take physics. It wasn’t a mandatory class, and kids who volunteered for it seemed more focused. I imagined that’s what it would be like for the Airborne, because the Airborne was also voluntary and I assumed filled with people wanting to be the best they could be. Every day, I trained to match Hillary and studied to understand parabolic motion of projectiles, like the teacher’s examples of calculating the landing spot of bullets and artillery shells, or the fastest speed you’d reach if you fell out of an airplane at 10,000 feet. I began to see that physics could be a useful thing to understand in the 82nd Airborne, and it was something to focus on other than feeling hungry.
When physics failed me and I felt overwhelmed by hunger, I’d go for a long run wearing my headset and listening to a cassette mix tape Leah had made for me with upbeat rhthyms meant to inspire a faster cadence in my runs, a way to focus on something other than the pain in my legs or the desire to stop and gasp for air. When that failed, I’d play a cassette I had bought myself but hadn’t shared why with anyone, the theme music for Vision Quest. I had learned that when all else failed, whenever Red Rider’s “Lunatic Fringe” began to play I could see the wrestler in Vision Quest quickening his running pace to that song in the film, and I could hear his teammates telling him he was challenging Shute because he was on a quest to see his place in The Universe, and I secretly felt that perhaps I was, too. There’s no punch line here: I was a 17 year old legal adult with a lot going on and a feeling of loss who was preparing for war, and the only thing I found to not focus on unpleasant feelings was focusing on Vision Quest and preparing to wrestle Hillary Clinton.
My focus became contagious, and groups of kids who had waited in the common area for me to perform magic shows at lunch began showing up after practice to wish me well, and football players at spring practice began helping me train. The wrestling team was wonderful at helping each other focus on techniques, and they rallied and helped me improve nuances on my offense and defense, but no one on our team was as strong as Hillary therefore no one could test me in his signature move: a standing throw from a bear hug. The football players relished in showcasing their strength, and Clint had seen Hillary throw me and others with the bear hug and could replicate the move well. He threw me again and again and challenged me to stop him. When he grew tired, Dana would take over, though Dana was much nicer. They alternated back and forth when tired, and a few wrestlers took turns with low ankle shots to keep me alert and always ready to sprawl, and head to ankle picks that were my Achille’s Heal against several other strong opponents who always scored against me with it. They never let me rest, a version of King of the Hill we played at practice where the winner stays in the center, but they made me stay in even when I kept loosing.
I finally asked Coach for help. The obvious answer was “not to be a headhunter,” a term Coach used to point out that too many wrestlers lock heads because they aren’t good on their feet, and to get better on our feet was always his answer. But, I wanted help overcoming a bear hug however it happened, and I could overcome anyone on our team but not someone unfathomably stronger. Coach stayed after practice and watched Clint bear hug on me. He paused us when I was trying to get my arms under Clint’s and break his bear hug. Coach pointed to my big hands and knobby knuckles, and told me to rotate them inward, between my chest and Clint’s, and Clint shrieked in pain as my knuckles raked across his chest and the gap allowed my hands inside and I clasped hands and trapped Clint’s arms.
“Now walk under him!” Coach said, simplistically. I had learned to at least try before saying I didn’t understand, and I began awkwardly walking under Clint and arching backward, like walking under a limbo stick. To everyone’s surprise, my weight trapped even big strong Clint’s feet against the mat, and he was so shocked that he kept laughing as I kept walking, and eventually he was off balance and I easily flipped him and held on to my clasped hands and pinned him.
Coach nodded, satisfied, and waddled away to go home for the evening. The football and wrestling teams stayed and kept me practicing, but none of them threw me in a bear hug again. I had gained a superpower. Everyone left, but I stayed and relaxed against the mat and listened to the Vision Quest soundtrack until I fell asleep on the mat and slept peacefully until morning.
“Hey Siri, play “Luntatic Fringe, by Red Rider,” I said, somewhat towards where I thought my phone could be, and a few moments later we were playing the air drum together. I had won.
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