In November of 1989, the Belaire High School Bengals battled the Central High School Lions in the Lion’s Den, a nickname for their multisport gymnasium. They laid out their maroon colored mat between the basketball goals, and filled their side of the stadium seats with enthusiastic fans. Hillary was somewhat a local hero, an undefeated state champion and the Capitol Lion’s team captain. It was Wednesday afternoon, immediately after school, and only a few parents made it to either side because all but the stay at home mothers were working. Belaire’s bleachers were empty because most kids were in their own after school programs and wouldn’t drive through downtown to reach Capitol, especially because it was considered an unsafe neighborhood; but, for the first time in Belaire’s history, we had a team so big that we had a first string team, varsity, and a second string team, junior varsity, and our side of the bleachers had a respectable crowd. The Lions had a large team, too, and we had agreed to host junior varsity matches before the varsity teams met.
Jeremy and I walked into the center of the mat and met Hillary beside the referee. Everyone was used to us working as co-captains, so no one commented. The ref instructed us on fair play and sportsmanship and asked us to shake hands and Hillary briefly slapped both of our outstretched hands and went to his corner and we went to our and we all sat beside our coaches and supported our teams. For varsity, I had to leave coaches side early and warm up. I was wrestling at 145 pounds and Jeremy was at 140 pounds, and I always left the mat after the 126 pound match to warm up slowly with a jump roap, just like Matthew Modine did in Vision Quest. Because he was studying for med school, he was always reading science that helped him wrestle or understand his girlfriend’s body, and I had started doing the same, and by warming up slowly I was gradually transitioning my body to be more effective at accessing energy from the negligible fat I retained, and not creating lactic acid that would deplinish my strength should I last all six minutes with Hillary. After having wrestled six or seven matches per weekend the previous years, I had learned the value of maintaining long-term energy so that I could compete competitively in the third round of my third place loser finals, and I was hoping to eventually face off with Hillary in the finals. I jumped rope for about 10 to 20 minutes, gradually increasing my speed and the complexity of my arm motions, criss-crossing the rope and hoping on one foot a few times before skipping back an forth and working on my foot movement, like Rocky.
Hillary walked away after the 135 match and began his warm up ritual by putting on his hockey mask. Louisiana wrestling rules allow wearing a hockey mask to protect one’s face, especially after breaking a nose. I never learned why Hillary wore one, but it was his trademark. Only one other kid in the state had worn one, but he wasn’t very good and was rarely seen. But Hillary was always in the finals matches, and everyone knew who he was because of the hockey mask and his unmistakable fierce style of wrestling, full of high-arching throws he perfected during summer’s freestyle season, where aggressive throws are rewarded with more points. He warmed up by slapping his muscular arms to get blood flowing and pacing back and forth in his mask, getting acclimated to the altered breathing space; I had tried wearing one once, after Hillary broke my nose with a vicious cross-face and pinned me after I turned my head to avoid the pain, but I couldn’t see clearly from it and had trouble breathing and decided it wasn’t worth it. My experience led me to respect Hillary even more for remaining focused in a hockey mask. I watched him transition from slapping his arms to practicing throws against an invisible opponent, arching his back so that his head almost hit the ground before he rotated and slammed his opponent to the mat.
I kept skipping rope and smiled a bit, because some people had nicknamed Hillary Jason, after the horror movie Friday the 13th staring Jason in a hockey mask and machete, and they all missed the fact that my name was Jason. So many people called me Magik that even referees had taken to announcing me that way. A lot of kids of 1960’s parents had unusual names like Star or Moon, so everyone probably assumed my parents were hippies, which wasn’t far from the truth; Wendy had tried to make it to California to live freely, but returned to Baton Rouge and got an office job.
Jeremy pinned his opponent quickly, and I dropped my jumprope and took off my sweatshirt and put on my headgear and walked onto the mat and met Hillary. We shook hands – more of a slap than a shake – and planted our strong foot on our lines and squated down and stared into each other’s eyes and waited for the referee’s whistle. He blew it, and Hillary lunged and I fought my best but in the second round Hillary clasped his trademark bear hug around me and squeezed until I couldn’t breath and launched me through the air and pinned me as I fought for breath. I got up, the referee raised Hillary’s hand, and he and I went back to our corners and sat beside our coaches and supported our team for the rest of the dual meet.
I stayed awake that night reflecting on how I had wrestled, and I decided I wanted to beat Hillary Clinton my senior year of wrestling, before I left Louisiana for good. It would be just like Vision Quest, when the wrestler cut a dangerous amount of weight to wrestle the Washington’s undefeated state champion, Shute, as his challenge to overcome, like a Vision Quest, his Native American teammate had said. He wanted to test himself and discover his place in the Great Circle of The Universe. I fell asleep and woke up at 4am and went for a five mile run before school and began the next with a goal of beating Hillary Clinton before I left Louisiana and began my life in the army.
I arrived early and 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.” He was right. 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. College seemed like something that few people could do, and I wanted to take on all of the challenges I could since finally winning a few wrestling matches last year, and finishing the junior olympic training camp, which only a few wrestlers attended. I had discovered that I enjoyed challenges and trying what few people attempted, even if I rarely won.
What I didn’t tell Sarge was that I wanted to appreciate life without worrying about money. That had been Uncle Bob and Granny’s concern: money. They were both old, to me, but said that they hadn’t expected to die before 64, and hadn’t foreseen how hospital bills would eat away their life savings. That was the closest thing they had to regrets, and I didn’t want to have any. The army was a step towards not having regrets. It was way to pay for college, or a career, but mostly it was a one-way ticket out of Louisiana, literally. My contract included a bus trip from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and then on to Fort Benning, Georgia.
I’d have choices after the army. My choice would probably depend on if I could get on a college wrestling team then. If not, I could stay in the army, go to college for a job, or become a professional magician. I’d have my lifetime to use the college fund, if I wanted. If I didn’t, I’d loose the $1,200, but that didn’t seem like a big deal in the long run. Even after giving up $200/month, I’d still earn almost $400 before taxes, more than I earned working after school every day for a month. I figured I’d be rich enough from $400 a month to jump-start any career I wanted, especially with my food and housing paid for. I’d probably even have money enough left over to travel, like Wendy and Granny always said they wanted to. I’m not sure why I wanted to travel, but if other people complained about not being able to do something that they longed for, I’m sure I’d enjoy doing it. I’d probably even enjoy telling them how great it was.
Sarge and I chatted a bit about Belaire and sports, and I thanked him for helping me out over the years. I don’t know why I said it, but I was speaking from a deeper source and that must have been how I felt.
Over the years, Sarge had taken turns with me and wrestlers and track runners sharing our stories, and told us stories about serving in Vietnam with the army. I hadn’t realized he meant the 82nd until after I joined and recognized the patch on his right shoulder, the word Airborne arched across the top of a square patch with two A’s, AA for All Americans. He made it sound like his team of paratroopers was just like our team of wrestlers, people of all colors helping each other every day. But, instead of a coach they had a platoon sergeant. We asked Sarge if he had become a platoon sergeant, and he said yes, that he had become a first sergeant, which was like a platoon sergeant of the platoon sergeants, called the Top. He had retired, and worked at Belaire because he liked helping his neighborhood. And because he needed money for beer. Apparently, the 82nd liked to drink, and he said a joke at Fort Bragg was that the 82nd AA patch stood for Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Man, you’ll do fine. 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, the foam wanted to remain rolled up, and it usually took a few of us to flatten them. I called out. Coach stopped and stood upright, as much as Coach could stand upright, and he smiled and said, “Magik! Good to see you!” And he walked towards me, extending his hand, as I walked towards him.
His right hand found mine, and his left hand grasped my tricep, and he looked up at me, still smiling, and asked if I was ready for school. I said sure, and asked if I could help with the mats, and we spent the next half hour straightening them and mopping them with cleaner and fungicide. When we finished, he said he had some paperwork to do, but that I could come with him to the Driver’s Ed building to talk, if I wanted. I said sure, and followed him as he sauntered outside to the small building by the driver’s ed car, the one with two steering wheels. Ironically, I had never taken driver’s ed. Now that I could get a license, I thought I should learn to drive. But not from Coach. I’d rather focus on wrestling with him, especially because I wouldn’t see him much until season began.
We entered the annex, and Coach asked me to wait. He fumbled around for something on his desk, and 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.
I said I’d see him at practice that afternoon and said goodbye and went to class, and the next six weeks proceeded more or less the same.
In mid 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 jets that carried more paratroopers than the C-130, and even a few C-5’s, teh world’s largest aircraft unless you counted the two experimental Russian versions; it carried a belly full of tanks and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and a new type of jeep no one had seen before, the AH-64 HMMWV, pronounced HumVee. Panama’s soldiers fired upon our paratroopers as they fell quickly from the 400 to 800 foot drops, but the Panamanians were quickly overwhelmed once the American ground forces began to accumulate and regroup and attack. 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 and blaring 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.
Leah loved it, and pulled out her old 1984 cassette so we could listen to the entire album and reminiss about David Lee Roth, who had been replaced by Sammy Hagar for their recent 5150 album. Leah had strong opinions about that, 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 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.
Go to the Table of Contents