Coach started picking me up and driving to New Orleans to train with Catholic wrestling teams by 8am the summer vacation before my senior year. They won because they trained all summer and we didn’t, the same way kids who read over the summer get ahead of those who can’t. The New Orleans Catholic schools had money for summer programs and we didn’t; they had brothers who volunteered to push wrestlers all summer long and we didn’t. But I had Coach, and I felt like the luckiest kid in the world the summer after Uncle Bob died.
I’d wake up at Mrs. Abrams by 5am, and jog two miles to Belaire High’s gym parking lot. Coach would show up in his old Ford pickup truck, usually with wrestling matts or other gym gear in the back. I’d crawl into his truck, and he’d always say, “Good morning, Magik. How are you?” We’d check in with each other, and ride in silence unless something was worth talking about that day.
Coach drove the speed limit, and we didn’t talk on the hour and a half drive that took less than an hour when friends drove me. We passed over dozens of miles of swamps, and I stared at them in the clarity of morning sunlight, when egrets walked among aligators, and ducks sat in calm waters. I had never noticed how beautiful Louisiana was until that summer. I was 16 years old, but a legal adult. I was emancipated after Uncle Bob died. Not even Coach knew that, because it wasn’t worth talking about.
I was focusing on beating Hillary Clinton, the returning state champion at 145 pounds, and how to lead our team. They had voted me team captain for 1989-1990. Hillary and I would graduate in 1990. He had been beating me since I began wrestling a year and a half before. I lost all matches in the 10th grade, but was voted both “Most Improved” and “Captain” in the 11th because of how Coach coached.
He would drive me to New Orleans and wait for me to be beaten up for four hours, then we’d drive back along Interstate 10 to Baton Rouge. We’d take our time getting home, and he’d drive down small roads I had never noticed, and deliver gym supplies to small schools I had made jokes about before that summer. Like most kids in a poor school, I had tried to make myself feel less poor than the Catholic schools and their summer programs by laughing at those beneath us. I spent that summer delivering supplies to their coaches.
I learned from them that Coach had been a U.S. marine, and a national champion wrestler. He was U.S. olympic team, and that under his coaching LSU wrestling rose to 4th in the nation, even beating the famous Iowa wrestlers.
He had been assistant coach at that famous team before LSU asked him to lead, and he moved his family to Baton Rouge. By the time LSU closed their program, his sons were in high school and his daughter was a young girl with friends at her school. He took a job at Belaire High School, where I had met him as our Driver’s Education teacher, assistant football coach, and head coach of the newly formed wrestling program for which he did not get paid.
Before that summer, all I had known about Coach was that he been a deacon at his church for almost twenty years, and that Mrs. Ketelsen liked to hug me, and that their daughter, Penny, was gorgeous, and that I felt she was out of my league. His sons said he loved three things: Family, God, and Wrestling.
I was surprised when the team voted me as captain. I hadn’t even voted for myself when we were asked to list our top three choices. Neither had the returning captain. If Coach was surprised he didn’t show it. When we were alone, he asked the only thing not in the USA Wrestling rule book that he had ever asked of me: earn higher grades than the minimum required by state law for high school athletes
The state required a C average the semester you competed. I maintained a C averge, like most athletes on school sports teams, and had for the 11th and 10th grades. They would bring my 9th grade F average up to a D, and allow me to graduate. Coach asked me to earn a B in all classes, not just a B average, and I said I would without saying anything else. We never spoke of it again. Mrs. Abrams helped me with the English parts that had always frustrated me before, and one of my math teachers, Mr. Bosier, stayed after school and helped with math. For some reason, physics came naturally to me; it was nothing more than applying math to hands-on things I did all the time.
I had straight A’s on my first report card, but lost to Hillary Clinton another four times by midterms. But he hadn’t pinned me, and I was getting better. We had another two months or weekend tournaments and midweek dual meets before the state finals. The team helped me train an extra 30 minutes before practice began, and worked with me as long as we could keep moving or until the school shut down all lights.
We competed as individuals, but individuals contributed to team scores. We wanted a high team score, too. Several of the guys who helped me train for Hillary had their own goals and stories. Helping anyone helped everyone. Coach facilitated our teamwork. I was entrusted with a key to the gym, and wore a jacket that represented my team even when I wasn’t at school. I began behaving differently outside of school, and narrowed the difference between who I was and how I acted. It was easier to be consistent, like Coach.
I had met him when I was 14, a year after my dad had gone to prison. Wendy never took me to visit him, and I didn’t really think much about time passing because I had been used to alternating months at a time with different people since I was a baby. Foster kids see time and family differently than kids with consistency in their lives.
The football coaches yelled at their players to put up weights in the weight room next to the wrestling matts. Coach was rolling up matts with a few wrestlers who volunteered to help. I introduced myself as Magik and said I’d like to try out. He gave me the permission form and a list of nearby doctors who gave the mandatory physical exams. He said after he had those, I could just show up. There was no trying out. But if I wanted to compete, state law would require me to cut my hair.
I’m not proud of my haircut in the 1980’s. If you looked up boy’s hair styles from the 80’s and found the most awkward one, it was probably better than mine. I had spiked hair on top, and long hair in back. I cut it two weeks later, and was pinned by a young Hillary Clinton. My finger was broken, and my nose was bleeding. That was before the world knew about HIV and aides, and they had let us finish wrestling with my blood on the mat. My finger hurt, and I couldn’t breathe with blood piling in my throat and Hillary folding my arm over my nose as he arched his hips in the air and applied pressure to my face. I pinned myself so that the pain would stop and I’d breathe again. My first match had lasted forty two seconds.
Granny was sober enough to pick me up and take me to a doctor. Wendy’s health insurance paid for the visit, my cauterized nose, and the x-ray of a thin fracture midway along the third finger of my left hand. I taped it and wrestled again the next week; the first thing that opponent did was grab my taped fingers. It hurt. I began taping all fingers and both knees consistently, so no one could know if I was hurt or not.
I got better, and won many awards my 11th grade year, and was mentioned in the newspaper a few times. After the 11th grade state finals, I attended a junior olympic training camp, and was going to wrestle with the Louisiana state team in nationals when Uncle Bob’s cancer accelerated.
I stayed with him in the hospital while Auntie Lo was at home drunk, and I moved in their home to take care of him when the doctor’s said there was nothing more they could do. I stayed awake with him all night as Auntie Lo snored, and rolled him over to clean his bedsores and change his diaper as she drank during the day.
Granny would visit on Saturday mornings when her Wendy could drive her, and her chemotherapy hadn’t made her too sick to move. Otherwise, I was alone with Uncle Bob, and we spoke of many things in the month it took him to die. One of his coworkers visited us, and told me stories about what kind of man Uncle Bob had been in his 25 years of managing Bulk Stevedoring Company’s New Orleans branch. Another one made the hour drive and said the same thing. And another.
One of them walked outside with me while Auntie Lo made him a drink he had declined, and asked how I was doing. I told him I was tired. He limped, and told me about how he was fortunate to have had a knee replacement; it allowed him to keep doing things he loved in his old age. He couldn’t have afforded the surgery if he hadn’t been an honorably discharged World War II veteran, like my Uncle Bob had been.
Funny, I thought, Uncle Bob never talked about that. He never talked much about himself. He was always more interested in what I had to say. Until he knew he was dying. And had to be sober for the first time since returning from the war – the cancer wouldn’t allow his body to eat or drink anything any more, and he chose to stop getting morphine when he saw me taking care of Auntie Lo for him so that he could be awake enough to keep me company at night.
He died. I gave his eulogy. A week later I walked in to the recruiter’s office as a 16 year old adult and told the recruiter what was going to happen. I was going to join the army, and wanted the 82nd Airborne in my contract.
My school’s security officer fought with them in the Vietnam War, and he hadn’t told us after catching us smoking with other long-haired boys and girls when we were supposed to be in class – he was cool to us for years, and said he learned to be cool in the 82nd Airborne, told me stories about them. I went to the library and read more about the 82nd, and the different branches of the U.S. military, and what they had to offer.
I didn’t tell the recruiter that part, but I told him I wanted the college fund, and that I already knew they’d take $100 a month out of my paycheck each month because of that, but that I’d get an extra $110 a month as hazardous duty pay in the 82nd.
And I told him I wanted to leave for basic training after summer vacation, so that I could wrestle in junior olympics after high school and take a couple of months to see the rest of America. I said I knew I had to prove I could do 10 push ups before being allowed to sign anything, and I offered to do them one handed, if he wanted me to. He said that wouldn’t be necessary, and I asked him if he were sure. He was. I was disappointed, but I regained my enthusiasm as I said I knew I had to take the ASVAB test but that I took a practice test at my school’s guidance counselor’s office and did fine.
He asked how old I was. I told him. He said I couldn’t join the army until I was 18, unless I was 17 and my parents were there. I showed him the paperwork that said I was emancipated. It had Wendy’s signature, and because we hadn’t heard from my dad in almost a year a judge signed it, too. The state of Louisiana said I was an adult.
He had seen emancipation paperwork before, and had no more questions. 30 minutes later I was scheduled for the ASVAB test. Two days later I was enlisted in the army’s delayed entry program, and scheduled to begin basic training three months after graduating high school, in the fall, after my friends would be gone to college.
I began my senior year of high school a week later, and resumed training to wrestle Hillary Clinton. I was also on the cross-country track team, but I only used that to encourage me to start training for wrestling sooner.
Coach gave me keys to the gym, and I opened it for anyone who wanted to train, and soon we had a preseason team, and opened our doors to anyone else who wanted to train.
Two months after wrestling season began, I wore a Belaire High Bengals letterman jacket with awards in track and wrestling. I added gold colored safety pins in groups of five, indicating I had pinned 36 opponents so far that year. Some guys on our team had more, and some guys were like I was my first year and had none yet.
I received straight A’s, spoke at school events, and was given “high fives” in the hallways by old and new friends. Hillary still beat me every time. He had even pinned me three times. He was good. He had won state championships the year before, and was captain of the Capital High Lions.
He was ranked first the state and seeded to win each tournament, which means he wrestled fewer matches than the lower seeded wrestlers. Fans didn’t want the best matches early, so the second seed was kept away from the first seed as long as possible. Anyone could win, they just had to fight through more people to get to the finals bracket. The year before, I would have wrestled seven or eight matches to meet Hillary after he had only wrestled three or four. As my rank increased, I was seeded higher, and wrestled fewer matches, too.
I alternated between being seeded 2nd and 3rd with Frank Jackson, who also lost to Hillary every time he progressed to the final match. Frank and I were so evenly matched that we had a 4-4 overall record, and our matches usually went into overtime. Whoever won overtime would advance to finals. We both lost every time.
Hillary was good. He had not wrestled at the Catholic summer camps either – the Capitol Lions were even more poor than the Belaire Bengals – but he wore a t-shirt that was common among the rich white Catholic kids that said:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The shirt wasn’t about wrestling, it was from a bible store near one of the Catholic high schools, and was a quote from the King James version of the bible. I remember that shirt clearly 40 years later, just like I remember my final match against Hillary in the Baton Rouge Civic center. I can remember that day as if it were happening now.
>>>work in progress
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