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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chapter 29-D The Conclusion of...

"There Was Magic in the Shoes"

Weigh-in was no problem. Ninety-seven pounds in uniform and shoes. Coach Nelson was not a talker, but he usually managed to find a few words for Dave’s kid brother.

“You ready for your first match, Tom?”

“I guess.”

“Are you nervous?” he added.

“A little.” I smiled.

“Then you’re ready. I’d be wondering about you if you weren’t nervous. I want you to make yourself at home on that mat. Go out there and stretch and warm up just like we did at practice. This kid doesn’t know you’re in junior high so for now just act like you’re on the team. Okay?”

“Okay.” I said, feeling a little better for the moment. It’s amazing what a few words from a coach can do for an insecure athlete. I was glad that he spoke. After all, this whole thing was his idea.

The East Detroit High School gym was much older than our school’s which had only been built two years before. Old gyms have a aura about them—faded pennants drape the dusty rafters in the far vast corners where the lighting is not good. Below is the warm wooden tone of varnished bleachers. (Ours were beige-painted metal.) In old gyms, there are small holes in the cement-block walls, painted over but still visible, that hint that little changes have come and gone through the decades. None of this mystique was present in our new, bright gym, and to me the history of the place alone seemed to give a home team advantage.

Dad was about halfway up the mostly empty bleachers of the visitors’ section. Had Mom been there she would have waved and called my name until I waved back. She had learned long ago not to wave at Dave, or at least to know he might raise and lower his eyebrows but never wave back in front of friends, but the pattern had not ended with me. (Come to think of it, it never stopped at any point of my life.) Dad, on the other hand, understood this was no time for a wave from the bleachers. He smiled, crossed his arms and nodded at me. I’d seen him do the same thing to Dave at each of his meets, and the unspoken message was clear: “Just do your best, Son. That’s all anyone can ask.”

As was true in the locker room, the areas of the mat were occupied in order of weight class. There was a loose group dynamic as we stretched out, but each man set his own pace. Neck bridges, shoulder rolls, and then the quick jump up to a stance, during which came the occasional glance across the center circle as we sized up our opponents who were going through the same motions.

Mine was easy to pick out. Like me, he was the smallest guy on his side of the mat, but unlike me, he had confidence or at least he had learned how to act like he had it. As he struck his stance, his head cocked slightly to the left then right as if in primitive thought like a raptor. He was not looking at me but at some invisible prey. For the first time, I felt funny in my patchwork shoes.

The opening formalities of introductions and the National Anthem are a blur. I knew only one thing: my weight-class went first and in a moment I would be stepping center mat.

A smattering of applause in the bleachers began as a scratchy record from an unseen niche in the gym cranked out the final notes “and the home of the brave.” But in that moment I did not feel brave. Coach sent me to the mat. I looked at Dave who sat a few seats down a row of folding chairs alongside the mat. He nodded as Dad had done.

The ref motioned for my opponent and I to shake hands then suddenly looked at me again and raised both hands in the air.

“Wait a minute! Coach, this man needs headgear.”

“Headgear?” I thought, “They forgot to give me headgear.”

Headgear is pair of padded ear-cups and a chin-cup held together by three leather straps. It’s meant to prevent cauliflower ear. I knew it was required in a match, but I had never worn it at practice and completely forgot about it. Evidently so had Dave. Coach laughed and began digging through a duffle bag beside his chair but his hand came up empty.

“We’re all out,” he said.

“The man must have on headgear, Coach,” he repeated.

The gym was silent, and then from the home crowd bleachers some wiseacre stood up and yelled, “Just put some Band-Aids on his ears.”

The whole gym laughed. Even my own team laughed, but I'd suddenly lost my taste for stand-up comedy. I just stood there and tried to remember how to laugh mid-mistake as I had in the locker-room. I could barely manage a smile.

Stosh took off his headgear and tossed it to Coach who tossed it to me in what felt like slow motion, but as my hand reached for the tangle of straps, it hit me in the chest and dropped to the ground. I picked it up. There is a front and back to headgear but it is hard to tell which is which. I pulled it on my head and the chin strap was aimed at the back of my neck. I took it off, turned it around and tried it again. The ear cups were a little too high and the chin guard was off to the side, and the two parts of the snap would not reach each other. Who’da guessed Stosh’s head was smaller than mine? I took it off again and started adjusting everything as best I could.

The crowd was getting restless. “Just give him some Band-Aids,” the voice said again, but this time only the home crowd laughed. My teammates were reading my eyes and sharing a small part of my frustration. I glanced at the crowd to see who said it, but saw Dad instead. His arms were no longer folded. His hands clung to the edge of the bleachers beside his spread knees. He was leaning forward, as if he wanted to take the mat himself, but when our eyes met, he just gave another confident nod, and I felt better.

The ref stepped forward and helped me adjust the chin strap. I put it on my head. The snaps met, but no matter how hard I pushed them against my temple they would not snap in place. I looked hopelessly at the ref, and he reached up and began working with the snap himself. I felt like I was five and Mom was bundling me up to go sledding.

If there had been any doubt that this was my first match, it was obvious to everyone now. Whatever confidence I had gathered during warm-ups was still in that corner of the mat. Finally the two metal buttons snapped in place.

“There you go, son,” he said with a pat on my head.

The bleachers clapped insincerely. My opponent laughed a little laugh as he took his place on the center circle. There I was in my raggedy shoes and baggy uniform, humiliated for what felt like an eternity, but the cocky smile of my opponent triggered something deep inside me. Band-Aids on his ears: the words were still ringing in my head when the ref said, “Ready? Wrestle!”.

Raptor Boy stepped toward me and struck his stance, head tilting at his prey. Two more steps toward me, stancing again then cocking his head the other way. He tapped the top of my head, an old diversionary trick that almost always means a two-legged takedown is coming—even I knew that. And sure enough, he shot for my legs.

The following events take much longer to describe than they took to accomplish. Pancake; arm-hooks, and flag. Let me explain: wrestling moves have names, not names you’d find in a book, but ones that wrestlers make up that come in and out of use through the years. I’ll start with the first: “pancake.” He had shot for my legs in an attempt to lift me up and throw me to the mat for a two-point take down, but I pancaked, sprawled my legs straight behind me far and wide pressing my upper-body weight on the shooter. But during this particular pancake, I sunk a deep under-arm hook on his left arm pit and an over-arm hook on his right, and in the same split second that we dropped to the mat, I spun him to his back, keeping both arm-hooks deep. This put his head at a right angle against the back of my right shoulder and pressed his chin was deep in the top of his own sternum.

I had him. My grip was good. Almost no time had passed so our bodies were not slippery from sweat, just clammy enough to make my coiled arms and squeezing fingers stick like glue. This pinning combination is sometimes called a “flag” because the top wrestle is in complete control like the flagpole while the other is perpendicular to him, like a flag flapping in the wind. He squirmed. He arched. He wriggled, but each move allowed me to sink my grip deeper and pull his shoulder blades closer to the mat.

The same ref who snapped my headgear seconds before was now on the mat, studying two shoulder blades just above it. Our entire bench was on its feet cheering. I heard Dad’s voice yell from the bleachers, “Stick him, Tom!”

Lifting my sprawled weight up to the toes of my raggedy shoes, I put all of my ninety-seven pounds behind the strength of my arms and pressed him further down. The ref was scampering back and forth, poking his hand in the crevice where the flag met the pole.

And then came the wonderful resounding slap of flesh against dense foam. Raptor Boy went limp. As I dropped him from my grip and sprang to my feet, he just looked up at the rafters in disbelief until the ref made him stand beside me as he raised my arm in the air. I’m not sure refs are supposed to smile at that moment, but this one did. My team was still cheering. Dave was jumping and yelling more than any of them. I’d never seen him so happy for me.

I heard someone yelling “Yippee! Yippee!” in the bleachers. It was Dad who was waving at me the way Mom would have waved. It was not like him but a wonderful sight. “Yippee! Yippee!” He repeated with unleashed joy, and I remember thinking at the time that yippee was a word from old movies—no one said yippee anymore, but Dad was saying it over and over, and I laughed and felt like a young Mickey Rooney character smiling in black-and-white. It’s a feeling every kid should experience once and tuck away for the times when life feels nothing like it.

“Thirty-seven seconds!” Stosh said, reaching for his head-gear.

“What?” I asked, yanking it from my head.

“Thirty-seven seconds! That’ll be the fasted pin all night I’ll bet.”

Dave patted me on the back. I turned around still smiling uncontrollably.

“Way to go, Tom.!” He said, “Way to put the moves on!” Coach was smiling, too, as he motioned us to our seats. “Way to go, Tom!” Dave said again, and his eyes meant it.

There is another wrestling term I should mention here: It's “reversal.” That’s when the underdog, the wrestler who is being controlled, suddenly out maneuvers the guy on top, completely reversing the advantage. It’s worth only two points, but it can change the outcome of everything. This match was over so quickly it did not include any two-point reversals, but the entire event was a reversal of a different sort. Dave was cheering for me. Me, the kid brother in junior high; me, his rug-burned living room sparring partner; the tag-along who could barely keep up with him on bike rides; the guilty runt who wanted to shovel the church sidewalks that day in December… Dave was cheering for me. It was a reversal of enormous proportions.

Through the rest of the meet, I cheered on the others as they had done for me, but I confess between matches, when no one was looking, I looked down at my patchwork shoes and smiled.

Epilogue: Dave took this picture in our living room the next day. I wish the shoes were in the picture.
The next year, when I was with Dave at Brablec High School, they dropped the wrestling program due to a millage vote that had not passed. As a senior Dave organized a Wrestling Club, and we did have one meet against who else? East Detroit. I faced a different opponent that time and won a close match 4 to 2, but it was nothing like my first win. When I finally hit my growth spurt after 11th grade, I outgrew the patchwork shoes and didn't see them for a decade or more. Little did I know that Mom had kept them in a box of my stuff. Then a few years later she moved the box to the attic of the house we will build in coming chapters. I found them a few months ago while preparing for the estate sale.

I still believe there is a kind of magic in the shoes. It had nothing to do with my two victories in '70 and '71 when I wore them. I'm talking about the magic of memory that they held for nearly forty years, the magic that lets a graying man pick up a pair of silly, raggedy shoes while cleaning out an attic and suddenly be taken so completely back in time.

(If you look closely in the background, you'll see the kitchen table Mom' burned in Chapter 24-A Her new Ethan Allen table was in the "dining room," which was simply the far end of the living room to the right of the where the picture ends.)
I have two unrelated but exciting updates I've been waiting to share with you, but I needed to finish this story. I'll post those updates Wednesday.

Then next week I'll continue the Unsettled story. We're going to skip forward a whole year. Paul will be gone to college, and Dave and I will be helping Dad with the preliminary stages of building the house. Chapter 30 is called: "First We'll Need Some Wood.")


Blogger the walking man said...

You're a better man than me Tom...couldn't have done all of this whole wrestling thing much less stood up to the ear protection moment. The anger would have simply suffused my being at that age.

19/7/09 4:47 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Hi, Mark,
I'm not saying I've never found my temper but it's not typical for me to lose it. This was as close to public humiliation as I've probably ever come, but I knew I could wrestle and had a good chance. It was not the first time I'd been "misunderestimated."

It was the accouterments of wrestling that I had no experience with. =)

Thanks for reading, Mark, and for taking the time to comment.

19/7/09 9:00 AM  

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