My freshman year of high school the wrestling team had no one to put in the 95-pound weight class. That meant at every meet the team would forfeit that match, giving the opposition five points for free, and an automatic advantage in the final score.
The coach at the time was a guy named Jack Curl. He was a big guy with short blond hair and an easy smile. In the fall he coached football. That’s where his heart was. He also taught gym, although “taught” somehow seems like the wrong word. “Moderated” or “presided over” or “benignly neglected” might be more accurate. I recall him walking around the gym holding a clipboard, blowing on a referee whistle he wore around his neck, yelling at kids. Winter semesters he coached wrestling, which as the phys ed guy he probably had to do. I don’t think he knew much about the sport. He referred to it as “wrastling.”
Activities in gym class corresponded roughly to the teams the school fielded in formal competition. In fall we played football in gym, always flag or touch football to minimize bloodshed. After football season came crab soccer (actual soccer has not been discovered yet in the Midwest) and badminton and tumbling (a primitive form of gymnastics). In the winter there was a lot of basketball in gym class, of course, which Coach Curl did not coach, and there was the unit on wrestling.
“I want you on the wrastling team,” he told me one day in gym class. I was spidering up the peg board. A lightweight, I was also good at rope-climb. “I need a 95 pounder,” he said.
It was the winter of 1967. I was learning to play the guitar. The group I had formed with three other guys had already played a few sock hops. We were capable of ragged renditions of a few three-chord wonders—“Hang on, Sloopy,” “Louie Louie,” and “Gloria.” My favorite song at the time was “Psychotic Reaction,” by The Count Five. We couldn’t play it. It was an aspirational song. The point is, those days I saw myself on stage in the cafetorium, not on a mat in the gymnasium wearing a leotard and tights, with my face crammed into some guy’s crotch or armpit.
“Bailey,” the Coach said another day, “you’re going to be my 95-pounder.”
“I don’t weigh 95 pounds,” I said. I was more like 84 pounds. I’m pretty sure I had not yet achieved five feet in height either.
I’d been to matches. My brother, two years ahead of me, was on the team. I’d heard the splat of flesh when boys hit the mat, heard the grunts and groans, seen the straining muscles and grotesque red faces. I’d heard the stories about kids having to “make weight.” That usually meant starving themselves to get down to 112 or 120 or 132, 145, or 154. One guy on the team, in addition to starving himself, relied on laxatives, which he took for a few days before match day, when he showed up on weight, dehydrated and diminished, but ready to go.
A few weeks before the first wrestling team meet, Coach Curl announced that I would be wrestling every member of class until I agreed to be on the team. We were upstairs on the mezzanine in the gym, where we’d been tumbling for a few weeks and where the class would wrestle. He smiled when he said this. It was a disarming smile. I played along. What choice did I have? That day, in second hour gym class I wrestled kids bigger than me, some of them twice my size, who took it as a joke and pinned me without malice and with minimal violence. This went on for a week. At first, I found it funny–I admit I kind of liked being wanted–then not. There was a US Army poster at the time, and ads on TV, as the war in Vietnam began to expand, Uncle Sam pointing and saying “I WANT YOU.” It felt sort of like that.
A week before the first meet I gave in.
I went to three days of practice. I knew a few of the basics about an individual match, three two-minute periods, and I knew a few take-downs, a few holds. I also knew that running away was not a strategy. I would have to lock arms and attempt to subdue my opponent. Or at the very least fend him off manfully.
My first match was on a Thursday night. It was an away meet, in Shepherd.
Matches were organized in ascending order. Every night the 95-pound weight class went first. That first night, it all happened pretty fast.
The kid I was going to wrestle looked across the mat at me and sized me up. He was no freshman. He had the hulking body mass of a full 95-pounder. He also had the vengeful look of a kid who had been beaten up more than a few times. We walked to the center of the mat and shook hands. When the ref blew the whistle, my opponent lowered his body into a crouch. He held out his hands toward me. His right hand shook in midair. It was like the twitching of a snake’s tongue. I tried to adopt a similar pose, lowering my body, establishing what Coach Curl called my “power center.” The kid and I moved once counterclockwise around the center of the matt, maintaining distance. We’d just reversed direction when he lunged for my knees and wrapped me up. I went down.
He smelled like soup. He was all over me. The next sixty seconds was an abbreviated summary in scoring for high school wrestling: take down (2 points for my opponent), near fall (3 points for my opponent), escape (1 point for me). Another take down and I was on the mat, on my stomach. On top of me, the kid felt like an octopus, all tangling appendages working. He executed a chicken wing maneuver, aptly named, and I was on my back, at the edge of the mat, inches from out of bounds. He skidded me away from the line and bore down on me even harder. I strained to keep one of my shoulders off the mat. I could hear my teammates yelling Bridge! Bridge! Bridge! The ref lowered himself to our level, his head right next to ours, watching, checking, waiting. Then his hand smacked the mat.
I was pinned.
My opponent and I stood up. He was smiling, kind of dancing beside me. My legs were shaking. I looked over at Coach Curl, who shook his head once.
Pinned. In the first period.
It was kind of like being knocked out. It was five points for Shepherd, same as if our team had forfeited the match.
I slunk off the mat and flung myself onto a folding chair, crossed my arms over my chest. The meet proceeded, which we lost, by more than five points.
With no help from me.
The next two or three matches were much the same. First period pins. Five points I contributed to the opposing team. Same as a forfeit.
“They weigh more than you,” my brother said. We were riding home after a match one night. I had algebra homework to do. It was snowing. Maybe they would have to close school, I thought, on account of snow next day. I hoped so. I wouldn’t have to go to school.
“They weigh more than me,” I said.
He did the math. “More than 10 percent more. That’s a lot.”
Some of them, I pointed out, were also older.
“Some of them,” he said.
At practices after school Coach Curl said I needed to train harder.
The 120 showed me how to bridge, lying on his back, using his legs and head to lift his body off the mat. “That’s how you keep your shoulders off the mat,” he said. “That’s how you don’t get pinned.” The way I saw it, I’d have to hold that bridge for most of two, four, possibly six minutes. It looked like a long invitation to having your neck broke.
The 145 showed me his favorite hold, the figure four. “I like to lock it in,” he said, “right around the guy’s waist, then lean into it, and ride him to the mat.”
When I said it looked like it hurt, he said it did, that was the point.
The 165 asked me how come I didn’t have any hair on my legs.
The 180 said, “Can’t you gain some weight? You gotta eat more.”
There were a few other guys on the team who lost matches, a few who got pinned. And there a few who had gone undefeated. I was the only one on the team who had lost every match.
The 103, who had wrestled 95 the previous year, said what everyone else on the team thought: Just don’t get pinned. If I went all three periods and simply lost, the opposing team got three points, not five. If I didn’t get pinned, I saved the team two points.
“One thing about wrestlers is if they get on their back, it’s not over — it just got interesting.” So says Zane Kesey, whose father, Ken Kesey, was a wrestling phenomenon in high school and college. “You get fierce,” Zane Kesey adds.
In a 2012 article in The Telegraph, novelist John Irving, another writer-wrestler all his life, explains his passion: “I had a particular affinity for wrestling and it [had] a lot to do with being small and being combative – and being angry.” Irving recalls his high school coach telling him, “An underdog is in a position to take a healthy bite.”
I was an underdog, all right. But if there was one thing I wasn’t, it was combative. I was under-weight, under-combative, under-angry.
“I need to gain some weight,” I said at the dinner table one night. It was the end of a quiet meal. We’d had a home meet by then. My father had come to watch. He’d seen me get pinned early and fast.
My brother had won his match. He passed me a platter.
I dragged a pile of mashed potatoes onto my plate, squashed them into a pancake with my fork, and spread some butter on them. I asked my mother what was for dessert.
“Are you hungry?” my dad asked.
“I need to gain some weight,” I said.
“Are you hungry?” he asked again.
“Coach says a couple pounds could make a difference.”
“Cake,” my mother said. “Chocolate.”
“What I don’t like about this wrestling,” my father said, “is the weight loss and weight gain.”
At least, my brother pointed out, I didn’t have to take Ex-Lax.
“It’s unnatural,” my father said. “It’s not healthy.”
“He’s getting better,” my brother said, pushing a slice of bread in my direction.
I said I was trying. But really, I wasn’t getting better. I was getting pinned. And I wasn’t really trying. I trained, I ate, I gained a pound. I practiced bridging. I tried to grow hair on my legs. Two more matches, two more pins. The latter was a second period pin. It was progress. It was my personal best. No one was much inclined to celebrate. That included me.
Around mid-season I was in Gridley Music one Saturday. Monte, the guy behind the counter, had sold me an electric guitar. He wore turtlenecks. He had sideburns. He reminded me of Peter, Paul, and Mary, one of those guys. In another year Monte would be coming to the store wearing beads around his neck. When he asked how the band was doing, I told him that I was taking some time off from music, that I was on the wrestling team.
He burst out laughing. “You?” he said. “What the hell you doing that for?”
I told him I was still playing the guitar, just on my own, which was the truth.
He said he wanted to see my muscles.
“Some other time,” I said.
“Come on, take of your coat. Let’s see your muscles.”
I said I was just giving wrestling a try. It was an experiment.
“You killing them?”
“I’m doing all right.”
“That’s what’s important,” he said. “Hey, I got something cool to show you.” He reached for a box on a shelf behind the counter, opened it, and set a small black device on the counter. It was the size of a transistor radio. On the side of it was a dial and a small white toggle switch.
“You plug it into your guitar,” he said. “Flip this switch and you got fuzz, man.”
He led me into the back room. “Show him this,” he said to a tech working back there.
The tech plugged the device into a guitar, connected it to an amplifier, and played a buzzy, highly distorted chord. It didn’t sound like much.
“Listen to this,” the tech said. He cranked the volume on the amp. “You got your Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction.’” He played the opening notes. “You got your Beatles’ ‘Think for Yourself.'” He played the opening notes. “And you got your Count Five.” He played the opening notes of “Psychotic Reaction.”
I bought one. It cost twenty bucks.
One match mid-season I went the full three periods and didn’t get pinned. It was a meet at home. You could say I benefited from home-mat advantage. Maybe that’s true. When the ref raised my opponent’s hand there was no applause, except from my father and a few guys on the team. The number ticked on the scoreboard: Buena Vista 3, Freeland 0. In wrestling math, that was 2 points for us.
The next week something wonderful happened. We took the bus on a Thursday night to Bullock Creek. At weigh-in, I saw the opposing team had no one to wrestle in the 95-pound weight class. Five points for our team. Also, a full reprieve from the weekly humiliation.
“Way to go, man,” a couple teammates said to me. “You won.”
A few weeks later there was another forfeit. Five more points for our team. Just being there, just showing up and pulling on my tights and leotard, I’d helped.
I went 2-14 that season. There was no point in adding up my numbers. I knew I was a net loss. But in Coach Curl’s twisted and cruel calculus, the sum of my losses were a gain for the team. And I’d gone the distance in a varsity sport. My freshman year I got a varsity letter, an F.
That spring I heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time. His album “Are You Experienced” was released on May 12, 1967. The radio was playing Buffalo Springfield “For What It’s Worth” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” The Louie Louie band I’d left during wrestling season fell apart. I formed a new band with a couple guys and used my new fuzz tone to play “Purple Haze.” My voice was changing, but I still had a falsetto good enough to cover the vocal in James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”
The guy who wrestled 135 on the team graduated and went to Vietnam that summer. A few guys from our town were already coming back from there, some of them pretty damaged, back to a country going crazy. Winter of 1968, when I might have won, when I might have mopped up in the 95-pound weight class, I did not wrestle.