Wrestling in Tunics

When I was in the 10th grade in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I was active in the Junior Classical League (J.C.L.) for those of us that were studying Latin.  Our teacher, Ms. Elizabeth Kaiser, helped us in rehearsing and preparing a number of skits that would reenact some of the customs and rites of ancient Roman times.  Because I was on the wrestling team in high school at the time, I volunteered to participate in a wrestling skit.  To appreciate my size, I competed in the lightest weight class:  97 pounds.  My opponent, though not at all athletic, was both taller and much more rotund than I was.

Of course, all of this was to be staged with a bit of comedy to entertain the audience, so I, the smaller of the two, and the less likely to win such a bout, would be the victor.  Before the event, my rival, Melvin, and I practiced a few holds on each other, some of which I had learned from wrestling practice.  The sequence of events basically would begin by having Melvin take me down and be on top of me–with my managing to squirm out from under him–resulting in us both in standing positions.  We would grip each other and make low growling sounds to accentuate the amount of effort we were putting into the match.  Though we would be faking any real strong impact against one another, each of us would behave as if the other’s bodily force had thrown us half off the mats.  The finale would occur when I would “hurl” Melvin down and jump on him with the referee, my friend David, in a crouching position, hitting the mat declaring me the winner.

After rehearsing with the rest of the skits, we both felt comfortable in the humor and theatrics in the situation.  We then performed the play, that is the series of skits, at our school in front of some of our classmates studying Latin.  Although this was not a rehearsal, it was really a practice run before we were to act the play in front of the students currently studying Latin from all the junior high schools in the city.  Probably Ms. Kaiser hoped the show might stimulate interest in Latin, a dead language, as compared to modern languages such as French, Spanish or German that were offered in our school system.

I remember there being a fairly big crowd of people in the auditorium, but when I saw that with the exception of the teachers, they were all younger than us I did not really feel too nervous.  Besides, because Melvin and I were one of the first acts on the program, I did not have much time to ruminate about how I would do.

When it was our turn, Dave called us up to the stage, announced our Roman names, and as the contest got underway, we started growling at one another.  We each made a few passes grabbing and pushing our arms quite intentionally to no avail.  Then, suddenly and most unexpectedly, Melvin thrust his head into my stomach throwing me down on the mat.  It was if a Mack Truck had run into a Volkswagen. Dave, with a perplexed look, asked if I were all right.  More surprised than hurt, I nodded yes, and then asked Melvin whether he was trying to win the match, and he replied, “yes.”  Utter despair ran through my mind, and I said to myself: “How could he be doing this.”  There was a pretty blonde ninth grader that I had noticed sitting in the first row that I had hoped to impress with my “prowess” but now, as I groaned, she was going to see me lose.

Strange things happen under duress.  Inasmuch as it was evident that this event was no longer staged, I being, if nothing else much faster than Melvin, twisted and turned and in one movement yanked myself free.  Now that we were both erect, on automatic pilot, I employed a technique I had learned from my wrestling coach.  I lunged at Melvin as fast as I could, grabbed one of his legs, gave it a lurch causing him to topple over.  As his body smacked into the mat, there was a loud bang that I am sure the audience heard.  Before he could escape, I quickly got on top of him and held his arms in a pinning position.  Dave slapped his hand on the mat indicating the match was over and held my hand up declaring me the victor.

Afterwards, Dave walked over to me and said that our fight looked so real that for awhile he didn’t think that we were faking it.  I agreed.  Melvin had lost two times, previously, and, much to my surprise, I guess he had decided it was his turn to win.  Because I had won the match, I never bothered approaching Melvin about what was going on with him.  Besides, my efforts had been rewarded greatly when I spotted the attractive blonde looking at me with a big smile.

Life Lessons Psychology Spirituality Sports

One Wave Too Many

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, my parents would take us to visit an old classmate of my father and his family in Beach Haven. We would rent a cottage in the summer, and it was there that I learned how to body surf. When I relocated to Southern California in 1978, I lived with a cousin briefly. I taught him how to body surf, and so we shared many memorable moments riding waves into shore. It felt good being the teacher, the one with the expertise as to knowing in advance which wave would give you a good ride and when to swim out to it and, at what point to start swimming toward shore just at the moment it was being to break.

Sometimes one can overestimate his/her knowledge and experience. It had been a windy day with signs of a storm very possibly approaching the coastline of Southern California. I’d made plans to meet a friend of mine that I had worked with in the past in Santa Monica on the beach after work. When I met him, there was virtually no one in the water: The waves were breaking madly against the shoreline and to me it was a challenge to swim into them and ride them back to shore. There were no lifeguards on duty because it was evident that the beaches were really off limits to the public that afternoon. The blackening sky matched the black flags that indicated danger and a warning to bathe at your own risk.

If I had been rational, I would have known better. But I was gripped by the fearlessness of youth, although I was already in my mid 30’s. My friend, who was a good swimmer like me, did not want to go in the water, and I chided him for meeting me at the beach and not wanting to take part in the fun. To myself, I said “poor Richard, here he goes being overly cautious once more.” And so I entered the ocean with all caution thrown to the wind. I was a lone body in the surf.

It started off as great fun as I rode some huge waves but suddenly———a wave hit me hard and I did a somersault and as I tried surfacing was hit by another wave that took me under. Now I was out of breath, having swallowed some water before being able to surface. But worse, after I’d been in a wave heading toward shore, an undertow pulled me back out. I found myself in water well above my head, a taboo to those of us that know the ocean. If you can stand in the water, you can usually, without much difficulty, get yourself back to shore, even in severe conditions. Fighting an undercurrent, and caught between two sets of breaking waves—one close, the other farther out from shore—I couldn’t get any closer to the shoreline.

I came to an immediate realization: If I let myself be dragged out beyond the farther breaking waves it would be extremely difficult to get back. What I immediately knew was that I could not let my body be dragged out beyond the waves that were breaking farthest from shore because it would be extremely difficult to get back. I don’t remember there being a rip tide but rather a very rough ocean carrying waves of gargantuan size. I swam desperately, thrashing with swim strokes, perhaps like that of a whale just harpooned. I looked above at the darkening sky, no blue and no sun in sight, and I wondered, for a very brief moment, whether this was going to be it for me!

I no longer tried to ride waves in to shore for fear if I went out too far I would not be able to come back. I swam as hard as I could to get to the waves that were breaking close to the shore. All of this occurred in just a few minutes, but felt like a lifetime of unending agony. I had no idea how to escape the ocean’s wild, untamed ferocity. I felt as if I was being devoured by Nature, then taken to a place I had never been and did not want to enter.

Exhausted, I continued to swim between the two sets of waves and, as I approached the set breaking closest to shore I felt sand under my feet. It was if my prayers had been answered. With both feet on the ground I galloped as a wave hit me and drew me closer to shore. I plunged onto the wave and glided safely on my belly to shore. I lay there for perhaps two minutes, dry heaving water and once more looking up at the colorless sky. A teen-age boy, who perhaps had seen me struggle, came up to me and asked me if I was all right. I told him “yes.” I’d drifted some 50 to 70 yards away from the point I entered the ocean. I discerned a distant figure approaching. As it came closer, I realized it was my friend.

As I thought about my dangerous escapade, I understood: “masculine” bravado? In actuality, it was youthful foolishness. With no life guards in sight, I’d performed on a trapeze without a safety net. It was adolescent but very much male what I had done. If I had been pulled out beyond the farther set of waves, I doubt I’d be here to tell the story. As they were out that day, a helicopter may have sighted me. But the ocean is a huge expanse. Given how tired I was once ashore, how long could have I lasted in the deeps? Would I have been spotted before it was too late?

Never again did I body surf at an unguarded beach.


The Most Amazing Game of Stickball

As a child growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I very much enjoyed playing baseball.  Stickball was a great pastime for many of us in the 50’s and 60’s when I did my playing.  To play baseball you needed organized teams; stickball, on the other hand, could be played spontaneously with just two to four people.  It became widely popular in urban areas in the Northeast where, in fact, baseball had its origins.

I had the good fortune of attending elementary school at Victor Mravlag School 21.  Good fortune because the school provided a natural place to play with all the boundaries needed for an artificial playing field.  Two brick walls were sandwiched by the school itself allowing for two playing fields.  The pitcher would pitch to a box outlined with chalk on the red brick surface of the back of the school.  The front half of the stickball court was concrete cement surface behind which was a black tar surface, the back half of the stickball court. At the back of the playing area was a fence dividing the school playground from privately owned home owners (poor souls).   When I started playing stickball, seriously, probably around the age of 9 or 10, all the rules were in place.

The rules of the game that very much followed from baseball were both simple and clear, points that very much facilitated the play.  A single was a ground ball that the pitcher could not field or a pop fly that landed on the concrete part of the field (usually caught).  A double was a fly ball, not caught, that landed on the black school yard surface a distance behind the pitcher.  A triple was a fly ball that hit the fence and, most naturally, a home run was a fly ball over the fence (a pretty good distance for any of us to hit).  An out occurred when the pitcher caught a fly ball, fielded a ground ball, clean, without bobbling it, struck out a batter or if a batter hit the ball over the side part of the fence (the school was fenced in on all sides) in what was considered foul territory.

Equipment was simple:  I had the handle of an old broomstick and, at that time, a pink spalding ball that cost all of 29 cents, a fair amount when you were not yet working.  A tennis ball was not a good substitute because it simply did not have the bounce and movement that the spalding rubber ball had.  Like a contemporary player’s baseball bat, the stick was fashioned around the build and taste of whoever employed it.  Certainly, a precious item for a boy aged 9 or 10.

I remember it well: I had finished elementary school and was entering into a new school, Hamilton Junior High School so it was the summer of 1957.  It was midsummer perhaps a month before we would have to return to the school boy grind.  In those days, stickball was the thing to do: Skateboards did not exist and neither did i Pod, i Pads or i Phones.  I suppose life was much simpler in those days.

I had just finished playing stickball with a friend that I had beaten badly, and without a doubt, I was feeling pretty cocky.  I wanted to play more but my friend had had enough.  Low and behold, Billy Richmond was alone and, apparently, had no one to trounce.  I say this because Billy was known as the stickball player to beat or to put it differently, like the fastest draw in the West, he was one of the best, if not the best, at stickball.  A natural athlete, he excelled, in most sports.

As he was there alone and given my elevated mood, I challenged him to a game.  He let out a laugh and said: “Buzzy do you really want to play me: How many runs can I let you have when we start?”   I boldly replied: “I don’t need any runs.”  With a big smile of confidence, and, I suppose, having no one better to play at that moment, he agreed to play.  Sometimes, when you are the underdog, in a competition, you feel less tension, less pressure to perform with the consequence being more grace and more skill as you throw all caution to the wind.

Perhaps it was one of those days when Billy was off, and I was on enough, to make that very significant difference in the outcome of an event.  After all, I was a Red Sox fan, and spent many a painfully long Sunday at Yankee Stadium, seeing the Red Sox lose.  But then again, every once in a while, the Red Sox did win at Yankee Stadium.  I wondered if this might happen on this day.

I took an early lead in the first inning.  There was no pitch that he threw that I could not hit.  Soon it was 3 to 0.  Billy, may have felt, perhaps it was just luck.  But if it was luck, it didn’t stop.  I continued to hit on the offense but on the defense, he being a lefty like me, was having trouble hitting my pitching.  In addition, I made some very good fielding plays on balls he did hit.

By the bottom of the 7th inning (we played 9 innings in Jersey), Billy was up and I was leading by the impressive score of 8 to 3.  Suddenly, it started drizzling, some thunder came and it appeared like it would turn into a downpour in a matter of moments.  We agreed to stop the game but would continue it at some later date.  In a strange way, I was happy that the rain was coming because in the back of mind, I wondered whether my luck or, his “bad day” might change.

Well, when Billy and I resumed play a few weeks later in the heat of summer, things went differently.  It was almost like we were two different players than when we had met last.  Needless to say, things changed very quickly:  Everything I threw, he managed to hit:  Some of those hits were home runs.  Through all of this, I managed to get one run, and suddenly in the 9th inning, the score had become 9 to 9.

At that point, I remember telling myself, “this had to stop: I refuse to give up any more runs to him.”  It was grit determination that kept me in there.  The score remained tied through twelve innings when pretty much everyone had left the playground and the twilight began to fade.  Although we agreed to finish the game at some later time, we never did.  Summer suddenly ended and my daily stickball routine was coming to an abrupt end.

Really the game had three acts:  The first act I was in charge of right up to the rain delay; the second act through the 9th inning Billy had taken the reins; the third act was the extra innings where the two of us went scoreless.  Because I knew that it had not been a fluke, I felt most proud of that last act in which I had managed to tie one of the best stickball players ever to come out of School #21.