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Original Issue


The author recalls boyhood wrestling, its feel, its smell and, most of all, a frozen bridge and some other cold cuts involving a kid named Thuringer

We were circled up on the mat listening to Coach go over the scouting report for our match with South Central High. It felt so great to relax in the wrestling room because relaxation was so far from exhaustion, which was the order of things there. We lolled on each other like a den of rattlers in the warm sun. SC was tough in the lower weights in those days, and Damon Thuringer, "Sausage Man," our sophomore at 103 pounds, had an especially tough match.

Sausage was wrestling a kid named Kenuchi Mashamuri. Mash was a senior who had taken the state championship at both 119 and 112. Early in the season a Spokane Daily Chronicle story quoted Mash as saying he was beginning to think seriously about college wrestling, so he thought he'd train real hard that season and drop down a weight where he could be more competitive. He was sincere. Mash was a very humble guy. He was also a monster, an arch teratoid. He looked about 30 years old, with his giant little body and his furry eyebrows and his cauliflower ears. Of course, Mash was undefeated.

Sausage was this baby-faced, downy-haired, flute-playing Hobbit. His record up to then was about 4-4. He was well-conditioned and fierce to a fault, but we all hoped that Sausage had made his peace with the cosmos. Coach made him captain for the week, and that helped Sausage's spirits. Coach always named the guy with the week's toughest match as the captain. He would announce it over the intercom on Monday so the whole school would know. The captain would then get lots of encouragement all week from kids in classes and in the halls. And when he'd lead us out on the mat to do our exercises before a match, people would ooh and ah and yell heartening sentiments because they'd know he was captain and that he was headed for hard times in a few minutes.

So we were circled up on the mat listening to Coach go over the scouting report, and Otto, our heavyweight, and I decided in a summit meeting of eyeballs and lettermen's leers to harass the Sausage Man, to tone down his hubris a little.

While Coach explained that Kuchera's man liked to work a fireman's carry right to a fast pin, Otto and I sneaked around the circle toward Sausage, who peered out from beneath his pile of wool blankets. Sausage had some trouble making weight. He was down from 125 as a cross-country man. He would spend his slack time doing push-ups and sit-ups in his rubber sweat suit under his bunch of blankets. You'd come off the mat after a drill, and off in a corner would be a boy-sized green heap with gold trim pumping furiously up and down.

Otto sneaked one way and I sneaked the other. Coach was talking about Romaine Lewis, SC's man at 154. He looked around for me, so I stopped my stealthy crawl and popped up behind Kenny Schmoozler, our man at 133.

"Lewis will take you down, you let yourself get weak!" Coach warned me with a yell. I was down from 177 and having a bad time holding my weight.

"I feel great, Coach," I said. "That Romaine Lettuce won't take me down. I'll dice him and slice him. I'll counsel him on the dangers of snorting hair straightener. His internal environment is polluted. Lettuce won't take me down!"

Coach covered his eyes. He always knew when the team was feeling right.

"Did you eat?" he growled.

"I ate, I ate. Two carob bars and a can of Nutrament," I replied. "Lean and mean, Coach! Lean and mean!"

Otto snorted like a wild pig. Otto was a trim 243 then. "Lean and mean! Lean and mean!" he snorted. He worked his way around to Sausage and kicked him through his blankets.

"Lean and mean! Lean and mean!" the Sausage Man piped.

Then the whole team was rooting around the mats on all fours, bumping into each other, grunting like frenzied swine, chanting "Lean and mean! Lean and mean!"

Coach let us go for about a minute, then went on with the scouting report. We stopped. We had to conserve for the tough practice ahead.

Otto and I sat with our arms resting on Sausage. He peeked his head out at Otto, then turned to leer at me. "Don't mess with me," the Sausage Man warned.

"Damon," I replied, aghast at his aggressive tone. "Damon, my boy, Otto and I have only come to congratulate you on your captaincy."

"Shut up, Davis," the Sausage said. "Just shut up."

Otto waxed indignant. He tweaked Sausage's nose and pushed his head back under the blankets.

"You guys better not hurt my lip. I haven't got my mouthpiece," Sausage informed us. A serious flute player, Sausage really had to take care of his lip.

"Your mouthpiece is in a safe place, Damon," I assured him.

The Sausage Man groaned from beneath his blankets. He knew where that safe place was. Every chance I got I stuffed his mouthpiece down my sweat pants. He was usually more careful with it. He must have been preoccupied with his captaincy. He had left it on the windowsill.

Then Coach began to demonstrate to Jean-Pierre Bouldosier how his man liked to stack people up with a double chicken wing. We called him "Bulldozer," half out of respect for the way he munched people and about half out of ethnocentrism.

Bulldozer was pretzeled, and Coach was asking if he understood the move. Bulldozer couldn't breathe, let alone speak, and he tried to communicate that idea with gasps and grunts. But Coach thought he was requesting further demonstration, so he reefed some more on the double chicken wing. Bulldozer was pinned. His scapulae rested on the mat. His nose was buried in his hairy chest. Coach cinched up a little more on the chicken wing and inquired again concerning Jean-Pierre's comprehension. Seizing upon Coach's inattention, Otto flopped down on Sausage, who was mashed from lump to patty. He squealed unintelligibly. Otto watched attentively as Bulldozer's head turned purple and blue, while I reached under the blankets and pulled off Sausage's shoes and socks.

Coach finished with Bulldozer, who gasped and nodded that he understood the double chicken wing stack-up series.

Coach then waived comment on Otto's SC man in favor of a brief prognostication concerning the damage the Montana heavyweight likely would do to Otto when we traveled to Missoula for an invitational tournament the next week. Those cowpokes could truly be tough.

"Cowboys and miners," Otto giggled, trembling in mock fear.

Behind him I stuffed two sweat socks in Sausage's mouth, being careful not to damage his lip. Then, with his shoe laces, I began to tie his head between his knees. I finished just as Coach did, and we all jumped up to begin our exercises. All except the Sausage Man. Otto and I quickly heaved him deep in his favorite corner and covered him up good.

We were in our warmup lines, and Coach had opened his mouth to scream the first exercise when a light knocking sounded at the door. Coach screamed at the knocking, and the door opened revealing red curls. It was Carla, my girl friend and subsequently my wife.

Coach looked at me and pointed to the door. Carla and I had been going together for a couple of years then. She used to baby-sit Coach's kids. I trotted over to the door. Behind me Coach screamed things into action.

I heard the flops and grunts and straining as the team went to its back and bridged on its neck, navels ceilingward, hands pounding bellies. The chanting started, a steady "ah-hhhhhhhhh" in time with the pounding hands. A simple tribal song, the sound of clean lungs. I closed the door on the familiar din and saw that Carla was worried.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"I heard you fainted in class," she said. "Are you O.K.?"

"O.K.," I replied. "Just a little lightheaded." I was really having a heck of a time holding that weight.

"You should have let me know you were all right," Carla said sternly.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't even think someone might tell you." It was a thoughtless thing. "I'm sorry—really!" I reiterated without groveling, going close to kiss her.

Carla's worry changed to mild pique. We kissed and parted. She sniffed. She moved close again and sniffed my sweat clothes. She wilted, swooned. I leaned her against the wall.

"That smell is not human," she gasped, rubbing her eyes and wrinkling her nose.

She pinched the cloth of my sweat shirt delicately. The salt crystals crinkled lightly beneath her fingers. "Ouhhh!" she grimaced. "Don't you ever wash this stuff?" It was Carla's first visit to the wrestling room. She must have been skipping her gas-engines class.

"Of course not," I replied indignantly. "It's very bad form, not to mention the practical aspect that clean practice sweats invoke the demons of loss. You wash practice sweats before the season starts, and that's it," I said. "Besides, the smell deadens your mucous membranes, reducing the occurrence of bloody nose. Much more healthful than cocaine."

My good spirits persisted in spite of my light-headedness. But Carla was having none of my jive.

"Does everyone feel that way about his laundry?" she asked.

"Not everyone," I said. "Mostly just Otto and Kuch and Schmooz and me—we're the seasoned veterans."

"You should be seasoned. You should be pickled from wearing this stuff."

The team was past push-ups and into sits. "Stick your head in and take a whiff," I encouraged Carla.

She did. "Glaaaah!" she retched, slamming the door. "It's like ammonia. You can feel it in the air. Yeoooh!" She shimmied and hopped, wiping her nose on her pinafore. "It's on me!" she shrieked.

I laughed.

"I'll pick you up after practice," Carla said, starting down the stairs. She drove me to work as often as she could.

I leaned down and pooched my lips out for a kiss.

"Glaaah!" she shuddered, and fled.

Behind me I heard the team running in place, the tiny rapid steps, the chant going strong.

I slipped through the door and found myself some moving room. Soon I was lost in the music of it all.

When Sausage got excited he would talk fast and spit a lot. He was like a ruptured water main when he played his flute. When you watched him, you either had to stand way back or wear rain gear. I doubt that the problem was pathological. Sausage is now a perfectly normal pharmacist and part-time flutist with the Spokane Symphony.

When Coach untied him, Sausage was pretty excited. He leaped up and down and spat all over. Nobody could get near him, not even Coach.

Sausage had missed the entire practice. Nobody discovered him, and nobody noticed he wasn't around. Some of the guys who had seen Mash wrestle probably figured that Sausage had left town. If Coach hadn't accidentally sat on him when we started our wrestle-offs, Sausage might never have been found.

Sausage fumed. He pulled his headgear on sideways and got his nose stuck in the ear hole. He ripped it off and flung it at Otto.

I pulled his mouthpiece out of my sweat pants and tossed it to him gently.

"Damn you, Davis," he slavered. "You musclebound pig."

We all laughed. Coach, too.

Sausage spat lint. He popped the wretched mouthpiece in his mouth. "I've got a tough match this week," he smacked and slurped.

"Try to keep things in perspective, Sausage," I advised. I let him take me down and beat on me a while. Coach began the wrestle-offs starting with the heavyweights, so Sausage would have time to pull himself together.

I figured five or six dozen forearm smashes and a heavy general pummeling of my body would assuage Sausage's wrath, but I was wrong in thinking his vengeance would be anywhere near commensurate with his size.

Later, in the shower, I took out my false teeth and set them in the soap dish. Up Sausage popped from behind the towel pile, grabbed my $300 dentures and whipped naked out the door. I stood at the locker door and watched him dance off across the park, a pink Christmas cherub in black wrestling shoes, cackling and spitting little ice crystals that caught the light from the parking lot and shone like tiny falling stars. He knew if I chased him, I'd be late for work.

Whether to get to work on time or pursue that vindictive dwarf was a decision Carla later helped me make.

"Oh, he'll give them back," she said. "You deserve it anyway." And she gave me a friendly punch on my slackened mandible. "If you keep your mouth closed, nobody will know the difference."

I was washing dishes at the Spokane Hotel then, a job for which teeth really weren't necessary.

"O.K.," I gummed and gave her a crippled kiss. She shuddered as we drove off crunching through the brittle snow.

I always like to tell people I lost my teeth when I got kicked in the mouth in the district tournament my junior year. I really did get kicked, and I really did lose some teeth. But they were false ones. Actually, I was umpiring a girls' softball game in ninth grade when I lost my teeth. A very large girl whose name I forget was halfway to first base when she remembered she wasn't supposed to take the bat. She slung it back right in my chops. It broke my nose and destroyed the ability of my gums to hold the teeth that hadn't fallen out on the ground. In a way I was a victim of sexism. Girls' physical education received little attention then, and a lot of girls were about half helpless at organized sports because they got to play so seldom. Things are different now. But sometimes I feel almost fortunate. I never made even the small big time in athletics, but I did get a big-time injury which serves me well in the drunken hyperbole of reminiscence.

I couldn't manage to keep my mouth closed at work. Even then I loved the attention aroused by a good injury. Sally, the old cook and my surrogate Gram, called it "a damn shame." But she giggled when I gave her a couple of bony kisses on her sweaty cheek. And Elmo, the bellman, told me he knew a guy in Seattle who would sell me a new mouthful with my name embossed bicuspid-by-bicuspid in colorful baked enamel. I often wish I'd invested in a set of those, just to wear bowling nights and to parties and on Father's Day and things. Elmo had the Stars and Stripes on his, and they didn't look bad.

I was never more in touch with my body than I was that last wrestling season. I swear I could hear the valves of my heart open and slam shut. Oxygenated blood swooshed through my arteries. It sounded like the Seattle Monorail. Leukocytes and erythrocytes lined up at my capillaries politely. "Be my guest! No, no, after you!" I could hear them say.

In order to get down to 154 where I could have a chance to make the state tournament, I'd taken to bundling up good and running the six miles home from work. I ran down alleys until I got out of the downtown area. The ice shone in them like new black shoes. I fell down consistently. Crossing the Monroe Street bridge was a pain. I had to run on the sidewalk, and creeps of all sorts jeered and threw ice balls at me. Sometimes some kids would be cruising around, and they'd see me and wave. Thinking back, both kinds of attention are warm to me.

I felt better when I crossed the bridge. Then I could run down side streets. I crunched crisply along the snowy pavement. Peripherally, I watched the little chunks of snow fly from my boots. Everywhere the night was brightened by the clean snow. The cold air tasted good. I rotated my arms in wide circles and watched my flying shadow until I saw there were two. Running footsteps crunched behind me. I stopped and turned. Bundled and panting, cap hanging elflike, the Sausage Man stood in clouds of vapor. He handed me a plastic bag full of ice.

"Your teeth," Sausage said. "I'm sorry they froze. I put them in water like my grandpa does, and they froze solid on the way to the hotel."

"Thanks, Sausage," I said. "Hope you didn't get cold or get in trouble or anything, running out of the locker room like that."

"No sweat," the Sausage Man said. "The Russian hockey team does it all the time."

When I got home I was happy to find some sugarless applesauce my mom had left out for me. I ate it in the shower, where I luxuriated in the hot water while my teeth thawed in the soap dish.

It turned out that Mash pinned Sausage in the first 10 seconds. I annihilated Romaine Lewis, but couldn't hold 154 for the district tournament. I had to go at 165, so I lost to the same guys who'd beaten me each year before. I never made it to the state tournament as a competitor.

That's a good memory of a good time in my life. My defeats seem small things now, and every laugh I had seems like some kind of a victory. I think of myself standing in the locker-room door watching Sausage run off with my teeth, and I know I see it not as it really was. I see it better, brighter. Sausage's frantic laughs ring across the twilight park like the reports of liberators' rifles, and the shower of his crazy spittle shines like the tail of a little comet.