By the time I was thirteen years old, my father had had enough.
For years he had been enrolling me in extracurricular activities, and for years I’d rewarded his efforts by rejecting each and every one them like foreign baboon hearts. A fairly quiet and somber kid, I spent most of my time reading by myself, drawing comic books and, when puberty started to rear its ugly head, losing daily arguments with it to turn acne into studly facial hair.
My father was a high school English teacher, and divided his time between coaching wrestling, coaching rubgy, weightlifting in the basement, taking karate classes and hunting in the deep Canadian backwoods. I don’t think he was necessarily disappointed in me so much as baffled that his genes had produced me -- like a carnivorous alpha wolf trying to wrap its head around the idea that one of its cubs wanted to collect interesting-looking leaves instead of go pack hunting for wounded deer.
His various attempts to get me interested in team sports weren’t a judgment so much as a misguided sense of fatherly duty. I was his kid, and dads took their kids to hockey practice. There wasn’t anything in the rulebook about leaving your kid alone so he could draw his comics in peace. Hockey became Cub Scouts, became t-ball, became camping trips, became soccer practice. It hardly seemed to matter what ball they were throwing at me at any given time—it just bothered me that they couldn’t see I was busy. The latest issue of El Axitive: Intruder From Uranus wasn’t going to write itself in my head, after all. Fictional daydreams of that caliber required the deepest concentration I could afford; concentration that shattered to pieces every time some beefy coach lobbed a soccer ball at my skull and told me to “show some hustle.”
When I was thirteen, the wrestling team my father coached started a junior league. The best wrestlers on the team agreed to donate a few hours a week teaching younger kids the finer points of their sport, get them toned up and competing early, and then recruit them for the team when they eventually got to high school. My father supervised the effort, helping them book gym space at a local elementary school and giving them lifts to practice. He also signed my younger brother and I up for it, still hunting for one lonely gene he might have successfully passed onto me.
I greeted the idea wrestling with an all-consuming sense of dread usually reserved for gym class or asking out girls. With previous activities, I’d been allowed to daydream off in left field for a few weeks until I’d be allowed to give up and get back drawing filthy stories. This time, though, felt different. My father coached these guys -- was a drill sergeant and mentor to them -- and I was his son. Though it was never spoken aloud, I quickly caught the vibe that there’d be no bailing out of this one; not with the Pinkerton name at stake. Any lack of effort on my part to become a wrestling superstar and my father would start hunting for quicklime, a sturdy shovel and one shallow hole out in the deep woods where he camped. A week later I was given a singlet, a pair of wrestling shoes, and a ride to the gym for what would be my first Wednesday wrestling practice.
Like most people, I’d only really understood wrestling up until then as that TV thing where huge guys named Brutus and Hulk grappled in steel cages, gave each other wrenches to the temple when the ref was occupied elsewhere, and entered the ring to entrance music that matched whatever life goals the wrestler possessed. My first disappointing lesson at wrestling practice was that I would be given no tailored pre-match musical score. A wrench to the temple would be met not with accolades but a prison term. There would be no cages, steel or otherwise – just a weathered mat that smelled like stale air and forty years worth of collected armpit.
My second lesson at wrestling practice was that wrestlers ran laps; more specifically, a shitload of laps. How learning to run all the time contributed to my wrestling training escaped me at the time. For everything that amateur wrestling required on the body, it seemed pretty certain that the ability to sprint a hundred yards wouldn’t be coming in handy unless the match was going especially badly. All I did know was that after enough laps, your body’s way of telling you to stop is to have your legs collapse in under you. If preceded by a hundred crunches, your body follows this up by giving you the intense need to vomit. Good times.
Another thing I learned is that wrestlers are extremely touchy about their sexuality being called into question. Basically you’ve got two sweaty, heavy-breathing guys grappling in bathing suits, both of them attempting to pin the other to a mattress using the sort of body contact you’d usually want a condom for. This is the sort of activity that, even when condoned by the Olympics, tends to illicit looks of awkward betrayal from any guy watching nearby.
To compensate, I learned, all wrestlers scowl intensely when wrestling, like they’re solving complex mathematics in their heads and the effort is causing them to poop their pants. Doing this illustrates to any passersby that, while you may indeed have a face full of your opponent’s sweaty package, you’re clearly not enjoying it.
The other compensation method is to talk about girls, incessantly. My Wednesday night wrestling coaches—two 18-year-olds on my father’s wrestling team—peppered their lessons on the basics of freestyle amateur wrestling with the sort of salty language that would make a sailor’s penis explode. To listen to them talk, it was a wonder they had the strength or time to interrupt their triple-x sexual exploits long enough to attend practice. At age thirteen I wasn’t aware of sex in anything but the vaguest terms, or conscious of why asking a teenager to show a thirteen-year-old boy how to execute a Fireman’s Carry by grasping their inner thigh might make them uncomfortable. The intense homoerotic undertones of wrestling, and my coaches’ need to reinforce their heterosexuality every five seconds or so, didn’t register with me. All I knew was that, if my coaches were to be believed, neither were strangers to the woman’s vagina. Having never seen one myself, I hooted at their eyebrow-waggling comments as best I could.
After a month of laps, crunches and learning wrestling moves, I started to feel confident. I could run, after all. I could do sit-ups. When asked to wedge my head under someone’s arm, grab them by the leg and lean forward, I could do so reliably and with little fuss. I began to feel like a wrestler. I could do this. This was doable.
Once again, I was living in fantasy land. The difference between actual wrestling and wrestling practice is, in wrestling practice, your opponent stands still with their arms outstretched, allowing you to get him in a double leg takedown and then apply a crossface. In actual wrestling, he tries to stop you from doing this, and the difference between the two in terms of pain is much like slicing a roast beef sandwich versus slicing a roast beef sandwich, missing, and cutting off both your legs.
I’ve told you already what real wrestling isn’t – i.e. not professional wrestling – but it might be helpful to briefly explain what it is. The point of wrestling is to pin both of your opponent’s shoulder blades to a mat while a referee helpfully whaps the mat three times. Then you win. In order to get an opponent’s shoulder blades onto a mat, wrestlers have devised an enormous number of strategies, all of which involve taking one of your opponent’s limbs and then pulling, pushing it or otherwise wrenching it from its socket until he agrees that, yes, indeed maybe it’s best if he lies down with his shoulder blades touching the mat. Often a wrestler will grab two, three or even all four limbs in combination, ratcheting them in opposite directions while reefing on the opponent’s spine in an effort to promote acute limb loss.
Obviously full points are awarded for getting the pin—but judges also award technical points on the basis of all-consuming pain, giving you three points here and two points there for the neat ways you’re able to contort your opponent into a shrieking pretzel shape while attempting to break him into the right shape for pinning. After one of you has pinned the other, or the time’s run out, or (and this is the most likely event, in my opinion) your spine shatters and you die, the judges tally up the points and one of you wins.
All of this sounds pretty self-explanatory on paper, but becomes increasingly ludicrous when you’re actually on a mat somewhere and someone’s got your leg in an awkward position, pushing with all of their strength to make it go in a direction your skeleton isn’t capable of accommodating. Only then will the true, unbridled insanity that is amateur freestyle wrestling occur to you—that someone is giving you the choice of either rolling onto your back or having your arm snap off, and your job is to not roll onto your back.
My first match took place a month after I’d started going to wrestling practice. After our usual drill of laps, crunches and seven thousand wrestling-based sexual double entendres, one of the coaches—a friendly giant named Andreas Stirnemann—huddled us all onto a mat. Andreas was affectionately nicknamed Bulldog by the rest of his high school wrestling team, though I suspect Capable of Murder would have been equally close to the mark. At eighteen he possessed the sort of physique you could picture wrapping a Panzer tank around while only making him angry. Andreas wasn’t cut or defined—just really goddamn big, like an immense clump of meat in the vague shape of a human.
(In recalling him now fifteen years later, I can’t help but question the accuracy of my memories. After all, I was only thirteen. At the same time, I don’t remember the other coach, or for that matter any other adult, being as monstrously huge as Andreas. So I suspect my memory is on the money here, and Andreas was actually a genetic monstrosity that no earthly bullet could stop.)
Perhaps to spite those merciless Aryan genes of his, Andreas was a very gentle, unassuming guy—the sort of teenager who’d probably mumble at his feet when talking to girls and call his dad “sir.” Looking back on it now, it was probably an act of benevolent providence that Andreas didn’t have a mean streak to him. Even as a shy nice guy he was intimidating—the sort of eighteen year old around whom you never really felt at ease, knowing that at the slightest provocation, and without even breaking a sweat, the man could crush your head to the size of a softball with his bare hands.
Andreas quickly paired us up. Before I even knew what was happening, I found myself in the middle of the mat, a giant painted circle enclosing me in every direction, looking into the eyes of another boy and seeing only violence. I panicked, glancing around me for a way out of this. Surely there’d been some mistake? I mean, the laps had been fun. Learning the moves had been a blast. These good times had segued somehow into me surrounded by a ring of roaring bloodthirsty thirteen-year-olds and, if I didn’t miss my guess, about to die.
“Excuse me,” I whispered to Andreas. “Actually, could I maybe just have a minute to—“
“And wrestle!” Andreas bellowed, blowing on a whistle. I glanced casually around at my opponent, who started barreling toward me. This didn’t look promising. As I found myself wondering how best to avoid my imminent murder, though, I realized the kid barreling at me had no idea what he was doing. He looked angry, sure. Intimidating, yes. But should he really have his leg out like that? What if I just… you know, grabbed it like this? And then pushed forward like… so… and… grab the arm, and push….push with the feet, ankles straight, and….
I’d pinned my first opponent. I’d won the match. My opponent and I were asked to shake hands, then shuffled quickly off the mat to let the next pair of thirteen-year-olds have at it. But in my head, the entire team had already exploded in applause, lifting me over their shoulders and carrying my victorious form for a tour around the gym. I’d won.
I quickly found I didn’t mind wrestling. Unlike team sports, when you wrestle you don’t have to worry about kicking a ball to some vague indistinct form fifty yards away. Wrestling offers the young athlete a sense of solitude and space that I immediately responded to. There isn’t any of the stress you get from knowing you might just be the weak link in the chain making up your team; out on the wrestling mat you were the only link, and the choices you made had repercussions for you and you alone.
The first ten seconds were my favorite ten seconds of the match. In less than a minute, you knew, you’d have your face full of armpit and you’d be leveraging an arm, pushing with your legs until your balls ached. But until then, you were in the center of the hurricane, circling your opponent in a pool of massive and deliberate calm.
The first move is all-important, and is typically the deciding factor in who wins the match. You can go on the offensive and make a lunge for the legs, or try to duck under your opponent’s arm and grab him around the chest. Or you can play defense, waiting for your opponent to try and duck under your arm or make a lunge for your legs, hoping your reflexes are faster—that you’ll dodge his grab for your thigh and put every pound of all your weight on his back, crushing him to the mat and giving you the opportunity to see how many pounds of pressure his neck can take.
I was by no means an accomplished wrestler—at age thirteen, I was by no means an accomplished anything—but I managed to be better than enough other thirteen-year-olds to take first place at the city finals, and another first at the county finals. At the time I thought I had found my one true calling. In reality, I was being lulled into a false sense of security. My abilities on the mat, as it turned out, weren’t because I was some kind of amazing wrestling prodigy, but because both of my coaches were. One of them would represent Canada at the Olympics two years later, returning with a silver medal. That’s how good these guys were. While everyone else in my town was being coached by disinterested teenagers looking to get rid of the snot-nosed kids in time to make out with their girlfriends in the park, I was getting taught wrestling moves by future Olympians and flying through the county finals like a hot knife through butter.
The knife ran out of butter and hit plate by the time I got to the provincial finals (for Americans, think state finals). While I’d been pinning untrained wrestlers in my little city, every other little city in the province had been doing the same – thinning out the dead weight one three-count at a time until the only people left were those who could actually wrestle.
I arrived in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, feeling more nervous than I’d ever felt in my life. The provincial finals weren’t just for thirteen-year-olds, keep in mind – they were for everyone. Me and my fellow pre-teen wrestlers shared a bus with nineteen and twenty year olds also heading up to compete. Up until that point I’d listened to INXS; on the bus ride up, I heard Metallica for the first time. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. I was on an alien planet, and I could find no landmarks at all to get my bearings.
Before any wrestling tournament, everyone needs to get weighed in. This is because wrestling doesn’t separate its opponents in non-insane ways, like by age or body build, but by weight class. This might not sound significant—but imagine if you were a gawky, tall thirteen-year-old, and finding out you weighed about the exact same as a five-foot-tall, cut-from-marble 18-year-old with a full beard and taste for fountaining arterial blood. This was who I ended up fighting for first place.
I’d actually managed, to my credit, to get to a first place match at the Provincial Finals. That in and of itself I’ll always have as a memory. Sadly that’s all I’ll have as a memory, since the intense violence done upon me during the subsequent three minutes of my life battered all cohesive pattern recall out of my skull along with several fillings.
It was a short match, by all accounts—to a spectator it would have been over in less than a minute. You would have just seen a gawky, quivering thirteen-year-old being led to slaughter in the center of a ring, followed by the entrance of a partially shaved wolverine in a wrestling singlet; then a blur of movement, a girlish shriek, and my prostrate form.
Having it actually happen to you offers a slightly different perspective, however, with every new passing second opening up entirely new vistas of terror, immense surprise and joint-grinding pain. I don’t know what my 18-year-old opponent was thinking – possibly “Hey, I’m seriously up against a friggin’ thirteen-year-old for the Provincial gold? Sweet! Well, anyway, time for vicious murder” – but I can vouch that my thought process went something like this: “Well, best to get this over with. Focus, Jay. You can do this. You CAN. Just look for an openAUGGHH! WLAGHH! AIEEE! AGH! AGH! AGH! AGHHHH!”
Somewhere amidst the horror it occurred to me that an error had clearly been made; that I was no longer participating in anything close to a wrestling match; that I should escape before my still-beating heart was clawed from my torso and devoured like a tender apple in front of my dying eyes.
I remember clawing desperately for the edge of the mat. Forcing your opponent outside the circle gets a whistle called, see; you get points, and both of you start in the center of the mat again. My newly developed strategy was to claw my way outside the mat’s edge myself, give the ravaging psychotic however many points he wanted, and give myself a second to get my bearings before the match started again.
I successfully made it to the edge of the mat, and the whistle was blown. I picked myself up, tasting copper in my mouth and wondering how I’d managed to eat pennies and not notice. I remember Andreas yelling something to me. Possibly he wanted me to trot over quickly so he could offer me tactical advice, like “Look for an opening with the legs, Pinkerton! His legs are wide open!” Just as likely, though, he was simply telling me to run for my life.
In either case, I was a million miles away and not really in a position to hear him, and before I knew it the match had started again. Once again my thoughts ran like this: “Okay, he got lucky. He might be powerful, but he’s slow. You’re quicker, Jay, you know you are. Just concentrate on hisAUGGGHHHHH! BLARGH! OW OW OW OW! JESUS, MY LEG! AGHHHHHH!”
Whump! Whump! Whump! went the referee’s hands. The match was over, and I lost. An alternative perception is that the match was over, and I was a thick, sort of thirteen-year-old-shaped paste smeared from one end of the mat to the other. When I got back up I was still dazed. It took me a minute to realize something was different: the sense of nervousness was gone from my stomach. In its place was a curdling sense of sadness, moved north a foot to my chest. I’d lost. It was over.
On the busride back home we all stopped at a Pizza Hut, and everybody –12 years old to 22 – sat around and swapped their stories. My brother, being slightly smaller than me and thus having not had to worry about rampaging sasquatches disguised as teenagers, came away with first place. I sat slurping Coke through a straw and feeling sorry as hell for myself when my father came up to me beaming with pride, chucking me on the shoulder and looking at my silver provincial medal. I was better than that guy, he told me, and I would’ve beaten him. It was just nerves, and it happens to everyone. I’d get him next time, he added, smiling at me.
Probably it was because I was only thirteen. Probably it was because when he said it, the sadness disappeared from my chest, and I felt good for the first time all day. Probably it was because he kept looking at my silver medal like it was made out of solid gold. But sitting there in the Pizza Hut off the highway, somewhere between the nation’s capital and home, I believed him.