Saturday, September 19 2020

looking back on wrestling at summer camp

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Note: names are changed to protect the innocent - and the embarassed.

Dear Journal,

My time line is a little fuzzy for this one, but if I had to guess it was probably the summer of 2005. Each summer for one week in July, I'd go to summer camp at my church's newly built Camp Harvest in Michigan.

I imagine that by now, present day Camp Harvest is a pretty polished and comfortable retreat center, but you should have seen it back in 2005. Our "cabins" were plywood shacks in the middle of the woods - the thin, flimsy walls offering little comfort from the dank, muggy air. The real dining hall was still being built, so we ate all of our meals outside at picnic tables under a tent. But hearing that the year before didn't even have any electricity or running water, it was hard to complain. "Just be thankful for electricity in the cabins, and that you don't have to brush your teeth at night in a porta-potty with a flash light," we were reminded.

During the day, we campers were ushered around from one activity to another, filling the day with friendly sports, swimming, bible study, and worship services in the evening. And after a final hour of co-ed evening socializing, the boys and the girls were separated to return to their respective cabins.

For the boys, this is where our night really began. The late evening was for wrestling. After spending most of the day quietly contemplating the Bible and being on our best behavior, there was something so enjoyable and cathartic about wrestling, watching and participating. The smell of hot breath and sweat in an already muggy cabin. The way the walls and wooden bed posts would shake after a good body slam. The surly roar of the pre-pubescent crowd egging on the match ups and rivalries.

Our set of unspoken fighting rules were as follows. No strangling, kicking, or punching, but arm chokes and head locks were fair game. Body slams and spectacular take downs are encouraged, but not scored. The fight was over when somebody tapped out - or blacked out.

On this particular night, camp counselor Steven was practically mopping the floor with his challengers. Steven was young, in pretty good shape, and liked to flex his tan toned biceps in front of people. And being his first year as a counselor, he had a reputation for being on a bit of a power trip. He enjoyed lording over us poor incoming freshmen, and in this case, took great pleasure in physically dominating us in the fighting ring as well.

Steven had just finished pile driving another lanky, hapless camper into submission. He fixed his feathery brown hair and clambered into his bunk, like a lion returning from a kill. My friends and I observed him from across the cabin, huddled in a top bunk.

"Steven is such a dickhead," said Jimmy.

"Watch your tongue," retorted Immanual with his distinct Nigerian accent. "He is a brother in Christ, Jimmy."

"Sorry, Immanuel" said Jimmy meekly. "He's just been kind of annoying this week. I feel like the power of being a counselor this year has gone right to his head."

The night before, Jimmy and I had wrestled. Our skirmish was so mild and brotherly that barely anyone watched for lack of interest; but having already got the fighting out of our system a day before, we were content to just spectate. That night, I remember Immanuel and I were helping each other fill in the blanks in our pamphlet of sermon notes. With our Bibles out and pens in hand, we looked decidedly studious and uninterested in fighting.

Another wrestling match began, and I looked up from my notes momentarily to see who was fighting. That's when I saw Steven, all the way across the cabin, transfixed and staring in my direction. The look in his face made me nervous, but I still shyly smiled. He crossed his eyes and made his cheek twitch. His shoulders were heaving with strength and he quickened his breath. He was staring me down, trying to intimidate me. I nervously glanced in the other direction.

"Uh oh," I whispered.

As the fight started to wind down, a pair of heavy feet hit the floor, and I heard my name. "RECKER", Steven shouted. "YOU'RE MINE."

Up until that point, I hadn't really interacted with Steven. If being generally shy and mild mannered wasn't enough, I also intentionally tried to stay out of his way. To be honest, I think he just wanted to fight me because I was tall for my age, standing at least a whole head above the other campers.

"RECKER!" he called again. His pink, venous kneck swelled with blood. He flicked his pearly white teeth with his tongue as he delicately lay his puka shell necklace on the bed post beside him. "I WANT RECKER," he shouted, beating his chest his with fist.

Jimmy, Immanuel, and I froze. I shifted in my seat nervously, feeling all the eyes in the cabin singling me out. A stuffy silence hung in the air, as the campers waited to see if I would accept the challenge.

"Well, OK," I shrugged, climbing down from the bed. The cabin erupted with enthusiasm. Steven tore off his tight tee shirt and flexed. His eyes bore through me as he continued to flick his tongue around wildly.

I wasn't looking forward to fighting Steven. My plan was to humor him, hang in there as long as possible and at least put up a good fight. I didn't expect to last long. Steven was athletic. Steven had muscles. He liked to work out. Meanwhile, I had him beat in height, but I was lankier and had never touched a barbell or a chin up bar in my life.

But if I had a secret weapon, it was my legs. Throughout my childhood, I was constantly roller-blading. Especially in the summer, when all of my free time was spent either playing hockey, roller-blading around the bike trail with my dogs, or roller blading to the nearby Target with my sister Sarah. Thanks to my incessant roller-blading, I developed a lot of invisible strength and balance in my legs. But to Steven, he only saw a shy, lanky, acne ridden, concave-chested, spaghetti armed high schooler - his next victim.

We shook hands curtly, and the fight began. The cabin watched in silence as we circled each other, the sweat on our feet sticking to the mattresses. Steven curled his arms out in front of him, staying low to the ground. He even did a quick barrel roll off his back, expertly regaining his balance on the balls of his feet. He panted like an enraged beast - his wet tongue hanging between his teeth like a rabid jackal. He rushed in, and in a flash of a moment, we gripped each other's shoulders.

Steven grunted, jerking his torso trying to force me to the ground. I dug in, widening my stance, pleasantly surprised that I didn't fall to the ground. He gave me a sharp shove, freeing his grip. My back slammed squarely into the wall. I felt the plywood pucker from the shock.

"Ooooohhhhh," grew the murmur from the crowd. Steven flashed a smug, devilish smile as he closed in again. I felt a flicker of anger myself. I didn't like being shoved, and for the first time in the fight I started to wonder if the mighty Steven and I were actually evenly matched.

We gripped each others shoulders again. Steven tightened his stomach and rolled forward. I heaved him in the other direction. I felt his ankles trip over mine, and he fell on his back underneath me. The cabin once again erupted with applause, as I was credited with the first body slam.

Immediately after hitting the floor, Steven exploded with aggression. He turned on his bag, using his powerful arms to pull me into a headlock. He gripped my neck with the force of his entire body. I gasped helplessly as he twisted my body into his clutches.

The crowd hissed. My wild heart beat was throbbing in my ears, hot, prickling with blood. Our counselor Colin got on the floor next to us to examine the headlock.

"It's fair," he announced. "Alex, you gotta break it."

"C'mon C'mon C'mon" the campers chanted. The murmur grew to a roar of shouting and hollering. Colin circled to my other shoulder and leaned in, delivering a hush whisper into my ear.

"Alex, do NOT let him take you," he said sharply. "You beat him, you explode outta there."

I filled my lungs with air and wormed further into the headlock. Steven's trembling bicep pulled the skin of my face taut as I birthed my way out. I reached behind me and found his heel, gripping it with just my finger tips. Slowly, steadily, like prying open a metal door with a crowbar, I lifted the man off of me. The cabin erupted with another wave of screaming.

"GO GO GO," the campers yelled. I flung Steven off of me. His bloodshot, unblinking eyes were glazed with rage as he screeched, like an animal caught in a trap. We rose to our feet to regain composure.

Steven didn't look like he was having fun anymore. He panted, angrily boring his eyes through my head from the other side of the fighting circle. He ran at me with full speed. But this time, instead of meeting his grip up high, I faked him out and went low.

Sweat droplets and flecks of blood splashed as Steven and I rolled to the ground. I pulled him into a head lock of my own, wrapping my legs around his head, trying to control his kicking feet with my arms. I latched. I had him. With his head curled behind my knee and my arm finally finding leverage behind his ankle, I flopped backwards and pulled with all my might. Steven resisted at first. His whole body was quivering with pain as he used his core to keep me from straightening my back.

I pulled harder. Steven released a blood curdling scream. I remember staring at a single knot in the plywood ceiling while grunting through the pain, waiting for it to be over. I squeezed my legs, arms, and back as hard as I could. After what felt like an eternity of twisting, exasperated pain, I felt a sharp tap of fingers on my thigh.

Steven had tapped out. I released my grip and rolled in the other direction, suddenly finding my self in a celebratory dog pile. The campers had cleared from their bunks and swarmed the fighting circle. I popped my head out just in time to see a weary Steven slinking out of the room. I climbed back into my bunk and slumped backwards against the wall. I pretended to watch the fights that followed, but I was too tired to focus on anything. Lungs burning, legs too wobbly to stand, I just zoned out until I felt normal again.

"Dude," sait Jimmy climbing into the bunk beside me. "Steven is messed up. Immanuel said that he was in the bathroom crying." Immanuel was following Jimmy up the ladder.

"It's true," said Immanual. "He was blacking out in the bathroom, they are taking him to the nurse's station."

"Wait, you serious?" I asked. "Is he OK?"

"I don't know Alex," said Immanuel. "But it isn't your fault. You fought clean and well. It was a good fight," he grinned.

I appreciated Immenual's words, but I couldn't shake the guilt of humiliating - maybe even hurting Steven.

After the fights ended, we cleaned up the fighting circle as campers began to file out of our cabin. I approached our counselor Colin.

"Hey, is Steven going to be OK? Is he hurt?"

Colin smiled. "He's.... a little shaken up. But he'll be OK. He's a big boy."

Colin saw that I was still feeling a bit unsure about the whole thing. "Hey don't worry about it," he said extending a hand to my shoulder. "You didn't ask to fight him. He had it coming."

I felt a lot better about the whole thing after talking to Colin. As you could have guessed, I didn't go on to have a prolific wrestling career, but beating Steven gave me a big confidence boost - just the kind of confidence boost I needed before entering high school.