Fighting has always interested me. Boxing, the martial arts and wrestling, not professional wrestling, but collegiate and high school. These sports put the individual athlete on his own, in front of others, trying to prove he is better than his opponent. If he loses, he has to stand with his head down while his opponent raises his fist in victory and gets cheered by all the spectators and his teammates. For the loser, it is rather humiliating.
Our high school wrestling coach was a former Captain in the Marines with dark eyes that could pierce the armor of a tank. His jet black hair was cut in a flat top, which was popular in the 1960’s before the Beatles and “Yesterday” and every day he sported a five o’clock shadow by the time the bell rang to start school. He was intimidating in kind of a passive-aggressive way, when he suggested something, you wanted to do it. Maybe it was fear or just respect for one scary Marine.
When I was a freshman in high school I weighed 98 pounds. That was in the morning when I would smuggle candy into school in my pockets. By the end of the day when I had emptied my pockets, I dropped to 96 pounds. I called it my candy diet. It was in my freshman year and I had my first girlfriend, I guess. We didn’t go out or anything, we just met in the hallway every day and talked. I considered her my girlfriend and I think she considered me her boyfriend. Her name was Karen and she happened to weigh exactly the same as I did when my pockets were still filled with candy. In fact, we were the exact same height as well, 4′ 11″ with our shoes on.
One day, while I was in the hallway with Karen, being suave by attempting to copy the moves the upperclassmen used by leaning into her while she had her back against her locker holding her books to her chest, I noticed our high school wrestling coach staring at me, not because of my good looks, but, I was soon to find out, because of my weight. He walked up to us and looked me in the eye while a sneer rolled up his lips. I was watching you play basketball the other night. I immediately thought he was going to compliment me on playing a good game, but he told me I was wasting my time and that I should go out for the wrestling team. I couldn’t believe he said that. I saw myself as the next Bob Cousey, the former Boston Celtic pro basketball team’s hall of fame guard, even though I stood only 4′ 11′ tall. In fact, I barely reached the lowest mark on the high school nurse’s height chart. But that didn’t matter, I was determined to prove I could play basketball.
He could use me, he said. By the tone of his voice and the look in his eyes I immediately knew what his fellow Marines must have thought in Korea when this Captain issued an order. I felt I would be letting down not just my alma mater, but the whole United States of America as well.
He said I would earn a varsity letter in my freshman year, something that was virtually unheard of back then as freshmen were rarely, if ever, allowed to play varsity sports. He said I would win all my matches because he didn’t know of anyone in our conference that would be in my weight class. I would win every match by default. That didn’t sound too exciting to me, but I liked the idea of wearing a varsity letter as a freshman. Then I thought I probably wouldn’t get to walk out onto the mat and enjoy my victory by pumping my fist in front of hundreds of cheering classmates which would include my little girlfriend Karen. Well, maybe not hundreds, but there were usually a couple of dozen folks sitting in the stands watching two boys squirming around on the floor.
My mind wandered to the wrestling room that I would pass going to the locker room to suit up for basketball. It was a small windowless room that smelled and had these sweaty guys stretching and rolling around on the mats wearing sweat shirts and sweat pants. Some of them also wore rubber suits so they could drop pounds and “make weight” by the 5:00 p.m weigh-in. At lunch, when the rest of the school was eating meat, potatoes, vegetables and a desert, the wrestlers were off by themselves in a corner peeling oranges. I didn’t want any part of that. I also knew I would have to give up my booty of smuggled candy each day so I could stay at weight. And would the coach want me to stay at 96 pounds for four years until I graduated? Would I always be winning matches by default, going through my high school career as the only undefeated wrestler by default in Brookfield Central High School’s history? I asked him who I would wrestle if there wasn’t anyone in my weight class.
“Well,” he said, with a smile and turning those black piercing eyes on my little squeeze, Karen, “maybe she could work with you?
Immediately my mind started wheeling and the fantasies were flying as I envisioned myself pinning little Karen to the mat and having her lying there completely at my mercy. But there was only one thing wrong with that fantasy, Karen could beat me up. She already proved it after school one day while we were waiting for our separate buses to pick us up and take us home. She bent my wrists back and brought me to my knees. It was painful and humiliating.
Finally, common sense took over, one of the few times in my long life, and I felt my spine crumble as I said I would think about it, knowing full well I wasn’t going to do it. I just didn’t have the courage to tell him to his face. From that day on, whenever I saw the wrestling coach in the hallway, I turned and went the other way.
Well, I never did go out for wrestling, and, as it turned out, our wrestling coach didn’t need my massive 98-pounds of muscle and my weekly default wins; he was very successful and was able to teach real wrestlers the moves that ensured they were more successful than not.
I eventually played basketball and I shot up to 5’10” tall, 6′ if you believe some of our high school programs, but I fell short of being the next Bob Cousey as my considerable basketball skills flamed out before they actually began.
Our high school wrestling coach’s name was Howard Mathias, Captain USMC, a true American hero. He received the purple heart while serving in the Korean War. So who was Captain Joel Compton?
Well, Captain Joel Compton was Robert E. Lee’s wartime cook. He was from Gretna, VA, a burly young man billed as the wrestling champion of the Army of Northern Virginia. He was responsible for Lee’s only victory over Grant when, in a wrestling match,he killed a blue coat following the Confederate surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. I never heard of a wrestler dying from a wrestling match. Boxing? Yes, there are many documented cases. Was it murder? We’ll never know as all witnesses no longer exist. Personally, the only wrestlers that I heard that died did so from overdoses of drugs and they were “professional wrestlers” who more than likely snorted steroids and other drugs on a daily basis.
Captain Compton lived to be ninety years old and passed away in 1932, still a defiant Confederate rebel – and wrestling champion!
long before any scouts could locate the small town of Brookfield, Wisconsin where I grew up.
That’s why I was trying the art of gentle persuasion while with her when coach approached us.