The Boston Arena, March, 1965…
Otis Fletcher is used to sticky, constrained, desperate situations: man-sweat sharp with fear, arms taut, and ribs and faces entwined, high-tops scrabbling the bull’s-eye mat, not sure he can hold on one more second, or wants to. Ear guards damp grunts; thrashing masks pain (blood sometimes too, if the ref fails to see). Otis knows to wait for his rival’s dallying ebb, a slack that shouts: Second feels good today. Go ahead, take me.
Inches from the mat’s edge, Coach Lester Wrangel squats crab-like, watching intently. Less than a second after Otis feels his opponent’s let-up, Coach sees it, leaps up, and screams, raspy and red-faced, windmilling both arms.
“Drop him! Drop him! Drop him!”
Coach’s words express the team’s confessional: a D.H. Lawrence poem he tortured into its current form after returning alive from Guadalcanal to teach high school English. Full fury! No pity! Drop them like birds! Each November, he mimeographs it, hands it around, and has the captains lead call-and-response recitations. Coach preaches that, aside from war, wrestling is the great equalizer of brawn and brains, a manly puzzle to solve and love. Three seasons ago, bored and a little chubby, Otis bought the vision and joined the team, shocking his parents. Running for Captain last week, he grounded his winning speech on the poem fragment, the only candidate to remind the team of Coach’s gospel: You have to want to get pinned.
Today, the premise fails before a thousand people. Otis venerates those who wrestle at States, but having joined that elite a year ahead of plan—and now, having lost—his shame burns hot.
Octopus (real name, Theo Behm, a.k.a. The Bomb) is the latest proud product of Chandler, Massachusetts. The football-wrestling powerhouse abuts Dirkden, Otis’ hometown (haven to a quarter of MIT’s and Harvard’s faculties). One narrow unlit road links the two, tendriling out from Chandler’s refrigerator factory (“U.S.A.” painted in story-high letters) past its bowling alleys and bars, through a swampy no-man’s-land. Dirkden receives the link like week-old fish, plowing its pothole-strewn section last after snowstorms. Shortly after V-J Day, wielding Army discharge papers and a pay stub from Gillette, Otis’ parents Charles and Ruth Fletcher elbowed their way into a treeless Dirkden tract near the road’s outflow. Until Charles got promoted, their mortgaged toehold on respectability meant strict abstinence from luxuries such as fresh meat, nights out, new clothes—and from letting three-year-old Henry have a sibling too soon.
Octopus. The grim hulk is bound for Iowa full ride, but still. Feigning weakness so well that even Coach is deceived? With only seconds left, Otis is ahead, until boom. At the ref’s whistle Octopus spits his mouth guard at Otis’ ear and leaps up, prancing to foot-stomping roars, flexing and bellowing, neck tendons taut. Otis had rehearsed victory at this venue so often and in such detail (ref lifting his hand, Coach’s crushing bear-hug, adulation at the post-season banquet) that a win here had come to feel as real as the past.
Stunned on his back, the vision plunges into a mapless void. A blizzard of post-debacle faint praise leaves him numb. Man, you almost had him! Podium silver is awesome! Next year that weight class is yours! A year seems a long time to wait for what he can still feel as if it’s part of him. He shouldn’t have let his mother’s worries distract him. Sure, Henry might join the clot of troops wading ashore at DaNang this week, but it’s hardly combat and Henry is twenty-two, able to handle himself. Why did she feel the need to harp on that today of all days?
That spring, Otis eats ice cream (the first time in years) and puts on six slovenly pounds. Each attempt to staunch mental replay of the match fails. Finally, he decides that Octopus must have used a borderline hold that caused him to black out for a split second. Octopus had to have known—and the ref had to have seen it—but now it’s too late to contest. He let a beast loot his dream.