The Big One

I.

Swinging in the breeze, helpless and immobile, I could feel the shit cramps coming on. I was fifty feet from the forest floor, wearing clown pants and hanging by a girdle, waiting for the young fit kid to come get me. I had asked them before this all started if this was “something an overweight middle aged guy” could do, and they had assured me it was. They lied, but I didn’t know that till I was fifty feet up a tree.

It all started when a gang of young zealots in my church formed a team to “minister” to the rest of us by offering up weekend “adventures”: things like hundred-mile bike trips, rock climbing, white-water rafting, etc. They would organize the trip for you, take care of the food and arrangements, and even throw in a couple of Bible teachings. The experience was supposed to help build a sense of community or teamwork or something.

And that pitch apparently worked, because someone signed up my little Bible study group for a weekend on the “ropes course” – an elaborate spiderweb of ropes way up in the trees that you climb around on. So me and about seven or eight brothers paid the fee and packed our bags. I went with some eagerness, believing the lie. I believed that I was physically fit enough to enjoy the experience, not just survive it. I looked forward to climbing way up into the canopy, traversing from tree to tree on suspended ropes with the wind in my hair and songbirds at eye level. It sounded like fun. I was sure that had such thing existed when I was a kid, I would have been all over it.

The night we arrived, one of the zealots came to our campsite to brief us on what to expect the next day. I was heartened to see that this was a big man. (Did I mention that I’m a big fellow?) Ed was within an inch or so of my height, and probably within ten pounds or so of my weight. When you’re as big as me you notice that, because it’s a rare sight. Midway into his talk he mentioned that you could wear “no shorts” on the ropes course. I raised my hand and said that was a problem because all I packed was shorts. Ed looked at me considering for a moment, then said “You could borrow a pair of my pants.”

I was impressed with how quickly my seeming “problem” was dispatched.

Ed said he would stop by in the morning with some pants that I could wear before the time we were due to leave for the course. So I hit the rack that night in high spirits, my mind ablaze with visions of a day of serious fun, cavorting in the treetops with my comrades.

The first sign that all was not well was when Ed showed up the next day with the pants he was willing to lend me. These were crafted in white muslin and came to mid-calf. They had a built-in rope belt, the kind you tie into a bow just above your wiener. My mom would have called them “beach-combers.” The worst was that they had been tie-dyed; purple and orange and chartreuse in big smeary blotches. Still, I bravely donned them, determined to not miss out on the fun.

At the ropes course proper were a couple more zealots: a young fit dude and a young fit lady. They explained about “carabiners” and “belaying” (emphasizing safety) and how we were supposed to help one another through the “challenges” above. They had it set up so that there were stainless steel cables running above the whole course. You were supposed to have your carabiner hooked onto a cable at all times. (The act of hooking your carabiner to the cable was called “belaying” – I don’t know why they had to use made-up words.) The carabiner was attached to a length of rope that was fastened to a girdle (kind of an S & M affair that went around your waist and up under your business). They also made us put on Devo-like helmets. So, properly instructed and fitted out, we blithely started up the great trees.

I did do better than some. My buddy Jeff got stuck on the first obstacle he tried, and that was only about fifteen feet up. He was somewhat mollified though by the fact that it was the young fit lady that came to rescue him. She was known to us; in fact she was married to a close friend (who suspiciously was not with us). This association however did not prevent us being keenly aware of her striking good looks, though. She had quite a time getting Jeff unraveled and ended up upside down and kind of straddling his face, which turned a bright red. I’m sure Jeff didn’t expect to get quite so intimate with a buddy’s wife on a Bible retreat.

I climbed way up before I tried anything hard. The first thing I did try was a little bridge that was just two ropes with two-by-sixes every two feet or so, spanning something like thirty feet. It got pretty wobbly I can assure you, and I worked up a sweat, but got through it. Then I did a couple of easy ones, swinging from one tree to another Tarzan style.

And it was fun, too – up to that point. But I recognized that I didn’t have enough energy to handle too many more of these “challenges,” so I looked for the best route to the zip-line which was the preferred way down. I could have crossed back over on the little bridge I took at first, but I knew what that was like. Near it was a second bridge that went just as directly in the right direction and it looked hard, but doable.

It was three ropes when you started out, one beneath your feet, and one at each hand. About halfway across though, the three became one. The idea was to “walk” as far as you could, and when it got too wobbly, to kind of roll over so that you were hanging below the rope, your hands and ankles hooked on. Then you could skooch along the rest of the way to the next tree. The platform you finished at was about 4 or 5 feet higher than the one you started on.

I watched Pete to see how he did, and he did the flip thing flawlessly, and he was in mid-skooch when I set out. I did good through the first part and got pretty far before I did the flip. I may have pushed it a little too far though, because when the flip came, it came up suddenly like a slap and caught me if not unprepared, certainly awkward, and my ankles slipped off the rope. So I had to swing and grunt to get my heels back up on the rope and that took some doing, and that tired me out some more.

Now bear with me as I explain this: I weigh more than Pete. I weigh more than most folks. The rope I was hanging on was stretchier than the cable that my carabiner was hooked to above. So, when I started skooching toward the platform (remember, headed upwards) the rope stretched a bit, so that I ended up pulling the little cable between my jockstrap and the carabiner tight as a guitar string. The carabiner stopped sliding along the cable. I pulled and I fussed and I fought it as best I could, but couldn’t get it to budge. I tried lifting myself up enough to make the safety rope slack, but I couldn’t do that and skooch at the same time. My arms eventually turned to rubber, and I was fairly flabbergasted when I remembered what they said about helping each other, so I called out to Pete, who was already on the platform, only maybe five feet away.

Pete looked at me and said “you got to be kidding” or some other smart-ass thing, but then he leaned out and we locked hands (and Pete ain’t no 98 pound weakling, neither) and we strained and pulled and pulled and strained and that damn thing did not budge. We stopped for a minute and caught our breath and tried again but it didn’t work the second time either. Pete decided that there was no use in both of us being stuck up a tree, so he hollered down for the young fit kid. He was busy helping some other person (who was also reputed to be able to handle the ropes course) and asked me to just “chill” for a while.

So that’s how I ended up swinging in the breeze in clown pants. I had to wait a while too, something like twenty minutes. So I had time to find the most comfortable position, which I did, and I kind of sat in that girdle holding the belay rope, or whatever the hell you call it, in my arms. I got so comfortable, in fact, that I kind of daydreamed for a bit, taking in the view, pretending that I was flying, etc. I felt some gas coming and I thought “there’s no-one around, let ‘er go,” and I did. But as I did, I felt that second, more ominous urge from below.

I had to go! I broke out in a sweat immediately and my mind started racing with the possibilities, and none of them were good. Pooping your pants fifty feet above the forest floor and over the heads of your buddies is not something you can live down. I also pictured cleaning up the mess in the water from the well with the old manual pump, and shuddered. This was not good. Not good at all. But then I thought, “Wait! I am not going to shit my pants! I am NOT going to shit my pants . . . I’m going to shit in Big Ed’s pants!” That calmed me down some, as it made me smile.

The kid got there in time as it turned out and (why Pete and I didn’t think of this is beyond me) yanked on the safety rope up near the carabiner which caused me to swing ever closer to the platform, and in a minute I was able to climb on. I was also able to navigate my way the zip line and got to enjoy that, too.

After a sprint to the latrine, I went and sought out Ed who, I had noticed, had stayed on the ground all morning. “Ed, have you ever done the ropes course?”

“Who, me?” he asked laughing. “No. No way.”

Bastard.

he was a big man, an attribute that served him well in the ring. most of his opponents were shorter and he was usually able to keep them away with his left jab. few were quick and wily enough to penetrate his defenses. he only lost 5 of 81 fights and was only ever knocked out once. his great size meant he was not quick on his feet, nor did he have quick hands, but he had great strength. of his 76 victories, 68 were by knock out, that ratio the best ever for a heavyweight


I told the story that night as we drank slivovitz around the campfire. I got a big laugh when I reminded them all of Jeff’s predicament, and when I got to the part about shitting in Ed’s pants. Ed laughed most of all. I love telling stories. I’m not always good at it so it’s extra gratifying when it goes well. Mike spit a mouthful of the liquor into the fire which made big fireball which also got a laugh. We all smoked cigars. It was good.

I remember, too, that I packed up and left that night. Everyone else stayed to camp out another night, but I wanted to get to my office in the morning. Some big deadline on Monday.

It’s funny when I look back on my life. I started out as a hippie, then was a punk. I was always artsy-fartsy. I always thought of myself as counter-culture. I was the last guy I thought would ever voluntarily leave friends at a campfire in order to chase a buck. I do know that at the time it made sense to me.

It seems so obvious and trite I hesitate to say it, but I don’t remember what the business deal was that I wanted to prepare for. I do remember the friends around that fire that I left behind.

in a moment of clarity
he shook the bag
and poured the tea into his great hand
he noted that the individual leaves
were rolled into tight coils
we believe not that we can hide from god
but if we coil our hearts tight enough
we can ignore him for a time
until the hot water covers us
then we loosen gradually
to reclaim our original shape
floating with others of like kind
and what is inside emerges
flavoring our surroundings
with other for still
others to enjoy


To be completely honest, I do remember being seduced by wealth. When Wednesday was born (about the same time as the story above) ,I traded in my pickup and bought an enormous Buick wagon. One of those with the “way back” (the seat facing wrong-ways in the back.) It had a big V-8 motor, power everything and was upholstered in blue velvet. It had leg room to spare. It was a me-sized car. Talk about comfortable! This was a hot tub on wheels. I loved that car.

Not only was it comfortable physically, it was good for my psyche, too. (Or maybe not, you decide.) This car meant that I had arrived. My ass was firmly in the middle class. I was no longer the misfit freak that I chose to be in high school and college, I no longer got nervous whenever I saw a cop, I had short hair, I went to church regular. I gave up punk rock and had a wife and a house and three kids . . . I was a regular adult! I was . . . normal!

I remember my boss taking me and my wife out to dinner with his wife at Morton’s one night. The special that night was a five pound lobster, and I had enough cojones to order it. Don’t know what it cost. Back then probably $150.00. I had several martinis, too, and a shot of anisette, and key lime pie for dessert. When the valet brought the Buick around, I handed my keys to my wife. As I sunk into the velvet cushion, my head swimming, I thought, “Man, is it good to be rich, or what?” And for the first time ever my mind didn’t answer back with an indictment of materialism.

Yes, I worked too many hours; yes, I reneged on the hippie pledge, but I was just doing what I was taught to do in college. I was doing, too, what I was taught to do in church (providing for my family), and I was delighted to find that it worked, that I could make “a good living” (whatever the hell that means) by doing this dumb-ass stuff – you know, business. It was like a new toy, or a game that I just learned and discovered I was good at.

When the fish are biting, it’s hard to put the pole down and go home, and when you’re eating five -ound lobsters, you work on weekends.

After the night of the five-pound lobster, my career kept on shining and sparkling and continued to hold my attention. I got recruited by a large firm – I don’t want to get into specifics, so let’s just say I was playing for a minor league team when I bought that Buick, but then I got picked up by the Yankees. It was an exciting time. I literally and actually and – I am not making this up – woke up in a good mood each morning, eager to get back to the office.

I got to wear nice clothes, I got to meet influential people, I got to travel. I took clients to play golf and vendors took me to play golf. It seemed to me that the kids that had regarded me with suspicion and even animosity in high school had now accepted me. I had made the team, as it were, I was one of them.

II.

he recognized the hand of god in those defeats. not that god caused him to lose but that those losses were part of the incredibly complex (and personal – like dna) set of events and circumstances that drew him inexorably to this point. twenty years later and he had the opportunity to do something that had never been done. many scoffed, more advised against even trying. but this was the moment. all his labor and pain had brought him to the threshold. his memories of childhood – the poverty and depravity – burned like coals beneath his passion to liberate the other children, to create for them a way out. this was the way it was to be done, this was the path he must tread.


I wonder if someday I’ll have some insight into why so many of my stories involve poop and then I’ll be able to write about that. But for now understand that I farted and called the nurse. I’ll admit I was a little pleased that it was a guy nurse on that shift but, truth be told, I would have stood up in church and said “I farted” if it was necessary at that point.

You see I had a tube down my nose – you know the one that runs into your stomach and sucks out whatever enters there – which is surprisingly not that bad, or at least not as bad as I had imagined, but I wanted to be rid of it and the key was to fart. I guess peristalsis shuts down when they put you under a general and they wanted to make sure that things were moving again before they took the tube out since they had removed part of my large intestine.

When I got to the hospital, I was pretty sick and it was touch-and-go as to whether or not I would have to go into emergency surgery or not. (I’m glad it turned out that I didn’t need that because emergency surgery would have meant a temporary colostomy and all the associated inconveniences and humiliations that the nightmare center of my brain told me about. [Ha ha, poop!])

So they were watching me closely.

I remember that I had arrived at something like 7:00 PM when my doctor had told me “go to the emergency room” and it was 1:00 AM before they got me up into a room, so I was tired. Plus, they had just squirted a big dose of morphine into my IV, so when the nurse was talking to me about what was going on I was hearing it but I was also hearing birds chirping, a waterfall and inna gada da vida. She told me (I think) that I was “on in/out” which meant that they wanted to closely monitor whatever went “in” (what I ate and drank) and “out” (ha ha, poop!). She gave one of those plastic hospital urinal things, (and this is where it gets really weird) a plastic device that she called “the hat.” The hat, she explained (“oh won’t you come with me-he,”) fit inside the toilet bowl and I was to poop into it (“ please take my hand…”) and I don’t know, blow a whistle or something. She told me that they wanted to weigh it. (“doont doo, doo doo doo doop, doon doon doon”)

So the next morning when I woke up, I swear to you that I didn’t even remember the conversation from the night before the first time I moved my bowels. I just did my business and flopped back into bed. Actually I think I moved my bowels (that’s a weird expression isn’t it? “Where’d you move ‘em to, Newark?”) three times over a day or two before the nightmare center of my brain whispered in my ear “remember “the hat?” – that wasn’t a dream.” And I ignored it (most of what my brain says is bullshit anyway) and eventually forgot about it again.

Some days later, after the antibiotics had established a beachhead and the morphine was being doled out rather than lavished, I noticed a handwritten note on a 8 ½” x 11″ sheet of paper at my door. It read “I/O.” “I/O,” I thought, “I/O, that reminds me of something, what does that mean . . . ?” Then I heard the music from Psycho as the nightmare center of my brain gleefully shouted “In / Out! Remember? In / Out!” and I jerked the bathroom door open and looked up on the shelf and there (I swear I heard an Iron Butterfly organ flourish) was a plastic bowl with a wide brim . . . a “hat.” “Ha ha! Poop!”

I chose however to continued to ignore it, and no-one ever brought it up again. I guess the nursing staff wasn’t any more anxious to handle my poop than I was to hand it to them.

I was there for twelve days altogether, and they eventually cut me open and they moved my bowels to an undisclosed location and I lost twenty pounds and I didn’t have to get a colostomy and I didn’t die or “go septic.”

I really did drink the warm water they brought me thinking it was bad coffee, not realizing that I was supposed to dip a teabag in it. I read The Godfather and watched a bazillion episodes of Law & Order and Trading Spaces. Each evening my wife would bring the kids and they would hang with me for a half-hour or so. And every evening my little Wednesday, then just six, would read me a bedtime story.

I went back to work a week before I was supposed to, and even before that I went to a friend’s house to supervise a big remodeling project. When I was there I couldn’t help but swing a hammer a time or two which is maybe why I developed a ventral (above the navel, in line with the incision) hernia. I had that repaired, but that repair failed and they called the next one a “giant hernia” and so I went under general anesthesia three times in one year (altogether now: “that explains a lot”) and now have a scar that runs from my pelvis to my breastbone.

After that last operation, I still had staples holding me shut, and two “drains” sticking out of my gut when I went back to work. I just wanted to be there.

he stepped out of his dressing room and strode to the ring to the strains of “if I had a hammer” and the crowd cheered for him. this quest had brought him fame and adulation beyond anything he had dare imagine even though he had not yet finished the job. this was the big one. this was the night he was to claim what was for the past hundred years the highest prize in all of sport – the heavyweight championship. ali had claimed that god was on his side, this one only that he was on god’s side.

III.

In the normal course of events if you let one go it takes a couple of seconds for the odor to reach your nose. In that time the gas kind spreads out and dissipates to a degree. By the time it reaches the guy across the room it has dissipated even more. A fan can change all that.

A fan set in the right position can deliver a direct-from-the-butt freshness that you just can’t get any other way. I did this to myself this morning. I had woken up early for no reason so I just came down and sat in the recliner, a fan across the room blowing right up between my feet. I just lay back thinking that maybe I could fall back asleep. Well, I let a honk like a goose, and that goose sat up and slapped me in the face. (The output, hard-boiled eggs from hell. The culprit, cole slaw.) I mean the potency was alarming. On the plus side, it didn’t linger but rather continued on its migration.

I roughly timed subsequent issues and found that it took no more than .5 seconds from the expelling to the smelling. On the occasion of a long low one, I could actually smell it while it was still emerging, an event I found particularly revolting.

This satisfied a curiosity I had from earlier in the week. I was in the same room with my daughter, seated near the same box fan, with an s.b.d. floating around me when she made some smart-assed remark. In retaliation I picked up the fan and aimed it at her. Her comment was “Wow, that worked way better than it should have.”

I have written somewhere about the fan in my bedroom, that it blows across my wife first and then me so that any geese in the room don’t go Fabio on my wife, but are carried off harmlessly away from her.

Before we had children though, we had turned the master bedroom into a party room (we entertained a lot), and took one of the smaller rooms for ourselves. This meant that our bed was crammed up in a corner, so that if my wife had to go pee in the night, she would have to crawl over me to get to the can. The fan was in the corner of the room opposite where the queen’s head was, so the air from the fan went right across my b.v.d’s before reaching the corner and swirling there around her.

I had performed some experiments back then but it was considerably trickier. First, I had to pretend to be asleep. There would have been hell to pay if she knew I was a awake. Second, I had to make them silent. My intention was to measure the time between the release and the groan or other expression of disgust. I had to assume that she would emit an “ugh” or a “arrggh” as soon as she smelled it. She could groan though in response to the sound of a fart alone, long before the smell reached her. So, they had to be silent. Only in that way could I be sure that I was getting a true butt-to-schnozz measure. Lastly I had to refrain from laughing when I got a strong response (“Oh, my God!”). This was often the most challenging.

so he defeated a man nearly half his age and set the stage for the very lucrative “title defense” fights. he continued to fight until he was forty-eight years old, till his wife bade him to stop. when he finally did lose he was gracious in defeat, saying that he had “nothing left to prove” and indeed he did not.

and the lord blessed his efforts in surprising ways. he had his own clothing line and of course ‘the grill’. he even had his own TV show. he had earned enough money to keep the youth center running for many years to come. even so, he tried to get back into the prize ring at the age of fifty. even winning the big one did not quench the desire to fight.

Every so often, maybe twice a month, and for many years now, I stay up late and watch a fight. After everyone is in bed I will drink whiskey and watch old boxing matches on the TV. I’ve got quite a few on DVD. My favorites are Clay vs. Liston, Ali vs. Foreman, Douglas vs. Tyson and Foreman vs. Moorer. I’ve seen those ones probably fifty times each. Each one a heavyweight title fight, each one won by the underdog.

The strategy, the skill and maybe mostly the guts of these men fascinate me. But it’s more than that. If I were merely interested or curious, I would have stopped long ago. No, I seem to be nourished by this exercise (or perhaps medicated).

I suppose that I take encouragement from the fairytale nature of these fights. Poor kid facing insurmountable odds finds an inner strength and somehow bests the beast and lives happily ever after or something.

Then there’s the ‘real life’ component of boxing. Other sports are all removed from reality – you miss your first serve in tennis and you get a do-over. An unplayable lie is a one stroke penalty. Screw up in a fight and you may get your nose broken. The fighters are therefore on a razor’s edge – the action both tense and intense. A single blow can end a fight, so the watching is intense too.

Of course boxing fans attach a historical significance to these things that normal people don’t. To a pugophile the “Rumble in the Jungle” is easily as important an event as the assassination of JFK or the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

You will have noticed that two of the fights listed above feature George Foreman; one he lost, and one he won. You will have noticed too that I’ve been writing about him (and his fight against Moorer) in the italicized parts above.

There are several fighters that I could have gone rhapsodic on besides him. There are many that I admire and have studied, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be him. And rest easy, one of the biographical stories above is a work of fiction. Whichever one disturbed you the most, that one is completely made up.

he was painfully aware that the shape of his life was flat. there had been no peak, no defining event. if his life were a novel, the climax had not yet occurred and it bothered him that the denouement seemed to be unfolding. he tried for some years to hunt down a dragon to slay, but it eluded him. if there is to be a dragon in his life, it will have to be granted to him. consequently he often attaches a disproportionate significance to mundane events. this habit sometimes tries his family’s patience.

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