Wrestling in Nebraska

Coach Pazzo made all of us wrestlers run hurdles on our high school track in the winter months.

“Legs win matches,” he’d say.

Now, we were Nebraska farm boys. We knew what it was to work out of doors in subzero wind chills with no alternative but to keep working no matter how numb your feet were or how bad your fingers stung. You could say we were we more than conditioned to handle the elements already.

So when I tell you that Coach Pazzo made us run hurdles in the winter for wrestling practice, this is not a lament for the fact that it was cold as hell running sprints on that flat, wind-swept expanse of high school track. No.

It is, without question, a lament for the fact that this was the full extent of our wrestling training and instruction.

We just ran hurdles.


In all sorts of weather.

In our wrestling singlets.

This is what we did for all of our wrestling practices. Every last one of them. No work on the mat. No learning moves or techniques. Just running and jumping a raised barrier and running some more until the next raised barrier.

When we’d ask him when we’d actually get to doing some practice in the gym on the mats, he’d look at us like we were the one’s who were crazy.

“Gentlemen, it all starts with building the will to win,” he explained “And that’s what we’re doing. Until we have it, we don’t belong on the mats.”

They said he’d been the coach of some wrestling powerhouse back East that competed for state titles year after year. This was the first year our high school had a wrestling team, so I guess they were looking to bring in a proven winner, albeit one whose methods were extremely unorthodox.

One of them was his admonishment us against mentioning any of our training to anyone, complete with a signed pledge.

“I don’t want any of you boys squandering our competitive advantage.”

And like fools, we obeyed him.

So we ran.

Snow came early that year. Not the monster blizzards that would dump 2 feet in less than a day, but dribs and drabs of light dustings starting second week of November.

In a way, we’d have preferred running in 2 feet of snow to 2 inches. And if we had to conduct our version of wrestling practice while it was snowing, it definitely would have been a little less precarious if he had let us shovel off the track – something we had repeatedly asked of him and were repeatedly refused.

“Gentlemen. Let me introduce you to the three R’s of wrestling – react, recover, rebalance,” he said. “Develop your balance out here, your feet will feel like fly paper on the mat.”

We lost Tim Buckley, our 106-pounder, to a broken ankle 2 weeks before our opening dual meet. Our 113-pounder Bill Storms went down 3 days later – torn lateral meniscus.

By the time we were due to square off against Rockland, 4 others had succumbed to various lower body injuries and we were down to only 8 healthy wrestlers – which meant we would have to forfeit 6 of 14 weight classes.

This is didn’t phase Coach Pazzo in the least.

“This only means that there’s no margin for error. And guess what? I like that.” he said. “I like being in those type of situations. Why? Because they bring out the best in you.”

Down 0-18, after forfeiting the first three weight classes, our first wrestler up, also the first wrestler on our squad to stand on a wrestling mat all season, was our 126-pounder Virgil Wilder. The ref blew the whistle and if you happened to turn your head to wave to a friend in the stands, or put down your soda, or do just about anything else, you missed the entire match. A pin in 8.75 seconds. That marked a new Nebraska state record for fastest pin in a high school wrestling match.

That rather dubious record stood for all of 4 ½ minutes – until the very next match, where our 132-pounder Bob King got pinned in 8.1.

I was up next. I knew I would lose, but I wasn’t prepared to lose in record-breaking fashion. I didn’t want that type of baggage around my neck. Let the guys in the higher weight classes have that ignominious honor. I also knew the kid limbering up on the other side of the mat was Wimp Patterson, who was anything but, being a 3-time state champ. So without any training and with the sole intent of delaying the inevitable for as long as possible, when the ref blew his whistle, I simply ran around with around the outskirts of the circle until Wimp came within striking distance, at which point I’d simply skip safely outside of the circle.

Apparently this is frowned upon in the wrestling community. I took 2 stalling penalties until the ref told me one more and I’d be disqualified. I looked at the clock, and 14 seconds had passed. I had made it. The state record for fastest pin might be broken in the 182-pound or 220-pound classes – let Tim Anderson wear history around his neck – but not in mine.

I turned to face Patterson, who, despite weighing less than 138 pounds, in my memory was built like Lou Ferrigno. When he came toward me – instinct took over. Maybe it wasn’t so much instinct as much as muscle memory taking over, for instead of helplessly succumbing to his take-down, I attempted to hurdle him just as he came at my knees.

My legs hit his shoulder, I did a backflip and after it seemed like I spent an eternity in a blur of red mat, crowd, and gym lights, I landed with a loud thud on the mat.

Broke my coccyx, although back then, before I was a doctor, it was still a tailbone to me.

Patterson could have simply touched me with his finger to pin me. But he was a Rockland wrestler – and a 3-time state champ. Rather than taking the merciful route to victory, he wrapped my arms into a pretzel, did a move that lifted me off the mat and bent me backward and only then did the end come.

They rushed me to the hospital in an ambulance. I didn’t get to see the rest of the match, which is now legendary in Nebraska state wrestling lore.

What happened to Coach Pazzo remains a mystery to this day. No one could find him after the match. No one’s seen him since. Some say he just drove off in his car and left town. Other says they saw a dark Crown Vic with men in suits jump out an escort him away in a rather brusque fashion.

In any case, that night marked both the beginning and end of the wrestling season. We forfeited our remaining matches. Those of us who had yet to succumb to our training, our coach’s insanity, or our ruthless opponents – we looked upon ourselves as winners for simply having survived.

The following year our high school started a bowling team to replace wrestling in the winter sports schedule, and I’d take great delight in sneaking in a game of Asteroids or Pac-Man between games. After all. I’d earned it.

Traveling Salesman In Nebraska (Bizarro Ted Kooser)

He had a simple way of going about his business.
He’d wake at dawn, get out of bed, then take
a fresh white button down shirt out of this week’s motel
room’s closet, and a suitable tie for the day out of
this week’s drawer.

He wasn’t one to mix it up or make it needlessly complex.
Wasn’t the kind to choose a tie and then a shirt and then
get out of bed and only then get around to actually waking up.

No sir. He had a simple way of going about his business.

And that extended to how he got dressed.
One pant leg at a time. One shoe on, then the other shoe.
Not on the same foot, but on the opposite one. Simple.

And that simple way of going about his business
extended to how he went about his business
when he was in the act of going about his business.
One foot in front of the other. One foot on a higher step
followed by the opposite foot on the next highest step
not occupied by a foot so that an ascent of the steps
to the farmhouse door could be made. One set of steps
after the other. One screen door after another.
One doorbell after another. One farm after another.

His simple way of going about his business extended
to his approach on making the sale – sales, being his business.
He wasn’t one for gimmicks. Wasn’t one for reading books on sales
to learn the latest tricks of the trade. And he viewed them
as that – tricks. If what he was selling didn’t amount to
a good value for his customer, then he wasn’t going to
trick them into buying. He simply wouldn’t sell that product.
These principles had lead him to reject products other,
less scrupulous salesmen would have sold in a heartbeat.
But he’d been getting by with his current line by a) keeping it
simple and b) selling something he stood behind.

Sales to him was simple – you make a good offer, and
either they buy or they don’t. And if they don’t, you just
tip your hat, and move on. And whether it’s the first call
of the morning or the last call on a day of rejections and
defeat, you make the offer with genuine enthusiasm and –
most importantly – a smile on your face.

“Morning Ma’am. You look like a busy lady, so I won’t
beat around the bush. For the very reasonable price of $5,
I’d like the offer you the opportunity to bite into my face
as if it were a bright red candy apple.

“Now, if you have nothing but big bills on hand,
it’s very easy for me to make change. So,
should I get the bandages and disinfectant out?”

And the city slickers who like to make everything so very complex
might point out that this is not the proper way to execute
the assumptive close, that by asking “should I get
the bandages out?” he is making the classic sales mistake
of giving the prospect the opportunity of saying “no.”
That a much better phrasing of this particular assumptive close –
the by-the-book phrasing of it – would surely be:
“I’m going to get the bandages and disinfectant out
so we can get started.”

No matter. You see, it may come as a surprise to those city slickers,
but business was booming.

And when you have a simple way of going about your business,
you don’t even thinking about messing with something that’s working.

A Farmer Eats Peaches in Nebraska

He pours the coffee out of an old Mr. Coffee decanter
so brown with the accumulated residue of mornings past
it looks full even when empty. He sits down at his kitchen table
and digs into the morning paper, his dog, a Chesapeake Bay Lab, at his feet.

After finishing the third cup – out of repetition timed to coincide
with his finishing the obits in section D – he gets up from the table
and puts the cup in the sink. After washing out the cup,
he opens a drawer just to the right of the sink and picks out
a clean tablespoon, saying to the dog as he holds it up,
“Time to go to work, Rusty.”

He grabs an apron dirtied with orange and brown smears
from the basement door, puts it over his head, opens the door
and trudges downstairs to get to the morning’s work.

He’s made this trip so many times, there’s no need to turn on the lights.
He navigates his way through the basement using the greyish light
from the cellar windows. He grabs a full mason jar of peaches
from bank of floor-to-ceiling shelves along the East wall.
He walks to a beaten up wooden table in the center of the basement
and places the jar on the table. He clicks down on the chain of
a single lightbulb hanging over the table, sits down on a rickety wooden
folding chair, opens the lid – listening for the unmistakable pop of
a vacuum coming unsealed – picks up a spoon and digs in.

When he is done the jar, he places it in a wooden box
on the floor to his right, walks back over to the rows of
jarred peaches, grabs the next jar off of the shelf,
and proceeds to eat it in the same manner – straight through
and in silence.

At noon he goes up for lunch – lunch consisting of
a single cup of coffee and some crackers smeared
with peanut butter.

Around 1PM, he heads back downstairs. Pulling jar after jar
off of the shelf and digging in – soullessly and without joy – all afternoon.

At 4:45PM, he rolls the large garbage can that’s been next to him
all day to a corner of the basement, picks up the trapdoor and
dumps out its contents, which don’t look too different after coming up
than they did before going down – maybe a little pulpier.
When its contents have been dispatched, he washes out the can
with a garden hose and brings it back to the table. He bends down
and takes the wooden box filled with empty mason jars
to the basement sink where he washes and dries jar each jar
before putting it back in. When all the jars are washed, he takes
the box of empties back to where he started his work for the day,
and places each empty jar back on the shelf – counting aloud as he does.

He goes back to the table and places the now empty wooden box
on the floor. Before clicking off the lightbulb, he picks up a framed photo
of his wife on the table, kisses it and say, “That was delicious Mawd.”

There are only 754 jars of peaches left.

At this rate, it will take him a little over 6 weeks to finish them all,
which means he’ll have to pick up his pace if the doctor is right about
how much time he has left after the last set of scans.

This is will do, as he is determined
that their bounty will not go uneaten
and that no one will eat their bounty but him.

Coming in From the Mailbox in Nebraska (from the “Bizarro Ted Kooser” series)

Coming in from the mailbox,
Ned closes the front door behind him,
stomps the snow off of his winter boots,
shouts “I got the mail” to his wife
Ann Marie in the kitchen, throws the mail
on table in the hallway along with
his gloves, unclasps the buckles
of his winter boots, and, after stomping
few more of times, sheds them and
leaves them upright against the door.

He moves to their modest living room
where he takes off his red knit hat,
then his blue barn jacket, then the ugly
blue and yellow flannel shirt Ann Marie’s
sister gave him for his 58th birthday,
followed by his blue socks, then his
second pair of socks – also blue – his grey
thermal top, his flannel lined jeans,
his long-johns, his red boxer shorts,
his second pair of boxer shorts, which
are white, his black t-shirt, his white t-shirt,
the his second red knit hat, then his toupee,
his dentures, his contact lenses, then his
hearing aid, his medical ID bracelet,
his watch, and finally his wedding ring.

Once stripped bare,
there is no Ned anymore –
there is only a white mailbox atop
a white wooden post
impossibly balanced in
the middle of their living room.

“Anything good in there?”
says Anne Marie coming
in from the kitchen
looking down at the newspaper
in one hand while sipping
a mixture of vodka and wolf’s blood
from a steaming mug of coffee in the other.

She looks up and is startled.
“Ned? What the hell is the mailbox
doing in the middle of the living room?”

She notices that its flag is up
and moves closer to inspect.

Always Something New (from the “Bizzaro Ted Kooser” series)

They’ve been married nearly
50 years. They’ve had their
sorrow and their joys – which is
a way of saying that they’ve had
their sons and daughters. They
finally own the house outright – although
most of the new furniture is still on
the credit card whose balance never
seems to go down. But when he wakes up
each morning it’s like he’s always
looking at her for the first time. Even
after all these years, there’s always
something new. Looking down at her now,
as he brushes away the dark hair falling
across her forehead, he catches a
brief glimpse of something. He squints
at it then reaches back to the nightstand
for his spectacles. Once on, once he
can see clearly, there is clearly no doubt
that in the middle of her forehead,
is a tiny eye. Gently with his fingers,
he opens its lid to reveal an eye filled
with a thick, yellowish-brown pus. The
eye blinks at him. “It’s okay,” he says.
He walks to the bathroom, opens the medicine
cabinet and reaches for the eye drops
Doc Smith had given him a few years ago
when he was having eye problems due
the spell of that gypsy who was holed up
in Dick Porter’s hayloft. He’s sits back on the bed
and forces the eyelid open as puts some drops in.
“Now blink,” he says quietly, so as not to
wake up his wife. He continues to parcel out
the drops and wipe away the pus with a Kleenex
He continues until the small thing is clear and
as it clears he notices that it is a brown eye –
not the light blue of her light blue eyes.
“That’ll do for now, I guess,” he says.
The eye blinks twice as if to say “Thank
you.” He replaces locks of hair over the eye,
walks to the bathroom and puts the eye drops
back. He brushes his teeth and starts to
head out, but realizes there’s some
unfinished business to take care of.
He takes a tremendously large shit – one
for the ages – then goes out into the tool shed
to sharpen his cutting tools. Halfway there,
he thinks of something his father used to say,
“They’re not making the days any longer…”
and shakes his head, because he knows, deep
down, that it’s only a matter of time until they do.

The Look You’re Giving Me (from the “Bizarro Ted Kooser” series)

The look you’re giving me right now,
I’ve seen that look many times before.
It’s the look Doc Jenkins has when
he holds up a new baby girl and hands her
to her mother, and the look she has
staring into the eyes of her first child.
It’s the look Mrs. Benson down at
Benson’s Bakery gets when she takes
a perfect tray of freshly-baked muffins
out of the oven. Or down at the hardware
store, it’s the look Ned Seagrove gets
when he’s looking for that obscure part
and keeps telling you "I know it’s here.
I know it’s here…" and manages to
blindly pull it out that elbow joint from
a pile of bric-a-brac at the end of the aisle.

That’s the look you’re giving me as I slowly
walk down the stairs and into our kitchen
zombie-like, my face drenched in streaks
of blood oozing out from center of my forehead
where a nail protrudes out like a third eye
on a stalk. But instead of rushing to my aid,
you give me that look, THAT look as I fall
to my knees, pointing at the 4-inch spike
of heavy iron protruding from my forehead,
and, due to proximity, the unseen two inches
buried in my frontal cortex. You pour a glass
of wine, pull out a chair from the kitchen table
and sit there, calmly giving me that look, the way
the father of that mysterious clan of backwoods
people who just moved in over on Elm St.
looks at his son after his young one’s first successful
gutting and disembowelment of a squirrel
or maybe the way the quiet, gentle, good-natured,
white supremacist seamstress Greta Gauss,
looks holding up a custom-tailored uniform,
complete with a special new White Power insignia
she herself designed and sewed on the sleeve.

This look tells me all I need to know.
You see, I’ve played a little trick on you.
Oh, wife of mine, oh, love of my life.
I did not actually accidentally shoot
myself in the forehead with a nail gun.
I merely pulled one of the oldest tricks
in the book, a trick Nebraska husbands
have been playing on their wives for
decades, whether it’s the "honey
the axe just seemed to slip and now
it has become embedded in my forehead"
trick of the early pioneers or the "Honey,
wouldn’t you know it, I was paring an
apple and the knife slipped and, heck,
well, clumsy me, the knife somehow got
embedded in my stomach, producing this
fatal abdominal wound still gushing
quite unbelievable amounts of blood"
variation popular in the Eisenhower era.

Yes, we’ve been pulling this for years
in order to see what the look will be.
And your look has betrayed you. It’s told me
everything I need to know, confirmed what
I suspected – you’re fucking the hardware man,
Ned Seagrove. Yeah, I’ve know it for a while now.
I’ve known it long before the other night, when
we were getting ready for bed and that 6”x9”
sheet of 60-grit coarse sandpaper fell out of
your bra or that other night when you reached
into the dresser drawer for some lubricant
and instead pulled out a bottle of wood glue.

What I don’t understand is why the look
you gave me was the look it was. The look
you should have given me was the look that
Margie Demspster gets once every two years
when that $2 lottery card she buys once a week
turns up a winner or the look Fred Franzen gets
when he thinks he’s gone through his last bottle
and is rummaging around in the cupboards
and finds a brand new pint bottle of Old Grand Dad
or the look that Gene Price gets when he wakes up
thinking he’s still Nick "Steamboat" Guardano about to
start his day in a six-by-eight-foot prison cell
in upstate New York, serving consecutive life sentences
for armed robbery, racketeering, murder, and using
a slice of spumoni as an deadly weapon, but realizes
that he’s now waking up in Nebraska as Gene Price,
assistant produce manager at Fresh Fields.

But the look you’re giving me, it’s one of
satisfaction, a basking in accomplishment,
a self-congratulatory silent sigh of pride over
a job well-done – not the look of sudden
good fortune.

And as I come to this realization, I see
the look you’re giving me change, flickering
momentarily from confusion to panic then
back to confusion then calm understanding,
all as your eyes track the person who I would
know is now standing behind me even had I
not heard the creaks of the stairs or caught
the faint odor of fresh wood mixed with hints of
brand new rubber. I stand there and as the
nail from the nail gun that Ned Seagrove
is holding penetrates the back of my skull, the look
I’m giving you is the look that Doc Jenkins
gets after he’s crossed state lines to perform
an illegal abortion and has made it safely
back home or Mrs. Benson the bakery gets
when she’s signed a plea agreement on over
2,000 counts of failure to collect sales tax, or the look
Fred Franzen gets when Doc Jenkins tells him
it’s not gall bladder cancer after all, but merely
that he will merely need a liver transplant –

A Soft Spot of His Family (from the “Bizarro Ted Kooser” series)

His hands are rough from
working the farm, scraping
what he can out of the un-
forgiving soil. His face –
tanned dark from working
in the fields every day from
sunup to sunset, wrinkles
spreading across it like all
so many rivers of worn leather
leading up to the deep
crows feet around his eyes.
He has callouses on his feet,
his corns are terrible and he’s
due for bunion surgery at the
country hospital. With his
gruff countenance, which some
would even call “abrasive”, he’s
not the warm and fuzzy type, he
wouldn’t win any Miss Congeniality
contests. But he has a soft spot
for his wife and children. Every night,
after the table’s been cleared, the
dishes washed, dried and put away,
he shows it to them, sitting in the
old recliner of their modest living room,
once the children 2 daughters and
a son, along with his wife, have lined up
in order of height. He lifts up his shirt
to reveal a 3″x4″ region of hairless and
incredibly smooth skin just below the
end of the rib cage on his right side.
And one by one, they rub his soft spot
with a special handmade lotion they’ve
carefully made according to the recipe
on the sacred scrolls and apply it
according to the instructions given to them
by the aliens shortly before they left
in their spacecraft. They don’t talk
about this to others. This is Nebraska,
and, here in Nebraska, some things are
just family matters you don’t blab about.

Husband and Wife Over a Kitchen Table in Nebraska (from the “Bizarro Ted Kooser” Series)

Choosing the bills
to pay this month,
seated side-by-side
at their small, wooden
kitchen table, covered
with a thin blue tablecloth
that barely hides the grooves
from years of use,
the two of them,
Mother and Father,
alone, after the children have
been rented out
for the evening.

“We’re poor, Mother,” he says.
“We’re poor.”

She puts both her hands
on the cheeks of his whiskered face
and turns him to face her.
She looks lovingly into his one good eye,
momentarily, then gets that familiar look,
that cold, steely glint in her eyes
when a hard truth needs to be told.
“We need more inventory, Father.”

And somewhere in the next county
there is the thunderous backfire of a car
or an old dog being shot, so thankful,
that he doesn’t even whimper.

Our Boy Has Grown

When he was four, the family dog,
a border collie named “Rounder”
still towered over him. Once he started
school, for what seemed like ages,
he was the smallest boy in the class
by nearly a full head. Then two. Then three.
Half the girls in his class were taller than
him all through elementary. You remember
having to prop him up at the kitchen table,
putting him on the pillows that Aunt Sadie
had given you that one Christmas, his legs
forever hanging down. You look at him now
in the backyard and he’s wider in the shoulders
and all around. “I made him some oatmeal.
In the blue one,” says his mother. When
his mother’s not looking, you add a few
bags of sugar to it and stir them in, one
five-pound bag after the other. He never
outgrew his fondness for sugar. You backup the
pickup to where he’s laying in the yard.
You poke your head out of the side of the cab
and give a yell. “Feedin’ Time, Son!”
He digs in, greedily shoveling the oatmeal
into his mouth with a shovel. You beam
with pride. Maybe in the big city, things
are different, but out here on the great,
plains of Nebraska, there’s really nothing
that makes a father’s heart swell with pride
more than watching his grown son eat
seventy-five pounds of oatmeal out of the
back of a pickup. It is these little moments
that make life as a parent so very wonderful.
When he has finished, he emits several grunts
you translate as “That was good. Thanks for
adding the sugar,” drops the shovel, rolls
over and goes to sleep. By the barn, as you are
hosing the remnants of the oatmeal out of
the truck’s bed, you wonder if you could buy
a used cement mixer, whether that would
make things easier. And like all fathers who
have unmarried sons of a certain age, in this
case, a certain age being the specific age of 35,
you say yet another prayer to the Lord above
that sooner, rather than later, he’ll finally
find for himself a good and strong
woman to take care of him.

Un-Abandoned Farmhouse

The chipped wood and architectural design says it’s an old wooden farmhouse. The eight empty boxes of Captain Crunch in the kitchen garbage say whoever lives here likes Captain Crunch. They do not say whoever lives here does not like Frosted Flakes and are correct not to say this, as when you open the worn cupboard door you find eight boxes of Frosted Flakes that say unmistakably whoever lives here does in fact like Frosted Flakes in addition to Captain Crunch. The rickety stairs say “creak” “creak” “creak” as you walk up to the second floor. The eight tiny beds say small children approximately the size of Gary Coleman in his prime sleep here together in this small room. The lack of adult-size beds in any of the other rooms upstairs say that the parents probably sleep on the sofa or could possibly be vampires who sleep in a coffin or crypt in the basement. You’ll have to wait for what the sofa and basement have to say about this. The sound of the door opening and voices downstairs say the residents have come home. The tiny dwarves in the kitchen say, “Who left the cupboard door open?” and then say, “Who the fuck are you?” when they see you. The racing thoughts in your head say, “Shit. Let’s get out of here!” and the quick movements of your legs and feet through the living room say, “We agree wholeheartedly.” The bullets shattering the windshield of your electric blue Dodge Neon say that the dwarves are armed and believe in using lethal force to keep unwanted intruders out of their farmhouse. Two miles up the road, your speedometer says your have driven two miles. Looking to your left, the chipped wood and architectural design says it’s an old wooden farmhouse. The voice from the back seat says, “Now see if it’s in there.”

after Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse”