These, the tenth-grade years (1990-91) were the greatest of Joe Holman’s high school days.
It was a kickin’ time. The cars were still mostly square. Saturday Night Live had a great cast. My favorite sitcoms were still on the air. I would anxiously wait for the next Sunday night’s episode of Married With Children just after seeing the then-influential show, Herman’s Head, which happens now to be known as the show where the first reference to “condom” was used in a major time slot broadcast.
These were the days of hard, hot workouts in the old garage with dad’s rusty weights. Those weights still sit in that garage. These were the days of unrestrained passions, of doing what mattered in the moment, like cramming down four packages of Reese’s Buttercups and a Diet Coke at lunch, not caring about the inconsistency, or swiping a few double-meat burgers and fries from the ugly broad working behind the lunch line when she wasn't looking (and one time, getting caught trying to).
These were the days of hitting the Olympic weights in the calisthenics room in the school gym we frequented. These were the days of getting dressed up like hippies and causing some trouble in the neighborhood and kicking every stop sign we came across, saying: “I hate life!” when, in fact, we loved it. These were the days of walking around campus in a tight IZOD shirt and then walking around the rest of the day with a decent pump to sport my proudly owned 13.3’ inch biceps.
It was right after the big move from Judson High to Macarthur High. I came in just before mid-term. Met the guy who became my best friend that year. His name was Dan Wright. I envied his size and strength. His 14.5’ inch pythons had me pumping iron with “blood, sweat, and tears” in the style of Rocky, in hopes of matching his genetic advantage. It wasn’t quite to be, but it was fun as hell trying. We tanked up and walked around like badasses. Gave me something to strive for in these, my years of strength and health.
Dan and I were quite a team with Nico and a couple of wannabes who were so low on the social totem pole that our position was something to look up to. There was another Danny and a chick whose name escapes me who worshipped the ground he walked on. As a group, we were the dramatists, carrying on in silly displays of martial arts maneuvers and mock posing exhibitions—laughed at by most, but admired by a small few.
The scenes we made, I’m sure, are still remembered by some other than just me. After all, it was Dan and Nico who had our entire school cafeteria screaming, as Nico beat Dan in an arm wrestling match that delivered both applause and mockery. One girl came up to Nico after the match and said: “You stood up as you forced his arm down, so you guys need to go again.” I could see it in Dan’s eyes that he had had enough, and so had the administrators and all who were responsible for keeping order in the cafeteria that day. They had to resume control and stop the throwing of spit-wads, dinner trays, and crumpled pieces of paper. “You guys get going to your next period class now!” “But the bell hasn’t rung yet.” “NOW!”, the Vice Principle says. To think that we caused all that ruckus that no doubt resulted in a few meetings on how to prevent it in the future...whew!
But it was the dynamics of this crew that was the major event. Nico, an outgoing oddball who never knew when to quit and wanted all the attention and glory for himself, should have clashed with Dan, but for some reason never did. Big old Dan was the passive-aggressive type. I guess that’s why he and Nico never clashed like Nico and I sometimes did. I was the submissive type, but Nico’s antics could still have me at his throat once in a while. But we were kids and had no idea about how dominance and submission works, or of the complex nature of personalities. We were about to learn a little more.
So we have English class together, Dan and I. We’re the coolest in the class, or at least we thought we were. From the back row, there is this 6’5 Mexican boy - big, dark and rough looking - with a brown bandana just above his eyes. He took it off only when told to by the teacher. He was a smart kid, unlike the gang-bangers he ran with outside of class. He was sharp enough to flatter and obey the teacher, but his eyes held that the rumors about him were true. He had nothing to prove because he knew he was badass.
Martin Gutierrez was his name. I’m sure he’s in jail today, probably doing hard time for assault or worse. Rumor had it, this bad boy ran around with Emilio Vasquez, a kid who packed a pistol and threatened to shoot some kids. He didn’t need to threaten others who knew he was a badass, a trench coat-wearing badass. Word had it Martin charged a cop working security at a club and body-slammed him to get out of getting issued an MIP (Minor in Possession). I asked around and found it was true. Emilio confirmed it: “Listen, it’s true. Just don’t go around talking about that, okay?”
Martin always chose to sit in the back of the class, and it was for a reason; he got to watch everyone. I wouldn’t have spotted it had it not been for Dan. Dan always hated Martin, this smooth-talking guy who knew how to rouse the class into roaring laughter with his wit. He was the life of the party. And Martin picked his battles, too. He argued with the teacher only when he felt the need. He preferred to keep quiet and pounce only when an attack was called for. I just barely had the wisdom to notice it at the time, but I noticed it.
Dan and I never had our way with this class. That was partly because I had the smarts to know that I wasn’t the big fish in this pond, and that was why I kept quiet; Dan decided to test Martin. Down in flames he went! The guy was too sharp and too influential. From that day, Dan’s internalized despising of Martin welled up. “I hate Martin! I hate him!”, Dan would say, almost huffing and puffing when saying it. The class just wasn’t the same for him, so Dan decides to put stock in doing what he’s good at – the same thing we did in the cafeteria – which was arm wrestle to re-establish badass-dom.
So, in a futile quest to assert himself to attention-worthiness in this large class of 27 students, Dan decides to take on any dude in the class. Dan could destroy me and I could hold my own remotely with my best arm against his worst arm—the left. I didn’t mind losing to my friend. Hell, I wanted to see him reign supreme in not losing to anyone else except to Nico that day in the cafeteria, but Nico got lucky that day--and despite his pride, he knew it. Dan was sore and had pulled a muscle in a workout the previous night and he still agreed to take on Nico. When he was fresh and healed up, Nico and Dan went at it again on the steps out front of the library and Dan won with little struggle.
Dan knew he had the bragging rights, and this class would not stand in his way! Dan arm-wrestled every willing guy in the class. He won by a huge margin every time. Dan keeps carrying around this chip on his shoulder, though. He can’t stand Martin, the class clown who lazily lounged in the back on the empty desk in front of him, sitting with his feet propped up as though having a calf. There was a kid sitting there, but Martin made him move so he could have more space to stretch out.
Dan starts to get talkative about his victories. He slams down the arm of this black kid named Tobias. I remember that kid. He had one of those tall, “House Party” style hairdos. Dan beats him and then boasts victory: “Yeaaahh!” And then, unexpectedly, from the back of the class, came this voice: “Hey, hombre, I’ll take you on.” It was Martin who was ready to give Dan a run for his money.
Dan rotates his body in the chair quickly. His eyes widen and he jumps up to claim the chance. He wasn’t scared. He was ready and never so happy to do what he was best at. His breathing suddenly elevated, he was jumping at the chance - shaking with the utmost exuberation - to put Mr. Loud Mouth Mexican in his place. He wastes no time, but gets up, with adrenaline pumping, and heads to the back of the class.
This kid named Rex, always bringing his headphones to listen to the dirty standup comedy tapes he loved, takes off the headphones and pulls up a free desk from the back. Unmoving, Martin is still lounged against the back wall. There is some shuffling, and then the two are locked arm-in-arm. “BEEEEEEP.” Then there is more shuffling. Those few kids who were watching grab there book bags and class is over. “Damnit!”, I think to myself. Dan was all the more angry. We grabbed our bags and headed home.
Two days pass. Dan and I hit the weights. He’s so psyched up that it’s crazy. We both charge into the same class, still pumped. “Let’s arm wrestle!” I say. We lock up, and not a moment after doing so, everyone is as lively as we are in watching, even the teacher. Dan slams me down with each arm effortlessly. “Now you’ve got to finish your match with Martin.” that Rex kid says, taking off his headphones again from that well-greased head of hair. “Oh, I’m ready! I’ve never been more ready!” Dan says. He then looks back at me and says: “He’s going down today! I promise you, Joe!” “You’re psyched up! Awesome! Kill him! Kill him!!!” I say. That was the good news.
The even better news was that expecting to complete our assignments first, the teacher says: “I’d planned a free day today. Why don’t you guys get started now?” Wow! Our teacher is in on it! This large but sweet and pear-shaped lady, Mrs. Hendershot, who was sometimes too kind for her own good, was talking with another student about her breakup with a man she was dating, and even she is interested in being sidetracked by this little classroom sporting event. No, she wasn’t always staying on us about our work, but she was cool enough to allow the events that make this story a memorable one.
Martin walks into the classroom right at that time: “So how about it, cuz?” He’s thinking the same thing we were. Dan starts to say: “You bet! You’re...” (I think he was going to say “You’re going down,” but Martin was too dominant, so Dan trailed off and turned to me instead and said, after a brief pause: “This is it, Joe! I mean it! He’s going down!”) I’ve never seen Dan so psyched up. Martin throws his books down as carelessly as ever as his friends and the entire class arrange Dan’s desk around Martin’s and adjust their own to watch in a mob hungry for entertainment.
“Go! Go! Go!” the class begins to chant. It’s Dan’s bad arm first. He can barely compose himself as he sits nervously wanting to win this. They lock arms, left arm with left arm, and he gives it his all. Martin stares into his eyes, watching him struggle more internally than externally, as he tests his opponent’s strength. Martin is studying him and soon has a great feel for what he’s up against. You could just tell.
Then, BAMMM! Just like that, Dan’s left arm is out of the game! He goes down without much competition for Martin. One or two “Ooohs” can be heard from those watching. But Dan doesn’t miss a beat. He didn’t expect to win with his “bad arm,” anyway.
“Now try this arm! My right arm is my good arm!” Dan says. Martin puts up the other, not saying a word. Dan is now so shaken he can’t help but turn red in a concentrating silence. Locked together, they begin, as Martin continues to let Dan “charge out of the barn” to see what he’s got. Martin doesn’t go down, but I see his jaw start to clench and his lips start to flatten in exerted effort.
Dan is giving it all he’s got, sweating and even using his left hand to grab the edge of the desk for some leverage. Martin begins to feel less relaxed. He doesn’t sit up, but seems to be exerting more effort. But after a few more moments of Dan’s strained breathing, in efforts to nail down victory, he realizes he’ll have to hold out for the long haul and wear him down. Martin is holding steady! And then there’s that worrying concern that maybe he isn’t giving it his all yet!
Time passes. The class gets silent. Martin keeps centered. He succeeds against the onslaught of endless tugs from Dan. Dan is running out of steam fast, sweating as he gives it his 110%, his face starting to wince as he shakes in what seemed to be occasional cramping pains. Everyone is watching Dan, maybe thinking like I was: “He sure is taking this seriously!” I have no doubt that every single moment of the struggle was for Dan a torturous fear of a would-be reality of not winning, or worse, losing.
The brief silence is broken: “You ain’t gonna take me, cuz.” Martin says. Now, Martin decides it’s his turn. For the first time in a long time, his back comes away from the seat and wall as he curls himself around to push. Dan starts to fall, his eyes beholding the maximally unwanted reality of losing while shaking almost violently, trying - fighting and trying - to muster up another round of pull power. Alas, he’s got Martin right back in the middle, but Martin’s not done. His next wave of power has Dan whining under his breath to maintain the effort. My eyes meet his and I start to feel for Dan.
Each of them now bursting in temporary waves of strength, the one after the other, to try and pin the other one, the energy levels drop as the cramps and grunts begin to rise. Martin loses interest quickly, so he goes back to holding. “You ain’t gonna beat me, cuz. You just ain’t. I can do this all day.” In a world of eye-squinting, cramping pain, he releases his grip while getting an un-admitting stare of respect from Dan.
“Aw, keep going,” a few can be heard to say. “So Martin really won because he beat you and you only held your own with your best arm to him.” some dude says to Dan, as Dan is massaging the lactic acid out of his right arm. He’s devastated, but he doesn’t acknowledge any of it.
Ten minutes later, the class is over. The excitement has died down and we walk down the hall of the main English building, feeling the despair of defeat. We felt like a team that lost the big game. Martin never won respect from Dan, but he did win many fewer behind-the-back expressions of dislike, I assure you. Call that respect if you so choose.
As we walk, Martin and his friends pass us laughing as they tape a “KICK ME” sign on the back of some nerdy kid. The whole match wasn’t even a big deal to Martin or his friends.
The whole experience is a clear example of how being a superior person is not only made evident by how someone stands out when put against the background of the masses, but about how superiority is evident to those who lack it. It stands out regardless of what anyone says or does, making those of us who don't possess it envious.