Episode 9: Arena, part 1 – The Gym Class Horror
“Phaser banks, lock on to the enemy vessel. Stand by for firing orders. All hands, this is the Captain. We are going into battle. All hands, battle stations. Red alert. I repeat, red alert. This is no drill. This is no drill.”
Captain Kirk in the Star Trek original series episode “Arena.”
“Bob and weave! Bob and weave! Jab! Jab!” I hold my fists high to protect my face as I’ve seen boxers do on TV, but the gloves are too cumbersome and heavy for me. The gym is filled with the high-pitched squeaks of kids in sneakers running across the wooden floor, punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter echoing through the bleachers. I awkwardly shuffle from side to side as I hear Coach Hurry barking out orders. I’m wearing some sort of protective leather headgear that looks like it came straight out of a Little Rascals short from the 1930s as I stagger around the tumbling mats laid on the gym floor. Across from me is the blurry face of my best friend, David Gregg, peering out of another set of goofy head protection. David is also dressed in the standard P.E. uniform of an oversized Southmore Jr. High t-shirt tucked into the elastic waistband of stiff, grey running shorts, along with white, knee-high athletic socks striped at the top, and sneakers, which in Texas we called “tenny shoes.” I’m certain that we look cartoonishly ridiculous, feeling exposed and vulnerable without our glasses as we stumble around the mats hoping that the coach will soon loose interest. Instead he just keeps barking out orders, “Shuffle! Take a swing! Keep your gloves up! C’mon, FIGHT!”P.E. is the nerd’s version of hell. This is where we are typically thrown into the humiliations of being picked last for a team, attempting something which takes a certain form of physicality that we haven’t yet evolved into, or enduring the dreaded showers accompanied by pops from wet towel tips at the end of the class. I’ve never understood the need to throw a group of adolescent boys together, supply them with sporting equipment (i.e. weapons) and then essentially say, “Now release some energy!”
The lack of logic behind the coach’s schedule for the class was always baffling. One day we’d be running for the full hour, soon after we’d play softball for two weeks, maybe basketball, track, or the supremely humiliating exercise of swimming in the indoor pool in our P.E. shorts as the girl’s class watched from the bleachers. Then we had those truly special days of hell when the coach would order a few tumbling mats to be laid together on the floor of the gym. He’d then have everyone sit on the floor around the mats, before randomly choosing two boys to put on gloves and punch each other as they moved around the makeshift ring. In hindsight, I don’t recall a coach in P.E. ever demonstrating how to do anything. They didn’t first put on gloves and take us through the basics of boxing. Instead everyone was theoretically thrown into the arena and forced to fight against the lions or be eaten in the process. Regardless of the outcome, the crowd would be entertained.Until now, David and I had always managed to duck out of Coach Hurry’s glare, but that ended today. I probably hadn’t done myself any favors by bringing a book along to the gym in case we had time to kill. Why would I want to watch a bunch of obnoxious guys punch each other when I could immerse myself in the fictional world of superheroes fighting to save the world? This was the day when the coach decided it would be funny to choose two nerdy best friends and watch them fight. At least he wasn’t sadistic enough to match one of us against an actual athlete and risk getting hurt. This wasn’t meant to cause physical pain as much as embarrassment. As I sat against the wall immersed in my dorky Fantastic Four novel, I heard the dreaded words bark out, “Gauntt and Gregg, get the gloves on!” I knew we were in trouble since this class was more about slapstick entertainment than physical education. I heard low anticipatory laughter coming from the kids around us as we stood up, suddenly realizing that we were thrown in the spotlight. As the coach and his teen assistant helped us pull on the musky leather gloves and lace them up, I was shocked at how absurdly huge and heavy they actually felt. More significantly, our glasses were removed and set to the side, reinforcing another nerdy vulnerability. We stood facing each other through blurred vision; two scrawny, pasty boys barely able to lift their gloves and unsure of this ancient masculine tradition. The coach grabbed my arm, forcing my glove to tap against David’s before backing away to bark out, “Fight!”
(click the video to cue soundtrack for the next two paragraphs)
We faced off, staggering around the mats in an attempt to circle and kill time rather than actually start swinging. Without my glasses, I struggled to stay balanced on the soft mats, since tripping and falling would be just as humiliating as being knocked down. This walk does not resemble the graceful dance of the experienced boxer, but rather it’s more like the newborn colt struggling to stand.The coach kept yelling as I gathered the courage to take a few jabs at David; hoping not to resemble a Popeye cartoon as I flailed my scrawny arms. David made a few swings back with his ridiculous extra height offering a greater reach. We both swing wildly as he manages to land a few glancing blows. I’m determined to just stay on my feet and hopefully get in a solid punch to not embarrass myself too much. We keep circling as Coach Hurry’s orders are sounding more exasperated since this isn’t resulting in the fun he’d imagined.
Suddenly, as if in slow motion, I muster all of my strength into one fierce punch. I draw back and take a swing directly at David’s face as he slowly raises his gloves to shield himself. My super-punch is perfectly on target, ready to be the knockout blow, but rather than hit David’s face, I’m surprised as it lands squarely against his huge, cushioned gloves. I have no strength left in my noodle arms, and I am shocked to realize that my own arm is suddenly bouncing my gloved fist back into my face. The impact is only jarring, but it’s enough to unhinge me from my already tenuous perch. I step back, hoping to regain my footing, but my tenny shoe snags on the mat and by then it is too late.Like an out-of-body experience, I watch myself in perfect clarity from afar, spinning in slow motion as I clumsily fall while the other boys in the class suddenly scream with approval. The entertainment had begun. I see David looking surprised as the coach grabs his scrawny arm and quickly lifts his gloved fist high in victory as the peals of laughter pierce the air.
I hear the coach blurt out the names of his next two victims while David and I struggle to quickly remove our gear. As we put our glasses back on, I see that he has a huge grin on his face as he says, “I can’t believe that you knocked yourself down!” We later retrace the experience, bonding through our resentment of the boys who already knew how to fight because it also meant that they were closer to knowing what we thought was required to be a man.
These are our comic book years, and it is understandable why we chose to obsess over the superhero soap operas in Marvel comics. They offered us a way to identify with the underdog, who secretly restrained themselves by not revealing their true strength to the world around them. Frequently it was a world that they had to save, all while being misunderstood and persecuted as outsiders by those they were saving. Those were the years when we obsessed over the dysfunctional family in the pages of the X-Men and Fantastic Four. They offered hope and solace, as well as guidance on how to deal with insurmountable odds. These characters always struggled to balance their relationships as an extended family, while using their abilities in endless battles to save the world. They attempted to discover and establish their unique type of normalcy despite how different they were to the rest of the world. It is a drama that is easily relatable for disaffected teenage boys.David and I had endlessly watched repeats of Star Trek, learning essential moral lessons provided by Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but in spite of Captain Kirk’s ability to single-handedly defeat the Gorn, we had not yet learned that skill. David and I knew that at some point in our lives real danger would appear, and we hoped that we would be fully prepared for the fight.
Post script: Years later, my friend Giovanni, who’d also grown up as an outsider obsessed with comics, would point out the overt Freudian symbolism of the characters in the Fantastic Four: Mr. Fantastic can grow longer, The Thing is rock hard, and The Human Torch becomes hotter, which are all attributes of an erect penis. This only leaves the Invisible Woman, who tellingly can disappear (and later in the series she projects force fields during Marvel’s attempt to embolden her.)Next up: Arena part 2 (the New York years)