That's My Story...And I'm Sticking to it...
Tug of War
I have never been the great athlete I always wanted to be. I am painfully slow on my feet which made me funny to watch when I attempted to play football and baseball. Still it didn’t matter to me, because in my mind, I had the heart of a champion whether I’d ever get a chance to hold a trophy or not. In June 1979, I enlisted in the Air Force and some of my memories I have already shared with you, but this tug of war competition was the zenith of my athletic accomplishments and it was a life lesson if nothing else.
“Airman, you are a fat slob.” My drill instructor Technical Sergeant Van Dyck told me during our first meeting. Actually our first meeting was in the barracks after an all day journey to get to Lackland, Air Force Base (AFB), TX from Charlotte, NC. I wanted to disagree with him, because I was 6’3” and weighed 240 pounds. According the standards, however, that made me obese. I was also twenty-two years old making me the third oldest in my flight of about forty other guys, most of who had just graduated from high school the previous month. “You are here to lose your fat gut.”
With that Tsgt Van Dyck did an about face and went to pester someone else. Before leaving, he had upturned my suitcase sending my clothes cascading all over my rack and we had fifteen minutes to stow our gear in proper military fashion. It was all in the 120 page book that was thrown at us out front in formation.
After four weeks of strict military doctrinarian, we were told about a competition that we were encouraged to participate in. Hanging on the flight bulletin board were the details. One of the competitions was the tug of war or as it was spelled out in the brochure, “tug o’ war.”
“I ain’t doing it.” Our dorm chief said shaking his shaven head. Some of the other guys had the same reaction; ain’t gonna do it.
“Why not? Sounds like fun.” I shrugged and the dorm chief laughed and ran his hand along my tight haircut, saying “Plllliiiinnnnnnnggggg!”
Yeah, we were called Pinger, because that was the sound of the wind going through our very short hair.
The next free time we had, we were getting more of it the closer we came to graduation from basic training, I reported to the athletic field which was no more than an obstacle course and a muddy hole. Staff Sergeant Gonzales was standing there in his gym shorts and athletic t shirt with a clipboard and whistle clenched between his teeth. Though short and squat, he was tough as nails according to those who had him as their Flight Chief. His skin was a mocha color with two prominent tattoos honoring the flag on either of his arms.
“Alright, all runners over by the track.” He pointed raising his voice to be heard, “All of you who want to do the obstacle course, you know where you are going. Tug o’ war, there is a rope own by the mud hole.” He waved his arms and everyone went to where they were told to go.
“This is Squadron 501, is that correct.” His voice carried out to all corners of the field.
“Yes sir.” We all shouted back in unison. He nodded. He had three other instructors out there on the field with him. A dozen of us had gathered at the rope where Staff Sergeant Hopkins was there wearing his Smokey the Bear hat along with his gym gear. He was as skinny as any human being had a right to be and he was always bragging about how he was from the best state in the country; Iowa. We just nodded dutifully since we would not gain anything by disagreeing with him. Looking at him, I figured I was about a year younger than he was.
“Let me explain this once.” He addressed us, “There are two ends of the rope. There will be a team at each end along with a team of ten individuals. Upon hearing the whistle, you will begin to tug on the rope. The first team in the muddy drink are the losers. The only objective is to make the other team drink the muddy water. Is that understood?”
“Yessir.” We sang in unison.
“Let’s see how this works.” He counted how many people who were gathered and said, “Alright, I’m going to have six on a side. You-you-you-you-you-you, over there. And the others over there.”
“You will be the anchor.” One of the airman chosen to be on my side commanded, “On account you weigh the most of any of us.”
I knew what he was going to say, “You weigh more than all of the rest of us put together.” I nodded and placed my body in the loop at the end of the rope where the anchor for the team was supposed to be. The anchor was supposed to provide a steady anchor for the rope. The bigger guys were supposed to be the anchor. So without argument, I got ready.
Hopkins blew the whistle and we began to pull the rope. I was taken by surprise by the force of the rope dragging us forward toward the mud hole. The guy who put me in the anchor position yelled for us to dig into the sand. Both teams started in a soft sand pit when the whistle blew and so the six of us dug our heels into the soft sand. From this position I felt how sturdy we all felt.
“Up and pull.” He yelled and when we did we watched the other team fall into the muddy water.
“No fair!” One of the muddy guys yelled, “You anchor is huge.”
He was talking about me. For once my size was playing to an advantage. We practiced for the better part of an hour, but my team never lost and we switched out some guys here and there, but the results were always the same. Finally Gonzales blew his whistle.
“All right you maggots' time is up!” He waved his arms. “Now we will do this competition next week. Saturday at ten hundred hours. If you’re late, you are disqualified and you get to be a spectator. Understood?”
“Yessir” Our voices thundered out as the sun began to set on the field.
“Time for chow. So when I release you, you will go to the Chow Hall.” Gonzales raised his voice.
“Yessir.” We shouted again and then fell into formation for chow.
“You are going to do this?” The dorm chief asked me after chow while we were supposed to get ready for the next day when reveille would sound at Oh-Four Hundred dark hours.
“Yeah, it’s going to be fun.” I shrugged. His sly smile stayed on his face and I could tell he was wanting to give me a rash of shit.
“You are an idiot.” He snickered and some of the guys around him began to jeer me.
“Why so, asshole?” I asked glancing at him.
“Because this place is a shithole. Why would anyone wanna do what the dickhead DI’s want us to do? Are you one of the patsies aincha?” He jeered me.
“I want to do it, because it is fun.” I shook my head at his apparent ignorance. He shoved my shoulder against my locker.
“You wanna have butt sex with sarge, doncha?” His eyes disappeared in his squint.
“Fuck off.” I snapped.
“Oooo, you’re scary.” He took a step back in mock fear.
For the next week my comrades made my life a living hell. One of them got inside my locker and unbuttoned all the buttons of my uniforms. Another one squeezed the toothpaste all over my foot locker. I could hear snickering when I got into my rack for the night. One of them found a discarded cigarette butt and smashed it into my meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy.
On Thursday night, I called a meeting of our Flight. We gathered in the Day-Room and I let my frustration fly. “I am doing this because I want to. I get this feeling that you guys feel I am selling out.”
“Aren’t you?” One of the guys asked with a nod.
“Noooo, I am doing this for me. I don’t give a shit about if it makes this flight look good or proud or anything like that. I am doing this, because unlike you, I graduated five years ago and haven’t done anything. Anything. I know some of you were in the newspapers for your athletic prowess, but me, this is just a chance for me to do something to prove I have got it. The heart of a champion.”
The room exploded in laughter.
The dorm chief stood up clapping his hands as the laughter died down, “Impressive. Brought a tear to my eye.” He put his hand to the corner of his eye to wipe a fake tear, “You are fat and slow as hell. In the morning, you cannot keep up with the rest of us. You are a disgrace. People are laughing at you and you are too stupid to know it.”
“Do any of you know how it feels to get your hand caught in a machine and nearly lose it in the process? Most of you don’t have a clue about what it’s like to work for a living and struggle each and every morning to drag your ass to a job you fucking hate and put in your eight hours. None of you except the two of you who are older than me. Now if you’re not behind me then get the fuck out of my way.” I walked out of the room, but this time I did not hear a single laugh.
“Are you ready dummit?” TSgt Van Dyck asked me Saturday morning as we fell out of calisthenics. Dummit was his word for “dumb ass.”
“Yes sir.” I stood at attention.
“You are the slowest and most ridiculous airman in my entire flight.” He laughed and I could smell the booze on his breath and I noticed his eyes were bloodshot.
“Yes sir.” I managed to say as he walked away from me laughing.
I had breakfast and reported back to the barracks to polish the floors with the rest of my flight. No one said a thing to me as I ran the machine over the tiles. One of the guys in the rack near me came over.
“Good luck today, all right?” He smiled. I nodded and smiled back.
We were done around oh-nine thirty and I asked to be dismissed for the games. Tsgt Van Dyck was lying in his rack, his boots were off and next to leg of the rack. He appeared as if he was going to pass out when he looked up at me with his eyes all glossy and a big stupid grin on his face.
“Hey dummit, make us proud.” He nodded.
“Yessir.” I nodded back and did an about face.
Walking out to the field, I saw a lot of airmen running about getting ready for the start of the competition. There were a few airwomen as well, most getting ready for the obstacle course, but a couple headed for the track. Ssgt Hopkins appeared in full uniform with a whistle hanging around his neck. He had everyone assemble on the bleachers make an address. As soon as we were all seated, he blew his whistle.
“Listen up! We will begin the competition in thirty minutes. I have the brackets here.” He held up some papers, “Each Squadron will get one of these. We have twelve squadrons in this class. So it will be a round robin. Lose and you are out. Win and you will go on to face other winners. The board will be right here. If you are late, you are out and your team must go on without your sorry ass. So pay attention.” He began passing out the sheets, “So we start with Squadron 501 and 550.”
We were in the opening round. There were ten of us on the team, but when I looked over to the other side, I only saw nine on the 550 team.
“Could be a cake walk.” One of the guys said out of the corner of his mouth.
“Or a set -up. We shall see in a few minutes.” I said taking my place in the loop.
“They got two girls.” Another said.
I knew better than to underestimate an opponent, but then the whistle sounded and we gave a might tug on the rope. Within seconds the other team was splashing in the mud. We would move on. Being good sports we all shook the hands of our opponents, but I could tell they were upset at how easily we had splashed them. One of the girls didn’t even look at me as she passed on her way.
I retreated to the bleachers to watch some other teams compete and saw that 630 had some muscular fellows who seemed to pull the other team they faced into the mud without hardly any effort. I did a fist pump with the nine people on my team and I began to feel like we had this. Then I saw Squadron 560. Their anchor was a brute, six foot six of solid muscle. He put himself in the loop, laughed and the rope went tant and the other team went for a swim in the Big Muddy. Suddenly our team was very quiet.
The first round ended with six teams left in the competition.
“501 and 550 report to the field for tug o’ war.” Ssgt Gonzales announced over his bullhorn. He didn’t need it.
Our opponents, Squadron 550 was like looking in the mirror. In the loop they had some big kid with nine on the rope who were thin and lanky, just like us.
“Remember, dig in and hold. When I give the sign, we will stand and pull.” Our leader said and we all nodded in agreement.
“Go!” Ssgt Hopkins yelled and whistled as the rope went tant. Dug in we were impossible to move from our places in the sand. I closed my eyes and laid back.
“Pull!” The other captain instructed his team and the rope went tanter until you could tune a guitar.
“Hold!” Our captain commanded and we sat for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually about a minute. It was a dead heat until finally he yelled out, “Now! Pull!”
We all stood on cue and pulled. We could feel the rope give moving a solid foot in our direction as 550 groaned and fought to win back the lost rope.
“Dig in!” He sat down and we did the same. I could feel the rope go tant again, but we did not budge an inch.
Twice 550 pulled, but we did not give up a single inch. After the second pull, our captain yelled to pull again and this time we pulled 550 right into the muddy water.
On to the next round.
Our jubilant celebration was quieted by 560’s appearance on one side of the rope for the next match. I felt badly for the team opposite 560, Squadron 601 who were nothing by ten scrawny guys who on the first pull all wound up in the muddy waters as Squadron 560 howled with laughter. The entire match took about ten seconds, if that.
“Those guys are killers.” One of the guys from the front sighed.
“Airman Gunther.” A voice called out.
“Shit.” Our captain closed his eyes. “It’s my sergeant. We have an inspection of the dorms and I’m dorm chief.”
“Who’s going to replace you?” I asked in desperation as I watched the big anchor raised his arms in victory.
“Sanderson.” He said as he skipped down the bleachers.
“Who is Sanderson?” I asked.
“I am.” He raised his hand. He was wearing glasses and appeared as though he weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet.
Round three began with three teams remaining. Ssgt Gonzales picked one of the teams that lost in the last round a chance of redemption to keep the competition even. Through a flip of the coin we would face Squadron 610. I had seen them and I knew that they would be easier than the 601st. Their match preceded ours. The whistle blew and the 601st pulled their competition into the water though it took them nearly a minute meaning they lasted twice as long as any squadron they had faced so far. There was hope.
“Do you really think we stand a chance against those brutes?” One of my teammates asked as I watched them jump around in victory. Two of them seized the opposing captain and casually toss him into the muddy brink. He came up splashing in filth, his face dripping with mud. They laughed when he cleared the mud from his mouth and nose.
“And they are bullies.” I added crossing my arms.
We faced Squadron 622 with an anchor as big as I was, but with more muscles, a lot more muscles to be totally fair. Ssgt Hopkins blew the whistle and the rope sounded a steady “Bllllliiiiiinnnnnnggggggg” as the white flag tied in the middle of the thick rope appeared as if it had been hoisted up a flagpole. For over two minutes both squadrons fought to a desperate stalemate.
“Dig in.” I yelled and they began to dig into the soft sand.
“I’m feeling it.” The guy closest to me complained as he threw his head back and his face turned scarlet. We were tired, but I knew if we held out the other team was just as tired as we were. We just had to sit in the sand and wait. I could see the entire 601 team sitting in the bleachers watching, jeering whenever the white flag moved one way or the other. Five minutes must have elapsed, the white flag fluttering a few inches this way and then a few inches that way.
“Stand and pull!” I yelled as I stood. The rest of the team did as I commanded and the white flag moved a foot in out favor. I felt the tug in the other direction.
“Sit!” I yelled. While the rope went taut, we were able to stay put. A couple of torturous minutes went by before I yelled my next command.
“Stand and pull!”
The flag bounced almost a foot in our favor. We had just one more good tug to go and we’d claim victory. But before we could sit in the sand, they made an unexpected tug that moved the flag back to where it had been. The guy in front lost his footing and he fell forward coming up a few inches short of the muddy pit.
“Close one.” I gasp.
Hopkins pulled on the rope and released it saying, “Sounds like an A Flat to me.”
“Stand and pull!” I yelled and while the tug was not as mighty as our first one, we still managed to pull the rope almost a foot to our favor. One more tug.
“Sit.” I yelled when I felt the tug of the rope. I would not let happen what happened the last time. I could hear the other team yelling at the fact they were close to going into the mud hole.
“Hold tight.” I yelled. My muscles ached. The sun seemed to be frying us like ants under a magnifying glass.
The anchor stumbled a bit.
“Stand and pull!”
It had worked, because of him being off balance, the rest of the team went into the muddy water like dominos.
“We did it.” The guy in front of me threw his arms up either as a thanks to God or a symbol of our victory. It didn’t matter. We had won. Now we had to face the 601st. Looking over to the bleachers, I could see them pointing at us and jeering. Their anchor simply snarled.
“So you guys are in the championship round, eh?” Tsgt Van Dyck almost smiled as he passed us on his way to the snack bar set up under one of the olive drab canvas tents that were only good for holding in the heat of the day. It was July, top of the summer in the southeast part of Texas where the humidity could melt the sidewalk. The sand was hot, but digging beneath the surface we had found it cool enough to make a difference.
“Stay hydrated.” I told everyone as they all filed away toward the refreshment tent, “And no soda or caffeine.”
Everyone nodded affirmatively. We had twenty minutes before they would have the championship tug. Much to my horror, I saw a couple of my teammates coming out of the tent carrying tacos and hot dogs. How could they eat? With this heat, anything they put down had a great chance of coming right back up during the championship.
“Hey man, it’s cool. I’m from Florida. I’m used to the heat.” One of them said when I complained. Looking around, I noticed that the 601st were huddled together in the shade drinking water. Things could get ugly in a hurry, I feared.
“Hey, aren’t you the anchor of the 501st?” The team captain called out when he saw me pass.
“Yeah.” I nodded.
“We are going to so kick your ass.” He chuckled.
“Yeah and we’re gonna make you drink that mud.” Said one of the teammates.
I felt a shadow fall over me. It was a great shadow since it seemed to completely cover me giving the illusion of a great eclipse. When I turned to see what had caused the sunlight to go away, I saw their anchor standing next to me with a wicked grin smeared all over his face.
“Ve will crush you.” He said in his best Khrushchev voice and as he spoke he crushed the Coke can in his hands that had not been open spurting sticky soda in every direction. When I looked into his eyes, I did not see any signs of life, human or otherwise.
Disheartened, I wandered back to where our guys were sitting in the bleachers in what seemed like a hundred fifty degrees.
“Why don’t we go sit in the shade?” I suggested, but that was met with snickers and chuckles.
“We are gonna beat these guys.” One of them said as he put the rest of his hot dog in his mouth.
“We got ten minutes.” I informed him as he burped.
“We got this.” He offered me a fist pump, but I just looked at him and shook my head.
It felt like the temperature rose about twenty degrees when Ssgt Gonzales blew his whistle. We ran onto the sand and upon feeling it, I felt as though my feet were being scorched and baked.
“I don’t feel so hot.” One of the guys said as he took his place on the rope. With that he bent over and vomited into the sand next to him. Ssgt Gonzales began to gag upon seeing this, but it wasn’t just him either as a couple of the guys on the rope got the dry heaves. I could hear 601st start to chuckle. Someone gave the sick man on the rope a glass of cold water to wash out his mouth.
Ssgt Hopkins looked at Ssgt Gonzales who had recovered for the time being and he nodded as he drank some cold water.
The whistle sounded and the rope went taut, but this time the force drug us a few feet and in horror i noticed that the flag was just about all the way over to their side. My front guy was inches from the mud. One good tug and it would be all over.
“Dig in and sit!” I yelled. Once in the sand, I could feel the mighty tug coming from the 601st. Inches, that’s all we had to give and I could feel it slipping away.
“Give up yet?” I heard the 601st captain shout over.
I wanted to yell, “We have not yet begun to fight!” But I knew how cliche that sounded so I kept quiet. I watched as another inch slid to their side. We had nothing left to spare. If we sat here, they would win by attrition.
“Stand and pull!” I yelled. They did and we got about six inches. Not a lot, but at least it gave us some breathing room.
“Sit and dig in.” I yelled and everyone dropped into the sand.
I could see them pulling on the rope with everything they had. Each of them had their teeth gritted and their muscles were straining beneath their physical training shirts, but we were holding the line. I heard some of the members of the squadron sitting in the bleachers began to shout, cheering for us.
“Stand and pull!” The team stood and we gained another ten inches or so, not quite a large margin, but we were gaining.
“Sit and dig in.” The rope dropped and we held. I heard some of them curse on the other side as they strained to pull the rope back. We were holding. We were holding. Sweat streamed into my eyes. I could feel the sting, but I wasn’t going to let it bother me at this point. I saw fatigue flicker in the eyes of their anchor.
“Stand and pull!” This time we gained over a foot. They were tiring. We had been pulling for over five minutes. My muscles ached and fatigue was beginning to get the best of me. A voice began to sound in my head. It was a familiar voice I had heard many times in my life.
Its okay. Let go. You are tired and this will mean nothing a few months from now when you are at your first station. Give up. Tug o’ war, seriously. This will not prove anything in the long run. These guys are a better team than your team. No one will think less of you if you just give up. It’s hot. Your body aches. You know that some of your team want to puke in the sand. Just stand and let the other team pull you into the mud. You just don’t have it in you to finish this.
Bullshit. I am here to prove something to myself. To prove that I am worth something. I dropped out of college. I moved to North Carolina to work in the mills, but that was a mistake. My dad passed away last year. Stephen will be going to college next year. Tom will go, too and they will leave you behind. Show them. Pull that rope. Win this and show yourself.
“Stand and pull!” I could hear the groan, but we did just that. The flag came dancing across the mudhole. “Pull!”
We did not sit. We did not dig in. We stood and pulled with everything we had left. I could not believe when their front guy went tumbling into the muddy water. We had won!
The whistle blew and the cheering began. Slowly the other team stumbled over to us in disbelief.
“You won. Congrats.” The captain held out his hand and each of us shook his hand. The anchor came over and looked at me, “You done good.”
He ran his hand over my head where my hair used to be. It was the best feeling I had ever had to that point of my life.
I got back to the barracks and all my shirts were unbuttoned in my locker.
“While you were out fooling around, Van Dyck had us mopping the floors, because of you.” My neighbor complained.
I spent the next few minutes holding the medal I had received for our championship. I knew it was just pressed metal and wasn’t worth enough to buy me a cup of coffee, but I held that thing with the satisfaction of knowing that when it looked like we would not be victorious, I did not give up. I did not throw in the towel as I had done before. Learning not to give up, what a lesson that was. The next morning during calisthenics, I was not able to keep up with the rest of my flight which meant the drill instructors were yelling at me about how slow and fat I was, but I didn’t mind, because I was wearing my medal under my PT shirt.
Life lessons about never giving up...