Wrestling Camp - 1. Wrestling Camp
Tuesday, August 15, 1961
In 1961, J. K. Rowling was four years short of being born. Had it been forty years later with her fourth book in publication, Benji would have related well to fourteen-year-old Harry Potter's experience in the Triwizard Tournament, competing against a group of seventeen-year-olds.
The rest of the twelve boys who stood around the wrestling mat were sixteen and seventeen. At five foot four inches and one hundred thirty-five pounds, Benji was dwarfed by most of them. Several had been there the year before, and their looks of surprise upon seeing Benji told him his presence at the three-day district wrestling camp was unusual. The surprise was always followed by a smile and a welcoming handshake though.
Benji knew one of the instructors, Coach Wilson, his eighth grade coach. The only wrestler he recognized was Eric's friend, Kojo, from the Rooster Rock volleyball games. What Benji had in common with Kojo was best not mentioned in the current setting, so they simply acknowledged each other with a nod and a quick smile.
Benji was a last-minute replacement. His friend, Hunter, who was originally selected to be the team's representative, had been given a slot at a two-week-long, prestigious national wrestling camp. Hunter had encouraged their coach to send Benji to the district event in his place, even though there were several more-experienced candidates.
After consultation with Benji's parents and eighth-grade coach, the high-school coach had agreed. But, unknown to Benji, it had been a hard sell with others, including the high-school athletic director and the college coach who directed the event.
Though apprehensive, Benji was delighted to be there. It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, and he was determined to make the most of it.
By the end of the first day, Benji's spunky attitude and small stature had earned him the nickname Scrappy, and the unofficial status of wrestling camp mascot. He'd picked up quickly on the situational wrestling instruction. During the drills, he'd demonstrated skill and determination that surprised everyone, including the instructors.
The second day during the warm-up running activity, he led the pack all the way. And by the time the daily drills were over, he'd successfully taken down and pinned two significantly heavier wrestlers.
Eating in a college dining hall and staying in a dormitory were two more new experiences. After the evening meals, the wrestlers gathered in the dormitory common room, where Benji made new friends. The second night, he sat down for a conversation with Kojo.
"I didn't know you were a wrestler."
Kojo nodded his head. "I wasn't until this year. My friend, Barry, talked me into trying out, and somehow he got me selected for this training."
Benji smiled. "I'm surprised to be here too. My friend, Hunter, couldn't come so they sent me instead. Hunter knows Barry from the state tournament last year."
Kojo paused briefly. "Barry and Eric have both mentioned Hunter. I'm looking forward to meeting him sometime. Maybe at a volleyball game."
"Peter keeps me informed about Barry. Did he tell you they were neighbors when they were younger?"
"Barry told me, in sign language, of course. Peter told me that you and Hunter might play volleyball next year."
"We're planning on it. From what we saw, you guys have a lot of fun."
Kojo smiled. "We do, and you will too."
Benji thought back to what he'd learned at the retreat he'd attended at Conboy Lake. Though the conversation would sound normal to the average listener, they were talking in a code that no one else would understand. The noun friend, slightly emphasized, had a specific meaning, and the verb mentioned contained nuances that only the two of them would understand. It was a way of life. They belonged to a private club with secrets that couldn't be shared.
That second evening, the wrestlers were allowed off-campus for a few hours. Arnold, the boy closest in size to Benji, and therefore his frequent training partner, suggested the two of them go to a movie. With limited choices nearby, they chose The Parent Trap, a recently-released Disney film. Benji, who didn't often go to movies, enjoyed the comedy. Arnold came out strangely subdued. Benji noticed.
"Something wrong, Tripod?"
It was a nickname the other boys used, apparently given to Arnold at some time in the past. Benji used it innocently, having not paid enough attention in the shower room to understand its significance.
"No, it's nothing."
Benji dropped the subject for a while as they walked towards the college campus. He could sense Arnold's increasing depression and spoke again.
"If it's nothing, why are there tears in your eyes?"
Arnold quickly wiped away the tears.
"My parents are divorced. I live with my dad. Like the girls in the movie, I'd do anything to get them together again."
Benji was quiet for a while.
"That's a tough one. I wish I could help you."
"I don't think anyone can."
They were nearing their dormitory. Benji took another approach.
"Wanna come to my room and talk about it? I'm a good listener."
Arnold thought for a few moments. He didn't often talk about his problem with his peers because most kids just blew him off. But he could tell Benji was serious.
They talked for hours, well past the official lights-out curfew. Benji said very little - he just let Arnold unload his pain. When Arnold finally got up to go, Benji gave him a hug.
"It'll work out, I know it will."
With tears in his eyes, Arnold hugged Benji back.
"I hope so. Thanks for listening. Nobody else ever does that. You're different."
If you only knew how different.
"I'll see you in the morning."
As he turned off the light and got into bed, Benji thought about how fortunate he was to have a complete family, even a brother now. That made him think about Peter's former home life. He wished he could help Arnold like he had Peter, but Arnold's situation was not the same.
The third day consisted of practice matches. With no other wrestlers in the 138-pound weight class, Benji would be wrestling Arnold. Though only four inches taller, Arnold's sixteen-year-old frame was more muscular, and he had two years of high school wrestling experience. As they faced off, the college wrestler who was acting as referee gave them some advice.
"Okay, this is for practice, guys, so have fun and don't try to kill each other. And Tripod, you've got a weight and experience advantage, so give Scrappy some slack."
Arnold's good humor had returned. He grinned wickedly.
"I don't think so. Scrappy already pinned me during drills."
Benji grinned back. "And I'm gonna do it again."
The ref slapped the mat, and Arnold quickly took Benji down. Benji just as quickly escaped, to the amusement of the young ref and the cheers and comments of the spectators.
"Scrappy's a wiry little bastard."
"I've never seen a kid as quick as he is"
"It's like trying to hold down a greased pig."
"He must run on pure adrenaline."
The two wrestlers circled each other, looking for an opening. Benji thumbed his nose at Arnold, earning laughter from the spectators and a warning from the ref.
"I said to have fun, but keep the behavior appropriate, Scrappy."
Arnold moved in, but Benji moved quickly behind him, as if he'd apparated. Arnold's second attempt produced the same result. The laughter was for Benji's technique, but the comments were impartial.
"Keep your cool, Tripod. He's trying to throw you off balance."
"I think he's succeeding."
"Tripod went to state last year. He'll take him."
But that didn't happen. When Arnold moved in the next time, Benji grabbed his head and pulled it down. A surprise leg sweep put Arnold on his back, stunned. Before he knew what had happened, Benji had him pinned.
The spectators erupted with cheers. The two boys stood up with grins on their faces. The ref raised Benji's arm, indicating his win. Arnold grabbed Benji in a big hug, and then held him out to look at him.
"You're damned good, Scrappy. You'll go a long way. Just don't get too cocky."
Benji smiled happily. "Thanks a lot, Tripod. That means a lot coming from someone as experienced as you are."
Following dinner that evening, the camp director stood to make some announcements. After thanking the instructors for their assistance, and the participants for their attendance, he paused briefly to check his notes, and then looked up again.
"As most of you know, each year we award a trophy to the most inspirational participant - selected by you, the participants and instructors. This year, the vote was unanimous, with the exception of the recipient himself, of course. Benji, will you come up here and join me?"
Everyone rose and applauded as Benji walked to the head table and stood beside the director, and when he wiped away a tear of happiness, they cheered and applauded even more. The director smiled at Benji and continued.
"It's our practice to inscribe the recipient's full name on the trophy, so our engraver must have either misunderstood or delivered the wrong one." He inspected the trophy as if confused. "This one is for someone named Scrappy."
When the laughter subsided, he turned to Benji and shook his hand.
Flashbulbs went off as he presented the trophy, a statue of a wrestler standing in the neutral position. As Benji turned to leave, the director put a hand on his shoulder.
"Not so fast, Scrappy. I'm not finished."
After the laughter subsided again, he continued in a more serious tone.
"When Benji was suggested by his coach as a last minute replacement, I resisted. We'd never had an incoming freshman as a district wrestling camp participant, and I doubted the wisdom of doing so. Benji has demonstrated that my concerns were unwarranted. Thanks, Scrappy, for joining us this year. You're one in a million. I hope to be your coach when you select a college to attend."
As Benji returned to his seat, the group stood and applauded again, and slapped him on the back as he went by. As Benji had hoped, the three days had been the opportunity of a lifetime, a life-changing experience.
Dinner was followed by a party in the common room where the participants chatted with each other, shared wrestling advice, and laughed and joked about their recent experiences. A few of the boys were leaving after the party, but most were staying one more night. Since he was getting a ride home with Coach Wilson in the morning, Benji was among those staying.
As the evening activities came to an end, Arnold came over to give Benji another hug.
"Thanks for last night. You're a cool guy, Scrappy."
Benji put his arm around his new friend's shoulders.
"It was good to get to know you better."
Arnold pulled the younger boy close and whispered in his ear.
"Are you as scrappy in bed as you are on the mat?"
Taken by surprise, Benji hedged.
"What do you mean?"
Arnold smiled. "It's okay. Kojo is my friend, and he mentioned that the three of us have something in common."
Benji smiled back, somewhat tentatively, and spoke quietly.
"Well, I'm glad I don't have a sign on my back that reveals my sexual identity."
Arnold chuckled. "So, how about it? I'm in the room in the basement. Do you wanna have a little fun?"
Benji was puzzled. "Why are you in the basement?"
Arnold smiled. "It was the only room left when I got here. I was a little bummed out being down there alone." The smile became a grin. "But privacy will be useful. No-holds-barred bed wrestling can get a little wild."
Benji hesitated. Other than staying up late to talk with Arnold, he'd carefully obeyed the rules. He didn't want to spoil his experience by getting caught having sex. Arnold smiled at him.
"Think about it, Scrappy. If you decide to come down, I'll be waiting for you. Don't bother to knock. Just come in. Oh, and one more thing..."
The wicked grin from the day before appeared again. "I dare you to come in naked."
Benji sat on his bed staring at the wall. The only boy he'd had sex with was Hunter. He'd missed the opportunity with Randy at the retreat, and he'd resolved not to let that happen again.
Hunter had suggested that he should have other experiences. He wanted to spend the night with Arnold, even if he would just be another notch on the older boy's bed post.
He looked at the trophy in his hand. He was Scrappy now, and he knew what Scrappy would do. Standing up, he stripped, grabbed a towel and headed for the shower room.
The dormitory was old and divided into odd-sized sections. The part the wrestlers were staying in had a common room on the first floor, and a common shower and personal rooms on the second and third. Benji hadn't yet seen the basement.
Finished with his shower, Benji wrapped his towel around his waist and headed down the rarely-used back stairs. He would bypass the common room that way, and reduce the risk of encountering any of his peers, or worse yet, one of the instructors.
At the bottom of the stairway, Benji opened the door to the basement and stepped through, pausing to orient himself. An open door revealed a large laundry room. A sign on a closed door said, "Mechanical Room - Authorized Personnel Only." The third door stood half-open, a subtle invitation to enter into the darkness beyond.
Benji dropped his towel on the floor. Taking a deep breath, he stepped across the threshold and closed the door behind him.
Arnold sat on the edge of the bed, naked. In the semi-darkness, the dim yellow light from the lava lamp on the nightstand cast a golden glow on his muscular body. The soft shadows from the moving paraffin globules gave the blond boy the appearance of a Michelangelo sculpture in motion.
Benji gasped softly. It was the most awesome sight he'd ever seen. The boy was beautiful beyond words. But what was most striking was the steel-hard shaft he held in his hand. He looked up at Benji with a smile.
"I knew you'd come, Scrappy."
"What made you so sure?"
The older boy grinned. "You can't resist a challenge. That's why you came to wrestling camp, and how you got your nickname." His grin broadened as he slowly stroked the shiny-slick source of his own nickname. "And it's why you're gonna spend the night with me."
Reaching behind, Benji bolted the bedroom door.
Benji and Arnold stood side by side talking with the other boys as Coach Wilson went for his car. After they'd taken showers, packed up Arnold's gear, and done a quick clean-up in his room, Benji put on Arnold's sweatpants and they went up to his room so he could pack too. Then they shared phone numbers and addresses, and hugged each other one last time. Now in public, they needed to be more circumspect. But as Coach drove up, Benji pulled Arnold to one side and quickly squeezed his hand.
"Take care and keep smiling, Tripod. I'm at the other end of a telephone line if you need to talk."
Arnold smiled at his new friend.
"Thanks, Scrappy. You don't know how much I appreciate that."
As he got into Coach Wilson's car, Benji waved goodbye to Arnold and his other new friends. It had been an awesome experience, even better than the retreat at Conboy Lake.
As they drove away, Coach looked over at Benji with a smile.
"So, did you learn a lot, Scrappy?"
Benji grinned at his mentor.
"A lot about wrestling, that's for sure. I hope it will help me this year. Am I stuck with my nickname forever?"
Coach chuckled. "I hope so. It's the most appropriate nickname I've ever heard, not only for your wrestling, but for how you go to bat for your friends, like you have for Peter... and will for Tripod, if you can."
"You know about my conversation with Tripod?"
"I know him from wrestling matches, and I know his coach well. Tripod told his coach about your conversation. You're quickly becoming a good friend to him, Benji. Don't let distance make that slip away."
They rode in silence for a while as Coach negotiated his way out of the city and Benji considered the nuances of what Coach had said. Once they were on the freeway, Coach had another question.
"Did you learn anything else?"
"Well, I made a lot of friends, and learned about living on a college campus."
"Anything about life in general?"
Benji was silent for a few minutes.
"I learned to take advantage of opportunities and not let them pass me by."
"Advantages like the wrestling camp?"
"Yes, but I wasn't thinking of that."
Coach smiled. "I know you weren't."
Benji lapsed into silence. He wasn't sure how to proceed, so Coach helped him out.
"Benji, I've watched you for eight years, ever since you were in first grade. I've known about your sexual orientation longer than you have."
Benji sighed. "My parents said the same thing. Is it that obvious?"
"Only to those of us who know you well. Did you have a good time with Tripod last night?"
"Yeah, I did." He paused briefly. "Coach, how do you know so much about us?"
Coach chuckled. "Let's just say I chaperone a lot of these events, and I pay attention to what's going on around me, but I seldom interfere."
Some things were coming together for Benji.
"Did you recommend me for the Conboy Lake retreat?"
"Yes, both Hunter and I did."
Benji was silent for a few moments.
"Does Hunter know you're the benefactor for the seminar?"
Coach laughed out loud. "I knew you'd figure that out. No, he doesn't. At the moment only you and Martin know - and the owner of the conference center."
"You must trust me a lot to let me know about that."
"I trust you completely. Besides, you'd have known soon anyway. I want you to be Martin's successor as the seminar leader next year."
Benji's eyes widened with surprise. "Martin is the student body vice president and has lots of leadership training and experience. I'll only be a sophomore next year."
"I'll see to it that you get some training. And age doesn't always equate to maturity, responsibility, and empathy."
"Does Martin know?"
Coach smiled. "Of course. He recommended you."
Benji entered his house and let the screen door slam behind him. It was the accepted way of letting everyone know you were home. As he walked into the kitchen, Peter strolled in from the living room. Benji knew from the smirk on his brother's face that something was up. His mom gave him a maternal hug and kiss.
"Welcome home, Scrappy."
Benji stopped in his tracks.
"How did you find out about my nickname?"
"I'll let Peter tell you."
Benji looked at his brother. "Well?"
"Kojo called home Tuesday night and told Kofi, who told Darren, Eric, Nick, and me at the volleyball game Wednesday."
Benji sighed as he set his trophy on the kitchen table.
"With it engraved on this, you'd have found out eventually. I suppose the whole world knows now."
His mom smiled at him. "Yes, and we think it's perfect. We also know you won your practice match against an older boy they call Tripod."
Benji looked intently at his mom and then at his brother. His mom's look of innocence said she didn't understand the nickname. Peter's smirk said he did.
Benji's sigh was louder this time. "And how did you find that out?"
"Coach Wilson called your dad last night. He wanted us to know."
"Well, I guess you know everything then."
"Not quite. How did Tripod get his nickname?"
Coach Wilson had set him up. Benji scowled and looked at Peter, who was enjoying his brother's discomfort. Then he had a stroke of brilliance.
"I don't know. Ask Coach Wilson."
He picked up his pack and headed for the basement bedroom with his brother tagging along behind. Dropping his pack he flopped down on the bed with his hands behind his head.
Peter smirked. "You oughta be tired, considering what you and Tripod did last night."
Benji looked up, his eyes wide with surprise.
"How did you find out about that?"
"Well, Tripod told Kojo, who told Kofi, who called Eric, who..."
He stopped, because Benji was smirking too.
"How was Barry?"
"What do you mean?"
"I hear they call him Donkey Dong, and after the volleyball game Wednesday, you spent the afternoon in the woods with him. Kojo said that according to Kofi, you weren't gathering pine cones."
Peter flopped down beside his brother and put his hands behind his head.
"I missed you."
"Why? It sounds like you were pretty busy."
"Yeah, but at the end of the day, I didn't have anybody to talk to about it."
"You can talk about it now if you want to."
Peter rolled onto his side and grinned at his brother.
"I will. But first, tell me about Tripod."
That evening, Benji got a phone call from Hunter.
"Good job at wrestling camp, Scrappy."
Benji sighed once more. "You too? And how did you find out?"
"Coach called me. He's already reserved a room for you at state."
Benji smiled happily. "Cool! And how are you doing?"
"Pretty well. Coach is reserving more than one room... unless you and I decide to share one. Speaking of sharing a room, how was Tripod?"
Benji was quiet for a long time. "And how did you find out about that?"
"Peter told me when he answered the phone."
"Maybe I'll take out a full-page ad in the paper and let the whole world know. Just a minute."
He looked around to make sure his parents weren't listening.
"Tripod was amazing, but size doesn't equal skill and affection. When are you gonna be home? I miss you."
"I'll be home tomorrow afternoon. And my parents are out of town for the weekend."
Benji smiled. "Is that an invitation to spend the night?"
"And the better part of the next day. Do you remember where the key is?"
"Uh-huh. I'll make dinner if you want me to."
"I won't be interested in dinner. Only dessert."
Benji's grin was the wicked one he'd picked up from Arnold.
"Dessert will be waiting in your bed."
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