The 98 Pound Weakling and the Gym Nazi (1960s)

High School USA


  “Hello Sam. How ahhhhh yah Sam? Yah look like an ath-a-lete Sam. The indoah type. Ha, ha .”

(Conversation overheard between two elderly Jewish men meeting poolside at Miami Beach)


Because I weighed about 118 lbs., when I entered the 9th grade I could have almost passed as the poster boy for the 98-pound weakling. The “almost” was because I looked like I weighed 25 pounds less. This physical liability however, belying the fact that the name of my school was Valhalla, Nordic home of the Gods was offset by the fact that I was a straight-A student. That was me all right; Mr. Adonis. Mr. Viking himself.

Although I studied hard and also played hard with my friends after school, I had deluded myself into believing this would be sufficient for a well-rounded life style.In reality I was only fooling myself by happily existing in that particular microcosmic dream world of marginal realities. My after school activities were unorganized, completely unstructured, such that as I cruised into the 10th grade under my own misguided impression that I was doing just fine, the peaceful bliss of that fantasy existence was suddenly, rudely and abruptly turned upside down one day as I walked past Joe C., the High School Athletic Director.

Coach Joe not only had little sympathy for the physically weak but also seemed to have genuine distain for them, especially disliking puny intelligent eggheads. He expressed himself on the subject in a semi-subtle manner that was cleverly veiled by his hidden agendas. A street-smart, street toughened little Italian of average intelligence, he was a man who had come to believe that Physical Education should encompass half the school curriculum, and that anyone with half a brain should probably have the rest of it pounded out of his skull on the football field.Standing no more than 5 feet 5 inches tall, he typified the personality that goes with the “Short Man Syndrome:” I’m short. I hate being short. And because I’m short, I’m going to show the rest of the world just how big I can really be. Napoleon Bonaparte had the same problem.

One of Coach Joe’s favorite tortures in mandatory gym class was to have everyone scale a rope to the ceiling of the gymnasium. These ropes were so thick that I couldn’t even get my hands around them, much less pull myself up, making me believe to this day that in a small fit of masochistic delight he probably had stolen them off a Longshoreman’s dock from the mooring cleats of merchant ships or cruise liners. They were the kind of ropes that rats used as little runways in grade B movie metaphors as they scampered on board creaking wooden sloops that were about to leave a fog-bound port to sail off for some probably future doomed fate.

Coach Joe would then stand directly underneath the ropes goading and prodding his little rat students by scolding:

  • What if this was the only way you could get yourself off a sinking ship? You’d probably all be dead by now.

This inspirational gibe was something he had undoubtedly learned in a World War II boot camp training course that dealt with survival tactics on an LST.

I felt like telling him that his little drill instead would not have done any bit of good to the victims of the Titanic disaster, who went from the refrigerator into the freezer, so to speak as they successfully slid off their ropes only to flash-freeze to death in the North Atlantic like Byrd’s Eye string beans.

Meanwhile almost everyone in gym class was left hobbling around with rope burns or rope splinters in various and sundry places including, palms, forearms, ass flanks, testicles and genitals, then finally found themselves directed to sit in the arbitrarily designated “you drowned, you dunce” section of the class; an area consigned to some pre-painted circle on the basketball court. It was truly inspiring to then have gone back to academic classes without being able to sit down, much less be able to hold a pen in those cramped up little rope burned fingers; or vaguely wondering if you would ever be able to take another dump, or even be able to successfully reproduce as an adult.

Coach Joe was a proto-typical champion of the “no-pain/ no- gain concept.”  I guess that was why in his track and field decathlons we nearly had to break our backs trying to execute high jumps or while flubbing up the pole vault almost succeed at in punching a large hollow metal tube through our chest walls.

This gym theory was something most positively reinforced one day when instead of flying over it, I plopped down on my hand while attempting to vault a side horse. The result was a serious fracture to the navicula bone in my wrist. It was such a clumsy spastic vaulting maneuver that it only caused the mildly amused coach to guffaw, then sneer, then force me do it over and over again until I got it right. In retrospect, I suppose it was lucky that I hadn’t landed on my head, ending the vault with a full-blown cranial perch, then subsequently being forced to do it repeatedly until I successfully sustained multiple skull fractures.

  • You’ll keep doing that cranial perch until you get a perfect “ten” or you’ll do it until your brains blow out of your eardrums.
  • Coach, my head really hurts. Can I switch my routine over to the buttocks flagrante maneuver and land on my ass for a while?
  • Sure. Why not. We all know you’re a double klutz anyway.

Later that day, after my hand and forearm was put in a cast, followed by the Orthopedic Surgeon’s gloomy prediction that the little bone could die from aseptic necrosis because its blood supply was severely compromised, the coach was lucky that he himself did not die at the hands of my mother’s wrath.

She said

  • If that little guinea prick was in front of me right now I’d choke him to death.
  • Wow. That would be great, mom.

My father, who remained at work while I was at the hospital, seemed relatively indifferent to the accident, not at all holding the Coach to any blame, so no disciplinary action ensued.It would have been unthinkable anyway, as in those days no one criticized the concept of teachers having the authority not only of “in loco parentis” but also of “in loco sadisticus.”

In fact, if there was any blame at all, the indirect implication by my father was that the blame rested with me, along with several oblique references to the fact that somehow he personally had been inconvenienced by the episode.All he could say was:

  • I just can’t understand it. How could you break your thumb in gym class? I just can’t understand it.

By itself that may have been all right, except for the fact that he had to say it over and over and over again, only serving to remind me of Aunt Rose’s carping preservations about my cousin Linda’s broken engagement. In reality I was the one who could not really understand his insensitivity since there was no skin off his back or any break in his bones.

After all, whereas my mother was the parent who had taken me to the doctor and I was the victim encased in a cement cast that left me looking like a human Fiddler Crab, my father ‘s office routine had gone on uninterrupted except to take the call about the bad news. In retrospect, now that I too have to work in an office to support a family, I guess there was a legitimate reason to be uninvolved; but to a physically and emotionally traumatized teenaged son that is still no excuse for not being sympathetic.

Even when I eventually did have the opportunity for revenge, I passed on it because I didn’t have the heart to say the same thing to him when he was eighty-nine years old and had managed to somehow survive getting run over by his own car, in his own driveway, then acted like the rest of the world owed him something for it. He nearly died from a bizarre accident that then took months for all the ‘blacks and blues’ to go away.

But I did think it:

  • I just can’t understand it. How could anyone possibly get run over in his own driveway, by his own car?

It hardly mattered. The only explanation from him would have been:

  • You just wouldn’t understand.

My father happened to be on the Board of Education during my high school tenure. I can only assume this is where he had met Coach Joe, also culturally bonding with him in the inimically automatic “we are both Paisano-Italianos” fashion. Finally by not forgetting for one minute that my father had come from the old school philosophy of being the well-rounded scholar-athlete, and for unknown reasons being totally unrelated to the gym accident, the subject of me must have surfaced. Then whatever transpired between the two men, I had suddenly and unexpectedly came into the gun-sights of little Coach Joe.

One day while monitoring the school hallway, he singled me out as I passed by, grabbed me by the arm, and taking me aside said:

  • You look pale. Your color is pasty and your skin is too white. Are you anemic? Don’t you ever go outside to get any sunshine? I’ll bet all you do is stay indoors and study.

I was stunned:

  • Yes I study, but I also go outside everyday to play with my friends.
  • OK. But do you exercise?
  • Yes. I ride my bike.
  • Nothing good in life will ever come of riding a bike around with your friends. You need to be in organized athletics. You will never get into college on your academic record alone. You need balance. Yes, only balance will impress the College Dean.

At least the Math teacher was more lightheartedly facetious when he consistently penned in tiny print next my quiz scores of 98%; “You will fail in June!” I knew he was only trying to push me a little harder; yet not crossing the fine line of harassment like the gym Nazi was doing.

Coach Joe then went on to tell me I should start by getting an idea what real athletics was all about, so he gave me the job of hanging around with the football team as well as assigning me to be the school sports reporter to the local Westchester County newspaper. I was supposed to go to the games, then call the scores and play summaries into a news desk where a testy, ungrateful staff reporter condensed the entire local schoolboy cub reporter calls into his own little game summaries. That was a nice scam. He stayed at his desk, while people like me stood in the mud and frozen rain as we wrote down all the plays. Coach Joe simply said to “get into it” a little bit and then he would find something else for me to do.

Hanging out in the gym and a locker room reeking of sweaty armpits, farts and jock rot along with the mental midgets on the football team made me wonder where their life balances were coming from, or why for example the coach did not seem to care if they rounded out their lives by studying or doing their homework. I guess one does not have to know the difference between “may” and “can” if one is slated for a college athletic scholarship, where the continuing lack of a quest for real knowledge simply occurs at a much higher level.

Come to think of it, that may be why the I.Q. of some of the highest paid professional athletes in the world is for the most part inversely proportional to their incomes.

The first time I called in the play summaries, I was reporting the last names of the players when the real reporter stopped me to say he needed all their first names too. I knew our guys but not those on the other team and because this oafish lout was so rude to me by suddenly yelling or cursing about it so much, I told him I would call him back after I got the information.

Of course this was an impossible task. How was I supposed to reconstruct the names of people from another school I knew nothing about whatsoever? Was I supposed to peruse the phone books, guess at their parent’s first names, and then go on a multi-dial open-ended goose chase? Besides, I only had limited personal telephone privileges and certainly did not also have the time for this nonsense. Five minutes later, I called him back with fictitious names, which ultimately required him to print a retraction the following week for all the complaints he got from the parents of the opposing players who had been labeled with first names that did not even come close to reality.

It served him right because I was doing his job for him while the only reward I got was verbal abuse. Needless to say my sports reporting job ended rather quickly on a relatively quiet note.

This was all a diversion for Coach Joe anyway as he ruminated on what to do next with a 118 lb. nerd wearing thick glasses and braces, having a slide rule stuck to his belt, and generally sporting a puny underdeveloped physique. A bright light must have suddenly gone off in his forebrain as he came up with the big plan of how I was going to: get some fresh air and sunshine, build up my body, while padding my resume in order to impress any College Dean who might one day interview me to enter school.

Apparently, I was going to be on the wrestling team. I was also going to try out for cross-country running and I was not going to have any real choice in the matter either because the plan had already been discussed with, then pre-approved by my father.

Dull Boy

All work and no play make Jack a very dull boy indeed.






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