Wrestling With John Irving
For weeks now, I've been staring at this ridiculous picture of myself posing in my wrestling outfit. When I was fifteen and attending prep school as a day student in Vermont, the writer John Irving was my wrestling coach. That’s what I’ve been telling people anyway, all these years. But the longer the picture sits on my desk, I realize that the story is only partly true.
John's Irving's son, Brendan, was also on the wrestling team, and he would occasionally be assigned to whip the newbies into shape. Wrestling is a remarkable combination of timing, physics, strength, and above all else, technique. Brendan had been practicing daily since he was a toddler. In a matter of seconds, he would rearrange my limbs pretzel-like, rendering me not only incapacitated, but staring at parts of my anatomy I never knew it was possible to look at that closely. While it was happening, it felt like sweaty, humiliating, evil sorcery. My best skill was running out of bounds, which is frowned upon.
John Irving, an accomplished wrestler himself, would occasionally come in and assist with leading practice. Because I wanted to be a writer and had read all his books (I think he was working on A Prayer for Owen Meaney at the time), it was hard for me not to be distracted and star-struck when he was in the room, which didn't help my wrestling. John was friends with our actual coach, Chip Wolcott, and he's actually the most important character in the story. Chip might not have been a famous author, but he was one of those educators that comes along at just the right moment to make a real difference in a student's life. Here's a picture of him from my copy of the 1987 Vermont Academy yearbook:
The wide-open, occasionally goofy smile is exactly how I remember him. I had just moved to the U.S. from growing up in Nepal and India among other far-flung places, so New England prep school and American life in general were disorienting. Where many of the other students just thought it was weird that I lacked any and all pop culture references, Chip took a genuine interest in my differentness. He was also building a wrestling team, and thought I might have potential. He knew I wanted to be a writer, and I'm guessing his connection with John Irving was at least partly how he leveraged me onto the team in the first place. What a disappointment that must have been, because I lost all my matches except the one my opponent forfeited because he had the stomach flu.
Chip passed away in 2003. I remember my mom telling me that he had died, and aside from feeling shocked, I'm not sure I ever took the time until now, seventeen years later, to really register that he is gone. Did I ever properly thank him? As a teacher myself, I have students who occasionally reach out long after they have graduated to let me know they miss me, or remind me of some moment that they never forgot. I'm not sure I ever did that for Chip, at least not as properly as I would have liked. I recently contacted his daughter who was a senior at Vermont Academy when I was a sophomore, and told her how much her dad meant to me. At least that felt like a belated something.
Chip must have asked John if he'd take a look at some of my writing, because I remember getting a typed note from the author with some feedback. I have several boxes of "old life stuff" here in the house, but after combing through them three times, I cannot find the note. I can picture it, his letterhead at the top, typed on an IBM Selectric. If memory serves, Irving was rightly dismissive of my bad poetry (not his thing), but kinder to my fiction. I found other things in the boxes though, clues that kept leading me back to Chip's role in my life: his address in Connecticut where he worked at a different prep academy called Salisbury School; a letter of recommendation he wrote for me where he called me "an altogether vital and competent person."
I also found a series of letters between Chip and John that Chip sent to me when I was in college. He must have known I still had aspirations as a writer and thought I would find the correspondence interesting. The fact that Chip sent me the letters in 1993 when I was his student for only one year in 1986 is a good indicator of the extraordinary man he was.
One of Irving's letters mentions how hard it is to have any privacy as a famous person. On the second page John writes, "So I'm very appreciative that you're sensitive enough to be aware that I might be a little jumpy about my privacy; damn right." Mr. Irving, on the remote chance you end up reading this essay, I am more than happy to return all this correspondence to you, as it's rightfully yours. Chip obviously trusted I would safeguard your privacy, and I'm proud to say I've done precisely that, mostly by forgetting all about the letters for almost three decades. But still, it feels a little strange to have them. Send me a current address, and they'll be in the mail to you tomorrow.
My only wrestling season ended with broken ribs and watching from the sidelines. It was a relief.
As for the photo itself, after staring at it for so long, I began to notice all the things in the background, the objects from my childhood that my mother still has, now in her Colorado home: the cheap plastic bookcases that we bought at K-Mart when we first arrived in the U.S. They've held up remarkably well over the past thirty-five years; the Tibetan carpet, horse blanket on the wall, and pillows, all from our years in Nepal. Even the yellow and white lamp still works perfectly well.
So many objects, including photographs, make the trip across the span of our lives remarkably unscathed. They patiently wait for us to notice them again, and then conjure their strange magic. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I'd say the proverb rings more or less true: this essay comes in at one thousand one hundred and twenty-nine words.
One final stroke of serendipity: when I was searching for John Irving's note in those old boxes, I did find one more bonus item: my orange wrestling outfit. If I were braver, I'd put it on again and take a picture in the same original pose.
Oh, what the hell. Chip, this one's for you . . .