Scenes from a maul
"Don’t let your wrist go negative!”
“Keep it tight!”
“Hit it! C’mon!”
“Get psyched! Get PISSED!”
Outside, it’s Saturday afternoon: glorious, careless, pulsing with the colors of fall. But in here, with the fake palm trees and the dangling Kahlua beach balls, it’s 1 am forever. Large male forms ring the dance floor, at the center of which is a waist-high table. Chalk dust drifts in the still air. These are the Seventh Annual New Hampshire State Armwrestling Championships, at the Paradise Beach Club on Weirs Beach, and my manhood is on the line. Again.
Is that, finally, the thing about manhood — that it’s always on the line? What would Norman Mailer say? No time now for such niceties. My opponent, a black-bearded Vermonter named John Pickering, is ready to go. As am I, supposedly. We’ve reversed our baseball caps and joined hands over the table. The only two competitors in our weight class (166–198 pounds), we both entered as novices: the iron in his grip tells me that John Pickering might not be quite as much of a novice as me, but still, I sense vulnerability. A jitteriness, a reluctance to meet my eye. Something defensive about that big black beard, perhaps. Strange intimacies of the game. Focus, boy, focus. Ready . . . steady . . . and — it’s over.
Well, I’ve had more painful defeats: in a New Orleans pizza parlor, long ago, a weather-beaten tracheotomy victim named Peanut whipped me so convincingly that I spent the next week with my arm in a sling. (“I got it!” he crowed in his buzzing electro-voice, a forefinger to the hole in his throat. “Almost 60 years old and I still got it!”) But the impromptu Battle of Peanut was 30 seconds long at least, maybe 40. With John Pickering, in the parlance of the armwrestler, I got “flashed.” He went through me like he was shifting gears in his truck. How did he do it? Through a haze of chalk-dust I seek him out. What’s the trick, John Pickering? “No trick,” he says with a shrug. “Just lucky.”
The book called The Subtleties of Arm Wrestling sits on the shelf that also holds Headbutts in History, The Idiot’s Guide to Being an Idiot, and Dick Cheney’s sonnet sequence My Soul a-Tremble — the shelf, that is, that doesn’t exist. Like the clash of alpha moose on a Siberian plain, arm wrestling seems to have entered the world to refute subtlety, to remind us that life is about collision, strain, dueling immensities, with no room for fanciness or the delicate wrist. Boxing can be pretty. Ultimate Fighting can be pretty. Arm wrestling is not pretty — ever.
Is it even a sport? It’s two dudes grunting at a little table. What action there is seems largely confined to the molecular level: the drastic dilation of tissue, the inaudible scream of tearing muscle fibers. The sound, as it were, of one arm wrestling.
But arm wrestling — or “pulling,” as the devotee knows it — has its subtleties, believe me. Within two minutes of entering the Paradise Beach Club and introducing myself to Harry Bean III, co-organizer (with his wife Priscilla) of the day’s event, I was on the table getting a master class. Let me tell you about the top roll and the tricep and the shoulder press and the post. Let me tell you about the side-pressure hook.