Our high school wrestling coach was Mr. Hess. He had been a star athlete at Princeton in both wrestling and track. He was very discouraged that we were all not more like him and he wanted to whip us into perfect shape. Mr. Hess was also the history teacher and his favorite topic was ancient Sparta. He wanted us to be just like the Spartans.
He was always devising bizarre training techniques for us. Like the day he decided to improve our reflexes by splitting the team into two groups and having us play Dodge-Ball. The only problem was that Mr. Hess could not find the keys to the locker where they kept the soft bouncy-balls. So instead he handed out a bunch of basketballs for us to use.
Being high-school kids, we of course aimed the basketballs for each other’s heads and genitals. You could only protect one part at a time, so we all got hit in the head a lot. I still remember what it feels like to have multiple basketballs smashing into your head repeatedly. Just like ancient Sparta. Mr. Hess thought it was such a success that he had us play “Spartan Dodge-Ball” 3 items a week.
Then Mr. Hess decided the problem was not with our reflexes but with our stamina. He decided that what we really needed was to run. Not just a little warm-up run before practice, but a really long run for an hour or more.
The only problem is that the wrestling season takes place in the middle of the winter and the school had no indoor track. Mr. Hess had also not told any of us about this ahead of time so we had not brought any warm running outfits to wear. After all. wrestling is an indoor sport.
So Mr. Hess gave us all thin grey sweatsuits and sent us outside to run in the middle of one of the coldest winters Connecticut had seen in 50 years.
It turned out that Mr. Hess had an ulterior motive. He was way behind on his teaching responsibilities. He had piles of essays and tests he needed to read and grade. While we were running in the cold he was going to stay inside and catch up on his work. So he sent us outdoors and set up his papers to grade.
The rest of the team just ran around the parking lot of the school, shivering and wondering how long before they could go back inside. But I had a plan. I took off and ran off the school grounds and down the street.
About a mile from the school was the home of my friend John Hoffecker, and that’s where I ran to. It turned out that not only was John home, but that his mother had just finished baking a chocolate cake.
John and I ate delicious warm cake and watched T.V. I ended up staying a lot longer than I had planned. When I looked at the clock I realized that I had been at his house for over an hour and a half.
In a panic, I ran back to the school, dreading what would be in store for me when I met up with Coach Hess. When I got the parking lot none of the team was there.
I ran into the gym and there was the whole team doing push ups and looking miserable. It turns out that they had only stayed outside for a few minutes before they got too cold and headed back inside. Mr. Hess was furious with them. The team had ruined his plans to catch up on his work, so the was punishing them by making them do push-ups until their arms ached.
Then he turned to me. I awaited whatever evil punishment he was going to give me for cheating on the run. Instead his face broke into a wide smile. “There’s my little Spartan!” he said. Then he addressed the rest of the team. “Farrell has been outside running for almost two hours and you wimps couldn’t even take it for 15 minutes.”
I felt badly for the rest of the team, but I never told anyone I had really been eating chocolate cake the whole time. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the team’s reaction. I just didn’t want to ruin the pleasure Mr. Hess had gotten. He actually thought that he had turned me into a Spartan.
Some of the parents eventually complained about Mr. Hess and he was forced to change his training methods. The administration gave him a manual and told him he had to use normal training methods like other coaches used. It was probably better for us, but somehow it just was not as much fun. Knowing that our coach was a little insane and might suddenly do anything at all was the best part of being on the wrestling team.
I thought about this story because the other day I was driving through town and I saw a group of high school kids running. One of them fell back from the rest and as the others turned a corner he stopped running. He then turned back and walked into the local bakery.
I wonder if he was getting a piece of chocolate cake.