Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SIGNS


Green signs–one after the next, mile after mile–are everywhere.  I've aged and passed some bittersweet mile marker, entering a place where nostalgia colors my thoughts, and memories matter more.  Or, we're just road-trippin'. . .

We're off to Jeri's 30-year reunion.  Her event.  Her friends.  Her memories.  I'm an outsider, having graduated in another state, 10 years ahead of her.  Still, my wife is excited to have me to herself for the 200 miles south on I-5, then a 20 mile finish to the west. 

In my 42 years in wrestling, I've done some road trips.  Planes and vans and cars and buses and trains, and at times I even rode my thumb.  My wrestling trips often criss-crossed the state, occasionally the nation, and on rare occasions, the world.  My events.  My friends.  My memories.

Wrestling, Jeri and I came together 24 years ago, and wrestling has been the third wheel for our entire marriage.  She has been a trooper, supporting me and loving me and sharing me through it all.  Any long-time wrestling widow can tell you about unfinished honey-do lists, lost weekends, mentally absent husbands, distracted holidays, and most important, the loss of companionship that sometimes goes with giving up someone you love, to something he loves.  When I look back on my long-term obsession with wrestling, it’s plain to see that Jeri has sacrificed for years, while still offering her love and support.  It's a lifetime gift I could never properly repay.  So, for just one trip–Jeri's special trip back to her roots–I plan to leave wrestling at home.  Wrestling will get over it, and so will I.

As we depart, I catch the green road sign announcing our little town, Blaine.  I wonder how many people who read our sign know that we are the current state champions in wrestling.  The thought takes me back to that magical moment when the title was clinched. 

Barely past city limits, and wrestling has already interrupted.  I smile, realizing that road trips allow time for thinking, and when I think, wrestling intrudes.  It's relentless that way.  I feel Jeri noticing from shotgun, and I recommit to my plan.  I fail.

We approach Ferndale, a town with its own green sign, a hall-of-fame wrestling coach to its credit, and a new young coach doing good work.  I wonder how long it will take him to reach the top.

Along the freeway near Ferndale I see a sign for a large, locally respected heating business.  I remember the tears in its owner's eyes after his son won a state title.  The owner and I have become good friends, because of wrestling.
 
We enter Bellingham, the big town nearest our small town, and wrestling encroaches again with memories of dual meets and tournaments, parents and fans, friends and opponents, and wrestlers of all manner: little kid wrestlers, high school state champs, and everything in between.  But mostly, it's coaches who invade my thoughts.  One who has passed on.  Several who have moved on.  One diagnosed with cancer, but fighting like hell.  Several currently working to build teams at Bellingham's three high schools.  All of them, friends.

"Wanna stop at Starbucks?" asks Jeri, unwittingly getting me back on track.  "Sure," I say.  We drive-through, and Jeri requests a Caramel Macchiato, while I order my usual Grande Americano with cream.  My coffee is not a latte and not made entirely of milk, so I consider whether I'm dieting.  Feather-brained thoughts like this fill my head in wrestling's absence.

We continue south, sipping our drinks and slicing through the heart of western Washington, crossing county lines, zipping past small towns, and blowing through cities on this non-wrestling road trip.  I face an endless succession of green road signs with names of places, large and small.  Suddenly I realize that nearly every sign, despite my intention otherwise, takes me back to wrestling.

We progress, and soon pass a sign for Mount Baker Highway.  One of my best friends in wrestling has recently retired after coaching the Mountaineers for over 20 years.  We competed fiercely against each other for decades, and I love this man.  He is larger than life, a true local icon.  I will miss him.

Jeri talks about the classmates she's most excited to see.  I engage with her for a mile or two, trying to recall which one is Holly, and which is Jennifer.  As Jeri talks, shamefully, I drift off again.

We climb and dip, rollercoastering through the lush hills south of Bellingham, and approach Cook Road, which leads to Sedro Woolley.  I’m forced to smile again.  True wrestling country, now.  My close friend and college teammate–the same guy who once punched me in the teeth for unknown reasons at a party–coaches at Woolley.  He's a teacher who raises cattle and bales hay, and his abrasive mouth gets him in trouble too often, but he's as loyal as they come, and he has a good heart.  He loves wrestling, and his teams have won six state titles.  His town is legendary for wrestling, and so is he.

Burlington next.  I wonder what might have been, had I accepted the once-offered head coaching position at Burlington-Edison High School.  Now, I consider my friend who has done well as head coach there.  I notice the football field from the freeway, and think of another friend, my best, who is my longtime assistant coach.  He played on that field, and graduated there.

Jeri, a notorious backseat driver operating from her perch in the front seat, reminds me of the speed limit.  I've drifted off to a mat somewhere, and I'm doing 55 in a 60.  I usually drive too slow for Jeri's taste, but it's especially so on this trip.  She's on a mission home.  

I pass a sign for Mount Vernon, and I remember the old gym with its wooden bleachers, and the hundreds of historic black and white photos of athletes dating back nearly a century.  I recall running into the current coach in Las Vegas recently, and I think about the former coach, a friend who retired, sold everything, and moved to Guatemala to relax.  I wonder what his wife thought when he started a wrestling program there.

Jeri says that she still hasn't decided whether we'll stay with her mother, or her sister.  "Either–Or," I mumble, staring ahead.  Again, I feel Jeri noticing that I'm checked out, and she knows where I've gone.  I drive on.

A sign for Arlington, where the father of one of my wrestlers, coaches.  Then Marysville, where another hall-of-fame coach has left his mark.  Now on to Everett, home of a University of Michigan All-American turned disc jockey.  The current Everett coach brings his team to my tournament, and I hope he'll continue.  I like the way he handles his guys.

Jeri talks about a summery outfit she plans to wear to the reunion dinner.  She wonders aloud if I'll dance with her.  I make no comment.  We both know the answer.

The sign for Highway 2 toward arch-rivals Lake Stevens and Snohomish looms.  A future hall-of-famer and his colorful wingman coach Lake, and the Vikings are enjoying the fruits of ongoing hard work and wrestling passion.  They are living their glory days, and year after year they are the target in the large-school state tournament.  State titles are expected in Lake Stevens, and when the Vikings don't win, it seems a fluke. 

Snohomish, once coached by an old friend and hall-of-famer, is now led by a new friend.  Tradition of Excellence somehow pops into my head every time I see Snohomish.  This tired cliche' rings true and fresh for the Panther program, thanks to those who have built and kept it.  As they say, it ain't braggin' if it's true.

We enter Seattle, and I consider how big cities seem to struggle with wrestling.  It was true in my home state, where Los Angeles and San Francisco achieved little success.  Urban centers are basketball country, I think.  In the next instant I think of Beat the Streets, and the difference being made by wrestling visionaries.

I look over at Jeri, who is resting her head against the window.  My plan is failing.

I spot the Space Needle, the iconic Seattle landmark that's shown before nearly every scene on Grey's Anatomy.  I know because my daughter and I finished off 196 Grey's this summer–seasons 1 through 9–in some extended medical soap opera addiction binge.  The Grey's Needle diverts my thoughts from wrestling, but just for a moment. 

Jeri flinches when I make a sudden lane change while jockeying through downtown.  "Be careful!" she snaps, afraid for her life.  "I am!" I bark back.  We stare ahead, avoiding escalation.  The sudden tension subsides, and I'm lost in thought again.

We cross the I-90 exit, which leads east to my parents' house in Bellevue.  They have both passed away, and the house is now sold, but I recall how their door was always open to my teams for overnight stays on wrestling trips.  They loved me, so they loved wrestling, and they treated my wrestlers well.    

We pass the Hawks and Mariners stadium complex, and a bridge for West Seattle appears in the sky.  If we took that bridge, followed Fauntleroy down to the dock, and hopped the ferry to Vashon, we might see a pair of brothers who make you feel good, just by being in the same gym.  These former state champs coach the Vashon Pirates, and I wonder if there is anyone, anywhere, more excited about wrestling.

We roll on, passing Tyee High School, where my good friend–Blaine Wrestling's longest committed fan–attended school; then SeaTac, where a plane I boarded last year carried me to Des Moines, Iowa for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships; and finally Tukwila.  There, I sight-in the Embassy Suites hotel, where my team stays and plays when we compete in the Vashon tourney each winter.  I visualize our guys dominating the pool area, bouncing around halls in swimsuits, and clogging up elevators.  A barely audible giggle slips out.  Beside me, Jeri says, "What?"  "Nothing," I whisper, and we cruise on in silence, until . . .  

My wife shrieks in a language I don't recognize.  I snap-to, red brake lights flashing frantically in our path.  I push my foot through the brake pedal to avoid the suddenly frozen traffic, and we lurch to a stop.  We brace for a rear-end collision, which never comes.  "What are you doing!" she screams.  Adrenaline spiking, I fire the first misguided missle that loads in my head: "Did you know that back seat driving causes 7 percent of all accidents?  I researched it!"  Instantly, I long for a mulligan.  I clam up, and inch forward in the sluggish freeway traffic.

Eventually we pick up speed and continue south, as emotions settle down.  Jeri cracks a book, and I'm free to think again.  We pass through the greater Kent area, and I can't be sure where, but I know wrestling powers with names like Tahoma, and Kentwood, and Orting lurk like hungry sharks in shallow waters, just off the freeway.

On we cruise, through Federal Way, where upstart Todd Beamer has already made a name for itself, competing with urgency and representing a hero with honor.  More signs with more wrestling names pass us, like Auburn, and Fife, and suddenly, around a bend, I see it.

Anticipating the bend, Jeri says, "Well?"

I reply in a reverent voice, "There it is."

"Yep, there it is," she says.  "How do you feel?" 

I think about how I feel before I answer, and I realize this is the first time in 23 years that I've passed the Tacoma Dome–the site of our recent state championship–and felt joy. 

"Good," I say.  "No regrets, this trip." 

I glance at Jeri, and she's smiling.  "I'm happy for you."

We cut through Olympia, and I recall the animated Blaine ex-principal who lives there, working as the Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.  This remarkable man, who has ascended to one of the highest positions in education in Washington, surprised me on the Tacoma Dome floor, minutes before Session I of the state meet, wild-eyed and wearing a bright orange jump suit.  He pumped my hand, asked a hundred rapid-fire questions, and roared, "YOU CAN DO IT!"  Early Sunday morning, after two grueling days of whistle-to-whistle competition, after we did do it, he was the first to call with congratulations.

Jeri is back into her book, and we roll south, passing other wrestling hotbeds along the way:  Tumwater, Chehalis, Castle Rock, Kelso.  Each sign brings an image to my mind.  Tumwater's H2o mat logo.  A long-lost friend who wrestled for the Chehalis Bearcats.  The bright red singlets of the Rockets we see only once a year, in the Tacoma Dome.  The state champion from Kelso I took along on a wrestling trip to Russia.

We turn west at Kelso and finish off the final 20 miles.  We attend the reunion dinner in a rural tavern on the Columbia River that night.  We stick around for the dance, where a band featuring a lead guitar classmate who is a police chief somewhere, covers 80s tunes.  I like the music but I don't dance, so I hang like a wallflower, watching people drink and get merry.  Jeri is huddled up in a group of friends, where they erupt in random laughter.  She makes eye contact with me, we share a private moment from afar, and she smiles.  She is beautiful, and it makes me happy to see her happy, enjoying this special night with long-ago friends–and without wrestling. 

Back on track, I've kept wrestling at bay since arriving, and I'm into the reunion as well as a virtual stranger can be.  An athletic looking young Hispanic man approaches me.  I hope he doesn't want to dance.  He says, "Coach Foster, is that you?"  I can barely hear him through the blaring music, but I realize he knows my name.  "Yes, it's me," I say.  He grins wide, and extends his hand.  "It's me, Frankie!"  Frankie's face suddenly looks familiar, the way you can sometimes see the child you remember, in the face of an adult.  "Hey, Fankie!" I say, and we share some stories. 

Frankie attended the Blaine Wrestling Camp 15 years ago, and stayed at my house, along with my wrestling nephew.  Wrestling has intruded the reunion, and I’ve failed once more.  Maybe next time.  For now, I can't wait for the ride north, back to Blaine.  I'm always up for a wrestling road trip, and I predict a good one.  The signs all point to it.

Note:  This was one drive on one day.  Wrestling folks who've been around for a while can take a road trip in any direction, by any means of transportation, and it will likely be rich with wrestling memories.