I have a theory that everyone has what I call the Personal Singularity. This is the period in your life when some trend or phenomenon so defines you, so matches where you are in life, so inspires you to be all that you can be in a particular direction (for better or worse), that you will never be that in sync with anything else in your sorry little life, ever again.
For a long time I thought my own moment of Personal Singularity had come when I was in high school and David Letterman’s show was on NBC (I want to be Dave! I can be Dave! I AM DAVE!). Now that I’m a warped and frustrated old man I realize it was actually the years I spent with this guy:
The odd thing about the Personal Singularity is that it’s rarely disputed. People around you—all your loved ones—can agree on what it is, and you yourself probably won’t argue.
Saturday Night Fever? Yep (embarrassed laugh) I was REALLY into that. Young Tiger Woods tearing up Augusta? Hey, my golf clubs are still in the trunk of my car.
For my friend’s father, it was Sanford & Son. Nothing has made him laugh harder than Redd Foxx and his son Lamont in the junkyard. He still does the “I’m coming to join you, Elizabeth” routine.
Yes, yes: life was good for Monte Strunz when he had Sanford & Son to look forward to each week.
For our high school football coach, the Moment of Personal Singularity was the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, Willie Galt, the Superbowl Shuffle, the Fridge(!), and Sweetness (the one Bear who was so awesome that even we Packers fans could not help but admire him). And of course, Coach Ditka. Coach Olin didn’t just admire Mike Ditka. He wanted to be Ditka. He was Ditka. He was powerfully built, just like Iron Mike, and he had the same coloring and the scowl. He had brushed his hair back and sported a moustache several years before Ditka arrived on the scene, as if he had sensed that Ditka was going to come along and look like that. The universe rarely exhibits that kind of cosmic harmony, but when it does, it is awesome.
It hardly mattered that our team was terrible and had been for five years. His career record was something like two-and-fifty. Not too good! And yet he was out there every fall, enduring heat and mosquitoes in August and rain and wind and cold in November, pacing the muddy turf like a stallion with a clipboard, chomping gum, barking out commands. Leading his men, like a hero—like his hero, in fact, the much more successful avatar who had won a Super Bowl just a few years before. Back then there was something dignified in resembling Coach Ditka, even when your team was losing a game 55-0. My senior year we lost by that score—by that exact score—two weeks in a row.
Once at halftime we came into the locker room down 20-0. Coach Ditka (we all called him that) gave the best speech of his life, a true barnburner. I felt like weeping, knowing we were not worthy of such a speech.
“Men,” he said at the end. “You have two choices. You can go out there and play another half like that and you can lose 40-0. Or you can go out, play like men, and WIN! THIS! GAME!”
We stomped and shouted and pounded each other’s shoulder pads…and went out and lost by the score of 40-0. It was incredible. I mean, what were the odds? We were cursed like that.
After the game, Coach Ditka came in to address us again. This time there was no speech. This time he could only shake his head.
“See you Monday, boys,” he said.
Yet somehow in spite of all that he managed to maintain his dignity. I always thought that about ninety percent of that was because he looked just like Ditka.
His assistant coaches, on the other hand, had little dignity to spare. I’m not sure how much was due to substance abuse. Maybe that was the cause. Maybe a symptom. Either way it dragged them down.
Coach Spangler had a constant sniff from an “air conditioner cold” that we thought was a euphemism for cocaine. For all I know he was snorting steroids. It wouldn’t have surprised me. It would at least explain his psychotic intensity, which reached its peak during pre-game warmups when he ran around like a crazed animal, grabbing facemasks and head-butting players. It did not seem to bother Coach Spangler that the player was wearing a helmet and he very much wasn’t, or that the collision between his face and the player’s facemask bent his glasses sideways and shredded his skin and sent blood streaming down from the bridge of his nose. (“War wounds,” he would growl, as he batted his face against another player’s uniform to sop up the blood.)
We called him “Sparky” because what else do you call a guy like that?
Another assistant had a different demon, a more conventional one for an ex-athlete in Wisconsin: beer. Or as he put it, “cold ones.” Coach Cold Ones (a nickname we called him to his face) had “seen some shit” in his life. He had been divorced five years earlier and the rumor was he had not dated since then. He lived in a trailer. Once in a while he talked about his son, a “deadbeat” who lived in Florida. Doing the math it seemed that Cold Ones had gotten his ex-wife pregnant when she was a fifteen-year-old sophomore and he was a senior about to leave for Vietnam. College had never been in the cards for Cold Ones.
Maybe it was the war, or the ex-wife, or the son, or us—something chased him into alcoholism. He started out competent, more or less. A few weeks in—around the time we were 0-3 or 0-4—he began coming to practice in a giddy mood. He made up new plays for us and laughed at our attempts to run them. (Once he had us run a reverse, then a double reverse, then a triple, a quadruple, and finally a quintuple reverse, which we executed with all the grace of a wrecking ball tearing into a building. By the end of the play he had fallen on the ground, giggling and admitting that he “had a few cold ones” on his way to practice.)
By mid-October the giggling days were over. Now he showed up in a dark, foul mood, stumbling over words and screaming at anyone who so much as smiled.
“You think it’s all a joke. Why are you milesing? Sah-mile-ing. You think it’s a co-in-di-cence that you’re losing allatime? You’re out there gabassing… grassabbing… bassgrabbing… goddammit stop laughing football is SERIAL.”
But it wasn’t serious, not for us—there was just no way to deny that our team was a joke. Someone pointed out that every single road game we played that year was the other school’s homecoming game. That’s what we represented, what we were best at: a guaranteed win for another team. We got used to waiting through long halftimes as bands played and convertibles bearing royalty pulled onto the field, the victory already secured. By the second or third time this happened, it stopped bothering us. We had our dignity to maintain too. So we stopped warming up, stood in a line, and traitorously waved at the King and Queen of our enemies. Our coach didn’t like it, but that’s what we did. We laughed at ourselves. I didn’t feel great about it—it didn’t feel like the right way to deal with failure, as if we were dooming ourselves to a long lifetime of not caring. I sort of knew that it would be better to be serial. But I joined in anyway.
That was our team, and those were our leaders. Ditka, Sparky, and Cold Ones. It’s amazing we finished the season.
And for a moment it looked like we might not.
No one seemed to know just who had put the gleaming new padlock on the equipment shed. All we knew was that none of us could open it. And that everyone who knew the combination had gone home. And that all of our equipment—the cones, the tires, the tackling dummies, the footballs—were inside.
The team gathered around the battered old structure as Coach Ditka stood in his group of three, shrewdly assessing the situation.
“It’s locked,” Sparky said, talking faster than anyone else on the field could think. “We don’t know the combination. Who put this here? Who put this here? Everything’s inside. Everything, everything, everything. The pads are in there the footballs the dummies everything we need is in there where’s the combination who put this here how’re we gonna open it how’re we gonna practice?”
It was cold and had been raining for days. We started to make our plans —if practice were cancelled, we could head to the Pizza Hut, maybe make it to a movie…
“We’re NOT canceling practice!” Cold Ones roared. “We can run sprints! We can do pushups! We don’t need no e-pick-quent for anyathat!”
A couple of guys shrugged and started walking off the field, toward the edge of the hill that sloped down to the locker room.
Cold Ones took offense. “You leave now and you’re QUITTING THE TEAM!” he hollered at them.
“That’s the point,” one of them hollered back.
“Don’t come back then!” Cold Ones said.
Ordinarily that is not something you need to say to someone who has just quit. But sometimes Cold Ones’ responses were a little delayed.
Coach Ditka stood staring at the padlock, chewing his gum slowly. The shed was so old and decrepit—you could practically see the white paint flaking off in the drizzle. We probably could have just torn the thing down, if he’d asked. Maybe he was afraid we wouldn’t be able to do it. Maybe he was afraid we would lose to a shed.
“Have to cut it,” he said at last.
Cut it! We looked at one another. That would be cool. Not something you saw every day. And better than running, or doing pushups, or whatever physical torture Cold Ones and Sparky would come up with.
“Need a tool,” Coach Ditka announced, as if he were the captain of an endangered vessel initiating some highly technical maneuver. Think of Captain Aubrey, preparing to take down the Acheron:
Until the signal calls, you’re to spill the wind from our sails, this will bring us almost to a complete stop. Gun crews, you must run out and tie down in double quick time. With the rear wheels removed, you’ve gained elevation. and without recoil, there’ll be no chance for re-load, so gun captains, that gives you one shot from the lardboard battery… one shot only. You’ll fire for her mainmast.
“Need a tool,” our captain said again. “A cutter of some kind.”
And Sparky the first mate sprinted across the hill, down to the maintenance room. We all made sniffing noises, our sophomoric cocaine joke whenever he disappeared from view. We were still laughing about this when he returned, lugging a tool for the captain, a giant bolt cutter with rubber handles and a disproportionately tiny head. It was three and a half feet long, heavy and not easy to carry.
Coach Ditka chewed his gum at least a dozen times before he said anything. Maybe he was reflecting on his lot in life. Maybe he was thinking, behind his Burt Reynolds moustache and under his Chicago Bears baseball cap, that he could not quite believe that he was here, that his fate was to coach nineteen—well, now it was seventeen—players with no ability or hope. Maybe it suddenly struck him that his loyal deputies were completely insane.
Or maybe it was not an epiphany. Maybe this was something he had thought many times, and this was only the latest instance. Like a recurring chest pain you know is probably trouble, but which you’re powerless to do anything about.
“Cut it off,” Coach Ditka finally said.
Sparky leaped forward, swinging the heavy tool, which took on its own momentum, like a mace with a ball and chain at one end. Holding it waist high, he waggled the notch of the bolt cutter into place against the padlock’s hook. He squeezed.
The handles did not move.
Sparky grunted. He clenched again. Nothing. He took a breath, set his shoulders, and clenched a third time. Nothing.
“Ayah-yah-yah-yah-yah-yah-yah,” he shouted, grunting and squeezing. He squatted down and looked kind of like Angus Young strutting across the stage with his guitar sticking out.
The padlock stayed where it was. Implacable. Unyielding. We were losing to a padlock. Well, why not? We lost to everything else. The joke running around the conference was that we held an intrasquad scrimmage and finished the day 0-2.
“Give me that!” Cold Ones shouted. He was a much larger man, probably twice Sparky’s weight, and he moved in to take away the tool. Sparky was embarrassed and refused to surrender it.
“Give it me!” Cold Ones shouted. “GIVE IT.”
He managed to wrest one of the handles away. Sparky was hopping on one foot, refusing to let go of the other. He looked at Coach Ditka for help. One more try, Coach, his eyes said. I can do it.
Coach Ditka refused to acknowledge him. Captains must do what’s best for the ship. Sparky hopped to the side, defeated.
Cold Ones lifted the tool with ease. He set it up with nonchalance and flexed his biceps.
He squeezed again, harder this time.
Two more kids walked off the field. Nobody said anything to them. Down to fifteen.
I couldn’t leave—I couldn’t take my eyes off our mountainous, half-drunk, angry coach, unable to complete what seemed like a ridiculously simple task. How could this little piece of metal stand up to this enormous tool and this man—this Paul Bunyan of a man, all two hundred and seventy-five pounds of him, whose whole life was football and wrestling and bar fights and loading trucks and lowering engine blocks into muscle cars and crushing beer cans against his forehead and clenching his eyes against the dark memories of combat—how could such a man be defeated by such a simple thing?
He put the bolt cutter between his knees and spit on his hands. Another kid left.
It was raining harder. “Might need to cancel,” Coach Ditka said. “Come back tomorrow.”
That was the cue for half a dozen more people to flee. Sparky chased after them, shouting something about doing pushups in the hallway.
Cold Ones lifted the tool.
I looked around. It was raining hard now. Everyone else was gone, headed back to the locker room. It was only me, and Coach Ditka, and a desperate man engaged in the struggle of his life.
“Let’s go, Cold Ones,” Coach Ditka said. “Get it done.”
“Yaaaaaaaaaarghhhhh,” the coach cried, pouring everything that remained of his futile life into squeezing those handles. His arms shook. His shoulders quaked. Tendons popped out of his neck. His face turned bright red, then purple.
I waited for Coach Ditka to say something else—more encouragement, or to tell him to stop. No, John Henry! Don’t race the steam engine! You’ll die! But I didn’t want him to call it off. I wanted Cold Ones to succeed—or rather I was afraid of what might happen if he didn’t. In general he didn’t seem to have much to live for. If it had been a mental task—let’s say he didn’t know what seven times eight was—he’d have laughed it off. But what effect would failing at such a simple physical task have on him? Humiliation? More drinking? Serious depression?
Suddenly I thought that if he couldn’t get that stupid padlock off we might never see him again. He’d stop coming to practice and years later we’d hear that he lived in a tent by the river.
Coach Ditka may have been thinking the same thing. “Let’s go, Cold Ones,” he growled. “It’s Go Time, Big Man.”
Cold Ones had a wild look in his eyes. The tool was cinched against the lock now, gripping it like Beowulf’s hand clamping down on Grendel’s arm before ripping it out of its socket. The handles started to rise. Cold Ones was on his tiptoes, exerting maximum strength.
“Come on, Cold Ones,” Ditka said, his voice rising with excitement. “You got this!”
In a burst of inspiration, Cold Ones changed his grip on the tool, lifting it higher, as if he were a weightlifter jerking the weight above his head. His hands were now on either side of his ear, allowing him to bring the full force of his biceps—his favorite muscles, his pistons, his engines, the ones he used to kiss and say “this one’s called Pride and this one’s called Joy”—to bear on his foe.
It thundered. I wondered if lightning might strike this metal tool and this giant working man. It would be an incredible end. I was not sure it was something I should see. If that happened, maybe I should turn away, like Indy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Cold Ones gave a final, life-affirming squeeze.
The padlock broke. I’m convinced that the breaking of the padlock was his moment of Personal Singularity, when he proved, on a rain-drenched field, in front of a man he admired, that he could do what he was put on this earth to do.
Yes, it was his moment. And it did not even last a second.
The padlock finally broke. But the snap of metal was instantly followed by a dull, hollow thud. With no resistance, the two handles suddenly flew together, hammering the two sides of Cold Ones’ head. The tool fell to the side. Cold Ones staggered to the ground. Not in any kind of quick, dignified fall. No, it was much worse than that. His body crumpled down, and he fell in stages, like a tranquilized elephant.
When the bolt had snapped, Coach Ditka had raised a fist in the air, pumping it in triumph before realizing what had happened. Now he was so shocked he didn’t know what to do. His arm stayed where it was, suspended in mid-air. His fist unclenched. The arm didn’t move.
Cold Ones lay on his side. He was not moving either.
Coach Ditka and I looked at each other. I thought there was fear in his eyes. There must have been in mine as well. The spooky sound of metal against skull still rang in my ears. It had sounded like a baseball bat being dropped on concrete in an empty tunnel.
Cold Ones’ eyes were closed.
Coach Ditka’s smirk came back. “Come on, Cold Ones. Get up.”
“Don’t be dead,” I said, my voice ghostly. “Please, Cold Ones. Please don’t be dead.”
Coach Ditka shook his head. “He’s not dead. Get up, Cold Ones. Stop loafing.”
Tough love was effective with Cold Ones. His eyes fluttered open. He blinked several times, eyes rolling. He did not appear to know where he was. Then he rolled over, lifted his body to one knee like a truck being hoisted by a jack, and squeezed his head with both hands.
Coach Ditka and I tried to help him stand. He wriggled away from both of us and walked back to the school of his own accord. Slowly, very slowly, but of his own accord.
I thought I could see the anger and shame in every step. Life had dealt Cold Ones yet another blow. How many more of these could one man take and remain intact? How much dignity can you lose before you’re no longer a man?
As we were stretching the next day—down to 11, the magic number below which our remaining games would be lost by forfeit (not that it would matter to our record)—the athletic director arrived with a new padlock. Cold Ones got there early, scowling as they were installing the new padlock. The athletic director distributed the combination to all the coaches, but this wasn’t enough for Cold Ones. As soon as the AD left, he went into the maintenance room and returned with a can of spray paint. Then he walked slowly to the the equipment shed and sprayed the combination on the side in giant blue numbers. Later we would find that it was also spray-painted on the side of the school by the junior high gym, on the floor of the men’s locker room, and on the athletic director’s truck, which had been parked in the faculty parking lot.
For the rest of the season we were mocked as the school so stupid we painted the combination to the padlock on the side of our equipment shed. Players from other schools robbed us blind, interfering with our ability to practice as if they needed a competitive advantage. Every day brought fresh misery: we would open the door to the shed only to find it cobwebbed with toilet paper, for example. On our last day of practice we were greeted by the top half of our mascot’s costume—an oversized Viking head—dangling from a noose.
It was a tough season filled with failure. We had been the laughing stock of our conference. But now, after the padlock incident, even our own school turned on us. Even our parents were ashamed. I could understand why some of them demanded that Cold Ones be fired, and why some players—embattled as they were, embarrassed as they were—piled on. Cold Ones had problems. Cold Ones was a joke. Cold Ones had to go.
And maybe they had earned that. Maybe they had their own dignity to preserve. The guys who hadn’t quit, who toughed it out—they all had lives to live, futures to look forward to. Why did they deserve to be stigmatized? Maybe it’s better to blame the coach than accept your own failure—not as a general rule, but maybe in this case it was warranted. Maybe having someone to blame was a positive thing. Maybe, in the face of so much failure, it was necessary.
So yes, I could understand why the guys mocked Cold Ones, whose real name was Gary. I could see why they told everyone about his ridiculous plays and his drunken comments and the time he smashed his own head with the bolt cutter (which none of them had witnessed). I knew why spray-painting a padlock’s combination onto a shed became our community’s shorthand way of calling a grown man such a hopeless moron he should never be anywhere near a high school. Because what kind of example could he possibly set? What could a guy like that have within him to help kids like us learn anything?
I understood why everyone laughed at Cold Ones. I just never did.
Enjoy this post? Are you that sadistic? Or in need of catharsis? In any case, you can read more about Wisconsinites taking a shot at redemption in The Race, in which a scandal-plagued governor tries to overcome an even greater obstacle than the one faced by Cold Ones. Or you can read about a lawyer gone mad in The Promotion. All books available in print and electronic format. Enjoy, my fellow miserables!
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
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