February 20, 2016
“Begin with your arms fully extended and your back level with the floor,” said Mr. Vermillion as he demonstrated how to do pushups. His lean body was straight as an arrow. “Gentlemen, please don’t cheat by tilting your head down. Lower yourself, keep your spine straight, touch your nose, and push up until your arms are fully extended,” he called out repeatedly as he bobbed up and down. He stopped talking, but kept going—and going.
We were in the first rows in front of the basketball court. Light from the casement windows high above the stands reflected on the bright wood floor that exuded a smell like Pledge, the furniture polish my mom used at home. I was distracted by my recurring fantasy: dribbling on a fast break and laying up the ball as the final buzzer sounds and the crowds cheers.
After his last pushup, Mr. Vermillion sprang to his feet like a panther. “That’s a quick fifty. Every one of you can do pushups, and you can do more than you think. It’s mostly mental, in your head.”
It was our first physical education class with Mr. Vermillion. He was tall and lithe, his arms and legs sinewy, and his freckled face taut beneath a shock of straight auburn hair. Many years later, I was reminded of him when I watched British runners in “Chariots of Fire.”
“I strongly believe that physical education is critical to your growth and development as well-rounded Catholic men,” he said.
John Bauman nudged Joe Kelly’s ample belly with his elbow and said, “You’re already well-rounded.” Nearby boys snickered.
Mr. Vermillion frowned in that direction and continued, “Gentlemen, I expect your full attention. Physical education is a serious class. There will be quizzes, tests and a term paper that determine your grade along with participation and progress in activities on the field and in the gym.”
“A term paper? In phys ed?” blurted Dan Igoe, “Are you kidding me?”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Vermillion. We’ll study how the heart, lungs, and major muscle groups, and the exercise required to keep your body in good condition. You’ll learn about the true sport of wrestling — not the fake performances you see on TV on Saturday nights. We’ll do tumbling, a former Olympic sport you probably never heard of. Finally we’ll discuss how alcohol and drugs affect your body, and you will do a term paper on the tragedy of addiction.
We began to understand that phys ed was not going to be recess, dodgeball, or even our usual sports: football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer.
On that first day, Mr. Vermillion led us through stretches and calisthenics, including ten pushups, followed by a slow jog twice around the practice field and the library he had determined was a mile. “Go at your own pace,” he said, “Walk if you need to, but walk as fast as you can.” He sprinted the first lap, and slowed to run, walk beside us, and offer encouragement.
Back in the gym, he told us to keep walking slowly around the court while we caught our breath. Mr. Vermillion assembled us at mid-court, and said, “Anyone know about tumbling?”
No one responded. Mr. Vermillion turned, took a quick few steps, dove headfirst onto a gray mat on the gym floor, tucked his head, did three somersaults, and came to a stop standing at attention like a soldier. “That, gentlemen, is a basic tumbling routine. All of you will learn to do that and more. It was an Olympic sport that’s become the floor routine in gymnastics.”
“I’ll break my neck trying to do that,” Bob Higgins said. Several others agreed.
“I need four volunteers,” said Mr. Vermillion. No one stepped forward. He motioned to four boys and had them line up on all fours on the mat next to each other. He backed up to the foul line and ran toward the crouching boys, flew over them, landed headfirst on the mat, and did a somersault. Involuntary gasps and exclamations totally inappropriate for Christian gentlemen came from our group.
“I am sure that some of you will do that this year,” Mr. Vermillion said. “Tomorrow, we’ll continue with pushups and calisthenics. I want to see everyone do one more than you did today, and they need to be in good form. No slouching.”
One more pushup was required every day. The number was recorded on Mr. Vermillion’s clipboard along with the fastest and slowest times on our mile run. We were surprised at everyone’s steady progress when we gathered around the charts taped on the locker room door after each class.
For twenty minutes of each class, Mr. Vermillion droned on about topics like anaerobic and isometric exercises, the function of cartilage in our knees, and how oxygen enters the bloodstream, but the best part was when he added a story about one of the very best athletes and their success. American Indian Jim Thorpe’s records, unjustly invalidated by prejudiced sports officials, may have been a natural. Jessie Owens had potential as a boy from Oakville, Alabama, but he became a world record holder through rigorous training at Ohio State. He went on to win four gold medals to the dismay of Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Mr. Vermillion told us that Roger Bannister finally broke the four-minute mile that many believed was humanly impossible just three years earlier, and several runners had already matched this longstanding goal. Athletes were regularly breaking records in the 100-yard dash and the high jump. A Russian had cleared the bar with a 7-foot high jump.
If they could break records through training and determination, he was sure we could shave time from our daily mile run, add a pushup every day, and keep healthy and fit. The numbers on the locker room door gradually increased. Mr. Vermillion created a graph with a dotted line leading from our current performance to a much higher number by the end of the semester.
“That’s never going to happen’” said Tom Blackburn, but the solid line almost kept up with the dots. In December, Mr. Vermillion challenged the class to meet his targets, and pledged to cancel running and calisthenics as soon as we did. On the last two days of class, we lounged around the gym drinking Cokes and munching on candy bars from the vending machines. Joe Kelly sat on the bleachers, leaned back with his arms and legs splayed out, and said, “Yes! We did it. How sweet it is.” John Bauman and Tom Blackburn languidly shot baskets. Mfr. Vermillion circulated saying to each of us, “Congratulations. Way to go. You did it.”
Over the Christmas break, I continued Mr. Vermillion’s stretches and exercises in my bedroom almost every morning. I hoped to play football—if I could just get a growth spurt. I also wondered what number of pushups I could achieve with regular physical conditioning and the right mental attitude. I did one extra pushup every week and two more on mornings when I felt especially strong. I thought I looked better when I saw myself in the mirror over the sink when I stepped out of the shower. On the mornings I got up late, I skipped the stretches and all the exercises except the pushups which became a part of my morning ritual. In a year, I was doing fifty and decided that was enough.
In my sophomore year, my friend, Mike Lortz, knew I was not making much money selling magazines door-to-door and said there would soon be a vacancy at the Royal Blue Grocery where he worked on the east side of town. He found a better job and offered to recommend me as his replacement. The pay—$.75 per hour—was not great, but it was better than unpredictable commissions. Three weeknights from four to eight and ten hours on Saturday.
A few minutes before eight o’clock, the Assistant Manager stood by the door with a ring of keys in his hand. He locked the entry door precisely when his watch said eight o’clock. Pleas from customers for a quart of milk or a pack of cigarettes rarely succeeded. As soon as the last customer walked out carrying a bag of groceries, he locked the exit door. By then, Tony and I were backing down the aisles, our bodies swaying from side to side, rhythmically swinging mops to at least wet the tile floors. I was a sailor swabbing the deck. Donnie sprayed cold water on the produce while Johnny replenished the bags beneath the checkout counters and emptied the trash bins below the registers. These tasks were quickly accomplished because the Assistant Manager would unlock the door for us when they were completed.
After work, some of the young, unmarried guys went next door to get a sandwich at The Arena, an early sports bar. There was only one TV, with a big 26” screen, always tuned to sports: the Friday night fights, women’s roller derby, or whatever sport Ohio State was playing in that season. When nothing else was on one of the three channels, the bartender turned to what he called “rasslin.” I remembered how exhausted we were after three minutes of tugging and pulling on the floor mats in Mr. Vermillion’s wrestling class and watched the buffoons on TV with haughty amusement, but the guys at the bar were fixated on their antics. I couldn’t help watching the farce. I often had a bottle of coke and a Coney Island, a hot dog with mustard, ketchup, cheese, chopped onions, and brown chili ladled on top.
One Saturday evening we watched as a Michigan speedster receive a kickoff behind the goal line and raced around the Ohio State defenders for a 100-yard scoring run. After the groaning and cursing subsided, Johnny said, “I’m was so damned out of shape I couldn’t run 100 yards to save my life.”
“Me, too, but if those huge OSU guys were chasing me, I might get to the goal line. If I had a heart attack, it would be from terror instead of running,” said Tony. He added, “ I haven’t been in shape since I finished basic at Quantico with the Marines. Sergeants would point to us and yell, ‘Give me twenty’ for no reason. Hated basic, but loved to wear those dress blues later.”
“Pushups aren’t so hard,” I said as I wiped chili sauce off my chin. “We did them every day in phys ed class. One guy could clap his hands on each one, and another could do one-hand pushups. I couldn’t do those, but I got up to fifty.”
“Bullshit, Michael. You’re a puny kid. How much do you weigh?”
“About 135, but I’m still growing. I’m 5’6” and I think I’m due for a big growth spurt,” I replied.
“No goddam way you can do fifty pushups, kid,” said Johnny, “Tony and I went through basic. Most guys can’t do twenty when a sergeant is screaming at them. Then they had to do laps,” said Donnie.
“You’re shitting the troops, son,” said Donnie.
“Hey! I think I can still do fifty pushups,” I said looking at each of my three older co-workers,” I said seriously.
“I’ve got five bucks that says you can’t do it,” Tony said as he slapped a five on the formica tabletop. Donnie and Johnny put their money on the table, too.
“I don’t have that much to bet on anything,” I said.
“We called your bluff, you little bullshitter,” said Tony nodding his head with swagger. Th others laughed.
“I challenge you guys to give me a dollar for every pushup over fifty. Are you in?” I asked.
“OK, kid—if you give us a dollar for every one under fifty,” said Tony.
“Deal! Everyone in?” I asked as I stepped out of the booth. “Let’s go outside.” Some guys at the bar had heard us and followed. Others saw us, left their beers, and came outside, hoping to see a fight.
With traffic flowing by on East Main Street, I slipped off my jacket and dropped to the starting position on the cold concrete and began. Tony began counting and others joined in. I concentrated on my form for a while and then thought about my math homework. As I heard the shouts of forty and forty-one rang out, I was sure I could do fifty. After hitting that number, I imagined the sound of a cash register, “cha-ching” each time I dropped to the sidewalk. I felt strong at sixty, and thought I could do a few more at seventy. At eighty, my body was heavy. I slowly did one more and staggered to my feet, panting and unsteady. Everyone cheered except Tony, Donnie, and Johnny.
Inside I still had not caught my breath as bills were put on the table, counted by Tony and pushed in front of me as he muttered “Goddam unbelievable.”
“He’s on some kind of drug, I know it,” said Donnie. “It’s just not natural for a skinny kid to do 81 goddam pushups.”
“Skinny means less weight to pushup,” I said breathlessly with my palms up. My arms and lower back still ached. I grabbed the four checks on the table and said, “The least I can do is buy you old guys supper.” I tried but failed to suppress a smile.
As I relaxed on the #15 bus with my back to the window and my feet hanging in the aisle, I thought of Mr. Vermillion telling us that sports are mostly mental. My confident attitude carried me through the first fifty and then I got a “second wind” and was exhilarated as I kept going. It was a gamble, however, since I had done fifty pushups early that morning.