“The Pull is an annual tug-of-war contest held across the Black River. It is one of the nation’s oldest standing college traditions. Competitors are 36 members of both the freshman and sophomore class.”
– Hope College website
He had learned to want the rope.
At the start of each practice, they uncoiled it from a barrel and draped it over their shoulders like the corpse of a jungle snake. They jogged as one to the practice field and lay it over the trenches. It waited for them in silence while they endured calisthenics: push-ups, sit-ups, squats, leg-lifts, all numbering in the hundreds, the coaches screaming at them to start over if anyone lost count.
The rope was patient when they departed to the track for distance training, when they were made to run numberless laps around the sports complex. Not the track, not the football field where the common athletes grunted and crashed into each other like dinosaurs, but the entire complex. Or they’d be put on the line for sprints. One day, they were told, for each man under 18 that came to practice that that day forward, they’d have to sprint an entire lap.
The day his shins ignited in a white, invisible fire, only 12 showed up.
All the while, the rope waited. It waited for them to come back, breathless and stinking and drenched with sweat. It waited for another round of impossible calisthenics, waited for them to lose count, for them to start all over again without complaining, because complaining meant that you didn’t want the rope. Not really.
And he thought he wanted the rope.
So when the time finally came the coaches let each guy get into his pants to shield his legs from the grinding bristle of the rope. Then each man was shown a trench, a pit two feet deep and six feet long, where a section of the rope lay. A team of girls stood by to secure each man into his “vest,” a bundle of carpet and foam and duct tape that was meant to pad his ribs from the rope’s razor edge.
As they strapped him to his vest, duct tape screeching, he was nervous. In recent practices, his vest hadn’t been doing its job. Somehow all the padding kept sliding out from under him, leaving little more than a drink napkin’s worth of foam to ease the pain and let him fill his lungs with much-needed air. He maneuvered it to where he thought it would serve him best as the girls severed the tape and gave him a firm pat on the back.
He nodded and jumped into the pit and took the rope in his hands. It was hot from waiting in the sun.
A coach stood on the ground between the two central pits, his feet holding the rope in place. The men stood in a long row on either side, bulky duct tape vests slung under their arms, holding the rope at ready, anxious to wrap their bodies around it and lock in against the front wall of their pits.
He felt himself sweating.
He wanted this. He was going to do this.
The white fire in his shins was vibrating. He put a hand on the earth to steady himself.
Then a coach shouted, “Lock in!”
He wrapped his leg around the rope and felt it snap tight against his body.
He took a deep breath, lied horizontally on the laser-thin cord, and immediately felt the unbearable knife-blade cut right into his lungs.
The Saturday practice was infamous among the veterans.
“Nothing can prepare you,” is all they’d say.
It was held at a beach on Lake Michigan where a 100-foot dune barricaded the shore from a peaceful, open park. They began with calisthenics again, calisthenics and poor counting. The coaches added newer, brutally taxing exercises. They ran up the dunes. Or they were supposed to, because all he felt he could do was stumble up them. Then the coaches said, “Pick a girl,” meaning one of the morale girls who would soon be their partners, relaying the coaches signals on the day of The Pull.
So he picked a girl. He picked a small one, because the girl was immediately told to climb on his back.
And they climbed the hill.
And they climbed it again.
He collapsed at the bottom of the dune until the coaches let them drink water for a minute, and then they ran through a tunnel to the beach where the coaches ordered them to run in circles for an hour, challenging them to sprint over the loose sand even. Some of the men around him found the will to obey, sprinting until they collapsed, puked, and got up to continue jogging. He couldn’t believe it. He was content to run until they told him to stop, but to sprint like that – he couldn’t fathom it.
But he marveled at it, and distantly wanted it.
Finally, one of the coaches stood in the path and pointed out to sea and the men joyfully splashed into the lake and ripped their sweat-sodden shirts to swing them like flags in the air, triumphant that the torture was complete.
They went to lunch around 11:30.
Practice was to resume at 1:00.
On the rope – or rather, on the blade of the sharpest sword ever forged on all the earth – he couldn’t breathe.
He was perfectly locked in. Left leg wrapped around the rope, pressed into the forward wall of the pit. Both hands clenching the line as it ran under his right arm where the padding was practically absent and a purple bruise had formed days ago. The tender flesh howled.
“Stay on the rope,” his morale girl said.
“Water,” he moaned.
“I just gave you some,” she told him. “Stay on that rope, okay?”
He gulped spit.
The coach gave the signal to strain. His morale girl began the chant, and he twisted his body back like a damp rag so that his nose pointed heavenward. It took everything he had not to tumble off the rope and fall to the bottom of the pit.
He closed his eyes.
I want this, he thought.
The aroma of cool dirt swam about him, a smell that testified that summer was indeed over. Like pine needles and sod. His arms and legs trembled uncontrollably and his shins burned bright.
“Stay on the rope….”
I want this… but I want to breathe….
He needed air. Nearly all of the vest’s padding was resting on his belly, doing nothing to shield his ribs from the twine scalpel that was slitting him up the side. He needed to adjust it. It would only take a moment.
He couldn’t maneuver this way. It wasn’t his fault.
“Don’t roll off!”
He let go, the rope leaving his hands. He landed on that sweet dirt and his hands fell to the vest. On his knees, he began to work at it, but it was firmly duct-taped to his shirt. There was no way to reposition it.
Then he heard the stern voice of one of the coaches. “Get on the rope!”
“I need to fix my vest,” he said.
“Get on the rope!”
“Cut me out and I’ll fix it,” he said. “Please.”
The coach reached down, snatched him by the hand, and pulled. “Get someone else in here who actually wants it,” he barked.
He fell to the ground outside of the pit. His shins wouldn’t hold him. He crawled toward the coach. “I want it,” he said. “I just… I just need to fix….”
But the coach found his eyes and stared him into silence.
He sat on the ground, dejected, and fiddled with that stubborn vest. He prayed that he’d get another chance at the rope.
They came to his dorm that night. As he rose to answer the door, supporting his weight against the wall while his pathetic legs threatened to give out, the coaches invited him into the hall.
They said his full name. He waited. Then the verdict:
“You will not be on the sophomore Pull team.”
He nodded, sniffed, and retreated in silence. In the years to come, he would conjure the right words for the moment. Impassioned pleas would come to him with maturity and regret, and he would convince the coaches to give him another chance, over and over again in his imagination. He would imagine this, of course, while his shins could hold him and he was breathing free, painless air.
Still. He wanted to prove that he wanted the rope.
But that night the words were lost in the dried sweat and rich dirt on his shirt and pants, and he shut the door and sat at his lonely desk and sighed, his body depleted.
On the day of The Pull, he stood by a friend’s pit and screamed himself mute, willing that friend to rip every inch of rope from the hated opponents.
And as his past teammates celebrated by pouring into the soupy muck of the Black River and splashing each other with bliss, he strolled alone to the rear of the trench line, to the back of Pit 18. There lay the dead coils of a mighty serpent, the wet, filthy mass of an ocean liner’s rope. It had taken the team almost four hours to defeat the freshmen. It was their prize, ready to be carried back to parties and celebrations that would last a lifetime.
All of it lay before him. He looked about him and saw that the crowd had thinned.
He knelt beside the rope.
His shins trembled as he lowered one arm to the ground to steady himself. He looked around again. Then he reached out a hand and laid it on the rope. It was cool with river mud and hot with sweat. It was beautiful and violent and peaceful and dead.
And for a brief stolen moment, it was his.
But soon the shame claimed him, the shame of one who has touched another’s lover. He stood and looked about him again to see if he’d been spotted. No one seemed to notice, or to care.
He left the pits behind forever, walking away from the Black River in cold silence. But with every step, and every passing year, the rope followed, slithering about his soul, whispering about fulfilling a want that would never, ever, be his.
Image Credit: Kham Tran, Creative Commons
This draft is a work-in-progress.