|AMATEUR NIGHT AT PARRIS ISLAND, PART ONE.|
Fat Matt speaks of the wrath of God and the coming apocalypse while slipping twenty dollars to a musclehead on the down-and-out. As a boy, he stood on his parents' rooftops in Houston, Texas and Lexington, Kentucky and shot at his little sister with a b. b. gun, made a game of it, taught her that this is the meaning of good fun boys and motorcycles, girls and guns, chasing swarms of honeybees and catching them with bare hands. The day I married his sister, he rang a cowbell and said, "It's about time."
There is a Fat Matt origin story that carries with it the faint whiff of legend. Matt Oesch was training for the 1990 Mr. South Carolina bodybuilding competition, in which he eventually placed fourth, and he wanted to compete in the Mr. Virginia contest, as a warmup. This was (and continues to be) against the rules that govern the state tournaments; Matt was not a resident of Virginia. But Aaron DeGroft, a college student who worked out in the gym Matt owned in Columbia, was a Virginia resident, was willing to make loan of his Virginia driver's license, and Matt looked enough like him to register for the Mr. Virginia competition as Aaron DeGroft.
Virginia bodybuilding had a wealthy patron in those years, a millionaire named Jan Tanna who had arranged for an ESPN camera crew to cover the Mr. Virginia contest, which in 1990 was concurrently named the Jan Tanna Classic. Aaron DeGroft had never looked so good. Matt swept through the preliminaries, won his weight class, and then out-posed the winners of the other weight divisions. Television cameras rolling, Aaron DeGroft was presented with the Mr. Virginia trophy, a huge cast-iron sculpture of a strongman that resembled Charles Atlas.
But Matt Oesch had already charmed the television producer into using
his nickname, the name by which he said everyone would know him. Throughout
the summer of 1990, ESPN ran highlight clips from the Jan Tanna Classic,
and the caption
Debourdieu is a hyper-exclusive beachfront property thirty minutes south of Myrtle Beach where post-Depression money buys three story winter retreats so close to the water that they have been uninsurable since Hurricane Andrew. Although locals hate this geographic designation, Debourdieu is smack dab in the middle of the Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown County. To the north and south are sandpits and marshes so thick they resemble oil slicks. In plantation days, slaves worked nearby rice paddies and there are stories of frequent alligator attacks and malaria outbreaks.
Fat Matt spends about five days a month here, housesitting for a North Carolina inheritress who likes and trusts him because he is not interested in her money. When he is visiting, he performs secret acts of house maintenance, changing air filters, fixing broken plumbing, replacing faulty wiring.
We are standing by the pool, taking turns throwing Matt's two-year-old son Ryan into the water. Matt lifts the boy six feet into the air and heaves him twenty feet. Ryan breaks the water with violence, belly-first, then emerges laughing and jabs a finger insistently to the sky. Higher, higher. I have to take a running start to throw him ten feet out into the water. Sunbathing Debordieu ladies are whispering and gasping theatrically. We are playing rough.
Matt has hatched a plan to get me backstage at a bodybuilding competition on the Marine base at Parris Island where he is scheduled to be the master of ceremonies. I will be his assistant, which means leaving Debourdieu at four o'clock tomorrow morning to drive to early morning registration and ask bodybuilders where they are from, what gym they work out in, hobbies, interests, armed forces affiliations, spellings of names. "You might have to oil some guys up," he says. He might be joking, he might not.
It is easy to get lost in Debourdieu, especially before dawn. Road signs are sparse and unlit and contradictory. The roads are winding, full of bends and half-circles and dead ends. Pavement abruptly turns to dirt, then to pavement again. I have been given directions full of landmark talk, this tall tree and that tennis court, but the trees all look alike, and every time I think I know where I am going I end up back at the tennis court. On the radio, two men are arguing about the moral legitimacy of a Civil War memorial at the Statehouse in Columbia, whether or not it should bear the stars and bars of the Confederacy.
I finally find the guard gate and then U.S. Highway 17, my road. The sun is rising in the east by the time I reach the rusty, narrow bridge that connects the island to Georgetown and the mainland. I still have almost the entire length of South Carolina's Coastal Plains to drive, heading south. I am running late.
The Coastal Plains extend east to west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sandhills in the central northeast quadrant of the state and to the hills and valleys and lakes and streams of the Piedmont, which borders the Coastal Plains south of the Sandhills and dominates the central part of South Carolina. A geologist might say that the Coastal Plains extend even further east, sixty miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, to the very edge of the Continental Shelf and the end of the New World.
I am thinking about Parris Island. When I was in high school, I took an armed forces aptitude inventory and scored highly in every area except mechanical aptitude. The recruiters came to the cafeteria at lunch and tried to entice all the high scorers with speeches about patriotism and seeing the world and becoming an instant adult, with real paychecks and important responsibilities. They were pushing boot camp by appealing to our individualism, and I did not want any part of it. I was wondering if I was a pacifist, questioning the morality of killing people for any reason. I mentioned this to the Marine recruiter, and he gave a rehearsed talk about self-defense and discipline and the cost of freedom, but what I remember about him was not the speech. It was the way the veins in his neck bulged, just a little, and how his skin turned redder at the mention of pacifism. There was an anger in that Marine that had nothing to do with defending our shore, just below the surface. It scared me, and I never spoke to another recruiter again.
Now I was driving to the place where the Marines broke in new recruits. I had a friend who had spent a few weeks on Parris Island. He told me about being ordered into a sand hole full of insects and emerging with red welts all over his body, even in his ear canal. Live ammunition and drill instructors and early morning wake-up calls and a physical exhaustion so intense that it dulled the desire for critical thinking. Why all but disappeared, replaced by do; do being the difference between life and death.
Highway 17 narrowed west of Charleston, in the small town of Jacksonboro. Another half hour, then a left turn at Garden's Corner onto the network of backwater roads that proceed south to the marine base. In Beaufort, an offroad 4x4 F-150 XLT passes me pulling a boat trailer. An enormous American flag flies from a back corner of the boat, and a matching Confederate flag flies from the opposite corner, the words It Ain't Coming Down superimposed over the field of red at the top and bottom.
Then, after Beaufort, shocking tranquility, locals fishing the intracoastal waterway just outside Parris Island in small leisure craft. Tall grasses. Cars driving at slow speeds. I roll down the window and smell the tang of the brackish places where the saltwater meets the fresh, and on to the guard gate, where a sign says THREAT CONDITION BRAVO, and an attentive Marine takes my driver's license number and waves me in.
The road from the guard gate to the recruit depot, the publicly accessible part of the base, is built up from the swampland that borders on both sides. The first road sign, maybe a half mile up the road, warns that driving with cell phones is not allowed unless the driver is using a hands-free device. More signs follow, all the way to the recruit depot, all obsessed with car safety. Buckle Up, It's the Law. We Care at Parris Island, Buckle Up. Please Use Turn Signals. And in a series of one and two word signs that stretch on for nearly a mile Arrive Alive Buckle Up Highways Or Dieways Buckle Up.
The depot itself resembles a sleepy college campus, something like Furman University on the other side of the state, but without the trees and flowers and attention to upkeep, and with way more physical education equipment. Most of the buildings are brick. Large water pipes run above ground throughout the base like elephantized power lines. I don't see any men marching, only large formations of women running in 90-plus degree heat and chant-singing as they go. A few stragglers in the back are struggling to keep the pace. It is not like the boot camp movies. No one is yelling at them.
I stop at the visitor center to pick up a map of the base and ask where all the Marines might be. The information officer tells me that a class of recruits graduated yesterday, and that the base would be near-empty all day. In the back of the visitor center, three young women, all wearing uniforms, huddle around pay phones and whisper into the receivers.
It is hard to find the multi-purpose movie theater where I am to report. The buildings are not marked clearly, and what markings there are tend to use unfamiliar military terminology or acronyms. Battalion, PX, Lyceum, MCCS. I find comfort in a Subway Sandwiches sign. Something civilian.
The beginning of the end of Fat Matt's bodybuilding career came at an obscure South Carolina contest where he broke the rules of decorum by turning cartwheels on the stage. This was grandstanding. The audience loved it. The judges hated it. But the cartwheels solidified his stature as a sort of bodybuilding court jester, someone who knew the conventions and flouted them and did it all with an irrepressible good humor, and the state fathers saw in this an opportunity. For better or worse, bodybuilding competitions are nothing more than groups of contestants running through the same series of poses, again and again. It can be repetitive, and if the performers lack charisma, it can be boring. So Fat Matt settled into a new niche. Master of Ceremonies. When the pace of the show became too slow, Matt might tell a joke or make up a story about one of the contestants or do a series of poses in his button-down shirt and tie, culminating in the "most muscular," or crab-style pose, the one popularized by Arnold Schwartzenegger and Hulk Hogan. And if things got really slow, and seldom more than once a show, the three hundred pound cartwheel.
By the time I arrive at the Parris Island movie theater, where relative to a roomful of giants and grunts my boyish presence is suspect, all I have to say is, "I'm with Matt," and suddenly everyone is all smiles and handshakes. Can I get you a Propel Fitness Water? Would you like a chair? Meet Bill Brown, the Event Promoter.
The bodybuilding competition is pre-empting, for the night, Reign of Fire starring Matthew McConaghey. Also coming this week to the single screen: Minority Report, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Mr. Deeds. Flags from all fifty states hang vertically on each side of the theater, taking up the middle third of the wall in two groups of twenty-five. The flags appear to be alphabetized.
Four banners hang in the front of the theater above the hardwood stage. The first three are typical for bodybuilding shows, the largest proclaiming the official name of the show, the NPC Low Country Classic Bodybuilding Championship, and two slightly smaller banners hawking nutritional supplements Life Fitness and Jog Mate Protein. The fourth banner proclaims the uniqueness of this competition, the only bodybuilding competition in the nation with an armed forces division. It reads Parris Island and Semper Fit: United States Marine Corps the Ultimate Health & Fitness Club, the marine corps seal rendered below in blood red.
The nearly two-hour registration and weigh-in period has already started, and the entrants are in various dispositions of intensity and boredom. Ninety-five percent of a bodybuilding competition is waiting. Some of the competitors read catalogs, some talk with old friends from the base or the circuit, some study for college exams. The participants tend to wait in clumps. The civilian clusters are strictly segregated by race, a small group of whites here, a small group of blacks there. The Parris Island Marine clump is interracial and chatty. Most of the civilians are quiet.
I am learning the delicate skill of the contestant interview. Fat Matt likes to know a little about each bodybuilder so he can tell the audience about the person they are watching. This is harder than I thought it might be. When asked about hobbies and interests, nearly everyone says, "Bodybuilding," or, "Working Out," and fully half seem to be engaged at least part-time as personal trainers. So I learn to ask about hobbies and interests outside of bodybuilding and weightlifting, and now the responses become more interesting. I meet Lisa Evans, a computer programmer and systems analyst at Intergraph who used to be a Marine staff sergeant. I meet Chief Warrant Officer John Myers, who is working on a degree in management from the University of Phoenix and tells me, "I am crazy about God. Write that down. I am crazy about God." I meet Gene Wokee who at age sixty is the oldest entrant in the competition, and who has recently retired from the Baltimore Fire Department. "I was at Parris Island for boot camp forty years ago, and I haven't been back since," Gene says. "Part of the reason I am here today is to see it again."
Rumors are starting to circulate about tonight's guest poser, the reigning Mr. USA, Johnnie O. Jackson. "Twice as big as anyone here," one Marine whispers to another. "No way," says his friend. "Look how big we all are."
Johnnie O. Jackson represents the pinnacle of the amateur bodybuilding ladder, of which this competition represents a relatively low rung. The NPC, or the National Physique Committee, is the sanctioning body. The local shows, the lowest level of competition, are essentially exhibitions. The local promoter makes a few dollars, the winners take home trophies, everyone goes home happy. The Parris Island event is a regional competition, and more importantly, a national qualifier for the winner of the Men's Open division. Mr. South Carolina, a state level competition, is also a national qualifier. The next rung is a select series of national events, including the Junior USA and the Junior Nationals, and this season culminates in the big one, the Nationals, and this is the place every serious amateur bodybuilder in the country wants to be at the end of the year, because the winner of the Nationals is crowned Mr. USA and is given a pro card enabling him to compete in the lucrative International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) tour. The IFBB tour is one of the world's most exclusive clubs. In 2001, only 21 bodybuilders competed in the premier IFBB event, Mr. Olympia.
The Athletes' Meeting starts late, and friends and family are asked to leave the building. One by one, each registrant is called to the stage by their classification (Novice, Master's, Open, etc.) and given a number. This process seems to take a long time, and the officials sitting behind long tables on the stage occasionally confer with each other. They seem confused about the assigning of numbers to contestants.
The Head Judge is Ken Taylor, a broad shouldered, angular, handsome man with a broad smile and thinning hair, who is also the de facto bodybuilding boss in the state of South Carolina. Taylor is a former national finalist. He has trained NFL players and world bodybuilding champions. When Ken Taylor speaks, the atmosphere changes. The theater becomes a large locker room, Taylor a respected coach. "I want to talk about crossovers," Taylor says. When a bodybuilder competes in more than one division, he is said to be a crossover. "As you know, we don't allow crossovers in South Carolina bodybuilding. Here's why. One year someone finished third in the Junior division, then won the Open because the Junior division was actually the stronger division. This doesn't make sense to the crowd. It makes the judges look bad, like they are incompetent, or cheaters."
Taylor explains that he is making two exceptions to the crossover rule today. Those who compete in the Armed Forces division, because of the special nature of this contest, will be allowed to compete in another division. And the women will be allowed to compete in both the Open, the traditional bodybuilding category, and in Figure, a new category that is a sort of bodybuilding / swimsuit competition hybrid.
Stomachs rumble audibly throughout the theater. The competitors have been on Spartan diets for days, trying to make their weight classes. Veteran bodybuilder Kelly Nauyokas, a Parris Island aviation ordnance corporal, is telling the first-timers how to eat. "The trick is to make weight, then eat," she says. "At a real show, people eat all the fucking time." The clear implication is that she does not consider the Low Country Classic a real show.
The Evening Finals constitute the main event of any bodybuilding competition. If there is a packed house, it will be packed at the Evening Finals, where the athletes get full rock star treatment, bright lights, throbbing theme music, a few minutes at center stage, maybe even roses thrown from below. But the Evening Finals are mostly all glamour, all show. Every award except the Overall Men's Open Trophy and the Overall Armed Forces Trophy, is judged earlier in the day, at Prejudging.
It is eleven o'clock, and Prejudging is starting a full hour late. The theater is half-full, and the crowd is a Parris Island crowd, jarheads, many of them wearing camouflage pants and gym T-shirts. The show opens with the loud rap-rock fusion music of the Christian band P.O.D., which stands for Payable on Death, presumably referring to the wages of sin. P.O.D. is the most recurring choice for theme music. There are two reasons I can surmise for P.O.D.'s popularity among the bodybuilders. The first is a rule barring profanity in theme music, thus precluding ninety percent of the high-energy rap-rock bands that the participants seem to prefer. The second is that the inspirational lyrics in combination with the intense aggression of the music makes milquetoast lyrics like I feel so Alive / For the very first time become psychologically intoxicating. P.O.D. makes muscles look bigger.
The performance groups take the stage, one at a time. The Novices are first, and their faces reflect the nervous bravado of first-timers. They pose as a group, then each contestant does an individual pose routine. The crowd is too quiet, so Event Promoter Bill Brown walks down the aisles, raises his hands in the air, and announces, "This is not a library, folks. You can make some noise."
The crowd responds with tepid enthusiasm until Novice #3 takes the stage. Cory Smith has a huge shark tattoo tail at his shoulder, menacing jaws at the middle of his chest. It is a new tattoo, the ink looking barely dry given the crispness of the lines and the vibrance of the greens and blues that shape it. It is a bright tattoo, with no visible black ink, probably very expensive, and given its location, probably pretty painful, too. He also has a latticework of tattoos running down his right arm and an Aztec-looking sun on his right calf. His body looks like a tattoo master's work-in-progress. Other than the tattoos, he looks like somebody's athletic next door neighbor, sandy blonde hair, a huge goofy smile, an accessible air. Friendly looking. Someone you wouldn't be threatened by if he came by to pick up your daughter.
Cory hits his first pose, and the crowd erupts. You hear: "Boo-Yah!"
I track down two Marines in fatigue pants and Event Staff T-shirts and ask if they know Cory Smith. "Everyone is here for Cory," one of them tells me. He goes on to say that Smith works in the mail room, and this is his first bodybuilding competition. In preparing, he lost 68 pounds. The entire mail room staff is here for Prejudging, just to cheer for their co-worker.
The rest of the Prejudging is uneventful, except, predictably, the Women's Figure competition, which is greeted with catcalls and whistles. The female athletes, for their part, seem to appreciate the attention, and the men backstage merely seem jealous. Why not whistles and catcalls for them?
The Subway shares building space with a bowling alley, and the teenage progeny of Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot instructors are everywhere behind the counter, on the lanes, sitting at the tables gossiping about military traffic cops. There are three places on base to eat if you are not a Marine, and the other two are closed on Saturday afternoons: The MCSS Food Court, which is a cafeteria-style place that has, among other things, a Pizza Hut; and the swanky, upscale Traditions Restaurant, which posts two different dress codes on the front door. Military personnel are required to dress to the nines, but civilians are asked only to avoid raggedy jeans and to remove their hats. Athletic sportswear is allowable as long as it is "of a designer nature."
The kids behind the counter are staring at me, and pointing and whispering whenever they think I can't see them. Finally, a boy with a squeaky voice gathers the courage to walk to the table and ask me if I am a judge for the bodybuilding competition. He seems disappointed when I tell him I am the emcee's assistant. Who can blame him?
I finish my sub and browse the PX next door. The PX is like two Wal-Marts crammed into a drug store. I am looking for something to read, maybe a biography or a military history, but the bookshelves are dominated by mass market paperbacks of the Tom Clancy variety. I wander to the music section and find that P.O.D. is big in the PX, too, a band picture dominating an endcap. I am carrying my notes from the morning's events and a new paperback copy of John McPhee's Levels of the Game, which I had planned to leave in the car but forgot. Now I am sweating a little, because I do not want to be accused of stealing anything from a Marine base. I wrap my hand around the spine and walk casually out the door. No one even looks at me.
The show starts in a half hour. It is six-thirty. The expediters, the strong men who rustle bodybuilders like cattle backstage, gather the athletes for a meeting with Ken Taylor. The head judge is at the top of his game, one part coach, one part public relations man. He tells the contestants that this event is their chance to improve as bodybuilders and says that they are lucky to be competing in South Carolina, a state with a rich bodybuilding history, the state where the Junior USA event will be held this year, at Port Charleston College, and he does not mention that this is a measure of his own stroke with the powers that be at the National Physique Committee. He encourages them to talk with the judges after the show and get feedback from them about how to improve their posing skills. He asks them to reserve the pump-up room for the athlete group that is readying for the stage, that everyone else must stay in the locker room to avoid the pump-up room logjam that slowed Prejudging. He says that the front and back lat spread is the most difficult pose for amateurs. He says that he, Ken Taylor, has just started getting it right in the last two years. He introduces a cameraman and encourages each contestant to purchase pictures. "In twenty years you won't care about the trophies," he says. "Hell, you'll have dozens of trophies. But you sure will care about how you looked back then. How much your body has changed."
Ken Taylor dismisses the athletes. Some of them crowd around the cameraman, ordering pictures. Some, in the manner of junior high weightlifters worldwide, practice poses in the mirror and admire their own bodies. The Novices, who will pose first, warm up in the pump-up room by doing high repetitions of lifts with low weights. They spray corn oil from aerosol cans all over their bodies for shine and color. There is an atmosphere of teamwork here. One sprays, another pats down. They are starving. I overhear one Novice talking to another about going out to dinner after the show, cataloguing what he will eat. "I want a cheeseburger, bacon skins, nachos . . ." Some of them have taken diuretics to reduce their body fat and enhance the cut of their muscles, so now they are slurping Lemon Propel Fitness Water to fight dehydration.
The Marine color guard is practicing backstage for their flag walk. They are the most uncoordinated color guard I have ever seen. They fumble, they run into each other. They get their flags caught in the lights and the rafters. They look younger than any of the other Marines that are here, even the youngest of the event staff. They look uniformly nervous, and they won't make eye contact with anyone backstage.
I look outside and see that the crowd is roughly double the size of the morning crowd. Ties and proper dresses are sprinkled among casual wear.
The National Anthem plays over the sound system, and the color guard nearly gores the lights while marching onto the stage. This elicits chuckles from the Marine event staff backstage, but the crowd did not see the near-accident.
The other contestants are observing Ken Taylor's edict about staying out of the pump-up room, but they have taken dumbells from the pump-up room and they are following routines similar to the Novices. Some of the athletes use Hot Stuff, a vasodilator, to bring vascularity to their stage look. Hot Stuff smells spicy and medicinal, like a Cajun Ben Gay. Others check themselves in mirrors decorated with showbiz lights. Some guys pace. Some keep spraying corn oil ritualistically, redundant spraying for the sake of spraying. Some work out incessantly with weights or rubber resistance or the towel trick, in which a white towel is doubled up and pulled by two opposing athletes in a resistance exercise.
The national anthem concludes, and Fat Matt steps to the podium. "Welcome to the 2002 NPC Low Country Classic," he says. "Let's hear it for Sergeant Major Harris."
The applause at the mention of Harris's name is dutiful and cheerless. The Marines were expecting to be welcomed by Colonel Donahue, the base Chief of Staff, but Donahue begged off, and his replacement is Harris, the highest-ranking enlisted man on Parris Island, and a doddering speaker, truly boring. Matt lifts his hands as if to say Applaud people, give the guy a break. The crowd cheers, and Harris immediately breaks the forward momentum of the contest by speaking way too long and not saying anything, really. He makes an occasional lame joke and even gives a silence in which the crowd can indulge their laughter, but they do not laugh, and Harris is nonplussed, as if he has been here before and knew what to expect when he came.
Backstage, Matt is looking through his clipboard of notes describing each contestant. His face does nothing to mask his confusion. Something is wrong with the papers.
Harris finally finishes, and Matt calls for the Novices. Nothing happens. He looks at the large red curtain, which is supposed to now part and reveal the Novices, but the curtain does not open. Matt calls for the Novices again. Nothing. "Open the curtain," he says, and the audience laughs.
Backstage, Head Expediter Mike Kuhn is yelling into his talk box, "Open the curtain! Open the curtain!" and no one is responding at all.
Still on microphone, Matt runs backstage. He runs in front of the assembled Novices, parts the curtains with his hands, and makes a mock attempt to open them manually. Then he steps in front of the curtains and shouts instructions to the men backstage and makes hand motions as if he is directing traffic. This, of course, is for the benefit of the audience, which is laughing hysterically at his antics, his physical comedy. But I can see Matt's face when he turns it away from the audience, and he is not laughing. He is worried, and the worry changes into a smile only when he turns again to face the crowd.
Mike Kuhn yell-whispers to Matt. "Stall!"
Matt introduces roughly half of the judges, each of whom is being paid $100 for the evening. He knows a little about each judge, and what he does not know he invents on the spot.
At this moment, Mike Kuhn is an angry man. Things like curtain-opening are ultimately his responsibility, and he does not like to be made to look incompetent.
Finally the curtain opens and Matt introduces Novice Scott Vance, who does his pose routine to "This is How We Do It" by Montel Jordan, followed by a hip-hop medley. Vance is a crowd-pleaser, and the crowd is into his routine, their anticipation finally somewhat sated.
The second poser is Mark West. Mark is older than the other contestants, and he entered the competition at the last minute, and only at the insistence of other bodybuilders at his gym. He looks the part of the aging Eighties' playboy, his face weathered from work outdoors. He is not as big as some of the other athletes, but he is ripped.
West is unfamiliar to this crowd, and he performs the first half of his routine without benefit of cheering. Matt runs onstage in the manner of a Looney Tunes character making a cameo in someone else's Merry Melody, lifts his arms in the two-handed pump-up gesture and says, "Let's make some noise," and they do.
T. J. Harris, the fourth contestant, takes advantage of the fact that the real competition happened at Prejudging, that the Evening Finals are essentially an exhibition, and he shows off some karate kicks and a few sensual dance moves, including a Chippendale-style pelvis contortion that elicits screams from a few of the women in the front rows.
Backstage, Mike Kuhn is frantic again. Three of the Novices are crossovers who will not take the stage until the Armed Forces division takes its turn, and no one can find the young woman who presents the trophies to the division winners. Kuhn is yelling into the talk box again. "Trophy Girl! Trophy Girl! I need the Trophy Girl! Find me the Trophy Girl." Around this time, Matt wanders over to Mike and says, "Where is the Trophy Girl?" which sets off another flurry of talk box chatter.
The trophy presenter finally arrives, at the last possible second, and in a reversal of boxing convention, she is wearing more clothing than anyone else on the stage. The Novices have some difficulty getting in line in the right order, and the trophy presenter is confused about which athlete should receive the trophy. She gives the trophy to T. J. Harris, but the crowd reserves its loudest cheering for Cory Smith, who finishes third, but has not yet posed in the Evening Finals. The cameraman appears at the edge of the stage and takes pictures of the group doing a unison front double bicep, then a most muscular, now a front lat spread.
The Men's Masters division is next, all men above age thirty-five. Johnny Tucker is first, posing to a series of classic soul tunes. He is long, tall, sinewy, and his movements are so delicate that they are almost feminine. He is demonstrating the difference between an experienced bodybuilder and a novice, putting together a series of fluid transitions that lock gracefully with the rhythm of the bass guitar.
Gene Wokke is the last master to emerge. He poses to an even more ancient music form the instrumental and this of the mellow melodic variety you might hear on an AM nostalgia format radio station.
"He's sixty," Matt repeats, again and again. "Sixty years old! Don't you want to be in such good shape when you're sixty?" This puts the crowd firmly in Gene's corner, and the retired firefighter comes alive. This is a different, better pose routine that the one he did for Prejudging, and it's a shame. The crowd loves the new Gene, but the judges' scores are reflective of the old Gene, and he will finish dead last. The athletes backstage, some of whom sneered at Wokke earlier this morning, are cheering now that they know how old he is. Roughly two-thirds of the contestants gather in the wings of the stage to shout encouragement, and there is much back-slapping as he walks off. Gene is in his glory.
The Master's division is called to the stage for the awarding of trophies, and the winner is another bodybuilder who is saving his routine for the Armed Forces division, a Marine named John Myers.
Mike Kuhn is at the edge of the stage again, telling Matt to stall. Matt announces that a mobile wellness center is outside the building and available for the audience at intermission, "so you can get all your stuff checked."
Matt announces that the Armed Forces group is next, with lightweights posing first. He says, "Number Thirteen, Johnny Myers," and no one shows, because Johnny Myers is not number thirteen. He calls again, without the number. "Johnny Myers!"
All hell is breaking loose backstage. Mike Kuhn is receiving conflicting verbal information, and none of it matches the information on his clipboard. The Armed Forces division guys are panicking. They do not want to do anything to embarrass themselves on their home turf. Mike makes his way to the edge of the stage and whispers to Matt that Linkston Dawkins is number thirteen, not Johnny Myers, so Matt announces, "Number Thirteen, Linkston Dawkins!"
Now Linkston is refusing to go onstage because he is a middleweight, not a lightweight.
Matt is getting upset. He is live, in front of the audience, and comes backstage with his microphone and begins to fuss at the expediters and contestants on mic. He is saying that someone needs to get out there and suggests that the someone ought to be Linkston Dawkins. They begin to argue on microphone, and then Dawkins resolves the dispute by walking toward the stage.
Matt takes his place again at the podium and says, "Linkston Dawkins, from Jacksonville, North Carolina. Three cheers for Jacksonville, North Carolina!"
The audience does not seem to be off-put in any way. They are laughing, enjoying themselves, cheering for Linkston Dawkins, cheering for Fat Matt.
As Dawkins poses, everyone backstage is arguing about the lightweight / middleweight issue. There are two schools of thought on the matter. One group, led by Matt, advocates a show must go on approach; the other group is strongly concerned about judging criteria and mixed-up numbers and the integrity of the show. Mike Kuhn is just trying to keep people on the stage.
Ken Taylor arrives backstage through a side door. He is furious. He finds Mike Kuhn first, and says, "What the hell is going on?" Mike is saying that the mix-up is not his fault, that he can only work with the paperwork that has been given to him, and that Matt has messed something up. Ken is still raging, and Mike tells Ken that he can't be listening and yelling at the same time.
Matt, for his part, has dispensed with numbers altogether and is just calling names now, trying, like Mike Kuhn, to keep people on the stage.
Onstage, there is a momentary rescue. Matt calls Cory Smith. Predictably, the crowd goes crazy. Cory feeds on the energy, and the crowd feeds on his energy, and the place gets louder and louder. Cries of "Go Shark!" can be heard throughout the theater.
Backstage, the mood is getting darker. Matt pops into the wings during Cory's routine and says, "Let's just finish the Armed Forces, then go to Figure."
On headset, Mike Kuhn says, "Bring out the Figure girls."
Kuhn, who is physically imposing and psychologically durable enough to stand chest-to-chest with Ken Taylor in the midst of a flurry of shouted expletives, finally reaches an understanding with the head judge. Neither man, they decide, is to blame. In a soft but barely controlled voice Taylor says, "Bring me Bill Brown." Mike calls for the event promoter on his headset, and while he is calling, Taylor begins to yell again.
"I want Bill Brown RIGHT NOW. Get Bill Brown in here RIGHT NOW." It is a mantra. It is a tantrum.
Bill arrives through the same side door Ken had walked through moments earlier. Ken begins screaming at the promoter. "You fucked up all my paperwork," with emphasis on the expletive, and now every other word that leaves Taylor's mouth is a derivative of that word, usually accompanied by a prefix or suffix. He tells Brown that he is worried about the integrity of the contest. "I'm not giving out another fucking trophy," he says again, "until I have a numerical list with the right numbers."
Taylor is now towering over Brown, using his body to intimidate the promoter. Bill Brown is not a small guy. A former Marine and now a civilian director of athletics for Parris Island, Brown knows how to handle himself in tight situations, but he now looks a little intimidated. A speck of spit flies out of Taylor's mouth as he is yelling and inadvertently lands on Brown's cheek. Neither man acknowledges the spit. Bill says, "no problem" a lot, and assures Taylor that the discrepancy will get fixed, that he will personally see to it that everything is fixed quickly. Bill is a peacemaker and his measured approach finally defuses Ken, but not entirely. The head and neck are still red and the veins are still popping. Like a good soldier, Brown is deferring to power. Taylor decides who gets to stage bodybuilding competitions in South Carolina, and Brown is trying to protect Parris Island, to keep the base in the loop for future events.
The Armed Forces division finishes posing, and no trophies are awarded. The men backstage have decided to follow the schedule and bring the Women's Figure competitors to the stage for their first round of posing. Kelly Nauyokas begins her routine, and I notice a small tattoo on her back that was not visible from my Prejudging seat near the back of the theater.
Matt approaches Mike Kuhn backstage. He has missed the resolution between Bill Brown and Ken Taylor, and he is still trying to keep the show moving without any trophy presentation. "Get the guest poser," he tells Kuhn, and Kuhn relays the message to the locker room. The locker room says that the guest poser is not ready, and Kuhn passes the information along to Matt.
The figure routines are crowd-pleasers, except now women's voices can be heard joining in the catcalls and whistles. Meanwhile, Ken Taylor and Bill Brown move continuously in and out the side doors, and Taylor keeps shooting me semi-menacing glances. He has no idea who I am, and I keep worrying that he will figure it out and rip my notepad from my hands.
Brown and Kuhn now think it might be possible to sort out the number discrepancy before intermission and award the trophies, so they confer with the Armed Forces division athletes, and the conference is a generally bumbling scene in which everyone has an opinion and no one really knows who is in charge. From a practical standpoint, Matt is running the show since he is making all the decisions about who will be on stage and what will be announced. Ken Taylor asserts his authority, sometimes verbally, every time he is backstage, and by now no one, not even Kuhn or Brown, wants to challenge anything he is saying.
The expediters have found another discrepancy in the most important division of the tournament, the Men's Open division, and Kuhn calls all of the division contestants to the back in an effort to sort it all out.
Johnny O. Jackson, the guest poser, appears backstage. Someone has given him the message to quickly get ready, and he has rushed himself into readiness. He is standing at relaxed attention, pumped and oiled, with shoulders roughly two-and-a-half times as broad as mine and twice as broad as some of the Armed Forces bodybuilders. No one is talking to him, and he is about to take the stage.
Mike Kuhn stops Jackson and tells him that there has been a change, that now he will go onstage after intermission. Jackson is immediately angry. He has been called out, then iced, and this is no way to treat a guest poser.
Susan Moore, the final Figure contestant, leaves the stage, and Matt turns to crowd and says, for comic effect, "Close the curtain." But the curtain does not close. He winks at the audience, smiles, and says again, "Close the curtain." The curtain will not close.
Backstage, Mike Kuhn is beside him. He is holding someone else's lapel-style
communication microphone, and he is screaming into it. "Close the
curtain! Close the curtain!"