Old Wrestlers

Soon following our move to Lake Norman almost five years ago, my wife Mary Ann looked for a representative for a particular beauty product she used. Scanning a long list of saleswomen, she randomly chose one and called her. After their long conversation had finished, Mary Ann came to the library to tell me how pleasant Terri the saleswoman was and how much she looked forward to working with her. It was then that her phone rang, and Terri asked, “Did you say your husband’s name was Roger?”

In 1823 the English Romantic poet, Lord Byron, wrote his poem, Don Juan, in which he writes: “‘ Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange; /Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,…” Over the years many other writers have expressed the same idea in various words, but no matter what version is written, all readers eventually learn the truth of Byron’s words.

There it was for me: Strange but True;  Life not Fiction.  The husband of Terri and I had wrestled against each other in high school. Mike wrestled for Mooresville High School, and I for A.L. Brown in Kannapolis. We competed in the same weight class for two years over fifty years ago and now we meet again, just not on a wrestling mat.

We four had the obligatory lunch to meet and talk and explore. Mike and I then continued sharing lunches, coffee in my shop, and he guided me around our new home, Lake Norman, which he knew well because his career was with the power company that built the Lake.  We soon discovered that we had much in common.: Both of our hometowns had been textile towns when we were wrestling against each other; our parents had worked in the mills; we lived in mill houses, and both of those houses are still family occupied. So much, besides wrestling, shared.

Each week he would call and ask, “Want a coffee?” then in a few minutes he would appear with a soda for himself and the promised coffee for me. Each weekly visit found Mike helping me with some project in the yard or my shop. He is most responsible for the deck that expanded my small shop– giving me much needed work space. A trained engineer, he made certain it was correct and safe. Exact, even. He would rake the abundant pine needles fallen from the 42 pine trees in our yard to use for mulch in his gardens.  Our weekly visit often included lunch, and when we ate at his favorite fast-food eatery, he would pull a rash of coupons from a pocket before paying and say, “A poor man spends money like he is rich, but a rich man spends it like he is poor.”  Then as we ate, some finer points of theology or politics would be discussed. I will always remember how he once looked at me during one of these “discussions” and asked, “Are you that naïve?”

When I work with a project on the deck that Mike more or less built or move in my wheelchair around the yard gleaning pine cones, I see his presence. The bluebird nesting-box with the red roof still graces the pine tree where he fastened it after I “mentioned” to him how it needed to be there. When I admired a long row of irises in a neighbor’s yard, I asked Mike one day as we returned from a road trip to knock on the unreachable (for my wheelchair) door to inquire if I could have some. The kind, elderly lady must of approved of Mike because she gave me permission to take any irises I wanted, and now next to the back garden gate is a small, varied-colored growth of purple irises that Mike and I planted; and, like our friendship, it grows and thickens and blooms.

Both our lives, like all lives, have had their dips and twists and failures and mountaintops. But for two boys from the mill hills of small, textile towns, we have been blessed and have done well. And as I share life with Mike long after our competitive days, I appreciate more and more the odd, interesting, and fulfilling paths that we all travel, whether planned or not. Mary Ann and I moved to Lake Norman not knowing that the “Stranger than fiction” of Byron would happen, and that a friendship would be forged out of a time long ago when two scrappy, mill-hill boys competed against each other. Byron also writes that “…truth is always strange.”  He’s right, of course, but not always in the way it may appear. It’s not strange that Mike and I respected each other as wrestlers. Nor is it strange that there is something deeper now.

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