Wrestling with Democracy
The Washington Post Magazine
July 7, 2002
Edited by David Rowell
© Bill Donahue
HERE THEY COME NOW, THE PILGRIMS from Nickerson High School in tiny Nickerson, Kan.: 14 seniors, beef-fed and brawny and carrying cell phones; the eager-eyed teacher; and one weary, flat-footed father who is wearing a baseball cap that says “Kansas.” Here they come, shambling through the corridors of the Capitol, shuffling over the marble, past the statues and paintings, right out onto the wide-open floor of the House, where the carpet is royal blue and the air suddenly hushed.
“Have a seat,” says the kindly twentysomething congressional aide, who is a native of Kansas himself. “Please have a seat.”
They sit, and then their congressman, Jerry Moran, a Republican from Hays, comes into the room and says, “I represent you and your families.” He says that he goes back to Hays every weekend, to escape Washington’s hustle and bustle, and then he directs their gaze to the gallery, from which, in 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the House chamber. In unison they turn to the right and look up so that their faces align in studious profile.
There are 10 boys and four girls. Both of Nickerson’s football captains are here, as is the boys’ soccer star, Jake Easter; the boys’ basketball phenom; the homecoming queen; the head cheerleader; a yearbook editor; and 6-foot-4, 305-pound Mitchell Baldwin, who is bereft of athletic skills and straggling as a student but nonetheless a bona fide social kingpin. They are all looking up.
Teenagers have been coming to Washington to pay homage like this for over a century, and today more than a million students between the ages of 12 and 18 travel to the District on school trips each year. But the group clustered here, in the padded brown leather congressional seats, seems particularly worthy of the title “We, the People.”
These students have flown 1,200 miles to listen to a congressman who is a lot like them—a Farm Belt guy, a conservative homebody—in a nation’s capital newly enchanted with the values Dorothy so savored in Kansas: earnestness, steadfastness, love of the land. They have come to Washington to take in the shrines to their own republic. Over a stretch of five days in late April, they will visit 25 nationally famous sites, unfazed by the fear of terrorists that caused a drop of more than 25 percent in student tourism to Washington this school year. In fact, they will scarcely mention September 11.
Eventually, the aide points toward a desk on the floor. A bullet fired by one of the Puerto Ricans hit it that day in 1954. The hole is still there. You can examine it—and now the Nickerson students do, huddling around the desk, stooping and squinting.
“Cool!” says one kid, running his finger over the hole.
“Bad!” says Mitchell.
Ideally, Mitchell would go on to muse on the current quest for Puerto Rican independence, or on Jefferson’s maxim that a revolution only lasts 15 years. But he doesn’t. He’s got a lot on his mind—and post-colonial hegemony is pretty far down on his list. Graduation is just 17 days away, and Mitchell still has to finish a paper on immigration; if he doesn’t, he won’t walk. And then there’s his girlfriend, who wants a commitment. (Adriann Chaffin, 17, is a junior at a rival high school.) There’s his job at Kmart, too. Mitchell plans to keep working in the lawn and garden department after graduation, but this winter Kmart announced plans to close nearly 300 stores. Will his be next?
Amid the pillars outside the House chamber, Mitchell’s focus drifts. Apropos of nothing, he begins reciting lines from the comic movie “Joe Dirt,” which he’s watched at least 20 times. “Life’s a garden,” he says. “Dig it!”
We climb some stairs and then step into the gallery of the Senate, to find the floor nearly empty save for Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats. Like every other student on this trip, Mitchell is sympathetic to the Republican Party. When we were looking at a picture of Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier, he glowered and said, “That woman is evil.” But now, as her ideological sisters hold the floor, he doesn’t rile. No, he just settles his chin on his elbow and nods off, waking only when Boxer mentions a chemical called MTBE. “I thought they were talking about MTV,” Mitchell gripes. Then he shakes his head in dismay and goes back to sleep.
I MET MITCHELL BALDWIN in Nickerson the night before he left for his trip to D.C. He lives with his father, a prison guard, and his stepmom, a nurse, in a modest gray farmhouse, and when I arrived there at 10 p.m., seven people were gathered in the living room to see him off. Among them were his stepbrother Harm, an out-of-work welder; Harm’s girlfriend; and their baby, Harm Jr., who whimpered now and then over the sound of the movie—”Speed”—playing on the large color television. “My father wanted to be present,” Mitchell told me, “but he’s on a fishing trip.”
We talked, as it turned out, about the Washington Redskins. The Baldwins have been huge fans ever since Mitchell’s dad visited Washington in 1989. “They’re pretty horrible, but we love ’em,” said Mitchell’s stepbrother Marcus, who’s 19. “On game days,” Mitchell said, “there’s like 50,000 people in the house. Dad’ll get real tense and then he’ll go out on the porch to smoke, and we’ll have to open the blinds for him so he can watch the game through the window.”
There are no sports bars in Nickerson, population 1,194. In fact, there is not much at all. The main street, four lanes wide, is a vast prairie wind tunnel that might, at any given moment, be empty, except for a few parked cars and a stray, scuttling soda can. Traffic is light, even when locals are commuting to and from the farm-equipment and aerospace factories in the nearby city of Hutchinson, population 40,900. The biggest weekly event is the covered-dish supper that a group of white-haired “single ladies” (that’s what they call themselves) host at the community center each Tuesday. There once was a newspaper in Nickerson, and a high school, a college, a movie theater, three hotels, and a dry goods store. But that was back when small farms were still thriving in the United States. Today, only the high school remains—a stolid brick building on the south edge of town.
Three hundred sixty-five students go to Nickerson High. About a third are from Hutchinson, another third are from suburban South Hutchinson. But the small-town spirit of Nickerson prevails. On the wall of his sparsely appointed office, principal Kevin Abbott has a framed sign rendered in needlepoint. It reads, “There has to be a leader who is not afraid to be controversial and accepts the brunt of criticism.”
In his four-year tenure, however, Abbott has provoked no burning controversies. What’s distinguished him is that he’s hired many driven young teachers, including the leader of the Washington trip, Gary McCown. McCown is 38, 6-foot-1, and still possessed of the powerful build that once made him an all-conference punter at Hastings College in Nebraska. His handshake is just shy of bone-crunching, and he is a disciple of self-improvement guru Tony Robbins, the chief purveyor of “the science of peak performance.” In one government class I visited, McCown digressed to discuss both diet (“research says you should eat 17 times a day”) and the virtues of taking a daily nap so as to “increase your efficiency by 35 percent.” Back home, his 9-year-old son, Chandler, had just finished reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.
A native of Venango, Neb., McCown aspires to be a superintendent, and he had his resume out for a principal job at another high school in Kansas. He’d arranged the Washington trip himself, eschewing tour providers, so as to keep the cost down to $420 per student, airfare included. “We need to open young people’s eyes to what government does,” he explained. “A trip like this will help put faith back in America.”
And also afford a little fun. All spring, McCown had promised that the D.C. trip would culminate with a wrestling tournament among the students: He too would grapple, live and in technicolor, at the hotel. “We’ll clear the floor for some WWF-style action,” he said. “There will be sweat and a little bit of blood.”
I figured there was no way McCown would open himself up to that kind of liability, no way that in the 21st century a schoolteacher would do something so exuberantly un-PC. But I didn’t know Kansas, and what I would learn, over the next several days, is that the Kansas of American myth is alive and well. It’s a state of mind, really, an old conservatism that lingers despite the emergence of gay-friendly nightclubs in Wichita and places to see hip-hop and funk in Lawrence. It’s a belief that men should not flinch, that all good people get married and honor their family, that the American flag should be saluted, and that even big-city folks could be nice, if they were just allowed a little fresh air. Yes, rock-ribbed Kansas still flourishes, and real Kansans take it with them wherever they go.
One of the first places we visited in greater D.C. was Arlington National Cemetery. At the Tomb of the Unknowns, the soccer star, Jake Easter, and I watched as the white-gloved, gun-bearing military guards paced with slow, ramrod precision on the long stone plaza between us and the elegant tomb. One guard approached the audience and commanded us to remain silent out of respect.
Then Jake slipped away through the crowd—a nimble, rangy kid in shorts and white K-Swiss sneakers—and played a prank on McCown. With a friend, he hopped onto a shuttle bus and broadcasted ominous remarks back to the group over a walkie-talkie brought from Hutchinson: “We’re on our way to the airport. We’ll see you back in Kansas, over.” McCown was incensed. “Don’t leave me like that,” he implored the rest of the students. “That’s not fair to me. I’m responsible. If he does it again, I’m sending him home.”
Jake is the son of a prominent Hutchinson businessman; he lives on the edge of a golf course. He was kicked off the track team once, for chewing tobacco, and he likes to drive his ’99 Chevy pickup so fast that he already has eight speeding tickets. Last summer, on the Nickerson High trip to Europe, he downed some vodka and then danced, inebriated, on an elevated platform in a Madrid discotheque.
In school, Jake is an honors student, and very involved. After September 11, he helped earn more than $250 for the search and rescue efforts at the World Trade Center by making flaglike lapel pins out of beads. But Jake seemed poised to turn this trip into a raucous party. McCown was not about to let that happen, so when we found Jake, in the visitors center, McCown took him into a remote corner to chastise him. From the get-go, Jake was smirking, but McCown’s scowl eased after a minute or so, and when he emerged from the corner, he had already put the skirmish behind him. Soon, he was back to making taunting remarks about the upcoming wrestling tourney. “Mitchell,” McCown said, “lift up your shirt. Show us your pipes.”
“McCown thinks he’s so tough,” Mitchell said, “but he’s going down.”
TRAVEL MADE MITCHELL REFLECTIVE. On the plane, he patted the vacant seat beside him and invited me over. Then he said, “It’s time to get away for a while. My girlfriend, she wants to get married—have babies and all that. Soon as I graduate, she wants me to move in with her and her parents. I don’t know about that, although they are loaded.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Mitchell continued. “She’s got a lot of common sense. But she gets real jealous. That’s what this is about.” Mitchell twisted his neck so I could see the huge welt there: purple with tiny white teeth marks. “She gave me this hickey and she told me, ‘That’s so you don’t go and find anybody else.'”
Mitchell fidgeted with the tray table. “My parents got divorced 12 years ago,” he said, “and they’re still fighting. I don’t want my kids to have to go through that. I want to be financially well-off before we start having kids. And, you know, I always promised my dad I’d come live with him.” Mitchell told me that until he was a sophomore, he lived with his mom, near Lawrence; he talked with his dad on the phone. The dialogue between them deepened when he was 9. His father gave him a Washington Redskins jacket for Christmas. “He’d call me and say, ‘Did you watch the game?'”
Gradually, the conversation widened. Mitchell spent summers with his father, and one year—after eighth grade, when Mitchell was charged with a misdemeanor, for shoplifting—he and his dad spent 10 weeks feverishly amassing one of central Kansas’s largest collections of vintage Coleman lanterns. “My dad likes having me around,” Mitchell said. “He’d be real mad if I moved out.” Mitchell stared out the window, at the clouds below, for a moment and then he conceded that his girlfriend might be real mad if he didn’t move out. “But I think I can handle the situation,” he said. “I wear the pants.”
ON THE SECOND NIGHT OF THE TRIP, the four girls sequestered themselves in their hotel room, primping, putting on makeup for almost two hours. The group was going to an opera, “Salome,” at the Kennedy Center. The tickets were $63 apiece. McCown had factored this lavish expense into the sparse trip budget, reasoning, “This might be the only time these students ever see an opera. They might not enjoy it, but they’ll be exposed to it.” He’d chosen “Salome” in part because the show offered some sizzle. It culminates with the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” in which the beguiling Salome does an elaborate striptease for her stepfather, King Herod.
The girls recognized that this was not the sort of thing one sees often in Hutchinson. When they emerged in the hotel lobby—together, from a single elevator car—they were the picture of Midwestern glamour. Bailey Basinger, the homecoming queen, wore a chiffony black dress, a black wrap of the same sheer material, and a silver necklace that cut a plunging V on her neck. Chelsey Curry, the yearbook editor, wore high heels and a purple velvet evening gown with a long slit up the side.
We sat fairly high in the balcony, so when the lights went down, the drama beneath us—baroque and in German—seemed remote, like a TV playing in the corner with the volume turned low. It all had to do with Salome’s obsessive, unrequited passion for the imprisoned John the Baptist. She gripped the holy man’s face as he lay there, chained, and trilled on and on about his splendid ivory skin. At one point, Mitchell leaned toward me and whispered, “How long do these things last?”
I woke him up for the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” and it, too, was rather drawn out. Salome divested all seven layers of flowing silk, languorously. In the end—at the very instant she seemed poised to emerge from the last layer as a naked, alabaster confection—an underling came out of nowhere to enfold her in a long, tasteful robe.
The Nickerson students filed out, disgruntled. “It wasn’t even good teasing, that dance,” said Aaron Bruce, one of the football captains, “and after four-and-a-half hours some punk comes out with a towel and ruins it.”
“It was a lot of singing,” said Bailey, wearily.
“I expected BOOBS,” said Jake, gesturing heartily, “not, you know, boobs.” A few minutes later, Jake and his friend Tyler Rempel, the other football captain, continued work on the documentary film they were making. Their technique was basic: Every time they saw an attractive girl in a group from another school, they trained their video camera on her and followed her walking by as Jake delivered voice-over comments such as “My goodness!” and “Hello, hello!”
McCown regarded the horseplay with an even mix of amused eye-rolling and wise equanimity. “Their brains are in the process of maturing,” he said, synopsizing one of his favorite videos, a program on teenagers narrated by ABC News correspondent John Stossel. “It isn’t until people get in their twenties that they really start using their frontal lobes, and that’s where critical thinking happens—in the frontal lobes. These kids are going to push the limits, no matter what I do. It was like that 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago. People have always looked at teenagers and said, ‘If we leave it up to these kids, the world’s going to be destroyed.’ But the world’s still here. The best thing we can do as parents and teachers is let them go, and support them.”
WE VISITED THE IWO JIMA MEMORIAL, the Library of Congress, the Pentagon, the FDR Memorial, the White House, the Smithsonian. We stood beneath the domed roof of the Jefferson Memorial and read the words carved into the wall: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” We were supposed to feel hallowed, I know. As envisioned by its first urban planner, Pierre L’Enfant, Washington is a succession of paeans to democracy.
But it was hard to feel hallowed. We were always in a hurry to get to the next site. Also, someone was always hungry and someone else needed a restroom and someone else was eager to pick up some camera batteries.
I doubt that L’Enfant anticipated such clamor when he was designing the District in 1791. “The city,” he wrote that year, “must be beautiful, due advantage being taken of the hilly nature of the spot for grand or lovely prospects.” There was time to feel hallowed then—and now there almost isn’t. If you are 18 today, your cell phone is constantly ringing and there are video games to play and car payments to make. Glib pop culture icons like Christina Aguilera and Shaquille O’Neal shimmer at you from every angle—from the TVs in restaurants, from newsstands and from the CD player you fiddle with as you race to your after-school job. In contrast, the sublime architecture of Washington speaks an ancient, almost indecipherable language.
Of course, there were times when reverence fell over the Kansans. In the somber darkness of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Jake and Tyler were respectful and silent for a while. But then they spied cute girls. They offered to carry the girls’ bulging bags of souvenirs, and then the girls, flattered, divulged that they went to a Catholic school in Coburg, Ontario. “Do you guys wear those cute little uniforms like Britney Spears?” Tyler said.
On another outing, I was walking toward the Lincoln Memorial with Mark Steele, the parent chaperon. Steele, 47, is the office manager of a plumbing supply company, and the whole trip he’d been nearly invisible, staying to the side, smoking thin little Muriel cigars and chatting quietly with his brainy son, Jason, who is, like him, a high-ranking officer in the Hutchinson Coin Club. He was happy to be in Washington. “I’ve always wanted to come here,” he told me, “but a year ago, I was thinking, ‘Who knows if I’ll ever get there? I don’t know anyone there.’ This place is so foreign.”
As we wove past a family of tourists, Steele said that he had studied the picture of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the penny for ages. “One of the ways you can tell how good the strike is on a coin,” he said, “is by looking at Lincoln sitting in his chair. If it’s toward the end of the life of the die, he’s not detailed. You can’t make out his head or his legs.”
We came out of the trees, and the seated president became crisply visible through the pillars above us. “There he is,” Steele said. “There’s the man.”
We climbed the steps and then, in the big, echoey room at the top, Steele looked up at the statue, a cigar smoldering in his hand at his hip. “He was a great statesman,” Steele said. “He founded a lot of the values of this country. He was for freedom of the people. He didn’t want people enslaved by other people, or by their government. He was a people’s president.” A school group flowed past us, and Steele took a slow drag from his cigar, and then for a minute we just stood in silence, listening to the murmurs and footsteps of other people around us.
JAKE HAD A CD he’d made back in Kansas, and every once in a while he’d crack it out and gleefully let his friends know he was playing it again. The CD was flagrantly racist. One track, performed by aging country singer David Allan Coe, was sung to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It went, “Leroy the big-lipped n——r also had a pushed-in nose. If he ever took his boots off, you would see 11 toes.” Track 5, also by Coe, went, “Now I like sugar and I like tea, but I don’t like n——s, no sirree.”
The N-word carried extra sting because in November 1999 Nickerson High made national news when a student wrote “NNAN” on the walls in three boys’ bathrooms one Friday. The letters were short for “No N——s at Nickerson,” according to the town’s police chief, Tom Burns, who never caught the culprit. There were only two black students at the school then, but each “NNAN” was coupled with a scrawled threat such as “Gonna rock this school no survivors” and “It’s going to happen Monday.” Forty percent of the student body stayed home the following Monday, and, although there was never any violence, one of the black students transferred out of the school immediately.
There was one black person at Nickerson High this spring, a student teacher named Curtis Carter. He told me, “People here are kind of uncomfortable around me, but I feel welcomed.”
The students at Nickerson High are way into rap (Ice Cube, Lil Bow Wow, Notorious B.I.G.), and McCown told me that recently he borrowed Jake’s racist CD and played it at home for his 9-year-old “just to let him know that sort of stuff is out there. I wanted him to ask, ‘Is this kind of music appropriate?'” In Washington McCown posed the same question, a little more sharply. When we were riding the Metro one day, in a crowd that was largely African American, he looked over at Jake, smiling defiantly, and shouted across the car: “Jake, why don’t you play track 5 now?”
Jake blanched and looked down and said nothing. But later he regained his sang-froid and assured me, “The music on that CD’s just funny. David Allan Coe is a comedian.”
ON THE THIRD NIGHT, Mitchell was expecting a call from his girlfriend. He’d bought her some sunglasses, a $23 T-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe, and a plastic coaster that bore the seal of every branch of the U.S. military. But they hadn’t spoken yet, and Mitchell guessed that the silence was stoking Adriann’s jealousy. It was. When she called at 1 a.m., she was furious that there were girls in the room. “She was screaming at me and crying,” Mitchell told me over lunch the next day. “But those girls weren’t my company. There were three other guys in the room, too.
“She told me that she was going to go to the prom with my brother because I wasn’t there. Her prom is tonight. She tried to tell me that she was going to Joyland [amusement park] with her church youth group next weekend, and I was, like, ‘What? I leave for three days and you’ve entered into a youth group, and all of a sudden you’re Catholic?'”
The argument was, of course, adolescent, but it had serious undertones. Mitchell and Adriann had been together for 21/2 years. Mitchell’s father married when he was 18, and many other adults around Nickerson had also settled down young.
Mark Steele told me that, when he was 19, he lived it up for a while, touring through small-town America as a drummer for country-western singing star Leon Ashley. “For six months,” he said, “it was one long party.” He signed autographs in Bamberg, S.C., and Canon City, Colo.; he got drunk every night. But then one evening, upon finishing a bottle of Boone’s Farm apple wine, Steele tried to hurl it through a half-open window on the tour bus. The window shattered.
“You grow up after you do a few things like that,” Steele said. “You get it out of your system.” He came home to marry his girlfriend before he turned 20, and today he leads a quotidian existence: “I get up and go to work and then I come home, eat, and feed the fish, and play on the computer for a while. About the only surprise in my life comes in the spring when I ask myself, ‘Do we have enough money to go out to Vegas?’ If we don’t, it’s no big deal. I just go up to Topeka for the day and get my gambling fix there.”
There were a few Nickerson kids who yearned for a broader existence. For instance, Erika Klosterhoff, who had the highest GPA on the trip, would be enrolling at the University of Kansas and hoped to do some traveling. “I’d like to go to Hollywood and see the stars’ houses,” she said. “I think I would enjoy going to South America. It would be real cool to see a different way of life.”
For many students, though, the Washington trip would be, like Steele’s country-western tour, a first and last hurrah. With sad resignation, McCown told me that he didn’t expect worldly ambitions from students in Nickerson. “They look at what their parents do and what’s offered around Nickerson—mostly service jobs—and they think, ‘It’s not a bad life. It’s pleasant. You can walk into the grocery store and be greeted by people you know.'”
Jake was going to Emporia State, with thoughts of majoring in business and taking over his dad’s pool maintenance/installation business. Aaron was going on a football scholarship to Sterling College, a Christian school 10 miles from Nickerson. John Schletzbaum wanted to be a locksmith, and Bailey aimed to study journalism at Kansas State, so as to become a TV reporter, for a station in Wichita or Kansas City. “I don’t want to move to a place like Washington and be the next Barbara Walters,” she said. “It’s nice having family around.”
Mitchell’s girlfriend feels the same way, but when he started yelling at her, she hung up. Then her friends called, asking what Mitchell’s problem was. Then, finally, around 3:30, there came a sweet reconciliation. “She said, ‘I’m sorry for getting mad,’ ” Mitchell told me. “I didn’t say sorry because I didn’t do anything wrong. But I did say, ‘I want you to think about me at prom.’ ” Then at 4 o’clock, three hours into the tussle, they at last said good night.
WHILE MITCHELL WAS TALKING to his girlfriend, house music throbbed from a dance venue, Club Insomnia, just two blocks from the hotel. We’d learned of the club earlier in the evening on the Metro, when Jake met a girl—pretty, in silk trousers—who said she was going there. We saw her take her place in a long line of revelers outside the club.
McCown did not want anyone going to Insomnia. In fact, he was doing a bed check at 1 to ensure the students stayed in. But you only had to be 18 to get into Insomnia and the chances of getting caught sneaking out after 1 were nil. Still, Jake wasn’t even considering it.
“The line’s halfway around the block,” he said, “and then we’d pay $15 to go in and get the crap beaten out of us. I’d rather make it home and live it up there.” What Jake did instead, after sneaking out, was linger on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, playing pranks on late-night sidewalk loiterers. “We told them we were supposed to meet a guy named Samson,” Jake told me later. “We said, ‘We gave Samson a bunch of money for fruit cocktail. You know Samson, man?'”
Nobody knew him, and “fruit cocktail” isn’t a code word for anything, but Jake proceeded to stick a cigarette in his undershorts. He pulled it out to offer to the next beggar who passed by, asking for smokes. It was a test of how depraved street people could be. “I made sure he saw where it came from,” Jake told me, serious.
The hotel’s security guard, Charles Monk, was nearby as the beggar took the cigarette and started to smoke it. Monk was keeping a protective eye on the kids. “I told them to let me know if they needed anything,” he said to me the next day. “They seemed like real nice kids, but I don’t think they understood what goes on in the street. Where they from, anyway?”
“Kansas,” I told him.
Monk chuckled softly. “I kind of figured,” he said.
“YOU’RE IN,” SAID MCCOWN. It was the last night of the trip, a Saturday night, and he was leaning against the dresser in a hotel room and writing—drawing up the card for the wrestling tournament. Every kid on the trip was packed into the room.
“No, I don’t really want to wrestle,” said Mitchell’s best friend, Nick White, whose arms were crossed, his eyes slanted down.
“I said you’re in,” McCown said, smirking. He was kidding.
“Nah,” said Nick, still looking down, shifting his feet, “I—”
McCown tossed his pen to the side and the fighting began: 45-second matches; hand-to-hand combat on the stubbly rug. The tournament was single elimination, with close matches decided by a poll of the spectators. All but three of the students, including all the girls, were in.
The first fight was epic: Aaron against Tyler. The two football captains, mano a mano. The beginning was a blur: bodies snapping and flipping on the hard floor, slamming the wall, grazing the sharp, square legs of the night table. Every few seconds, a face would rise to the top, beet red, teeth gritted, veins popping, as the crowd, all squeezed atop a bed in the corner, screamed encouragement: “Pin him! C’mon, put him to sleep!”
Ostensibly, this was all a big joke.
Really, it meant everything: Whoever won this wrestling tournament would loom larger than life for a moment. Every stupid thing he’d done in Washington—every gesture he’d made to reveal himself as a nervous, hormone-addled naif from the Midwest—would be washed away, forgotten.
Aaron picked Tyler up, his mighty, rug-burned thighs quavering, and whirled him around in the air for a second or so, watching the blood trickle down out of Tyler’s nose. The match ended with Tyler pressed to the carpet.
And then into the gladiator pit came Mitchell Baldwin, laughing, his back bent, his hands canted before him in warrior stance. He was fighting Gary McCown, a man 20 years older and 115 pounds lighter, and the match began with a thud: Mitchell’s back smacking the wall, buckling a dent into the plaster.
It was the first real WWF moment of the evening. Later, there would be a spot of blood on the white porcelain sink in the bathroom. Aaron would eliminate McCown. The floor would shake, violently. Charles Monk, the security guard, would appear at the door and warn, “If you continue to jump, I’ll have you out of here.” The entire group would then slip into the hall and McCown would direct the two finalists in the boys’ bracket—Aaron and 265-pound football player Chris Pettay—to have it out right there, by the elevator. He would stand in his doorway and, in an exhilarated loud whisper, say, “If someone comes, you guys are on your own.” Aaron would win.
Right now, though, Mitchell came off the wall with his eyes bulging, his arms flailing, groping for some purchase on McCown. He grabbed the teacher around the shoulders and made a bid to topple him. But Mitchell was standing almost straight up, not using his legs at all. McCown crouched there, his knees flexed, immovable, and Mitchell surrendered to his fate. Within a couple of seconds, he was crumpled on the floor, beaten.
“God, get off me!” he cried in a fit of faked misery. McCown got up, laughing warmly, and then Mitchell still lay there, moaning. “This better not get out,” he said, “because there’s a lot of people who think I’m a pretty bad fellow.”
I spoke to Mitchell one more time after the trip. He and Adriann were driving in his ’82 Dodge Ram Charger past wheat fields and cattle ranches on their way north to Wilson Lake, near Russell, for a little fishing. He was real sorry that I hadn’t made it to Nickerson for graduation. “I walked, man,” he said. His voice was spotty over his cell phone.
I asked him what he would remember the longest about his visit to Washington. For a moment, he cogitated; I listened to crackling noises coming over the line. “Probably all the bums on the street,” Mitchell said. “I must have given away a whole pack of cigarettes while I was there.”
“What about the monuments? Did they move you?”
“Nah, not really.”
But in the week before graduation, Mitchell had felt moved to change his mind about his future. In the fall, he would begin a two-year course in criminal justice at Hutchinson Community College. He wanted to work in the Hutchinson prison with his dad, as a counselor. “When it’s the last day of school and they say, ‘You’re done. You don’t have to come back,’ it kind of opens your eyes,” Mitchell explained. “I knew that on graduation night, everybody would be at my house, asking, ‘What are you gonna do with your life?’ I had to think of something.”
Adriann came on the line. “It’s a good plan,” she said.
When Mitchell came back, I asked him if they were going to start living together. “Not right away,” he said. “We’ve got our whole lives in front of us.”
The plan was that they’d begin cohabiting in about a year, after Adriann graduated. They’d start out in her parents’ basement apartment, but gradually they’d become better off. “I’m just looking to have a nice home, a few cars, a motorcycle, and maybe a boat,” Mitchell said.
“And we’re definitely going to have kids,” Adriann said.
“And do you think you’re going to stay in Kansas?” I asked.
“I talk about leaving,” Mitchell said, “but I know I never will.”
The reception was getting really bad now. Almost all I could hear was static and what sounded like wind through the window. Mitchell and I talked for just a few minutes more, about deer hunting and winter in Kansas and the casino up in Topeka. And then he and Adriann drove on over the prairie, out of range.