For Pete's Sake

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story inspired by a memory of yours.... view prompt

15 comments

Coming of Age Creative Nonfiction American

I’ll never forget the day I realized my dad was going to die.


Young boys know nothing of mortality, certainly not when it comes to their fathers. To most sons, dads are giants among men, strong and fearless. It’s why we rely on them to fight our playground proxy wars. “My dad can beat up your dad!” is often the last salvo of scared boys who don't want to fight—but act as if they do. I had often made the proclamation because if my dad were indestructible then maybe I was too.


Most of the life lessons my dad taught were obvious only in hindsight. The day I came home from school and challenged him to an arm wrestling contest was just such a lesson. A lesson that still affects me to this day.


Initially the day seemed like any other. I was a headstrong first grader and had been challenged to an arm wrestling contest during lunch. I won convincingly. My immediate reaction was to tell everyone that I had inherited my father’s super strength, a fact backed up by my undefeated record. There were eleven boys in my class, and—one by one—I vanquished them all. In my heart, however, I somehow knew that I could not truly be a superhero unless I was able to defeat my dad. At home that night, I challenged him the instant he walked through the door.


“Dad, I am the strongest boy in my class,” I bragged, setting the stage for the contest. “I beat everyone at arm wrestling, and I’ll bet I can beat you, too.”


My mother was busy getting dinner ready, but she stopped to listen as the scene unfolded.


“If you can beat me,” my dad answered calmly, “then—and only then—will you be a man.”


I had proven my strength among my peers, but now I was thrilled at the thought of beating the best man I knew.


My dad had his chair, so I sat in the one across from him, placing my right elbow on the table. My dad acted a little like a prize fighter as he moved to the table flexing his bicep before sitting down, and grasping my hand.


The first thing I realized was how serious my dad seemed. When he grabbed my hand, he moved it back and forth until our grips were secure, perfectly interlocked. His arm was much longer than mine and his hand was massive, but I wasn’t afraid. I was the undefeated champion. I was certain I could beat him.


“Ready?” my father asked, looking me straight in the eye.


“Set,” I replied, not blinking as I stared back.


“Go!” We called out in unison, and the match was on.


At first, this battle seemed like the ones from earlier in the day. I immediately moved my father’s hand towards the table and victory. I smiled at him, feeling confident I was going to win, and then it happened. My dad curled his wrist, easily pushing back against my advance. I strained with all my might, but it felt as if I were pushing against a brick wall. My arm shook. In an instant, all resistance was gone. My hand smacked against the table with a loud thud.

“Pete, what are you doing!” my mom yelled. “You’re going to hurt him.”


“Are you hurt?” My dad asked.


“No,” I answered, eyes welling with tears. “I’m okay.”


“You should have let him win,” my mother interjected. “He’s just a boy.”


“If I let him win, then he achieves nothing.” My dad explained, looking directly at me. “What do you think, Lee? Should I let you win?”


The question was a difficult one to present to a five year old, but I remembered what my father had said just before the match: If you can beat me, thenand only thenwill you be a man.


I wanted to beat my dad, but I wanted to do it fair and square.


“No dad, please don’t ever let me win.”


My father nodded his head and offered his hand.


“Nice match.”


“You too,” I responded, giving his hand one vigorous shake before running off to the living room to watch cartoons.


There are few things in life shorter than the attention span of a boy, and as such, I moved on very quickly from my defeat. Over the next six or seven years, my father and I arm wrestled a few dozen times. Although I had learned that beating my dad was impossible, every few months I would take a shot at the king. Invariably, I would miss.


Each loss seemed to be exactly like the one that had preceded it. I would push against his arm of steel for a few moments before he would curl his wrist and slam my hand against the table. 


Our arm wrestling contests changed when I entered high school. We still started with our traditional “Ready, Set, Go!”—yet for the first time, I could start to feel my father straining. From time to time I would actually push his arm back towards the table before he would dig deep and curl his wrist. I was gaining muscle and yet, every time, my arm ended up in its familiar position—flattened against the table. When he beat me, we would always shake hands, and he would say the exact same thing: “Maybe next time.” I would nod my head, not certain the day would ever come.


The last time I ever arm wrestled my dad, I had no idea it would be the last time. I was sixteen years old, a high school athlete, a regular at the weight room. That particular Sunday my dad asked if I wanted to stay home and watch football. I eagerly accepted. In all the years we had competed in arm wrestling, I had been the one who challenged my dad. On that day, after the game, for some unknown reason, he challenged me. My dad smiled as he sat in his usual chair. I followed suit by sitting across from him, placing my elbow on the table. Once our hands entwined, we recited the same script as we had for years.


“Ready?” he said, tightening his grip.


“Set.” I responded, doing the same.


“Go!”


I immediately pushed against his hand with all my strength, and he responded in kind. But that was the last thing that was familiar. Right away, I could feel something different. My dad grunted and strained and started to sweat as I slowly moved his arm towards his side. I knew—and he knew—what was about to happen, but it was still a surprise when his arm hit the table. 


The shock didn’t stop my dad from shouting with joy. In an instant, he pulled me out of my chair and hugged me with all the strength he had left. To this day, I still think that was the proudest moment of his life. His son had bested him.


For me it was something different though. I smiled and accepted the traditional handshake, as a victor for the first time. I should have been ecstatic or relieved, but instead I felt empty. Ironically our last match was my dad’s biggest win and my most painful loss.


I asked to be excused. Retreating to my room, I broke into tears. Eleven years since that first match. Eleven years of trying and hoping and dreaming of beating my father. When it finally happened, I could not have been more devastated. My superhero, my father was mortal after all. We would never arm wrestle again.


As I look back on that day, I’m finally able to manage a small smile. Though it's still one of my greatest losses, it’s also the day I became a man.

April 08, 2022 20:56

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15 comments

00:04 Apr 09, 2022

Extraordinary effort. Once again you've captured something so elemental about the human condition, presenting it to your readers with your trademark charm, humor, and grace. In this case, the guilt of a son finally beating his father at arm wrestling resonates. What happens when our heroes are discovered to be mortal, to be fallible, when they start looking up to us? The father is a delight, knowing instinctively how to teach his son persistence, fair play, determination, the importance of celebration of authentic victories, and the satisfac...

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Mike Panasitti
14:25 Apr 09, 2022

Lee, this account elicited an emotional response from me, the first match in particular. I'm in my fifties and my father in his seventies, and I still don't think I can beat him in an arm-wrestling match. Despite my mature age, I don't feel I've completely made the transition into manhood, either. I hope, however, that I can eventually base this shift in the life trajectory on something more than physical prowess. Like you, I don't think I'd get unadulterated pleasure from besting my dad in an athletic competition. He still is a hero to...

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Thom Brodkin
22:58 Apr 09, 2022

In so many ways we will always be little boys, our father's sons. I'm so glad this resonated with you and I'm sure, just like my dad was of me, your father is very proud of you. Thanks for reading and sharing, it means the world to me.

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Mary Sheehan
19:33 Apr 19, 2022

This was a touching story. I love how you used a specific memory to show your dad's vulnerability. It's really perceptive of you to be able to hone in on this specific moment and realise that there was more to this moment that just an arm-wrestle, just a boy beating his dad at something for the first time. In terms of improvement in the writing, most of it is excellent, the only thing I would pick up on is the dialogue is a little bit (and only a little bit) stagnant in places, i.e. I don't people talk that way. I'll give you an example: ...

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Thom Brodkin
19:41 Apr 19, 2022

When I first started writing I wrote whole stories without a single line of dialogue. I found it almost impossible to give my characters voices. Later as I made a conscious effort to include dialogue I found that all my characters sounded the same. Today I am finally finding different voices in my head (in a good way) but occasionally I revert to old habits. Keep me eye out. See if I get better. It’s really what I am striving for. To be better each time I write.

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Mary Sheehan
19:44 Apr 19, 2022

It's a learning curve for us all! You really pull on the heartstrings with this one.

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Ed Hinojos
21:34 Apr 13, 2022

As a father, I giggled the whole way through. My son and I played chess. His first victory was at the age of twelve, but then he had to hold on to the title. His mind grew strong very quickly. I started by winning 2 of 3 games, but within two years, I was winning only every third game. It does make a father proud as his children are able to stand up on their own. Such a great stroll down memory lane. Thank you.

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Thom Brodkin
22:53 Apr 13, 2022

What a great memory. I’m a dad now and I know how my dad felt. Nothing but pride. It’s great to be able to know this story from both sides. Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words.

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Riel Rosehill
13:28 Apr 12, 2022

This was an amazing story to read... That realisation that your parents are mortal is a gutpuch, and telling this story through armwrestling, which is so simple, yet you had created all the depth and shown all the emotions... I'm impressed, and I'm glad I read this story!

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Thom Brodkin
13:36 Apr 12, 2022

There are so many lessons our parents teach us but a lot of them we only figure out years later. They seem obvious in hindsight but at the time we are oblivious. I'm so glad you enjoyed the story and I appreciate you taking the time to let me know.

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Francis Daisy
03:30 Apr 10, 2022

You and your stories get me right in the heart every time. You start with something so simple as arm wrestling, but the story means ever so much more. You are so deep and so moving with your words. Your story may sound like it is about one thing on the surface, yet it is an ocean deep. You are an amazing writer. You completely captured that moment when a young boy realizes that his parent is mortal. Amazing story!

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Thom Brodkin
16:09 Apr 10, 2022

Francis, I love when you read my stories because you always see me in them, You see what I am thinking and what I'm trying to say. I obviously hope everyone does but knowing that at least one person always does keeps me writing. Thank you so much!!!

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Francis Daisy
12:07 Apr 11, 2022

😀

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Max Sun
13:32 Apr 15, 2022

Hi Lee, I really enjoyed this powerful story about fatherhood and I resonate so much. Can I possibly ask for the permission to adapt it to a short film? I am a student in filmmaking and can be contacted by maxsun.prod@gmail.com

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Cindy Strube
19:46 Apr 11, 2022

Lee, This is beautiful. One of my favorites among your stories. It’s so tender - it made me think of my dad’s relationship with his father. Reading this brought it all back - made my eyes prickle. They were very close, very similar. Grandpa passed away when he was 77. I was 8, and my dad was 31. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry. I’m fortunate to still have him, and at 82 I’m sure he could beat me easily at arm wrestling! (He’s very active and has huge hands!) Also brought back memories of hand to hand pushing contests with my ...

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