secretary to the World Wrist-Wrestling Championship, shows the new table that
has just arrived and is being installed, and on which the wrestlers will
compete. It stands like an ancient instrument of torture on the darkened stage.
DeVoto circles it, lecturing: "It is a sophisticated piece of equipment,
electrically wired. Let's say we're wrist wrestling. I get a better advantage
and your arm goes down. I am the winner. The white winner's light goes on. But
if my elbow leaves this rubber disk a red light goes on, registering a default.
The top of the table is padded plastic, below it are rubber mats on which the
contestants stand so they do not slip. The whole contraption is to be bolted in
place on the stage."
ever tried to bolt the contestants to the floor?" I ask. Penny-arcade
robots flash through my mind, men of metal activated by a coin, repeating their
movements infinitely, playing out other games under glass: basketball, hockey,
baseball. The trapped competitors spurred on their apathetic way by chance
to," DeVoto says. "Besides, in the heat of battle a man is liable to be
lifted right off his feet—wouldn't want the floor to go with him."
Across the street
is a place identified only by a neon sign reading BOW, the final L having
burned out. The place is crowded and hamburgers are sizzling. The bowling alley
smells like fried fat. A lone basketball fan is watching an NBA championship
game on television in the bar. The principal topic of conversation around the
bowling alley is wrist wrestling, although there is some talk about an upcoming
demolition derby at the Petaluma Fairgrounds.
I happen on a
local rancher dressed up to play the part of the legendary Paul Bunyan. His
function at the wrist-wrestling event is to provide comic relief. On cue he
will rush on stage with his ax and holler "Timber." That is his whole
Back at the
auditorium. It is now 8:30, half an hour past the promised starting time.
Suddenly The Star-Spangled Banner cuts through the din and the sellout crowd
rises to honor the flag, which hangs, stage rear, behind the contestants.
Ceremonies Jim Payne, in a Paisley, black-on-red dinner jacket over ruffled
shirt, warms the audience. The band plays Roll Out The Barrel, and M.C. Payne
shouts: "Stop the music! Wow! Welcome to Chickaluma...I mean Petaluma. It
used to be the chicken capital of the world, but now...."
the show on the road...bring 'em on!" a shrill female voice calls. Other
voices join hers and a young boy blows into a kazoo, giving M.C. Payne the
O.K. I can understand your eager and spirited impatience. Yes, ladies and
gentlemen, we have young men coming from all over the world to express
themselves on the stage tonight in superendurance and superstrength, and I
think these fellers who come here tonight to participate deserve a hand before
they even get started. Let's give them a big hand!"
A television crew
from San Francisco, 40 miles to the south, films the action. A sound man with a
microphone crouches near the table to record the clash of battle. Blinding
spotlights are focused at each end of the stage, catching part of the audience
and making these people flinch. During the first match the table goes berserk,
signaling decisions that bear no relation to the actual contest. Both
contestants win, or both lose, or the winner loses, or the loser wins. The
table has been overengineered.