Tug of War 

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Tug of war is a simple concept, usually the rope which is about six inches in diameter and made from rough hemp that chaffs and is rough on the skin. 

While length may vary, the rope laid out in the “Pit of Death” was approximately fifty feet long and would accommodate two teams of ten each.  A red flag signifying the middle was hung over a large man-made mud puddle in which the losing team would most likely be swimming in. 

Since I was the largest member of our team, I was designated as the anchor and the small members of the team were put in the front near the pit of death.  

Let me set the stage for this contest.  The competition consisted of airmen at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, who were just ten days from completing basic training.  

After four weeks of marching miles each day, listening to our Technical Instructor (or TI) yelling out orders and remonstrations for not following his commands.  

The person in charge of the tug of war competition was a staff sergeant who was probably about my age.  On top of his head was a Smokey the Bear hat which made him look like all the other instructors, but he seemed a lot nicer.  He read the rules from his clipboard, “Now, gentlemen, the object of this contest is to  pull the other team into the muddy water at the red banner.  First team to pull the other into the water wins.  Good luck to you.  We will be starting your contest in five minutes.  I will blow my whistle and yell, ‘Places.’  You will take your places and take hold of the rope.  When I blow the whistle again, you will begin the contest.” 

He walked away with a swagger and his whistle on a chain hanging around his neck.  He began chatting with a female instructor who smiled upon his approach. 

We were allowed to remove our green shirts so each of us did, leaving us in just our t-shirts.

When our TI announced the upcoming “Trainee Olympics,” one of the guys in my squadron told me I should join.

“Not me.” I shook my head, “I’m just not the tug of war type.” 

“What does it take?” He laughed and punched me in the shoulder, “You’re big. I’ll bet you can add some weight to our team.” 

Weight was my problem.  Most of the guys in my squadron weighed about half of what I did and had just graduated from high school.  There were four of us who were over twenty years old.  We were considered the old-timers by the others.

“You are a fat slob, airman!” The TI greeted me on my first day even before I had been issued a uniform.  My hair was still long and I had a scruffy beard.  One thing you learned quickly was not to stick out and draw the attention of the TI. I had broken that rule right at the start. “You are as fat as I’ve seen them!”

“Yes sir.” I responded as I had been told.

“I’d better be careful or you will probably eat me.” He walked away from me shaking his head.  I could hear the rest of the squadron snickering.  

“Are we ready?” The captain of our team asked. Everyone shook their head. He smiled, “Good.” 

Both teams stood on an incline of sand dumped on the field just for the Trainee Olympics.  Each member of the team kicked the sand so we all had a place to steady ourselves when the staff sergeant blew his whistle.

The other nine members looked scared.

“They look pretty tough.” One of the front guys said as the other team lined up across the pit of death.  As they got in place, they smiled at us which unnerved us just a bit.

“You never know unless you try.” The captain said as we gathered in a circle for one last “OOOAAAH!” before getting set for our first contest.  The tournament would be a round robin affair, but it would also be a single elimination.  So unless we pulled these smiling guys into the muddy pit of death, our day would be over. The whistle sounded and the captain repeated, “You never know unless you try.”

The rope went taut as the red banner rose from its muddy bed.  I felt the pressure immediately as I stood in the anchor spot with the rope around my waist.

Grunts and groans followed as the rope went a foot this way and then a foot that way.  

“Give it all you got!” The captain commanded.

I lay flat in the cool sand.  While the rope remained taut, I felt that unless King Kong joined in on their side, nothing was going to move me.

“We can do this!” I heard the captain shout and with one good tug, their front man hit the muddy water with a dirty splash. “We won!  We won!” 

“You are a loser.” The TI yelled in my ear after catching me out of step with the rest of the squadron, “I am demoting you to road guard.” 

I was okay with that since the road guards had to run up whenever we marched across a street or road, look both ways and then hustle to the center of the road holding up our hands to let any possible traffic that a military formation was crossing the road. At least marching in the back of the formation, I would remain more invisible.  As the tallest in the squadron, I had become a target of his ire. 

Our second contest was against a team with a guy on anchor who was as big as I was.  

“Remember, we can do this.  You never know unless you try, right?” The captain shrugged.  The rest of us considered it and shrugged.  

Their anchor was a brutish looking fellow who smiled when he saw me step into the anchor.

“Don’t pay any attention to him.” The captain told me in confidence since he began trash talking, shouting insults that everyone could hear. 

“I know.” I put the rope around my waist, “You never know unless you try.” 

“Exactly.” The captain smiled as he picked up the rope after the first whistle sounded.

At Oh-Four hundred in the dark thirty, we walked out onto the quad in our shorts and physical training shirts with our squadron’s number printed on the front.  I hated the morning mile run since I was slow.  I had found out that if I kept falling back to the other squadrons, I could get away with my lack of foot speed.  Since I was a road guard, I lined up at the end of my squadron and then would just fade into the next squadron behind ours and continue until I ended up at the end.

But this morning, my luck ran out as we were the last squadron to run in formation.  There was nowhere to hide and my lack of speed soon drew the attention of another TI who started yelling at me in disgrace at my lack of speed.

“Airman, I could walk faster than you can run!” He continued to run next to me as my squadron finished their morning mile.

“So can I, sir.” I responded.  He was no longer running next to me, because he was now doubled over in laughter.

The whistle blew and the rope hit an A Flat in a twang.  The anchor on their team had fallen face first in the sand.  In seconds it was over as their whole team took a dive in the pit of death.  The captain hooted.  He was followed by a joyous chorus as we had moved into the semi-finals of the Olympics.

“You guys can go to lunch.  Semi finals begin at thirteen hundred hours.” The staff sergeant with the whistle informed us.

“We are awesome.” The captain high fived us as we hiked to the snack bar near the field.  

“Are you blind?” Our assistant TI asked me.  He was a large well constructed African-American who appeared as tough as they come. 

“My glasses are broken.” I responded.

“What happened?” He growled stepping closer to me.

“They fell while I was marching.” I answered.

“Do I look fuzzy to you?” He asked, repressing a smile which I could not see.

“A little…” 

“I do NOT WANT to look fuzzy to you.  Do you understand me?” His smile was now large enough for me to see.


“Get on to the Base Exchange.  They will issue you another pair of birth control glasses.” He ordered.

Birth control glasses is what they were called.  With the heavy dark frames and the thick lens, no woman would ever want to be seen with you wearing those glasses or so the joke went.  I was just happy to be able to see again. 

The real story for me was that my father had passed away a year before I went to Basic Training from congenital heart failure at age forty-seven.  At the time of his passing, I was selling vacuum cleaners door to door and truth be told, I was not very good at it.

I had dropped out of college, moved down to North Carolina to work in a textile factory, but found that the cotton dust I was exposed to was killing me.  I tried selling life insurance, but my poor math skills got me in trouble with my account. I was a failure in every sense of the word.

Over a hundred people came to my father’s service and each of them took time to talk to me about how honest he was, full of integrity.  When I went back to North Carolina, I met an Air Force recruiter who did his job and got me to sign on the dotted line.

Basic had been a lot harder than I had anticipated, but then my TI came to me just before the Olympics and told me, “Hey, you are in line for Honor Graduate.  You have one more written test and if you ace that one like you did the other, you will get an honor graduate.”  I could see by his expression he was both proud and repulsed at the idea that such a screw up would be taking a certificate for honor graduate. 

The semi-finals started at exactly thirteen hundred hours. Everyone was there and ready.  The other team had two female airmen, but they appeared as fit and ready as any of the males.

The whistle blew and once again the rope went taut.  For what seemed like an hour the red banner did not move to one side or the other.  I could hear screaming from those watching us as we struggled for an advantage. 

“We can do this!” The captain yelled.

“You never know unless you try!” We yelled back as the red banner moved in our favor by a few feet.  My face like the rest, was red as the banner still hanging over the pit of death.

I felt my feet start to stumble as they pulled one good tug.  Regaining my balance, I pulled hard and the banner once again moved in our favor.

“Your father will be missed.” One of the warehouse workers wiped a tear from his eye.

“He was a man I was proud to have called my boss.” The warehouse foreman added.

I had worked with them after graduating high school for the summer.  I had wanted to make my father proud.  He was my hero.  Korean War veteran who told me that he had a desk job until I found his uniform with two purple hearts dangling from one of his pockets.

His brother Allan was one his pallbearers along with some of the guys from the warehouse who asked.  I stayed with my mom who dabbed her eyes as she walked with my two younger brothers.

“How are things in North Carolina?” She asked.

“Not so good.” I shook my head.

“Why don’t you come home?” She asked.

And admit defeat?  I moved away to prove I could make it on my own.  Going back would be an admission that I was wrong.  I was stubborn just like my father.  

“Pull!” The captain shouted.

We did as he commanded.  The banner moved a few inches.

“Pull!” He yelled again.

It moved a few more inches.

I watched it inch across the muddy water.

“Pull!” He yelled one last time.  

I saw their lead man splash into the water along with a couple of his colleagues.  We had won.

“We are in the finals! “The captain raised his arms in victory.

We were in the finals against a team with three Neanderthals.

“Let us pray.” The priest asked as we stood around the grave.  As the pallbearers were lowering the casket into the ground, my mother squeezed my hand and let her tears flow down her cheeks. Both of my brothers stood on the other side of her.  They were too young to know what was happening. I was grateful for that. 

The other team showed up.  Right away we could see they were bigger than we were to the man. Their anchor was a brute, about six foot five inches, weighing about thirty pounds more than me.  Their captain was about my size and he was issuing orders to his team.  

“These guys look scary.” One of our guys sighed. 

Each of the other members of the other team had muscles.

With a confident nod from the captain, the other team grabbed the rope.  We did the same, but not with the same bravado they did.  Our captain turned an off shade of green as he glanced at each of us. 

The whistle blew and the red banner went over toward the other team, nearly spilling our lead guy into the pit of death before the whistle stopped blowing. 

“Shit, we are in trouble.” I heard the captain hiss.

“Dig in!” I yelled and everyone dug into the sand.  Once dug into the sand we did not budge since we did not have one more inch to give without being defeated.  

“What next?” The captain asked as he gritted his teeth.

“We wait.” I said calmly.

“Wait?  For what?” One of the team seemed perplexed by the concept.

“For when they take a break.” I answered.

“I don’t see that happening.” The captain shook his head feeling the strain of the rope in his hands.  By now each of our hands were raw from the abrasive rope, but we were not giving up. 

“Are we still waiting?” Asked one of our team members.

I felt the rope still pulling hard in my hands.

“Yes.” I nodded.

In about three minutes, the rope felt slack.

“Now!  Stand and pull!” I yelled and everyone came to their feet and pulled.

The banner moved about six inches in our favor.

“Dig in!” I commanded and everyone dove into the sand. This time the rope was not pulled as ferociously as it was the last time.  I waited a few minutes until I felt the rope go slack again. “Stand and pull!”

The banner moved nearly a foot in our favor.  It was working.  As soon as I felt them begin to tug again, I told everyone to dig in.

This time the other team pulled desperately, but they could not dislodge us from the sand we had dug ourselves in.  Their faces were red and a couple of them had their tongues hanging out of the side of their mouths.

The rope went slack.

“Stand and pull!” The captain yelled and we stood, pulling the rope with everything we had left in us.

We watched in jubilation as their lead and three others went for a swim in the pit of death.

We had won the tournament.  A cheer went up as we danced around the rope while the three swimmers from the other team cleaned themselves off.

Mom held my hand as I got on the bus back to North Carolina.  My brothers each gave me a hug.

“You can stay if you want.” My youngest brother told me.

“Maybe one day I’ll come back.” I nodded.

“I wish you would.” My mother’s eyes were glassy from her tears.

As it turned out, I never did go back home except for her funeral many years later.

I wore the gold medal back to the barracks.  My TI smiled, “So you’re a big shot now, eh?”

“Yes sir.” I showed him the medal.

“When you got here, I had you pegged as a screw-up, but I was wrong it seems.” He handed me the medal back. 

As it turned out, I aced the final examination and received honor graduate.  When I told my mother, she said, “Your father would be so proud.” 

I felt a catch in my throat and I told her I loved her as I hung up the phone.  I don’t know whatever became of that medal, but the memory of that tug of war contest still lives in my memory, proving that you never really know what you are capable of when you put your mind to it.  Right? 

208 thoughts on “Tug of War 

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