How I Finally Forgave Bart Starr
by Jim Knipfel
A couple sets of aluminum bleachers had been set up beside the practice field, which was right out in the open, just off the newly-christened Vince Lombardi Avenue. It was free and open to the public, so every day a few hardcore fans would sit in the bleachers for hours, watching the team run through drill after drill. Every once in awhile, a couple players would even come over and sign autographs or pose for pictures.
One chilly, overcast October afternoon, my mom and I went over to watch them for a bit. We'd been out running errands and happened to be in the area, so why the hell not. We parked our old olive-green LTD by the side of the road and got out.
Just as I was closing my door, I heard my mom whisper, "It's Bart Starr!" I looked and, sure enough, there he was in street clothes walking off the far end off the practice field towards his car.
My mom grabbed my hand and started pulling me along towards him. As we ran (he was a good 20 or 30 yards away), she pulled a pen and pad of paper out of her purse. Bart Starr never signed autographs during practice, but he obviously wasn't practicing today, what with being dressed in street clothes and all. For the past few days the local papers had been full of stories about how he had sprained his hand and was sitting out of practice. It was doubtful that he'd even play that Sunday.
That was okay, though. We weren't going to ask him to toss the ol' pigskin around. We just wanted a damned autograph.
As we approached, though, I noticed his step quicken. He wasn't looking forward to this little encounter one bit.
"Hey--hey!" my mom shouted, as Starr veered away from us. Despite his attempt at evasive action, we still caught him.
"Bart, could we please get an autograph?" my mom asked for me (well, for both of us, I suppose), as she held out the pen and pad.
He looked a little pained as he held up his right, injured hand.
"I...I can't," he said, shaking his head. "My hand."
"Please?" I asked.
"It's just one damned autograph," my mom said.
He kept walking, kept shaking his head. "No, no, no."
We stood there, the two of us, watching him walk to his car as a light drizzle began to fall.
"Well, dammit," my mom said. "I should've told him to pretend he was endorsing a check."
I never cared much for Bart Starr after that. Washed up old man, turning down an autograph request from a gawky, big-headed five-year-old. That was a low-class move.
Jumping ahead some 15 years, I was pretty low-class myself, living in a tiny, bug-infested room in Madison, philosophy degree but no job, bringing in about $300 a month by selling my plasma to three different blood centers, desperate for anything.
Then one day I saw a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. BIG MONEY, it said at the top. In smaller letters beneath that, it read "Pain Research." Well, that sounded pretty twisted. So I ripped down the flyer and went over to Grinch's place to show him, and without a moments hesitation, we decided that it was something we needed to do. We were, after all, in a band called the Pain Amplifiers, and the idea of a check from a place calling itself "The Pain Reseach Center" sounded like it'd make perfect back cover art for our next (well, first) record.
I called up the number at the bottom of the flyer and made an appointment for the two of us. They didn't sound terribly busy, so they were able to squeeze us in the next day.
The Pain Research Center was a squat, one-story brick building with a surprisingly large sign out front. I was surprised that they didn't call themselves "PRC" or something less threatening, but there it was, white on black for all passers-by to see and ponder for awhile: "Pain Research."
Grinch and I wandered in and were given a few basic forms to fill out, including a consent form stating that we wouldn't sue if, y'know, things got a little out of hand.
"What, exactly, are you planning to do to us?" Grinch asked the woman behind the front desk.
"Oh, I can't tell you that. They'll let you know once you get in there."
So we took our seats in the waiting room, a little nervous now, not saying much of anything, not joking around anymore, unsure of what the hell we'd gotten ourselves into. We both flipped idly through mgazines and waited.
I was relieved when they called Grinch first. That way I'd get some clue, regardless how brief, as to what to expect before I actually went in there. But a few minutes later, before he came back out, even before I heard any screams, another sort-of nurse came and got me.
She led me through a doorway and down a short, lime-green hallway and through another door. Inside, there was some sort of nightmarish Rube Goldberg-via-Josef Mengele contraption set up.
"Just take a seat in that chair," she said. "I'll be back in a minute." She left again, and I started to look more carefully at my surroundings.
The chair I was sitting in seemed to be a modified dentist's chair. All sorts of wires and cables of varying colors and sizes sprouted out of the bank of dark machines directly in front of me. All that was fine, but to the left of the chair was a huge metal bathtub filled with ice water.
The door opened, and two people in lab coats walked in--the nurse who had led me there and a man I'd never seen before.
"Hello," the man said brightly, "how are you today?"
I just kept staring from that tub of ice water.and back to the wall full of electrical equipment.
"Fine," I said. "What exactly do you plan to do to me?"
"Oh, don't worry," he said. "I'll explain everything as Monica here gets you all set up for the experiment. And be aware that you're free to get up and leave at any time. Any time at all."
Monica placed a series of electrodes across my forehead. Then she asked me to unbutton my shirt, and she placed a few more across my chest. Then she took my right arm and placed six or eight contact points from my shoulder to my wrist. Then she poked thin wires into all the electrodes. Each of the wires led to a small black box on top of the machines in front of me.
"So, uh, Jim," he said, flipping through the forms I had filled out on the clipboard he was holding--probably making sure that consent form was signed so he was free to do whatever the hell he wanted--"have you ever heard of biofeedback?"
"Good. Well, all these machines in front of you are biofeedback machines. We're going to be testing you to see how well you're able to control your body's reaction to pain stimuli."
"What for? I mean, to what end?"
"We'll explain that to you--we'll explain everything--when it's all over."
Great. They were going to torture me, zap me, dunk me in ice water, and when it's all over, they were going to tell me that they did it--oh, because they were bored today or they just wanted to get some cheap yuks. But I kept my mouth shut and let Monica hook me up.
"Here's what's going to happen," the doctor said (I was hoping he was a doctor, at least). "I'm going to hand you this block of wood," which he showed me, "and turn on these machines. Now, you'll see a red light on this one here"--he pointed to the box directly in front of me--"bouncing back and forth across the screen. Your job will be to squeeze that block of wood in such a way that you balance that dot in the middle of the screen. You understand?"
"I think so."
"It's a biofeedback thing. All these electrodes are responding to certain muscle and nerve reactions in the skin. And by squuezing that block of wood, you'll be able to make that dot go faster or slower or stop it completely just by concentrating on it. Got it?"
"Once you have that down, we'll move on to the next stage."
I didn't like the sound of that at all. I played along, though, and in a few minutes was able to stop that dot dead in its tracks, just by keeping the pressure on the wood block constant, not letting my hand relax.
"Good," he said, once I had that down. "Now onto the next step."
"And what's that?"
"Oh, the same thing," he said, "but this time you'll be squeezing with your right hand while your left arm is submerged in the ice water. And we'll be asking you every 15 seconds to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. Understand?"
"Good, then. Why don't you put your arm in that tub, and we'll get started."
It didn't seem so bad at first, plunging my arm into the steel tub. The dot on the screen blipped a few times off center, but I was able to get it back under control. The nurse looked at her stopwatch.
"Rate your pain."
"Oh, about two, I'd say." She wrote it down on her clipboard.
Before too long, though, bad things started to happen. My arm went numb for just a bit, then it began to tingle, then burn.
Over the next few minutes, my pain rating jumped from two, to four, then five, then six. It stayed at six for a bit. The pain was bad, but I'd been through worse.
"You can stop any time you want to," she told me. "There's no set time."
"No, it's okay," I replied, while doing my best to make that fucking red dot stay put. It felt like someone was down at the bottom of the tub slowly peeling my fingernails off with a rusty pliers.
At the six minute mark, she asked me again.
"Eight," I told her, through grinding teeth.
"Okay, you can stop now," the doctor said.
"No, I'm okay, really." It wasn't a manly thing, but it had become a test. I wasn't doing it for them; I was testing my own endurance.
"Please-take your arm out of the water."
I looked up at them for a second, then relented, and lifted my dripping, cold-battered arm out of the water.
They shut the machines off, took the wood block away from me and started unhooking the electrodes from my body.
"That's fine," the doctor said, looking at the chart. "Make sure and stop by the front desk to pick up your check."
"Wait a minute, though," I said while drying my arm off with the towel the nurse gave me. "What were you looking for?"
"Oh. Well. Our research here began with the premise that cancer patients aren't given nearly the amount of pain killers they need to keep things under control."
"And you've helped us out a great deal today. Thank you."
"Oh." It was obvious that I was going to be left to make the connection on my own.
I buttoned up my shirt, climbed out of the chair and went back out to the waiting room, where Grinch was waiting. He was smiling something evil. He held out a photo he had just ripped out of one of the waiting room's Time magazines. It was an archival picture of some kind of nazi medical experiment, in which Jews were submerged in iron tubs full of ice water.
"It looks like they were just testing the results of this experiment," he chuckled.
"How long'd you last?" I asked him.
"Last? Christ Almighty, I put my arm in that water, they asked me to rate the pain, I yelled 'ten!' and yanked it out again. That was enough for me. I've been out here for about half an hour."
We both got our checks and left. For that six minutes of pain, I was paid $25. That was fine with me.
As I walked home, I thought long and hard about what, exactly, they were really up to in that place. It didn't seem all that difficult to figure out. When you're in pain--any kind of pain, regardless how minor, a headache, a paper cut, a burn on the roof of your mouth--it becomes damnably hard to devote your full concentration to anything. Filling out taxes, writing a letter, reorganizing your wallet, anything. Again, it's a phenomenological thing. Most everything those days was.
I started thinking about it all again last Tuesday, 12 years after my adventure at the Pain Research Center.
Over the past 30-plus years, I've been through all sorts of pain, both major and minor, physical and psychological. Through it all, though, I'd never once done something quite so simple as sprain my hand. Until last Tuesday. Don't know quite how it happened. I was at work when something in my right hand went sproinnng! I thought it would pass, but it didn't. The next morning, I could hardly move it, at least not without gasping and wincing, the pain drilling all the way up through my arm to my shoulder, then dispersing throughout the rest of my body. I couldn't think about anything else except how much my right hand hurt. Moving the arm itself was painful. The breeze blowing across it while I walked to work was painful. I had to use my left hand to answer the phones and typing nearly brought me to tears.
On the third day, after working through a bottle of aspirins and keeping myself slathered up in Ben-Gay like some rotting old man, I remembered that Bart Starr encounter. He was probably in his mid-30's at the time, just a few years older that I am now. And for the first time, I could imagine how he felt when he saw this stupid kid chasing him down with a pen and pad of paper. Twenty-seven years after the fact, I finally forgave Bart Starr for being a jackass.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.
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