A Strapping Young Man
by Marshall J. Pierce
Coach Hinds had threatened multiple times to do a jock check on the entire eighth-grade boys soccer team. Jockstraps were required for every boy in sports—it was a school rule. So far he had never followed through, but I feared it was only a matter of time before he found out that I didn’t wear one. Mom had given me money the year prior to buy a jock, but I had been too embarrassed to purchase it, so I just spent the money on Pac-Man and soda. Luckily, I’d never been found out for that egregious mismanagement of funds due to Mom’s fleeting attention to the details of the family laundry, but it was a short-lived reprieve.
This year, I was certain the coach would catch me. He’d done an impromptu inspection on the seventh grade team already, making them stand in line in the locker room while he pulled the elastic waistband of each boy’s shorts back and checked to make sure they were wearing the proper gear. Two boys had been sent home that day for “lack of proper equipment” and their team lost to the girls. It was all over school.
While losing me as a second string fullback for our game against the eighth-grade girls would surely not make or break my team’s final score, I still didn’t want to face the humiliation of the entire crew teasing me for going commando. In my conservative little town in the 1980s, being naked under your clothes was akin to an actual sin. Something had to be done. So I bit the bullet, shyly asked Mom for the money, and headed down to the variety store to obtain my required undergarment.
I’m not sure why the Morrisville Ben Franklin was the local site for all things jockstrap and cup related. Mostly the store seemed to cater to hobbyists and people with sewing machines, so this particular necessity was somewhat out of place. But there they were, hunkered down in their own corner at the end of the dress patterns. The year prior I had wandered around the store trying to find them and finally located their rack just in time for a suspicious old clerk to ask me if I needed assistance. Instead of picking one out—I’d been too embarrassed to tell her anything so directly related to my private parts—I lied and asked her for help finding a cheap dress pattern for a nonexistent little sister. She pointed me to a bin labeled “Less Than a Dollar, Ladies!” then stayed to help me pick one out. I’d returned home that day without a jock and stuffed the dress pattern into the overflowing bureau in Mom’s sewing area.
This year I was ready. I had a plan. I wore my largest, loosest top—an oversize Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirt—put on my most stretchy parachute pants and headed back to the Ben Franklin. I walked right up to the clerk and cleared my throat to get her attention. The same little old lady who had helped me the year prior turned from the customer with whom she was chatting and faced me. Her Ben Franklin tag had the name “Martha” stuck diagonally in a black plastic strip of letter punch over someone else’s name.
“Yes, can I help you, young man? Are you Frankie?” She smiled pleasantly, bracelets clinking merrily against the counter as she continued to arrange the cash in her hand to be face side up. I’d learned from my grandfather that using a server’s name in these situations was polite and got you better service.
“Hello, Martha. No, Frankie is just a band I like.” I smiled back my best old lady charm smile. “Can you tell me where the dress patterns are?”
At this request, she stopped her cheery counting in mid-count and looked over her glasses at me. We were about the same height when she was in the raised platform of the checkout station and she stared me down for a few seconds. Something must have triggered her memory. I’d counted on her not being there or not remembering who I was, but I was probably the only boy Martha had ever seen request dress patterns, much less, twice in one year.
“You the same boy who came in here a while back for his little sister?”
“Yes.” I tried to look indignant.
“And let me guess,” she took her glasses off and let them hang around her neck, “she wants another one?”
“Yes. Well, sort of. It’s for her birthday. It’s a surprise.”
“Is it now.”
“Yes, she liked the last one. She made it blue.”
“Well, I am sure that was very charming.” She wasn’t buying my story and the sarcasm in her voice was as obvious as the mole on her nose.
“Chrissy likes blue. It’s his favorite color—I, I mean HERS!” I wished my little brother had heard me namedrop him; he would be furious. But a blue dress would go so nicely with his eyes and blond hair, I thought, chuckling evilly at my joke.
She dismissed this bit of information with a wave of her jingly wrist, apparently not noticing my gender slip. “Well they ain’t moved, you can head on back there and pick one out on your own.” Martha turned back to her friend who was patiently waiting to resume their pleasantries. “Doesn’t seem like much of a present, does it, Lillian? Ha ha!”
Now comfortably ignored, I walked into the store for Phase Two, heading directly to the bin of cheap patterns. My plan was to grab a few, drop them on the floor and, when I bent over to pick them up, sneak unseen to the jockstraps and steal one. Martha must never know I needed one. She must not think about my ass, it would be too embarrassing. Exposing one’s ass was the only thing jocks seemed to do other than what normal underwear does. Why are jocks so specific about the ass? I thought. Surely they were designed by some coach with a lame sense of humor. It took me a minute to get the confidence and make sure the sight angles were so that she could not see me. And I had to scope the correct-sized jock—there were many to choose from, but I eyed a “medium” that came with a cup. It seemed suitable from where I was standing, so I checked to make sure I was still being ignored, then picked up and dumped half the dress pattern bin out onto the floor.
“Oops!” I said, as loudly as possible, and dropped to my hands and knees. I knew I only had moments before the clerk made her way over to help me, and I crawled out of sight to my selected jock, grabbed it off the rack, and stuffed the entire package down my pants.
“Everything OK over there?” She was already on her way to help. I scrambled out of sight back to the dress patterns and started to pick them up.
“Yep! I just knocked this over, no problem.” I spotted a 99-cent pattern on the floor and snagged it. “I think I have what I need!” She came around the corner and I waved the cheap pattern at her. “See? All set!”
Martha harrumphed. “You made quite a mess, young man. You make sure you don’t leave a stitch of that on the floor!” She then turned haughtily on her squeaky black shoes and headed back to her perch at the register. I followed, getting up stiffly, the hard plastic rack case for the jock and cup combination in my pants creating an unseemly bulge down the front of my left leg. After I paid and walked out, I snuck behind the Methodist church to extract my shoplifted item from my pants by shaking it all the way down and pulling it out the bottom, then I dashed home hoping to avoid anyone and an explanation as to why I was carrying both a new jock and a pretty little dress pattern.
While Mom never made the dress I left for her, the jock turned out to be quite useful. I passed a couple locker room checks, of course, but had never thought about the possibilities outside the gymnasium. One morning I ran out of underwear and the jock was given a shot at assuming a new position as a regular undergarment. Technically, I was faced with a choice between Superman Underoos that I had outgrown and a jockstrap I had already worn once. I picked the jock because I had soccer practice that afternoon and it seemed better to me to be seen stripping down to a jock and cup than to red and blue briefs that were so small they could be mistaken for a bikini. So I strapped myself in and tried to enjoy the extra breathability during the walk to school.
Luckily for me, this also turned out to be a day that a grouping of local rednecks decided to nail any and all junior high boys in the crotch as they walked up the hill to school. The Chucks, as we called them, grouped at the edge of the school grounds and smoked as many cigarettes as they could before the final morning bell, taunting anyone who looked like a decently dressed person or who was not bigger than they were. Usually one could walk by them without much trouble, just some highly offensive word groupings and bad grammar. But they were out for blood this particular day and I have never been happier to have a large piece of plastic wedged between my legs.
Even though I doubled over instinctively as I was punched in the balls, I realized with wonder that I had not been hurt. The Chuck who hit me winced and looked at his hand, but said nothing. He glared at me strangely while his Chuck comrades continued to taunt me and I scrambled to grab my books and get up. I held my crotch for good measure, imitating pain, but gleefully realized how effective the genital cup really was. No wonder they make us wear them! The Chuck taunted me again, but did not mention my protective layer that his hand had smashed, knowing that making a remark about the feel of someone else’s crotch might be considered queer, whereas actually thrusting a fist into it would not be. God forbid. For once, fear of homosexuality worked in my favor. It occurred to me that I should wear these stupid things every day.
That day after practice, I went directly back to the Ben Franklin store and stole another one. By the end of the month I had been back five times, had a total of seven jockstraps and three dress patterns, all of which I stuffed into my sweater drawer. I was on a first-name basis with Martha by this point, and she was dying to meet my sewing-obsessed sister. I took to wearing jocks exclusively, throwing my clean underwear into the laundry every day to keep Mom from asking questions, and washing my new garments in the kitchen sink after school. Everything was great until soccer season ended and I was forced into joining Boy Scouts.
“We can go shopping for your uniform this weekend,” Mom stated after informing me of the decision. “You need more structured activities now that soccer is over.”
I didn’t want to be a Boy Scout particularly, but I spent the ensuing week hopeful a shopping trip might produce extra niceties for me in the form of records or real clothes. My disappointment in this new endeavor increased many times when it turned out the only place one could buy Scouting supplies and uniforms was the local Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin variety stores are a staple of small towns in the US and they must be doing something right to have been in business for over eighty years. But try explaining that to a thirteen-year-old who was looking forward to a department store and expecting to convince his mother he needed the new Laura Branigan record. As far as I was concerned, the variety store was good for nothing but yarn, fabric, and candy. And jockstraps.
At the Ben Franklin that Saturday, I grumpily punched the fabric rolls as I walked a careful twelve steps behind my mother. She breezed up the aisle in her jogging outfit: a purple jumper, a hooded sweatshirt, and a pink headband. It was a bit too Olivia Newton-John for me, so passé, and I tried to avoid being associated with her. Mom didn’t care. She jogged so often in those days, she would sometimes just wear a bathing suit top and running shorts all day if it was nice enough weather. The entire town knew, whether I liked it or not. In my first stages of developing a fashion statement, I had taken to strictly wearing parachute pants and T-shirts. We made quite a pair in the dusty quiet of old ladies looking for fabric. She stopped at the small collection of green and tan scout uniforms near the back of the store and quickly began flipping through them.
“Did you get yourself the new jockstrap? We can get one while we’re here if you want.” Mom asked this loud enough for one silver-haired browser to look up from dress patterns and smile at me. I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Goddamit, Mom!” I hissed at her, mortified she dared bring this up in public. Also, I had six of them by this point, plus the one I was wearing. They didn’t have any more in my size left.
“Your father doesn’t like it when you swear.” She stated this half-heartedly as she was preoccupied with finding my uniform size. An absurd understatement—Dad was an easily excited and vigorous censor. If I had said that to Dad he would have chased me around the store with his belt. That would hurt a lot more today, I mused. Too bad Dad wouldn’t punch me in the balls instead. But Dad was not here to complicate things. More focused on the actual task at hand, Mom just moved on. “Why don’t you try this green top on? Then we’ll find pants. Make sure it’s loose so it fits for more than a year!” She could be ever more pragmatic than Dad.
There’s not much going on, fashion-wise, with a Boy Scout uniform, so the choices were easy and I wasted no time getting a size Mom thought was appropriate to accommodate my never-ending growth spurt. In less than ten minutes, we had my uniform, neckerchief, handbook, and a badge-less sash in hand and were trooping towards the checkout where the omnipresent Martha awaited us with crossed arms. Mom plunked down the scout paraphernalia with some purple yarn she had found and began rummaging around in her purse for her checkbook.
“Boy Scouts, eh?” Martha circumspectly removed the price tags and punched the numbers into the old register, regarding my mother’s clothes with a raised eyebrow. “Now that’s a good boy! How is your little sister doing, Frankie?”
Before I could respond, Mom interrupted with a loud guffaw, assuming her youngest had been mistaken for a girl. “Does Christopher need a haircut that badly again?” She seemed to think it was the funniest thing she had heard in quite a while and kept laughing while she filled out the check. “He certainly does have beautiful blond hair!”
Martha regarded us coldly, glaring sharply at my clueless mother and staring me right in the eye as I quietly held my ground. While Mom thought it simply a case of mistaken identity, or possibly a joke, I thought I had been discovered and I picked nervously at the strap under my pants. Martha sighed and went back to folding my new uniform into a bag, but I released the jock’s elastic and it made an audible snap on my butt cheek. Martha suddenly looked up at me again, glanced in the direction of the dress bin, then back at me. I could see the unmasked judgment streaming from her gray eyes. She pursed her lips but said nothing, the years of quiet condemnation and Virginia Slims showing in spidery lines around her mouth. Something told me she wished for nothing more at that moment than the authority to do a jock check. ■
Marshall J. Pierce is a Vermont-raised author now living in San Francisco, writing and producing for Evolve Media. His work has been featured in LitQuake, The Cynic, U., Patch.com, Crunchable and Piker Press, among other publications, and he was featured author/speaker for UC Berkeley’s extension program in Spring ’12.