Arms Race

Watching competitors in the state arm wrestling championships at the Tennessee Valley Fair

"Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war; and my fingers to fight."—Psalms 744:1

That's a weird and strangely bellicose thing to stick on the back of a T-shirt; but then again, hell, it's a weird and strangely bellicose thing to write in a book that's supposed to offer peaceful meditations and sacred instruction, respect for the Creator, and the love of our fellow man.

But those are considerations for a whole 'nother day, Bubba, because on this torpid afternoon at the Tennessee Valley Fair, the verse in question is stenciled on backs belonging to several of the burly contestants in the Tennessee State Arm Wrestling Championships. It's all staged in the relatively spartan setting of a sun-baked little tent on the dark side of the fairgrounds' Jacob Building, sandwiched between a barren hillside and the Jacob's looming bulk, far from the madding crowds and the circus displays and the whirring carnival rides—all of the things that make the Fair seem like a fun place to be for a while.

"It's Billy Kirk vs. Preston the Psycho," says the tableside announcer, with the sort of melodramatic aplomb you'd expect from a veteran pro wrestling commentator. "Get ready, folks, 'cause these guys on the table now are monsters; Billy's been arm wrestling for 17 years."

Yeah, and he looks every inch the part of an arm wrestling beast. Bull-necked, pate hairless as a cue-ball, with a thick, fierce-looking handlebar mustache, Kirk makes the resident musclehead at the average fraternity house look like a noodle-armed sissy. With a leer and a snarl, he steps up to the special elbow-high table at the front of the tent and wraps his T-bone thumb around that of the Psycho, the Psycho being similar to Kirk in overall bulk, and even a half-head taller, yet somehow markedly less scarifying.

When the referee—and you can tell he's the referee, because he's wearing a zebra-stripe referee shirt—steps away from the table, signaling the competitors to go, Kirk and Preston each throw their weight forward, arms suddenly tensed in a frightful isometric contortion of muscle and tendon and bone.

For about one second. And then Kirk imposes his will, heaves mightily and slams Psycho's arm to the table, just as easily as he might slam an old rotary phone receiver back into its cradle, maybe after being jolted awake at 3 a.m. by a belligerent wrong number.

"Steve McQueen!" the man on the microphone intones, seemingly apropos of nothing, after declaring Kirk the winner. The crowd of 60 or so, seated in fold-out auditorium chairs, claps and whistles its approval. They seem to get it, most of them; they're conversant in the ways of this weird sport and its vocabulary—hooking and rolling and shoulder pressing and other arcane terminologies.

Many of them have traveled from neighboring states to take part in this afternoon's event, which is scheduled to include left- and right-hand championships across five bodyweight categories and three classifications—novice, masters and open.

And that's just the men's side of the competition. The day is also supposed to include left- and right-hand championships for women, plus a kids' class. My mind—fogged by the sapping heat of a lecherous mid-afternoon sun and the intoxicating fairground aromas of deep-fried starches and grilled sides of beef—conjures terrible imagery, fever-dream visions of Billy Kirk's female analogs, burly, big-haired Amazons with undersized tank tops and tribal tattoos, smashing one another's arms into the padded cloth in a fury of female empowerment, then climbing on top of the table and taunting us, challenging all the men in the audience to a one-armed duel.

Thankfully, I never see any of that, at least not during the two hours I spend at the Jacob tent, before heat and hunger drive me back to the Buick with an enormous deep-friend mutant turkey leg in tow. For sanity's sake, I'll assume none of it ever happened.

But I do stay long enough to see Big Billy win the left-handed 210-lb.-and-up class with frightening ease, only to lose the overall title to the winner of the 209-lb. class, a dark-haired fellow named Ryan Barrett, whose sleeveless black Psalms shirt exposes arms with roughly the circumference of a prize-winning cantaloupe from the nearby horticulture show.

When the pair—the two most impressively armed behemoths under the tent—finally square off in the overall, Barrett shocks the bulkier Kirk with a lightning-quick burst the moment the ref lets go of their tightly locked hands, gaining a fast lead which leads to a slow, but inevitable, pin. After beating Kirk, Barrett proceeds to take on and soundly beat seemingly everybody under the tent with a functioning left hand—Preston the Psycho and Jeff the Animal and Bill the Hammer—including a few comers who appear to have just stepped out of the audience for the hell of it. It's as if to leave no doubt that yes, indeed, Barrett is the unquestioned overall left-handed men's champion of Tennessee on this day, at least according to the Tennessee Valley Fair.

Then the announcer calls for a long break, enough time for the competitors to cool off and the officials (such as they are) to realign the arm wrestling table for the right-handed portion of the championships. I'm finished, ready to bag the tent for the promise of air conditioning and a huge slab of barbecued meat. I say a silent prayer for the contestants before leaving, though: May their arms hold strong and firm and straight, and may the Lord teacheth their fingers right. Steve McQueen.