Hopefully the story that I told at the recent Moth StorySlam will one day be broadcast as one of their weekly podcasts, but many, many outstanding stories are told at Moth events every month around the country (including the StorySlam that I won), so it’s certainly not guaranteed.
However, I’ve had many requests for me to share the story here, so I thought I’d at least share the materials that I used to prepare to tell the story that night.
In order to get ready, I first wrote down what I would like to say, as quickly and as naturally as possible, with as little editing as possible. It took less than half an hour.
Then I memorized the first paragraph and the last couple paragraphs, so I could be certain about opening and closing the story well. Then I read and reread the story as I initially wrote for the next day or two, trying to establish beats and specific phrases in my mind.
In order to keep the story fresh and not sound overly rehearsed, I never actually practiced the story aloud. Instead, I broke the story down into sections in my mind and then practiced keeping those parts mentally arranged, including the means of transitioning from one section to the next.
In my mind, the story flowed like this:
- How I became a pole vaulter
- How to pole vault
- Why I did not like Jack Daniels
- The track meet
- My victory
- Jack’s defeat
- Lessons learned
Seven parts. I knew if I kept all seven parts in order in mind, with a means of transitioning from one to the next, I would be okay.
My only fear was the Moth’s five minute time limit. Because I never actually spoke my story aloud, I went into the StorySlam hoping that I was close to the five minute mark.
It felt like five minutes when I reviewed it in my mind, but I was never sure.
All I wanted to do was tell my story as cleanly and clearly as possible. That was the goal. Winning the StorySlam was an unexpected surprise, especially considering the amazing storytellers who performed that night.
So below is the story as I initially wrote it, though reading through it now, it’s clear that this story and the one that I told at the StorySlam differ greatly. Sections of the story below were deleted during the telling, some intentionally and some by accident, and other parts were added as well. I like how the story came out on stage, and I think it was better than what is written below. But this should give you a sense of the story as I intended to tell it.
Thanks so much for the interest in the story and all the support. The date for the Moth GrandSlam has not yet been set, but I’ll be sure to share that information when it becomes available. ____________________________________________________
In the spring of 1986, Coach Cronin decided that we needed two more pole vaulters on our high school’s track and field team. At the time we had just one vaulter. His name was Jimmy Deane, and Jimmy was the best pole vaulter in Massachusetts Division 3 athletics. He never lost.
But there were track meets known as relays that required three competitors for each event, and in the case of the pole vault, this meant that three competitors needed to clear opening height, 7 feet 6 inches, or no scores would be recorded. We were losing valuable points at these meets because Jimmy had no teammates, so Coach Cronin decided to fix that.
And so he took all the mediocre sprinters and long jumpers down to the pole vault pit in order to identify two new pole vaulters, and because I was both a mediocre sprinter and mediocre long jumper at the time, so I doubly qualified.
Now the pole vault is an interesting event. It requires strength, speed and precision, but above all, it requires a healthy dose of insanity as well. You stand on the end of a runway, holding a fiberglass pole about 10-12 feet long. You then run as fast as you possibly can for about 18 steps, and as you take your last few steps, you raise one end of the pole in the air and jam the opposite end into a metal box set into the ground. At that same moment, you throw your head back and your feet into the air, pulling back on the pole so that it will bend and then fling you over the bar as it unbends.
It an absolute act of insanity. Perfect for adrenaline freaks, stoners, and guys who would separate their shoulders twenty years later diving for a ball in a meaningless teacher-student four square game.
There were about a dozen of us down at the pit that day, and two of us held onto the pole after jamming it into the box. We did not vault that day. I managed to wrench my shoulder as I flew off to the left, missing the mats completely, but because I was stupid enough to continue holding on as I literally tumbled into a ditch, I became a pole vaulter.
And so perhaps the strangest assemblage of names to ever grace a pole vault pit came together that day: Jimmy Deane, Jack Daniels and Matthew Dicks was born.
Fast forward to the day of the first relay. Jack and I had been vaulting for about a month and we were occasionally clearing opening height. Jack was a year older than me and at that point better than me, so when we arrived at the meet, I knew the pressure would be on me to succeed.
And here’s where the ugly little truth about team sports comes into play. While I wanted my team to win and to earn the respect of my opposition, the truth is I wanted the respect of my team even more. This was the only time we would face Uxbridge High that spring, so I would never see the opposing vaulters again. But I would see my teammates every day that spring. They would be the dispensers of coolness and acceptance in the halls of my high school. I wanted to be viewed as a valued member of the team.
There are two ways about doing this in team sports:
Perform at a high level.
Perform at a higher level than your mediocre teammates.
Knowing I could not do the former, I opted for the latter.
My only hope was for Jack to fail, thus making me the hero. This is what I wanted.
And I didn’t like Jack very much. Not only was Jack better looking and a better athlete than me, but he had the name Jack Daniels, an incredibly cool name for a high school guy, and I was saddled with Matthew Dicks. That’s not Dix like the fort as so many people ask me, but Dicks like more than one penis.
It’s a tough name to have, as you can imagine. Not as difficult as my father, whose name was Leslie Dicks but went by Les, nor as hard as my not one but two Uncle Harold Dicks who went by Harry, but tough.
And especially tough in pole vaulting, for you see, there is a lot of waiting around in pole vaulting, and in order to alert you that your turn is coming, a system was developed. The officials would announce over the loudspeaker Jones Up, Smith on deck, Davis in the hole. But for me, it would be Dicks up, Dicks on deck, Dicks in the hole.
Not the best way to foster concentration while every spectator within the sound of the official’s voice laughs at you.
Actually, Dicks Up wasn’t so bad. I was still a virgin at the time, but the image it conjured at least offered me a little hope.
And so I stood at the end of the runway, Dicks Up, ready to vault. And by some miracle of miracles, I cleared the bar on the first try.
I felt like a hero. A million bucks. And I felt better when Jack missed his first try. I was cool under pressure. He was not.
Then Jack missed his second vault, and for a second, I felt on top of the world, pleased to find that my prayers were being answered. Yes, we would lose a lot of points as Jimmy’s eventual winning vault would not count, and yes, it might cost us the meet, but I would be declared second best vaulter on the team and that was all that mattered.
And then it occurred to me. If Jack succeeded in his final vault, my vault would be all but forgotten. With the pressure on and the drama at its highest level, if Jack cleared that bar, he would become Mr. Clutch, the guy cool under pressure, and the second best vaulter on the team.
That son-of-a-bitch had positioned himself perfectly to be the hero. And I wouldn’t put it past Jack to have set this up on purpose.
And so as Jack ran down that runway toward his fate, I stared at his fiberglass pole, using all my mental energy to cause a mis-plant. Not a broken pole, because that would give Jack an out.
No, Jack had to fail, and it had to be his fault.
And he did. And it was. Jack’s plant was good but he kicked the bar on the way up, ensuring us the defeat and me the victory that day. Daniels was in the hole and Dicks was indeed up!
Here’s the saddest part of the whole day: Our team won the meet. We crushed Uxbridge High that day, and as a result, my success and Jack’s failure went unnoticed. Though Jack’s failure had cost the team points, it had not been enough to cost us the meet.
The team had won goddamn it. But I lost. No one even said a word to me about my successful vault, and it was at that moment that I realized a couple important things in life:
The world may revolve around me, but no one had really taken notice of it back in 1986. It was sort of like the Sun in a pre-Copernican universe, and I am still struggling like Copernicus to right this wrong.
Everyone on my team were engaged in the same struggles that I was engaged in that day, so no one had any time to worry about a guy who would be lucky to clear opening height. Jimmy Deane didn’t even care.
The only teammates to receive any attention were the ones who performed at a high level. Not the best of the rest, but the best of the best.
And that was not me. And it has rarely, rarely been me.