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Featurey column: Death of a heavyweight

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Darrell Dawson, May 26, 2006.

  1. Something I wrote for Buckeye Sports Bulletin, a magazine that covers Ohio State athletics, last November:


    Despite Iraq’s endless desertscape, there are limitless ways for insurgents to hide their so-called improvised explosive devices. IEDs — you may know them as roadside bombs — have been found encased in concrete, in dead animals at the side of the road, in children’s toys, in vehicles, in boxes, in buildings, in burlap sacks, in piles of rocks.

    Kevin Randleman doesn’t care about that. All he knows is one of them killed his friend.

    Ramon J. “Ray” Mendoza, a U.S. Marine Corps major and a teammate of Randleman's on the great Ohio State wrestling teams of the early 1990s, died Nov. 14 while fighting in New Ubaydi, Iraq.

    He was killed while working as part of Operation Steel Curtain. New Ubaydi, part of Iraq’s massive Anbar province 10 miles east of the Syrian border, is a key spot along the Euphrates River for al Qaeda in the country. Mendoza’s team from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, was charged with eliminating al Qaeda ahead of the Dec. 15 Iraqi general elections.

    “He was just incredible,” Randleman said from his home in Las Vegas. “I don’t want to compare Ramon Mendoza to anyone because he was unique and special.

    “It should have been someone else. It sounds bad — I’m sorry — but he had too much to give us and his kids.”

    It was Mendoza’s third tour of duty and he is believed to be the first OSU athlete to be killed in the Iraq war.

    “He didn’t do a lot of wrong things in his life,” said Russ Hellickson, Mendoza’s coach at Ohio State from 1990-93. “When he did something, he believed in it. He was proud to be a Marine, and he believed in all he stood for because he did it a third time.

    “The soldiers that answered to Ray Mendoza had one of the best leaders they ever had. He put them before himself every minute of his life.”

    Mendoza’s journey took him on a number of domestic travels before it ultimately ended in the Middle East.

    Born in New York City, Mendoza moved to Blairstown, N.J., for a season of post-high school wrestling in 1986-87. At that city’s Blair Academy, he finished second in the 1997 edition of the prestigious National Prep Tournament.

    “Ray was an inner-city kid who really appreciated the offer that was provided to him by attending Blair,” said Jeff Buxton, who coached Mendoza at Blair Academy. “(He’s said) that this was a life-changing experience for him.”

    From there he moved on to Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., but eventually came to realize he was looking for something on a larger scale.

    “I wasn’t happy there, even though it was a small school and that was what I wanted in a college,” Mendoza told BSB in January 1992.

    “I was only taken down twice the entire year in the wrestling room. There was nobody there pushing me at all. We have tough guys here, but there I wasn’t being pushed.”

    Once Mendoza completed his transfer year and a redshirt season, he began his competition for the Buckeyes in earnest. In 1991-92, he became a vital cog in the southern end of a tough lineup.

    At 177 pounds was Randleman, who won NCAA titles that year and in 1993 and is arguably OSU’s greatest wrestler ever; at 190 was Rex Holman, who was third in the country in 1992 and won the national title in 1993; and then there was Mendoza at heavyweight, and a mobile one at that.

    “Amateur Wrestling News at one time said it was the most potent end-of-lineup trio in wrestling,” Hellickson said. “If we were behind going into 177, we were probably going to win the dual meet. Those guys won us a lot of matches.”

  2. Mendoza never finished with All-America status, but he did qualify for the NCAA tournament both of his years at Ohio State. The 1992 bracket he found himself in was a doozy.

    In the third round of the main draw, Mendoza’s championship dreams were dashed by a skillful senior from Pennsylvania’s Clarion University named Kurt Angle. Mendoza fell to the future Olympic gold medalist and WWE superstar, 8-3.

    In the wrestle-backs, he lost to Fresno State’s Lorenzo Neal, 4-2, in the All-American cutoff match. Neal is currently in his 13th season as an NFL fullback and is known for leading the running backs behind him (Warrick Dunn, Eddie George, Corey Dillon, LaDainian Tomlinson, etc.) to 1,000-yard seasons.

    Also in Mendoza’s bracket that year: 2000 Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner, who was competing for Nebraska.

    In the end, they had the big names but Mendoza became the hero.

    The Buckeyes finished fifth nationally in 1992 and ’93. Mendoza ended his OSU career with a 50-21-1 record, a second-place finish in the 1993 Big Ten championships and the two appearances in the NCAA’s.

    Spurred on by the Feb. 26, 1993, attack on the World Trade Center, Mendoza enlisted in the military right after graduation. While in the Marines, he finished seventh in the 1996 Greco-Roman Olympic Trials as a 220-pounder.

    Most recently, he made his home in San Diego with his wife and college sweetheart, Karen, and their children Kiana, 12, and Aleksandr, 8.

    “Every now and then you come across someone who my life was better for knowing,” said Bob Latessa, who also coached Mendoza at Blair Academy. “That’s how I felt about him.

    “It’s kind of like the movie ‘Star Wars’ where when something good goes out of the world you can feel it.”

    Randleman felt something like that the other night. He was watching the Dallas Cowboys — Mendoza’s favorite team — play Philadelphia in the Monday nighter the evening of Mendoza’s death. During the game, he was on the phone with Eric Smith, a contemporary of theirs on the OSU wrestling team and a big Eagles fan. Philly took a sizable lead after Dallas had played well early on.

    “Eric’s saying, ‘Ray would be calling me to tease me about my Eagles and now my boys are winning,’” Randleman recalled.

    “As soon as we hang up, Dallas scores a touchdown but I’m thinking, ‘OK, they can run the clock out.’ And then: Roy Williams. Holy ...”

    The memory of Williams’ winning touchdown on an interception return made Randleman laugh. In speaking with him, I got the impression a lot of that went on whenever he and his pal Ray were together.
  3. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Mr Dawson.

    I think starting with a technical explanation of IEDs is wrong. I think the vic has to be in the lead, all over it. If

    A. He can be shown on the mission Steel Curtain, trying to take down Al Qaeda likea he wrestled opponents

    B. Now faceless opponents instead of famous names and honest athletes across the mat from him

    C. Something--don't name it--ripping the heart out the heart of Mendoza, tearing the Steel Curtain

    D. What took down Ray Mendoza in an instant was something he had feared for weeks, months, IED, which many people talk about, few people understand. Those who truly understand it don't live to tell about for they've been on the business end.

    E. IED explanation.

    F. Understand how potent an IED--one took out Ray Mendoza ...

    That would be one approach.

    In explaining an IED and then saying one killed Mendoza--you haven't allowed any suspense, mystery, develop. You've given away your payoff. The reverse must be true. Establish the character and situation before you show us the bomb and the death.


    Beginning: Mendoza on the mission in the beginning, hint at what would come, maybe on alert about IEDs which are ...

    Middle: His career as a wrestler, civilian, soldier

    End: The IED, death, where he was flown to, what they tried to do to save his live, funeral, whatever

    In short, this was a dramatic story with anti-dramatic structure.

    YHS, etc
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    I concur with Mr. DemiMiler's excellent restructuring.

    Stories like this are tough to build because there's a lot for the writer to juggle. Always be mindful in a case like this of some basic dramatic boilerplate. I.e., rising action to climax to denouement, the Aristotelean story arc.

    If there's time, and before I ever write a word, I like to let stories like this percolate in my head for as long as I can, a couple of days, to let the structure reveal itself. How does this story want to be told? Sometimes (frequently, in fact), all that's revealed to me is one part of the architecture. "The story must end with ______" or ""Obviously the story starts here." The good news is that once I have the ending scene in mind, I can reverse-engineer the beginning. Or vice versa. So you don't need to see it all whole and of a piece at once.

    But beginnings must lead inexorably to endings for stories to work their best. And the best endings are at once inevitable and surprising.

    Work on your beginnings and endings by reading as much canonical fiction as you can, to get a sense of how that's done. In our case, in newspaper and magazine work, the best models can be found in the great short stories. At some point we'll post a reading list here, but if you want some specific recommendations, PM me.

    Thanks for posting.
  5. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Everybody should print this shit out in 48-point Helvetica and post it over their desks. Seriously.

    I've gone on and on about endings at length before, but for me, especially for a feature like this one, they need to resonate, like the last vibrations of a bell that's been rung. They need to be something the reader will first be struck by, hard enough to choke him up or catch his breath in his throat, and next (hopefully because of that emotional reaction), they need to be something that's remembered. People rarely remember something from the body of a story; they might remember the beginning, but it's unlikely. If you can get them to remember the end, though, then you've succeeded. You've stuck with them, and that's the trick of tricks.

    That's not to say they should be overwritten or too neat and tidy, and they sure as shit shouldn't feel as though they've been planted there solely to tug the heartstrings. They shouldn't seem obtrusive or forced. A good reader will sniff that out from pages away, and if there's anything worse than a lukewarm ending, it's one that makes the reader pull a face.

    Read again what jcmacg wrote. Now read it again and again and again.

    That should be your goal every single time you write a long feature like this. They're made for great endings. And it's always been my belief that you write the ending first -- or at least you have the ending in mind, so you can work your way towards it like a spot on the map. That takes care of the inevitable part. The surprising part, well, that's up to you. (It's also my belief, though, that you make it a scene, not a quote.) Either way, make damn sure you pick a good note to end on, and make sure you hit it.

    Holy fuck, I'm all fired up now. Endings, man, fucking endings. Just like jcmacg said. Once again: Print out his line, read it, and remember it, and hope that the same can be said for your stories as a result.
  6. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Messrs macg, jones,

    I think that you get those endings -- or at least first see or find them -- when you do even a pt form outline. I wonder if someone who wrote an outline for this heavyweight piece would have gone ahead and written it this way. I doubt it.

    But, yeah, basic rules apply. The gun is in the first act, it must be fired in the last act and it should still surprise you.

    YHS, etc
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