A cenotaph

Doc Peckett has died and I feel like telling a few stories. What I know for fact about Doc: decorated Viet-Nam vet, professor of politics, wrestling coach at NYU, wrestled for Hofstra and lost to the near legendary Dan Gable once (losing to Gable was not in itself that big an accomplishment, the man only lost one match). What I (and everyone else on the team) assumed about Doc: former CIA. Doc was in his quiet way one of — if not the — most surprising person I ever met.

  1. The man had seen Rocky Horror Picture Show more times than anyone I had ever met. Why? He just loved it. One time as we pulled up at a tri-meet (wrestling being what it is you can have several teams wrestle at once) vs. the US Merchant Marine Academy and some other school we had no chance against, he looked up at the school and back at his van full of wrestlers and asked without a trace of irony: “Whatever happened to Fay Wray?” He had a knack for always knowing the right thing to say.
  2. He had seen Apocalypse Now more times than anyone I had ever known. He said the scene where they’re coming into the battlefield on helicopters and they’re playing “Ride of the Valkyries” was pretty much dead on — and he knew whereof he spoke.
  3. A burglar once made the mistake of trying to break into Doc’s apartment when Doc was home. Doc, butt naked, chased the man out of the apartment while wielding a samurai sword. I have no one’s word on this but Doc’s but I never knew the man to make things up — he didn’t have to.
  4. NYU was and still is a Division III school in the NCAA — no one came here for the athletics. But, NCAA rules being what they are or were one of the school’s team was allowed to compete at the Division 1 level (I’m guessing it had to be in one of the non-revenue sports). Guess who got that honor at NYU? Which means we lost to some good teams when we weren’t busy losing to some bad ones. (The one guaranteed win on our schedule each season? Yeshiva. That’s how good we were.) One year that meant we got to go to the NCAA qualifying tournament. That year it was held at the now-famous but then totally unknown George Mason University in Virginia. (Someone on the team **cough cough** suggested that our motto should be “What a nice Div III school like us doing at a tournament like this?”) On the way down he looked out at the rolling Virginia country side and said, “Now that’s infantry country.” On the way back we stopped in DC and went to Viet-Nam memorial and Doc remembered the names of all 12 of them men who had died under his command.
  5. The reasons we figured he was ex-CIA: There was a long gap in his resume between “leaving” the Army and coming to NYU. He never said and we never asked. But one of our braver team members — I think it was Kurt Brungardt (one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and that’s saying something. I think Kurt was/is a verb come to life.) — asked Doc if he had ever done that classic spy movie thing of being dropped off by submarine at night. Doc replied, “Yup, but I’m not saying in which hemisphere.” George Coffinas, an alum and former wrestler, told this story about taking a trip with Doc out of country. When they got to customs Doc flashed some piece of ID, George never saw what it was, and they walked through without anyone looking at them.
  6. As a wrestler I lost. A lot. Even by our team’s standards. The only time Doc ever said anything critical to me was one match when I just didn’t try at all.
  7. He never took anything too seriously. He clearly never forgot that no matter what he had seen worse.

Doc died a few years ago as a result of poisoning from Agent Orange and I just found out about it. I feel like a tool not because I didn’t know but because he was forever on that list of people I meant to get in touch with. It was and is my loss.

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