Double Cross

Sometimes you get nailed, sometimes you don't

Martyrdom is hard work.

First, send out press releases and post fliers around town. Next, build crosses from scrap lumber. Then plan refreshments.

What the Romans may have feasted on while the grand champion died for our sins has been lost to history. But the menu most certainly did not include what is being offered at the Martyr War.

"I'll have the Froot Loops," declares one of three dozen spectators after considering what is surely the most complete collection of breakfast cereals outside a neighborhood Schnucks.

There are 25 varieties here at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts, everything from Cap'n Crunch to Cinnamon Toast Crunch to (of course) Wheaties. Guests, each of whom has paid $3, may choose between four kinds of milk: Whole, 2 percent, skim and soy.

Galen Gondolfi is the consummate host, greeting crucifixion-goers as they arrive, look around and try to get a sense of what they're in for. "Table for two?" he asks. "Got a menu? I'll bring the first bowl to your table."

Finding spots gets tough as the seven tables fill, mostly with college-age kids, most fashionably late. Many appear to know the hosts. God-awful acoustic-guitar music drones from a portable tape player -- aimless strumming in a minor-chord style. Think Charles Manson or Richie Havens on Percocet.

This isn't the first wacky thing that's come out of Fort Gondo, a crumbling building on Cherokee Street opened by Gondolfi early this year as a street-level arts center that, often as not, features punk bands. Previously, Gondolfi and his friends have gathered around an ATM in the Delmar Loop, chanting "ATM!" and cheering when users completed transactions. They have presented a check and a key to the city to a bottle of Mississippi River water. They've stormed the Gap in the St. Louis Galleria wearing commando fatigues.

And now this.

"It's going to be a martyr war," someone explains to his girlfriend. "People fighting to be a martyr -- there's no more powerful desire, you know what I mean?"

If she misses the point, she doesn't let on.

"Do you know most of these people?" she asks.

For more than an hour after doors open at 9 p.m., the audience members chat, munching Cocoa Comets and Crispy Hexagons (both made by the Flavorite Company) while latecomers arrive. An evening rain peters out, replaced by mid-September humidity that feels like July. "It will make for significant perspiration," notes Gondolfi, who will soon assume the position in a no-holds-barred effort to out-martyr Michael Schuh.

The bout is scheduled for ten rounds, each lasting as long as the timekeeper deems necessary. Gondolfi and Schuh will be tied onto crosses that lean against opposite walls of a living-room-size space. Each has a trainer who will untie him after each round and prepare him for the next.

Does someone have to die? Or is saying uncle enough? Exactly what constitutes victory isn't clear.

Rehearsal may have been more exciting than the event itself.

Panic set in the night before the September bout, when Gondolfi got stuck on his cross. Schuh was the only other person in the building. The knots were impossible to untie so long as Gondolfi's weight tugged them tight.

"It was really scary," Gondolfi says. "It's like the real thing." And the real thing, he testifies, hurts a lot. Medical experts say the cause of death in biblical times varied but usually involved heart failure or suffocation. Breathing in isn't so difficult, but exhalation is tough because the body's weight prevents the diaphragm from functioning properly, even before excruciating cramps set in.

Unfamiliar with the finer points of crucifixion, Schuh envisioned an ugly mess. "When he was hanging there, I thought maybe your arms get ripped off," he says. Gondolfi worried about the cross keeling over, causing injuries sure to provoke snickers in the emergency department.

Short of calling 911, the only thing Schuh could do was hold Gondolfi up to relieve tension on the knots and hope that he could somehow wriggle a hand free. Eventually Gondolfi did. So was born a last-minute addition to the crosses: boards nailed at foot level for the purported martyrs to stand on.

It is standing-room-only when go time arrives.

The lights dim and Greg Larico, tonight's referee, timekeeper and musical entertainment, strums "Eye of the Tiger" on an Ovation guitar as he strolls in circles between the crosses. There is no "Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rrrrrrumble?" Instead, master of ceremonies Eric Clay sounds as if he's announcing tomorrow's weather.

"On the left cross, weighing in at 150 pounds, Michael Schuh," he says. "On the right corn-- uh, cross, weighing in at 135 pounds, Galen Gondolfi."

Clad in shorts and tennis shoes, the competitors receive rounds of applause. These are hardly fight fans prone to aisle-way fisticuffs and back-alley profanities. Plus, there is no beer, except for a half-case of Bud Light that's being split at least five ways. No hecklers have brought nails to toss, sparing everyone a Monty Python moment.

Schuh, sporting a white headband inscribed with the word "Thorns" in black Magic Marker, plays the stoic, moving little, letting an "I'm gonna kick your ass" stare do all the talking. Gondolfi has the same look in his eyes, but he's amped, alternately hunching over, then prancing, jumping up and down and stomping around like a Chris Kattan character on Saturday Night Live. His headband reads, "Pain."

After a complicated handshake at center court that involves various grips and much hand-waving, the contestants insert mouthpieces and climb onto footstools, after which they're roped in place. Gondolfi is right about the sweat -- both men are soon dripping. Schuh is the more Christlike of the two, his head often resting on a shoulder, his eyes cast downward. Gondolfi hyperventilates and treats the cross like a piece of exercise equipment, at one point raising his feet from the resting board and spreading his legs. He also uses his left foot to relieve an itchy crotch. Twice Larico warns Gondolfi for excessive movement of the cross, which bounces against the wall as he contorts.

Mostly the two men just glare at each other. Neither speaks a word.

Spectators divide their attention between the two, like tennis fans with a ball in superslow motion. At first quiet as an Augusta National gallery, the audience gradually begins shouting encouragement, with Schuh a decided favorite: "C'mon, Schuh, you got him, man!" "Suck it up, Schuh!"

But the yelled exhortations come only occasionally and are tempered by reservations delivered in elevator voices. "I think Schuh's in trouble," someone says. "It looks like he's suffering."

Between rounds, Gondolfi kicks a metal pail toward Schuh and otherwise acts belligerent, squirting water from a Gatorade squeeze bottle at his rival. The trainers massage shoulders and towel away sweat. Round girl Leslie Derrington starts as a shepherd chick straight out of Bethlehem but removes an item of clothing with each appearance: First the head shawl, then the outer robe; by round five, she wears nothing but a matching purple bra and panties.

Clearly this can't last forever.

The bout ends before Larico can say, "Ding, ding," to signal round six. Gondolfi and Schuh advance toward each other, attempting to wave their crosses in menacing fashion. But the crosses prove too heavy and are cast aside in favor of a wrestling match that draws in both trainers. Schuh emerges from the pile; Gondolfi lies motionless. As Schuh limps away, Derrington, Larico and the trainers follow, falling to their knees in worship position as he raises his arms in triumph.

Minutes later, sucking in fresh air on the sidewalk, Schuh and Gondolfi declare the evening a success. Schuh swears there are no deep meanings here -- none intentional, at least.

"I think we always keep things strange enough and different enough -- we can always count on that, if not a larger intellectual experience," he says.

"You can draw a million things from it, or nothing."

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