Children Believe Anything and Everything Is True
When I was in junior high--middle school, whatever the hell it's called now, one my of best friends's father was my hometown wrestling promoter and I don't mean real wrestling, I mean what we called in those olden days "rasslin'."
The local rasslin' ring was called the Sportatorium and it was in what at one time had been the site of the local State Fair, a place called Fair Park, at hot park in a near-distant past, with a huge stone fountain, a zoo (it sported an old male lion that roared every evening a lonely howling kind of roar, a roaring of loneliness, homesickness, and you could hear that lion roaring for miles around that zoo, just up the street from my room's window and listened for it faithfully all the nights I was a teenager until one night the lion roar went away and never came back), and a quarterhorse racetrack, show buildings, and right in the middle of my hometown, with the imprints still of where at one time the city trolley had tracked into the park, with a Y turn and everything.
The Sportatorium was a low-ceiling barn-like building that had once been a livestock show barn and probably held about a 1000 folks. My friend's father put up a card every Saturday through rasslin' season, running from around April and into deep winter. He also sent cards out to area towns large enough to support the gang, usually putting his ring up in the high school gyms every little hayseed town in that part of the world had for sure--and the further out into the fields and high plains you went was where the true rasslin' fans lived, the fanaticos.
I'm sure my friend's father made good money, he sported around town in a flashy new Buick every year, though my friend was one of the most modest dudes I've ever known, a gentle bookworm who knew what the rasslin' business really was though he had only a novelty interest in it, telling me right off after meeting me and becoming my friend that rasslin' was about as real as the ancient Judean woman, Mary, having an immaculate conception as told in the Christian "good" book.
The first time I went with him to the Sportatorium, the place was quite, it was a Tuesday afternoon, his father was doing some bookkeeping and left the joint to us, left us to entertain ourselves as best we could. We headed right for the ring and for the first time in my life I went through the ropes and landed on the canvas of a ring (same as the "squared circle" in boxing), and the first thing I noticed was how taut the canvas was. I mean it was easy as hell to walk on. Like walking on a solid wood floor, except you could jump up and down on this one and it absorbed your jumping and then when you fell on it it was like falling on a hard mattress and not a solid floor. We started wrestling. All young boys wrestle; it's natural. As a result, there are ancient holds and tricks to wrestling that form the basis for a legitimate sport and rasslin' used those same basic legitimate holds, you know, half nelsons and full nelsons, certain pinning techniques, and how to keep an opponent pinned to a full count. Greco-Roman wrestling is what my friend's rasslin' promoting father called legitimate wrestling; his form of wrestling he called "rasslin'."
Going down to the Sportatorium got to be a regular event for me for a couple of years, when I was 13 and 14. Every Tuesday after school during school time and then every time I could see this dude during the summer months, sometimes evenings right before the matches started, though I never ever stayed late enough to see a match there.
My friend was a young ring expert and taught me the ring; how to use it; how to move opponents into corners, the intention to push them into a most indefensible position, trapped in a corner where you could pummel the hell out of them weakened them up for your patented winning move, like a sleeper hold, for instance. You never see the sleeper hold anymore.
In those days you weren't supposed to pull hair, use the ropes to give you an advantage, hit below the belt, you know knees or kicks into the gonad area, no eye punches or pokes, no boxing punches, and no illegal substances like pieces of soap for rubbing in your opponent's eyes, or illegal items like razor blades, specially taped where yes they would cut, but only superficially, like a light scratch, though enough to let some blood spew out. Other illegal substances and items were fingernail files, goofus powder, bottle caps, etc. If you didn't want to be actually cut to make blood then the crew had blood capsules filled with cattle blood or chicken blood stashed around the apron of the ring. I was shown where these capsules were hidden, in special places where the rasslers could get to them quickly and undetected by the fooled fans. Under the ring was a jam of utensils needed during matches, like folding chairs, baseball bats, bullwhips, all kinds of cleaning stuff, a mess under that ring. Folding chairs even then were the evilest of all rasslin's illegal weapons and the most looked-forward-to appearances during the matches. Also, at the side of the ring was a press desk, a table-type desk on which you could place a typewriter. There was a lamp over the press desk, too, and a place for two folding chairs; the press desk was a part of the whole rasslin' ring package and the place where the folding chairs were readily available for illegal and evil use.
I remember the first time I let my friend hit me with a folding chair. He kept telling me to trust him, but hell, I was a kid; I knew to get hit with a metal folding chair had to hurt, if not being possibly deadly. "Come on," my friend said, "just relax your body, kind'a hunch forward so your shoulders are solidly wide, yeah, that's it," and...." WHAMMMM! The son of a bitch hit me suddenly with this damn folding chair. "You son of a ...." But! I didn't feel a damn thing; it just felt like I was hit with a pillow maybe. "See," my friend said, "you didn't even feel it, did you?" "Let me hit you with it now!" I said. "Hell no, not until I teach you how to do it. I've seen guys goof and hit rasslers the wrong way and, shit, I saw Cry Baby Bob Corby get hit right square in the back of the head--you know, the guy was supposed to hit him dead on the shoulders like I hit you, but this guy, Cowboy Carlson I'm sure it was, hit Cry Baby square on his noggin' and BAM he went down stone cold out, man. My dad was scared shitless 'cause they don't carry insurance on these guys and depend on their being trained well enough to know the ropes, as rassler's say. You know Terry Funk trains all these dudes up at his ranch in Amarillo. My dad gets most of his loser [preliminary match fodder] rasslers from Funk's school up there."
The first professional rassler I ever met was Irish Danny McShane, at the time I met him he was big name in the rasslin' world, out of L.A.'s Olympic Auditorium and famous for his matches with Vern Gagne, the ex-Minnesota football player-turned rassler--he became a big promoter in Minneapolis, later responsible for Governor Jesse "the Body" Ventura's rasslin' success. Then I met the local hearthrob rassler, Ricky Romero, a handsome Mexican rassler out of Funk's Amarillo stable, a local West Texas lad, and Ricky turned out to be a big friend of my Mexican girlfriend's brothers so Ricky treated me like an old friend after he found out I dated a Mexican girl.
Here's a link to a cat who's nuts about rasslin'--and some photos of old Danny McShane himself.
The first rasslin' match I ever attended was after I'd been around the Sportatorium for 4 months and had met a lot of rasslers plus had learned all the tricks of the game, like stomping your foot on the canvas before you made any kind of move, like when you get a headlock on your opponent and you need to move from side to side to keep the action going and when you make a move, you stomp on the canvas and it makes a huge popping sound and distracts the audience from the pulling back of punches, etc. Also when you took a slug at a person, you stomped on the canvas to give it snap and an authentic look--you pull your slugs but when you stomp on the canvas as you throw the roundhouse, it distracts the audience and makes the punch look real, except anybody with a mature eye can easily see all these rassler's slugging each other are not actually hitting anything but the hot air that surrounds all these staged and scripted events and believe me, that's all these things are--stage shows like circuses at best. Slapping or punching one of these muscular pumpers on the chest or back or the legs, etc., doesn't hurt them, only when you screw up the routine do they get injured and they get injured a lot; even the phony game is dangerous. I mean to do some of the high flying leaps they make where they land in body splats on their opponents are really dangerous should they not land where they're arced over the opponents flat relaxed body, landing so that their bodies don't really hit each other, a little pocket of air there to protect them against slamming.
The first rasslin' match I attended at the Sportatorium, I went with my brother, who was my hometown paper's sports reporter and I went along with him to basketball games, football games, I spotted for him at football games and kept the scoring for him at basketball games, and this time he was covering the biggest rasslin' match staged in my hometown ever, a World's Championship match between World Champion Lou Thez and the local champion, Ivan Kalmikoff, the Russian Bear, and a bear he was too, a pot-bellied, bald dude who was covered with matted hair both back and front and he growled as he fought and he drooled some kind of foamy slime that gave him a mad-dog look, and my brother and I were ushered to that little press table in that one corner of that ring, right down in front of the front row in that little concrete alley that runs like a moat around those rings to keep the fans from participating in the matches. The rasslin' matches even had their own phony cop force, guys dressed like policemen but who in fact were just fair grounds workers. And I sat by my brother, shivering with thrill, knowing the eyes of my peers in the audience were on me saying, "Damn, look, there's the wolf boy, lucky bastard, that's his brother the sports columnist, that 'Red' guy." And the next day at school all the dudes would say they saw me at the big rasslin' match last night and they saw Lou Thez pick Ivan Kalmikoff up for an airplane spin and then bring him over to the corner above the press table and politely, I heard him holler down at us to be ready, drop the Russian Bear right straight down on us. I jumped like hell off the chair and onto the concrete floor banging my head on the steel barricade between the audience and the ring. I didn't notice what happened to my brother. Ivan Kalmikoff fell butt-first BANGING down on that poor press table, which exploded into rubble as the fat bear-like human crashed down on it. Next I know, my brother was being pulled into the ring by the mad Bear, where he proceeded in ripping my brother's shirt off and knocking his glasses off and then kneeing my brother in the stomach! Dammit. I believed what I saw no matter all the tricks of the trade I had learned in the past months. I jumped up ready to hit the ring myself--I knew where the fingernail files were hidden, but one of the phony cops grabbed me and said, "Wolfie, it's OK, boy, let it go, your brother's in on it." And my brother had been in on it. They'd prepped him without my knowing it for this moment in the scripted match. The incident made headlines in the newspaper next morning and there was my brother's story about it--and I was about as popular that next week in school as I ever was until then--WOW was I popular--well, all because of my brother, though I told the guys at school that I had been in on it all along.
Right after that, I got into girls and totally lost interest in rasslin' and haven't been amused or amazed by the racket since. I still watch the WWE matches occasionally because rasslin' is still the same game that I learned those many years ago. They still use the same defensive moves and protected moves and shit; they still use the same holds, the same illegal tactics, the same deceit and bullshit; I know it and I get a kick out of reminiscing about those days long ago when I was ready to believe it was real. Hey, it's as real as any play, which is what all sports are really, play--like children play; like actors do plays; like you say, you pretend to be that and I'll pretend to be this and LET's PRETEND, which is all life is, isn't it? Or am I being pretentious?
for The Daily Growler