Some days I feel like the luckiest man alive. Here, for example, is the kind of mother I have. We exchange notes a couple of times per week. Yesterday morning, after a week-long silence, I got the following text: "Verne Gagne has died." Nothing more. Almost Biblical in its simplicity. The minute I read those telegraphic words my mind drifted off into an adolescent reverie.
Four plus decades ago, every Saturday night for several years my friend Robert ("Brother") and I used to make a homemade pizza (All Star Pizza) at his house, and watch grown men in tights, in grainy and flickering black and white images, lumber and bellow around the Minneapolis Auditorium. The giants of the "squared circle" were Verne Gagne and Mad Dog Vachon (and his brother the Butcher), the flying Frenchman Rene Goulet, Pampero Firpo the Wild Bull of the Pampas, the very capable Kenny Jay, and Iron Man George Gadaski. And of course the evil genius of professional wrestling, Dr. X, who had deposited a $1000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who could break the Figure Four Leg Lock (once properly applied).
That's a great mother.
Rest in peace, Verne Gagne. If there is an All Star Heaven, I feel certain you will break the Figure Four Leg Lock no matter how it is applied, and quite possibly unmask Dr. X for the first time. May the marvelous old announcer Roger Kent be on hand to say, "Oooh, I hate to see that hold," and "Ladies and Gentlemen, that hold is banned in many states." Or his signature line: "That's an arm bar with a twist—sounds like a drink to me!"
My grandmother was pretty certain professional wrestling was real, not fake. She was curious about Gagne's elixir Gera Speed, which she reckoned had made him a superman, but we never ordered it. Saturday nights on the farm in Minnesota, she and I would watch All Star Wrestling with the sound turned low, so as not to wake Grandpa who had to be up at four to milk the cows. But she would get so worked up by some ring infraction—the absolute worst thing you could ever do was gouge Gagne's eyes with a foreign object—that she would cry out in protest and slap her knee, and pretty soon Grandpa would appear in the doorway in his homemade pajamas either to rebuke us severely or to call us "damned fools" and make some grimacing gesture in imitation of Mad Dog Vachon.
Verne Gagne, dead at 89.
"Well, after all," said my mother on the phone later, "he was a very old man." Let's see: Gagne 89, Mother 83, admittedly a youthful 83. I resisted the impulse for a smart aleck response. She read me the account of his life and death from the Minneapolis Tribune, mispronouncing some of the names of his celebrated opponents. She was never a true initiate. She couldn't tell a half nelson from a side headlock if her life depended on it. But I do not judge her (Matthew 7:1).
Nostalgia is a strange thing. I suppose the author Doug Larson is right, "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." The years of All Star Wrestling were years of pain for me, which perhaps explains why I escaped every Saturday night to eat soggy, doughy peperoni pizza while watching grainy men in speedos bellow and gesticulate. It also explains why there were no dates.
My mother is one who is more likely to stride forward than look back, but she seems to be experiencing a wave of nostalgia these days. She reminded me on the phone last night that my father died 20 years ago this week, in the New Room of our house in Dickinson (still New in the family lexicon). I miss him every single day. Current events intrigued him. He could talk about whatever was passing in the world with insight and wit, and he always had his facts straight. You could not get him to watch All Star Wrestling with a cattle prod—apparently he had what are known as "human standards"—and since we had only one television, indeed one that required you to get up to change the channel, the voice of Roger Kent Ringside (as we called him) was never heard in our house.
When I was a child there was pro boxing on television on Saturday nights. My father would watch for a few minutes while reading the New Yorker in his favorite reading chair. For a few years there was also a Saturday night show called Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as a gunslinger called Paladin. We had a special little funky family meal we invariably ate on Saturday nights. I'm sworn to secrecy about its contents, but I am permitted to divulge that it involved homemade hors-d'oeuvres, including, I'm sorry to say, Vienna Sausages.
After my call with my mother, I got out my first photo album to see how many All Star wrestlers I could identify. My parents gave me a 35mm camera for my 13th birthday—maybe the greatest gift of my life. They let me build a darkroom in a storage room just off the kitchen, and for the next four years I spent most of my free time knuckles deep in chemical (Dektol) and using what little cash I had to buy bulk 35mm film (Tri-X) and stiff yellow Kodak boxes of printing paper. My eccentric uncle Joe of Seattle gave me his darkroom equipment.
There was mystery in photography then, and craft, and ritual. Between the moment you snapped the photo (no auto focus, no auto aperture and shutter speed) and the time when you placed a dried print in front of another human being, there were several dozen discrete steps, involving total darkness, wire spools, a red darkroom light, chemical baths, paper cutters, framing wands, negative and print dryers. The process could break down at any point, and if your sister burst into the room to brush her teeth, the whole enterprise could be lost.
My little 5x7 homemade album contains some of the first hundred photos I took and printed. Talk about nostalgia. Pictures of our Schnauzer "Scamp" as a tiny puppy. Pictures of an unhappy family vacation in Winnipeg. My father reading in his chair. My mother in the 70s: big glasses and big hair. My confirmation: me, impossibly young and innocent, wearing pants I had grown out of, my sponsor Robert Burda looking sponsory. Photos of Robert (Brother) with his Dalmatians. A photo of the Ole Reb yodeling reveille at KFYR. My first ham radio kit.
A photo (one of hundreds taken) of our round television screen, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bouncing around the moon: July 20, 1969, affixed with yellowing Scotch tape to the page, with my youthful handwriting, all patriotism and techno-pride: "Man Walks on the Moon!!!"
And there he is, Verne Gagne, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World standing near the turnbuckle in the Trinity High School gym in Dickinson, legs spread in triumph, looking handsome and virile and, well, pretty angry (through his smile), while on his knees before him is Mad Dog Vachon, arms stretched out in supplication, begging for his sorry life.
Godspeed Verne Gagne.
May your cape be newly dry-cleaned, and your entrance fees be paid.