When I was 5 years old, I decided to become a wrestler. The All-Star kind, not the Olympic sort. My future lay within the confines of a black and white television, where the inhabitants sported thigh-hugging tights, sequins as blinding as flashbulbs, lace-up leather boots, and mullets. I had a wrestling name chosen: The Archaeologist. Seriously. Don’t even ask. My family owned a full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, and I may have been the nerdiest girl wrestler on the Midwest circuit.
I had a coach: Bud.
I had a costume designer: Tex.
Bud had connections in the wrestling community. His day job was cabinet maker, and he’d recently installed custom cabinets in the kitchen of a local wrestling promoter. That guy would be my in to the world of professional wrestling.
Tex owned an ancient sewing machine, one of the Singer company’s first electric models, and she could turn a wisp of window curtain fabric into an off-the-shoulder prom dress that Rhett Butler would have swooned over. Tex was also my grandmother.
My love for all things wrestling reached a peak when Bud, who moonlighted as my grandfather, announced his intention to take me to the Saturday matches on a late winter night in 1964. Holy satin shorts! This was the grail of All-Star wrestling. Real, live wrestlers, in person! Heretofore, my entire wrestling experience had been limited to watching matches on the console television in my grandparents’ living room. My imagination filled in the colors of the costumes that the tonal grays of their black and white set could only hint at.
The two of us entered the Saint Paul Auditorium at the highest seat level. I held Gramp’s hand as we stood there for a moment, taking in the scene and searching for a good vantage point. Far below, in the center of the auditorium, the wrestling ring shone the bright white of freshly laundered sheets in the hot summer sun. Smoke from a thousand cigarettes drifted along the rows of seats, singeing my nose hairs and finding a home where the roof met the top rows. Snapping his Zippo shut, lit Chesterfield in the corner of his mouth, my grandfather led me down the steps, pointing a meaty hand toward a pair of empty seats far enough down the rows to get us close to the action.
Marty O’Neill, the announcer, walked to the center of the ring as a shining steel microphone dropped from the darkness above. My shock at his diminutive stature lasted just the briefest of moments before he spoke those magic words, “Ladies…and…Gentlemen…”
I was entranced. I could barely breathe, though that may have been due to the pall of cigarette smoke. If you can’t fathom the excitement I felt at that moment, my pity for you runs deep.
For the next couple of hours, a string of wrestlers bounded onto the ring, their manager-trainers parting the ropes to allow the bejeweled and coiffed stars to enter without messing up their hair. Wrestlers with names like Mad Dog Vachon, Vern Gagne, Doctor X, Larry “Pretty Boy” Hennig, and the crowd favorite, The Crusher strutted for the appreciative crowd.
Oiled skin glistened and rippled over muscle; heaving chests and those beer-and-bratwurst-fed bellies bulged under barely-there singlets stretched to limits the fabric manufacturers never thought possible. In moves that would put a choreographer to shame, each pair of wrestlers body-slammed and half-Nelsoned the other on their way to victory or defeat. Ropes stretched under the weight of a wrestler’s body, only to catapult him halfway across the ring to catch an opponent in mid-air. Lungs collapsed. The sharp point of an elbow to a solar plexus signaled near certain defeat. Necks threatened to snap between scissored thighs meaty enough to make a butcher sigh. No deodorant could possibly hold back the smell of testosterone and simmering violence.
Girl wrestlers with long legs stretching up to their armpits and breasts a hormone-fed chicken would kill for leapt onto the ring ropes and rode them like rodeo steers, fielding the crowd’s catcalls with fists raised. Tag-team wrestlers crawled across the ring, maimed and unable to walk, stretching out a hand to a waiting partner, like Adam reaching for God. It was glorious!
Winners hands were held aloft by striped-shirted referees, while losers slouched to the locker rooms hurling epithets just out of hearing range. Threats of revenge were traded like baseball cards.
The house lights came up. Slowly the crowd in the auditorium rose as one, stunned, and shrugged their way into winter coats and gloves. Taking Bud’s hand once more, I moved as part of the stream of bodies and smoke up the steps to the exit doors and into the icy reality of a Minnesota night in March, the heart of a professional wrestler beating in my 5-year-old chest. My oxygen-starved lungs sucked in fresh air, flushing out second-hand tar and nicotine, sweat, and Aqua Net hairspray. I practiced wrestling moves in the parking lot. I perfected my wrestler-girl sneer in the reflection of the car window as we drove silently up University Avenue. My dreams that night remain unremembered, but who doubts they were filled with glory and hopes for boobs big enough to fill a costume?
A few months later, I turned 6 and my grandmother invited me to go on my first-ever road trip, to Texas, the land of her birth. Together we rode the mythic Highway 61 south toward sweet tea, cotton and cowboys. I traded in my knee-high laced wrestling shoes for a pair of cowboy boots with toes so pointy they’d make a strong man wince to look at them. Dreams of the professional wrestling circuit faded, replaced by an even less attainable aspiration of rodeo bronc-riding.
No matter. The dreams of a child sometimes fly fast and furiously, landing for awhile in one spot before taking off again on a horse of another color. Every new experience a kid has opens a door into a world previously unknown. Each curtain they peek behind shows them what they might aspire to be some day: a magician, a wrestler, an archaeologist.
Many of my dreams and ideas about the world were shaped by trips I took as a kid with adults who cared enough to spend time with me. Sometimes that was down the length of a US highway to meet family I knew only from photographs; most times it was across town: to the zoo, to the river, to a wrestling match. Sometimes they shared their world with me, other times we ventured into an adventure about which neither of us knew a thing.
There is a world of weirdness and wonder out there. Share a few hours or a few days with a kid you care about. Even if they don’t become a wrestler, the experience will carry a meaning beyond the ring. Beyond the years.
Maybe as he reached his 80th my grandfather didn’t even remember that winter night at the Saint Paul Auditorium. Or maybe he died wondering why I never became a wrestler. I look fabulous in tights and I can still bust out a figure-four-leg-lock on an unsuspecting opponent. Either way, he gave me a gift that, 50 years later, keeps on giving.