I’m continually amazed at how memories surface. I was thinking about the Donald Trump presidential bid and, in my mind, I compared Trump to professional wrestler Ric Flair. I guess because both are flamboyant blowhards who lack the gravitas to be anything other than TV personalities. The memory process, like Proust and his madeleine, brought me back to childhood, when I first began watching professional wrestling or wrasslin’, to use the idiom.
Wrasslin’ showed up on my TV when I was 10 or 11. The stark Good vs. Evil metaphor took command in my head, stayed there for years til I figured out it was all fake. There were real “characters” parading around in ugly nylon briefs, snug around blocky, bulging torsos, or long spandex tights going to mid-calf. The Good Guys, circa 1962, wore the ugly briefs, the Bad Guys, the more flamboyant get-ups. The Good Guys had names like George or Johnny, the Bad Guys were Kurt and Karl, Lars and Gene. Sometimes the Bad guys wore masks and came from “Parts Unknown”. It seemed so real to my prepubescent mind and sense of justice. The protagonists would have their TV match. The Bad Guys would win through some obvious skulduggery. Between TV bouts, the host, a guy named Bob Caudle would interview the wrestlers. The Bad Guys always seemed to be yelling, threatening to get the Good Guys at the next fight, which would be announced as taking place at the Atlantic Rural Exposition Grounds on such and such a Friday night. That was the Fairgrounds, here in Richmond, on Laburnum Avenue. Next, the ring announcer, a man named Joe Murnick, would introduce the, uh, “competitors” for the next bout. The second bout was more of the same, but who cared?
Fast forward seven years. I am 18, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, member of the Key Club (affiliated with the service organization Kiwanis International), and participant in the “Little Buddy” program. Now our “Little Buddies” had nothing to do with Gilligan and The Skipper, The Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.) constantly referring to Gilligan (Bob Denver) as “Little Buddy”. Rather, it was a program, where we would mentor under-privileged children from the poor white neighborhood of Oregon Hill. We would constantly be having activities with the boys, getting to know them, hopefully doing some good. One day, somehow, we Key Clubbers got to talking about professional wrestling and Donald B said he could get tickets to the matches from his uncle, Joe Murnick. It turned out Joe was the promoter behind Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling that was based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richmond was one stop on the circuit. Sure enough, Donald came through with tickets, we picked up our Little Buddies, and drove off to the Fairgrounds. They held the matches in the same building where they judged the livestock at the Fair. This livestock, however, came on two legs, rather than four. There were bleachers set up, and we fans sat and watched the bouts. I don’t remember who the wrestlers were that night. What I do remember is that our little 10 year old charges went nuts over the event, while we super-sophisticated 17 and 18 year old Big Buddies saw through the goings on. So much for inculcating Middle Class values.
Wrestling went dormant about fifteen years til Vince McMahon cobbled together the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), now World Wrestling Entertainment. Then Captain Lou Albano, Mr Fuji, Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura, and Hulk Hogan took center stage and wrestling went Big Time. My cousin Kenny was an avid follower. He could tell you any and everything you ever wanted to know about the sport. I could say, “You know Dusty Rhodes really is The American Dream.” “Oh he is!” Kenny would enthusiastically concur. Kenny had an inexhaustible sense of fun, true joy.
Now over thirty years has passed. Our much-beloved cousin Kenny succumbed to cancer on his 62nd birthday in 2012. The Fairgrounds were purchased by NASCAR and the State Fair moved to a new site up I-95 near Doswell. The WWE, if it still comes to town, is at The Richmond Coliseum, a forty year-old senescent building, home now for an occasional college basketball game, tractor pull, Disney on Ice and The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.