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 weeklong 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 and made a homemade pizza at his house and watched 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, 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 $1,000 certified check in a Minneapolis bank for anyone who could break the Figure Four Leg Lock.
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 4 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.
Nostalgia is a strange thing. “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days," according to author Doug Larson. 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 pepperoni pizza while watching grainy men in Speedos bellow and gesticulate. It also explains why there were no dates.
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.
My little 5-by-7 homemade album contains some of the first 100 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, Manitoba. My father reading in his chair. My mother in the ’70s: big glasses and big hair. 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.
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at Jeffysage@aol.com.)