Suspension of disbelief – the willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable, sacrificing logic for the sake of enjoyment. But, what if one has no critical faculties? If there is no sacrifice of logic? What if BELIEF is at the heart of engagement, and the stakes become so high that enjoyment is off the table?
In the world of professional wrestling, the term “kayfabe” is used to describe the elaborate stratagem by which a narrative of primal battle – good vs evil, clean vs dirty, athlete vs thug, hero vs villain – is developed and maintained. I’m an adult now and capable of seeing professional wrestling as it is, recognizing it as a peculiarly American kabuki, choreographed, often sadly absurd, with predetermined and specifically scripted outcomes.
Now I know.
August 24, 1960 – Bridgeport, Connecticut
The match held in the Bridgeport’s Armory was what was called a House Show, not televised. I don’t mean not televised nationally; I mean not televised at all. I was confused, of course, because the main event was a second defense of the WWWF tag team Championship, pitting Red and Lou Bastien against the filthiest of competitors, the Fabulous Kangaroos, rancid thugs from the Outback, “managed” by Wild Red Berry, a former wrestler and boxer, notorious for dirty tricks and unscrupulous methods of prying victory from the jaws of defeat. Berry would later “manage” Killer Kowalski,and his tag team partner, Gorilla Monsoon, speaking for the behemoth, ostensibly a mute from Manchuria (kayfabe)..
As one might guess, the Bridgeport Armory was not Madison Square Garden, the venue for most televised major matches. At the Garden, rising stars such as Bobo Brazil and Nature Boy Buddy Rogers grunted their way through the undercard as established champs, Vern Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, Argentina Rocca, Bruno Sammartino, Dick the Bruiser, Hard Boiled Haggerty, Killer Kowalski, and Haystacks Calhoun enjoyed the limelight. In Bridgeport, Sailor Art Thomas and Bruno Sammartino were the headline singles match, and the third in a series of grudge matches between the Kangaroos and the Bastien Brothers was the top of the card.
Look, I am aware that puerile admiration of large sweating men is not the most appealing of subjects, and I am almost certain that few readers will care to track the history of professional wrestling much farther, if any tracking has actually happened thus far. My hope is that you can stick with me long enough to understand the depth of betrayal I experienced, not as a foolish fan of wrestling, but as a citizen of a great republic.
I grew up in the northwest corner of Connecticut in the 1950’s, surrounded by farms and forests. I saw other children at school, but had no playmates. My parents and their friends were artists, writers, academics, and musicians, fully engaged in creative endeavors, simply unavailable when a boy such as I, consumed by passion for all sports, begged to be taken to a baseball or football game. I read Sports Illustrated and Sport Magazine from cover to cover, Baseball Digest, the Street and Smith pre-season guides, novels by John R. Tunis (The Kid from Tomkinsville, The Kid Comes Back, The Iron Duke, The Duke Decides), The Chip Hilton series, the Bronc Burnett Series, The Fireside Book of Baseball. My room was festooned with college football pennants and a striking set of prints by Robert Riger, distributed by Shell. My NY Football Giants heroes were all around me – Sam Huff, Dick Modzelewski, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Alex Webster, Rosie Brown, Charlie Conerly.
But I knew I’d never see a real game.
Through a tangled series of events, an elderly refugee from Germany became our housekeeper. She may have kept house in some extraordinarily loose definition of the term, but she did settle in daily for marathon binging in front of our television, limited though viewing options were. Queen for a Day was a particular favorite in the afternoon, but the evening was set aside for, you guessed it, professional wrestling, broadcast on the now-defunct Dumont Broadcasting System.
I learned at the knee of an expert. Enamored of Gorgeous George, an extravagantly coiffed and wardrobed psychopath, a 300 pound vicious Liberace, Mrs. Orschler screamed in German at those who threatened him. I came to appreciate the athletes, Vern Gagne, who had been a medal winning amateur wrestler and Italian/Argentine Antonino Rocca, a gifted gymnast, prone to flying from the top of the ropes, summer saulting his victim into the “Argentine Back Breaker”, a complicated half-nelson.
And, she would take me to matches in New Haven and Bridgeport.
I had other heroes, of course. I knew the stats of every New York Yankee (Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Clete Boyer, Andy Carey, Gil McDougald, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Enos Slaughter, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Ryne Duren, Don Larson, Bobby Shantz, Bob Turley), admired Bob Cousy, Gordie Howe, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, his smaller brother Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard, Jim Brown, and Otto Graham, but the only heroes I had actually seen in person were Red and Lou Bastien, the Bastien Brothers. They were true athletes, flying from one corner of the ring to the other, leaping from the ropes, flipping and cartwheeling, tagging each other into the ring wth what I could only call inspiration. No, genius!
In the tumult that was professional wrestling, amidst the low life cheaters and cads, they were decent and honorable, courageous, generous, and … and I believed with all my heart that they were as they seemed, men of dignity and skill, fighting cleanly for their place at the top of their profession.
The Kangaroos stood for all that was vile, in wrestling and in sport.There were other heels, of course, louts who applied the forbidden choke hold, or who secreted some dangerous object in their trunks, an iron bar, say, with which to club a more able opponent to the mat. The Kangaroos resorted to all these and more, dragging chairs into the ring, slamming their victims into tables at ringside, even producing shards of glass from a hidden pocket, opening a gash over the eye of one of their betters.
They tagged illegally.
I know, compared to slicing and smashing, improper tagging out seems relatively benign, but it struck at the core of my sense of fair play. What’s left to hold the universe together if tag teams don’t tag as they should?
All of that aside, Wild Red Berry also contributed to their crimes, frequently holding an opponent immobile while a Kangaroo punched (illegally), or throwing dangerous objects into the ring. Terrible stuff.
The Bastien Brothers had defeated the Kangaroos in a title bout in New Haven in April, then lost the belt to them in June, in Washington, D.C. Rematch in BRIDGEPORT, and with no assigned seats (barely seats anyway); I could almost literally be in the Bastiens’ corner.
I cannot bear to relive the match in detail The Bastiens fought nobly, cleanly, winning the first fall. They had the Kangaroos well in hand, seemed about to end the match early, when an illegal tag (see?) brought both Kangaroos into the ring against a single Bastien. My faith in a benign universe not yet violated, I quivered at the edge of the ring as the third and final round began. After a few moments of unremarkable pulling and tugging on the part of both teams, Wild Red Berry snuck into the action, dragging a chair. Lou Bastien had Australian Al Costello in a submission hold; the Kangaroo was attempting to tap out when his partner, Roy Heffernan (illegally) leapt into the ring and punched Lou in the throat (illegal). Red, seeing his partner fall, started to clear the ropes only to be driven to the floor by impact of a swung chair. Lou, gasping was held down by both Kangaroos and pinned (illegal), and Red lay in what I assumed was a terminal coma.
Disappointing. Disturbing. Quasi-Traumatic. But this debacle was not the cause of my loss of faith in all things good and beautiful. No, that would come two days later. I was inconsolable and furious. The more I considered the many wrongs done to my heroes, the more determined I was to set things right.
I was twelve years old. I had no money, no friends, no influence, but I lived in America, the land of Lincoln and Roosevelt; justice would be served!
I borrowed two dollars against my allowance and composed a telegram to the highest office in the land.
“Dear President Eisenhower. A great wrong has been done to the Bastien Brothers. Only you can bring justice to the true tag team champions of the world. In the name of all that makes America great, I call upon you to repair this outrage.”
August turned to September. Not a note, not a letter, no telegram, no phone call, and, from what I could gather, NOTHING had been done. I knew Eisenhower was in the last months of his presidency, but come on; with great power comes great responsibility.
Kennedy won the election in November, and the burden of leadership of the world’s most powerful nation slipped almost seamlessly from Ike to JFK. It seemed unlikely that Eisenhower had passed my telegram on to his successor; it wouldn’t have taken much time to have a quick conversation in passing, but, I guessed other issues might hsve elbowed my plea aside.
I vote, and I do feel a sense of responsibility to stay abreast of current affairs so as to remain part of an informed citizenry, but, at some level, I know that justice is not always served, virtue is not always rewarded, evil can win out over the good and true. In the course of a lifetime,of course, I’d be disappointed again and often. Only two months later, at the start of my ninth grade year, Bill Mazeroski would hit the only seventh game walk-off home run to give the Pirates the World Series victory over my Yankees. I was crushed; for the next eight months, I had to listen to the braying of the boorish Pirate fan with whom I shared a dormitory common room. Disappointing, sure, but a loss delivered within the rules of the game. The rules of the game. As weeks without a response from the White House stretched into months, I realized that I had lost my belief in the transformative power of sport and my faith in the rule of law. It was only a short step to the cynicism that stained my world view throughout the late 1960’s, for what is a cynic but an idealist who has been crushed by the weight of the real?
I try to remember the idealism with which I sent that telegram. I like that deluded, hopeful kid, worked up enough to expect a nation to protect decency and honor. Sure, the match was a sham, and my outrage was misplaced, but as I think of how betrayed I felt, over what was and is a trivial moment, I can summon appropriate determination to take on the real and larger wrongs in a complicated world.
I am but one, but I am one, and I’m saving my allowance for some truly beefy telegrams.