Some folks in the Minnesota community where I was reared occasionally recall with glee the famous fight to the finish between the Crippler and the Mauler. By comparison, many of today's professional wrestling matches are as tame as a dance around the maypole at a Sunday school picnic. I should know. I was one of the combatants.
In our town one of the annual entertainment highlights was the all-school gym show. Each able-bodied boy in Mr. Wilson's physical education classes was expected to display his prowess before an audience of parents. This created an embarrassing problem for my buddy, Bob Chasen, and me. We were far from Mr. Wilson's prize pupils. Elephants undoubtedly could be taught to tumble with more grace and skill than we. Bob and I envisioned ourselves on the rings, swinging in huge daring arcs like circus acrobats high above the crowd. Denied that, we would have settled for starring roles on the horizontal or parallel bars. But Mr. Wilson was a humanitarian who shrank from the prospect of watching two 12-year-old boys maim themselves for life. Whenever he caught either of us on the bars or ropes he would smack us across the rear of our gym trunks with the sole of a rubber sneaker that he habitually carried in his hip pocket.
Bob and I did one thing well. We called it "rasslin'," and we performed for our own enjoyment on vacant lots in the dust of summer and sometimes in the mud of spring. Our recreation placed heavy strain upon the clothing budgets of our respective families and often led to tempestuous scenes with our parents.
We approached Mr. Wilson. We knew he liked to provide some type of comedy relief for the gym show. The previous year had featured a hilarious Mutt and Jeff boxing match between the school runt and a huge fat boy who weighed close to 200 pounds.
Mr. Wilson said: "How about if I show you how to do it like the pros?"
Our hearts leaped up. The unabashed esteem we had for Mr. Wilson stemmed from the fact that not only had he played big-time college football but he had also been a professional wrestler.
Mr. Wilson taught us how to fake a forearm smash to the face and to pretend a vicious knee in the groin or stomach. We learned that it was possible to hurl oneself upon a reclining opponent with a grand sailing leap, taking the jolt of landing on our forearms and knees but making it seem as if we had smashed his rib cage beyond any hope of repair. We quickly mastered the art of placing an open hand under the other's chin while simultaneously launching a fearsome overhand punch. The thwack of fist hitting open palm sounded for all the world as if the victim's lower face had been caved in.
Most important, under Mr. Wilson's tutelage we came to understand that to make the carnage appear realistic required acting skill. We learned to react to our opponent's assaults as if we had been mortally wounded. We developed a splendid repertoire of assorted groans and grimaces. We beat terrible tattoos upon the mat with our hands and feet as if enduring indescribable agonies. Bob became expert at pitiful screams.
We practiced tirelessly, intent upon making certain that we would be the hit of the show. Aside from that, I was eager to erase the memory of last year's sixth-grade music festival, where I had been forced to appear onstage holding hands with a girl while singing in duet It's Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town.
After countless hours of rehearsal we developed almost conditioned reflexes. I would chop Bob savagely across the back of his neck with the edge of my hand, causing him to pitch face foremost on the mat as if unconscious. He would smash me in the face, and I would drop as if felled by a blow from a double-bitted ax.