Not that it helped me much in childhood frays, but I was the only kid on my block who could boast, with absolutely no fear of contradiction, "My father can lick your father." Frank August Jares Sr. was a professional wrestler, the nastiest, meanest, basest, most arrogant, cheatingest, bloodthirstiest eye-gouger around. No rule, referee or sense of fair play ever hampered his style. In short, the sort of man a boy could look up to.
In his prime Pop was just a shade under 6 feet tall and weighed 230 pounds, with short brown hair, a neck like a steel pillar, big bicepses and ears much more like cauliflowers than rose petals. Most people can fold their ears in half, but Pop's seem to be made of solid gristle and will not bend more than half an inch. He had, and still has rather thick lips and prominent cheekbones, a Slavic countenance that would fit perfectly in a Warsaw union meeting or the Notre Dame line. His wrestling stage name was Brother Frank, the Mormon Mauler from Provo, Utah, but really he was just Frankie Jares from northside Pittsburgh, the son of a Bohemian butcher from Czechoslovakia and a U.S.-born mother, also Bohemian. He never heard English spoken until he went out on the streets to play with the other kids. At age 12 he had both upper arms decorated with tattoos, and at 14 he was out of school and driving a truck. Naturally, he grew up to be a tough guy, but sometimes a gentle tough guy. He spanked me only twice in my life. Even though he traveled a lot, I thought I knew him, but I actually did not know him well at all until I spent one summer with him in Tennessee and Alabama—the summer of 1956.
Pop was Southern Junior Heavyweight wrestling champion, operating out of Nashville (the senior champ, I figured, had to be King Kong, but I never met him). I finished my freshman year at USC in June and flew from Los Angeles to Nashville to join Pop, Mom and Frankie Jr., who were living in a nice trailer park alongside some Grand Ole Opry stars and other assorted footloose folk. It was my job to accompany the old man on the southern wrestling circuit—usually Birmingham on Monday, Nashville on Tuesday, Kingsport, on Wednesday, Thursday to Bristol, Friday to Knoxville and Saturday in Chattanooga. After the matches in Chattanooga, we would drive all night back to Nashville, stopping once on the way at a mountain caf� for sausage sandwiches and ice-cold milk. Sunday was rest time at the trailer-park swimming pool. Back on the road Monday. "I don't know a single damn highway number," Pop said, "but I can take you to the back door of any arena in the United States by the shortest route."
He told me I was a bodyguard, a ridiculous idea (the only thing I guarded was his precious 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, a favorite target of his enemies after the matches). On his brawny arms he had that faded green artwork—a flag, an anchor, a star, a sailor girl, an Indian maiden, a Kewpie doll and so on. The only tattoo that would have fitted on one of my arms was a skinny snake, and not even that if the snake were coiled. Pop often said I had arms like garden hoses and a neck like a stack of dimes. He could see better out of his one good eye than I could with my glasses. But we entertained each other, I by listening and he by telling tales of his travels, his brawls, his riots and his bloody third-fall finishes.
For instance, somewhere between Nashville and Blytheville, Ark., he told me about Hawaii. There he had not been Brother Frank, but the Golden Terror, mysterious scourge of the mat. Yellow mask, black sleeveless shirt and, according to irate fans, yellow streak down back. By pulling hair, illegally using the ropes and just generally ignoring the Boy Scout Code, he prevented any good-guy opponent, or "baby face" in the lingo of the trade, from ripping off his cover. Actually, he had such an intricate way of fastening the hood that it would have taken the Pacific Fleet to unmask him. And if it had happened, nobody would have known him anyway. Well, hardly anybody. In his free time Pop wore his own face as he lifted weights and wrestled at the YMCA with various Islanders, including one Harold Sakata (later to become Tosh Togo, the evil Jap ring villain, and, still later, Oddjob in the movie Goldfinger). "You know," said one of his friends after a workout, "you're such a good wrestler you should go down and challenge the Golden Terror." Pop felt a little like Clark Kent, and somehow no one connected the giveaway tattoos.
Of course, there had been other aliases. Pro wrestling is a world of unrelated brothers and Italian noblemen from The Bronx. Every Indian is a chief, every Englishman a lord, every German a Nazi. Pop was once Furious Frank Jaris. And Frank Dusek of the roughhouse Nebraska Dusek clan. And Frank Schnabel, brother of that despicable quo, Hans and Fritz. One of his finest guises was The Thing. He used a horrible orange-red dye on the hair on his head and on a new crop of whiskers. He fixed up a wooden suitcase with THE THING printed on it in spangles and a hidden button that could be pressed to bring forth a sound similar to an aroused rattlesnake. He flew to Chicago to make his fortune and was granted an athletic commission license in the name of M. T. Bochs. He strolled the sidewalks of such towns as Gary, Ind. and Racine, Wis. in top hat, elegant topcoat, vest, striped pants and spats—and that fluorescent hair. Decent citizens who had seen his matches would curse him. "That's just what you are," said one little old lady, "a dirty, dirty thing." Pop smiled politely and said, "Why, thank you." As long as little old ladies had no hatpins he was polite to them. But he made no fortune and eventually went back to being the plain old Mormon Mauler.
Between southern whistlestops that summer of 1956, as the souped-up Studebaker cruised along at 60 mph and we tried to hit rural mailboxes with empty Dr. Pepper bottles, Pop often talked about wrestling fans, as testy a group as you can find this side of a Brazilian soccer stadium.
One time in Pico Rivera, Calif., Pop told me, he was walking to the dressing room between bleachers, and a man 12 feet above him reached down to hit him, slipped, fell to the concrete floor and broke his own neck. At various times in the ring Pop had been hit by whiskey bottles, lighted cigarettes and paper clips shot with rubber bands. During a match against Vincent Lopez (not "Lopez speaking") in Redding, Calif., Pop pulled himself under the ropes while flat on his back, a sneaky trick to get the referee to make the baby face let go of his ankle. A ringsider stood up and slashed Pop's forehead with a beer-can opener. The wound took 17 stitches to repair. He also had been stabbed with a knife, cut with a broken mirror and punctured with fingernail files.
In Bremerton, Wash., Pop treated kindly, fair-dealing giant Primo Camera with something less than minimal courtesy. As he ran the gantlet on his perilous journey to the dressing room, an indignant woman threw a lighted book of matches that hit his sweaty body with a painful sizzle. He stopped to analyze the woman's ancestry (even Pop could not hit a lady), but between them stepped a belligerent man who said, "That's my wife." Pop slugged him and yelled, "Then teach her better manners." The arena erupted into a riot, and dear old Dad had to stay under police guard in the dressing room half the night.
The fans were really stirred up one night in Bridgeport, Conn., he said. They completely misunderstood Pop's gentle nature and were intent on dismembering him. "I know my crowds," he said. "If you don't have the experience, you get killed. You have to jump right into the middle of the milling mob, never go in the opposite direction. A silent crowd is much more vicious. That silent 'heat,' that's the vicious crowd. The punchers and scratchers are much less dangerous. They wind up hitting each other most of the time." Well, this night in Bridgeport, Pop was in the middle, all right, and not enjoying it, but he happily sighted a policeman battling his way through the mob. The cop finally made it to Pop's side and then unhesitatingly bashed him over the head with a billy club.