Ed. note: I had intended this post to be about the impending rapture. But, as Winston Churchill once famously remarked, shit changes.
I woke up to the smell of pancakes and cigars. And maybe a little bit of weed (thanks, Uncle Chet). The fresh mountain air, though, was the dominant force invading my nostrils that morning. I couldn't tell you the date, but I know it was a Saturday. At this time, Saturdays were the only day you could watch wrestling. Well, maybe Sunday if you were lucky enough to have cable. But at 11am Saturday, it was wrestling time. Or rasslin, depending on your location relative to the Mason-Dixon.
My family had a tradition known as "Macho Weekend." This occurred in May, as I recall. Might have been Memorial Day. Not sure, as it ended before I was old enough to be cognizant of such things. But the gist was that the women of the family went to the shore, the men to the mountains. I have no idea (and really don't want to know) what happened down the shore, but the mountains...the mountains, they were bliss. Pure, manly bliss. Cigars, ATVs, booze and yes, a little bit of weed (thanks, Uncle Chet).
And pro wrestling. Macho Weekend wasn't my first exposure to pro wrestling. I have memories of Wrestlemania IV (at which point I was 4), so I'd been watching it for at least half my life at this point. But this particular weekend, I was captivated by the sight of this strange voodoo man hexing this warrior...an Ultimate Warrior. Spewing chunks, leaking from his face paint, I was hooked.
My dad wasn't really a wrestling fan. My older brother was. And I think he hoped, as my older brother grew out of it, that I wouldn't succumb to it. Sorry, dad. But he took it in stride, watching it with us and taking us to the live events. But I remember specifically, this weekend, all of my uncles gathered around the tv. One of them was clearly more into it than the rest. That would be Uncle Chet, affectionately known as Cheshu.
I'm somewhat of an obsessive. When I get into something, I must know all there is to know about it. I can tell you more about tornadoes than I should be able to. I will murder you in Simpsons trivia. But nowhere did this obsession burn hotter than when it came to professional wrestling. As my dad attempted to mold me into a baseball player, I found myself delving more and more into the world of DDTs, Irish Whips and Figure-Four Leglocks. These guys were larger than life. Some, like Andre the Giant, literally. I think what I was most drawn to, even more than the obvious athleticism, was the way they spoke. Guys like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior were over the top, screaming in your face maniacs. And I liked that.
But I found myself drawn to the quieter ones. Guys like Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Arn Anderson. Guys who knew exactly when to use certain words, and the inflections with which to accompany them. More than any one thing, I think these guys are responsible for my passion for speaking and writing. So, blame them.
As the years went by, my dad realized I wasn't growing out of my "wrestling phase." If anything, I was submitting myself more and more fully to it. When I was nine years old, I dressed as "Macho Man" Randy Savage for Halloween. I even wore the costume to Mass, where I read the Liturgy of the Word, and ended it with an "OOOH YEEAAH!"
This was before the internet, so the only wrestling media available was magazines. Again, these magazines played a large role in my developing vocabulary and overall writing and speaking style. Amongst my age group, I don't think there was a more serious reader of such a ridiculous topic.
I don't think Uncle Chet continued to follow wrestling much after the late 80s, early 90s heyday. But I remember going to his house for a couple PPVs. The last being Halloween Havoc 95. There was a falling out shortly thereafter. In fact, I didn't see him for 11 years after.
My first wrestling death was Andre The Giant. It was in January of 93. I was 9. I remember the crowd chanting "Andre, Andre, Andre" the way crowds chant for an encore at a concert. There'd be no encore. This larger than life figure had met his match. My next door neighbor, Mr. Felker, would die about a month later. Suddenly, death seemed to be everywhere for me. Real life, escape life, no retreat. The Texas Tornado, Kerry Von Erich, would die soon after. Followed by Dino Bravo, in a horrific fashion.
My nine year old mind processed these deaths as rarities. Incredibly coincidental in their timing, but rarities nonetheless. These were people who'd come to be staples of my everyday life. For them to be taken so suddenly, that just couldn't happen all the time.
My love for wrestling didn't die. If anything, I resolved to pledge myself to it even more.
At school I became known as the "wrestling kid." If anyone needed to know the results from Sunday's pay-per-view, they tracked me down on Monday. I'm sure at some point this saved me from an ass whooping. As I got older, there was talk about having a birthday party at a wrestling training school. And there were more than a few beds broken as I tried out what I'd learned from the TV. In fact, it wasn't until high school when a friend of mine, who'd been training to be a wrestler, convinced me to give up the dream. What did it take? He lifted up his shirt and showed me the welts, scrapes, cuts and bruises he'd endured after only a short time of training. That's when my respect for pro wrestlers was cemented.
Losing nothing in appreciation for this spectacle, I focused my efforts on the gentler side. I'd be a wrestling writer. At 16 I managed to con my way into writing recaps of wrestling cards for a local promotion's website. This got me into the show for free, which was more payment than I could have asked for. In the mean time, I busied myself with role playing (RP) wrestling federations online. The idea was that you'd assume the role of a wrestler, and write interviews. You'd compete for "championships" based on how well you could write. This gave me the style I'd use to squeak by in every writing capacity I've had to this day.
Uncle Chet died in June of 2006. Like Andre, it was a long time coming, and not completely unexpected. But it still hurt like a motherfucker. Chet, while not perfect in some respects, was perfect as an uncle. He was fun, ridiculous and outrageous. Rumor has it he had people sneaking him in screwdrivers while in the hospital. And I don't mean flatheads. His funeral was as ridiculous as he would've wanted it to be, with the priest more than once (4 times to be exact) referring to him as Thomas. His name was NOT Thomas, I checked the prayer card to make sure. Afterward, at the luncheon, one of his friends played an instrumental version of Knockin On Heaven's Door. And the spot he chose to play it on just so happened to have a ray of light shining on it through the window. Vince McMahon couldn't have done it better. And I was besieged with memories of tributes to loved ones, both familial and wrestling. And to myself, I mouthed a refrain of "Cheshu, Cheshu, Cheshu", though I knew, as with Andre, there'd be no encore.
Having grown complacent to seeing the young lives of Brian Pillman, Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero cut short, in some way, helped me to accept Chet dying when he did. He was absolutely too young, but knowing that he lived long enough and well enough gave me a weird sense of comfort that, if not for this horribly wonderful thing called pro wrestling, I wouldn't have had.
Rest in Peace, Randy. You and Cheshu have a long Macho Weekend ahead of yas.