on wrestling and the ties that bind

40 year old memories are rarely on point; details get lost over time and sometimes you’re left more with an indelible feeling accompanying a picture in time, rather than an intricate memory. What I remember is the Saturday afternoons in front of the tv with my grandfather. I remember these days in black and white for some reason, as if they exist merely in photographs. But there we are, watching wrestling matches, Grandpa explaining in great detail the moves being made, the stories behind each wrestler, distinguishing the heroes from the heels. I was enthralled by it all, not at all off put by the violence, but more taken in by it, by the cartoonish stye of it all. I remember thinking how some of the wrestlers reminded me of Popeye fighting Bluto and Grandpa laughed at his.

We did this for years, our little Saturday ritual of watching wrestling while my mother tsktsk’d at us. A parade of wrestlers came in and out of our lives. Superstar Billy Graham, Andre the Giant, Fred Blassie, Ivan Putski, Bruno Sammartino, wrestler whose careers we watched fizzle out and some whose careers followed me well into the 80s. While watching wrestling with Grandpa was a great source of comfort for me, a ritual I looked forward to each week, there came a time when Saturday afternoons belonged to other things and I slowly started begging out of our tv time. I faded out of the wrestling world, stopped paying attention all together once I wasn’t watching with Grandpa anymore. I was too cool for wrestling. I was into hanging out, listening to rock and roll, being a disaffected teenager.

Yet somehow, in 1986, I found myself at Nassau Coliseum in attendance for Wrestlemania II. Randy “Macho Man” Savage vs. my favorite wrestler, George “The Animal” Steele. There was a boxing match between Mr. T and Rowdy Roddy Piper. There was fanfare, so much fanfare, so much showmanship and over-the-top acting and ridiculousness that it made me wonder why I ever stopped watching. I hadn’t cheered that much in the Coliseum since the Islanders won a Stanley Cup there. This circus known as professional wrestling was bringing me such unbridled joy. How was I ever too cool for this? It was drama, soap-opera, comedy and sports all in one exuberant package. I embraced it once again. What had happened to lead me back there, that I found myself attending one of the greatest wrestling events of all time?

What happened was the 80s rolled around. I had reached young adulthood. The cusp of life, as they say. I was 20, 21, 22. I was supposed to be grabbing life by the balls. I was supposed to be on the verge of greatness. I was supposed to be finding myself. But, like most 20-somethings, I was caught up in a vortex of fear; fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear that this was all my life was ever going to be. I was scared and lost and needed comfort. Some people when they need comfort turn to the food of their youth. I turned to wrestling. Wrestling was my grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup on a winter day.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. It’s not like I woke up at 3am one morning, bolted upright and said “wrestling will cure my ills!” No, I was just scanning through tv stations one night when I came upon a wrestling match. I don’t remember who was in the match, I just remember a feeling of nostalgia washing over me and with that nostalgia came the sense of comfort I was looking for. I thought about those Saturdays with Grandpa and how happy I was to spend my afternoons watching wrestling with him.

I tried to bring back those moments with Grandpa but couldn’t get him into it. He had long ago abandoned professional wrestling, having garnered a fervent dislike for the more modern brand of the sport. He wasn’t into the likes of Hulk Hogan and proclaimed this new era of wrestling “too Hollywood.” I dug into it anyhow, and was happy to see familiar faces like Andre the Giant and Sammartino and Bob Backlund. I wore these wrestling matches around me like a warm blanket. As long as I was wrapped up in the nostalgia of my youth, adulthood could not harm me.

Wrestling saw a huge revival in the 80s and I was there for it, not caring if my friends thought it was “cool” or not. I had a small group of people who cared about the WWF like I did and we got together to watch matches or attend wrestling events at the Coliseum.

I loved wrestling not just for the memories it invoked but for the whole good v. evil aspect of it, where there were clear lines drawn in the sand and you always knew who the good guys were and who the heels were. From the time I learned to read, I loved fairy tales — stories with knights and dragons, with princes and ogres, where the good guys slew the bad guys and everyone lived happily ever after. Wrestling wasn’t always like this, the story lines would be boring if it were, but there was enough of the good guys winning and wrongs being righted to keep me satisfied.

And always there was Grandpa. He still came over every Saturday and even though he feigned disinterest, he listened intently when I told him what was going on in the world of wrestling, especially when names familiar to him were brought up. In a small way, we were keeping up part of our Saturday ritual and it felt good.

Grandpa Joe died in 2007. I had again stopped watching wrestling at that point and I was rarely at my parents’ house on Saturday mornings when he came around, which he still did until he went into the nursing home. I didn’t visit him there as much as I should have but when I did, we talked Yankees and wrestling. He didn’t comprehend everything I was saying, but sometimes when I mentioned some of the old time wrestlers, I’d see a flash of recognition in his eyes.

I got back into wrestling recently. Once again, just scanning the channels one night and I came upon Monday Night Raw and decided to watch. Like any old soap opera, some of the storied names were still there — was glad I got to watch some new Roddy Piper action before he died — and there was a certain comfort in seeing those wrestlers and hearing those names. I got hooked on the new story lines and before I knew it, I had carved out that time slot in my Monday nights, the way I set aside time each Saturday for Grandpa back in the day.

I don’t know if Grandpa Joe would like the current form of the WWE or the theatrics therein. He’d probably say it was too Hollywood. He’d go on about when wrestling was real and the wrestlers were tougher and everything was better. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it was better back then, back in those days I view as black and white, sitting on my mother’s living room couch while she vacuumed and dusted around us as we watched two grown men pound on each other in a ring. It wasn’t really the wrestling we were enjoying as much as shared moments, little bits of togetherness I knew wouldn’t last, and Grandpa probably knew were fleeting. I treasure those memories because they loom big when I remember Grandpa Joe, and watching wrestling now brings it all back so vividly, it colors in the spaces that existed in black and white.

I don’t watch wrestling just for the comfort it brings me — I enjoy the theatrics of it, I enjoy the story lines and the cartoonishness that was always there and always will be. But that comfort is certainly a part of it. I wish Granpda was here to talk about it, but he’s not. The fact that I feel like he’s with me as I watch each week means the world to me. I know which wrestlers he would like and which he’d hate (oh, the joy we would have hating Seth Rollins together). I know how he’d react to each match. I can practically see him getting aggravated and turning off the tv like he did once in a while, the same way I say “screw this garbage” and turn the channel at least once during Raw.

I don’t really believe in an afterlife, but if there was such a thing, I’d hope that somewhere in that world is a couch that looks exactly like my mother’s old couch and Grandpa Joe is sitting there with Andre the Giant, talking wrestling and watching Monday Night Raw.

Andre’s just holding my place.

[this first appeared in Maura Magazine]

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