The One Rule
We were just supposed to lose once, to make it look real. But we couldn't do it
New Fictoir* by David Childers • Illustrations by Andy Smith
*This story is mostly true and happened the way the author remembers it. A few characters have been combined and perhaps invented for narrative purposes, and dialogue is approximated. So step off, Oprah.
I was young, very young, when the new family, the Majorses, moved into the mansion next door. By American standards, the mansion was ancient, built by a mill owner who had drowned himself in Mountain Island Lake in a time and place that was far away and hazy. "He just started walking out into the water and walked until he was gone."
My parents built our house beside the mansion in 1952. It was one of the first postwar houses built on what had been orchards and pine groves. I was a year old when we started living in it. It was not a mansion. It was small in comparison, but larger than most of the other houses that followed. Throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, more houses were built, and eventually all that remained of the orchards was the mansion's long, wide grounds.
The father of the new family, Mr. Majors, was a chemist. He had invented artificial indigo for blue jeans and made millions of dollars on it. He never acted like a millionaire. Instead, he was humble, generous, and kind.
Mrs. Majors, the mother, was a beautiful and dignified lady who treated everyone with grace and respect. They had two girls, Sandra and Joan, older than I by a few years, and a son, Frank, two years older. Both girls were good-looking brunettes with long, athletic frames and dark eyes full of intelligence and adventure. They were kinder than any kids, any people, I had ever met. In my world, younger kids like me got picked on a lot, knocked around, administered moderate amounts of torture by older siblings and friends until we were old enough to fight off attacks. These new girls were different. They did nice stuff, like take you for a walk, or share cookies, or play new records and maybe try to teach you how to dance. Intelligent, athletic, and creative, they both ended up in serious, accomplished professions. I spent a lot of time at their house.
The only son of the new family, Frank, was not as physical as most of the neighborhood kids, but he had a great imagination and appreciation for music, books, and movies. He also loved comics, and had a large collection of DC and Marvel. I was more into Classics Illustrated, but Frank got me interested in the superheroes. Another interest we shared was wrestling, the kind on television.
In my world, people did not have televisions until the mid fifties. My first remembrance of it comes from 1956: the face of President Dwight David Eisenhower filling up the screen, the announcer saying he had won the election against Adlai Stevenson. In the background, my mother and grandmother were cursing, crying. Lots of fuzzy, hazed-over, and bent-out-of-shape images fill my television memory after that. I did not really find it very interesting or understandable.
Then I saw Gorgeous George.
I was at a friend's house. His older brother was watching a wrestling match being broadcast to us all the way from Los Angeles.
"Look at this guy," he said to me in disgust. "Calls himself Gorgeous George."
There he was: this weird guy with long blonde hair. He was counter to everything I thought a man should be. The flamboyant cape, the way he fussed over his appearance. He looked and acted like a sissy, but he was a good wrestler, and he easily won the match we watched. I was confused, disturbed. He had the crowd worked up, going wild, but as with his ambivalent masculinity, I could not tell if the crowd was roaring because they loved or hated him. In the end, it did not really matter. It was crazy stuff, fun to watch. I wanted more.
What I vaguely came to understand was that outrageous behavior can draw a crowd: wild gestures, weird costumes, theatrics. I had gotten a hint of that from Elvis, but he was such a nice guy. Gorgeous George was not.
Wrestling came to our own local television when Jim Crockett and Big Bill Ward began to host a wrestling show on WBTV in 1958. Gorgeous George was never, to my knowledge and memory, a part of it, but largely because of him I became a regular viewer of the local bouts. There was little of George's flamboyance in them, but they still had a theatrical feel.
In watching these Saturday-afternoon bouts, I was joined regularly by my maternal grandmother, who lived with us. She had no problem believing in what she saw, and the affection she felt for the good guys was as real as the affection she gave me. So, too, her contempt and dislike for the bad guys.
The televised matches tied into and promoted matches at Park Center, now known as Cricket Arena. As wrestling's popularity grew, bouts began happening in the smaller towns, including ours, Mount Holly. Every year, there was a textile festival to promote and celebrate the industry that used to dominate and permeate life in this area. There were parades, dances, various contests, and professional wrestling under the ballpark lights. Later, those matches moved into a building on the edge of Highway 27, only a five-minute walk from my house.
All the prominent Carolina wrestlers, and a lot of unknowns trying to get known, wrestled here: Irish Mike Clancy (who specialized in getting beaten and bloodied for most of the match, only to turn the tables at the end), Johnny Weaver, George Becker. Bobby Becker, Haystack Calhoun, Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich with manager Homer Odell, Two Ton Harris, P.Y. Chung, Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson (eventually my favorite villains), Chief Billy Two Rivers. There were also women and little people.
The names and characters were like the DC and Marvel Comics. The bouts were like medieval morality plays. It was easy to tell the good from the bad. Good guys wore simple outfits, had short hair and strong physiques, and were quiet and humble. They had familiar names like Johnny, Mike, George, unless they were Indians, like Billy Two Rivers, who always seemed to be good guys.
Bad guys always talked like they were from Chicago or New York, bragged and blustered, and always managed to drop insults for their opponents, the audience, the region, and the announcers. They had scary, foreign names. My grandmother helped me to notice this, to hear the contempt and disdain in the voices of the bad guys, to spot their swaggering arrogance; but I needed no help when it came to guys who wore evil-looking, full-headed masks with exaggerated markings around the eyes and mouths, instead of the flimsy, masquerade kind worn by the Lone Ranger.
The Masked Bolos were Bolo and Great Bolo, known outside the Carolinas as the Assassins or Masked Assassins. They were mean, arrogant, overbearing, and sneaky. I knew when I saw them that I could never pull for these guys, and I never did. It was visceral.
Of course, I was reacting the way I was supposed to, the way most people did. That was the attraction. More than that, the Bolos made you feel like everything you knew and believed in was threatened. Every time they entered the ring, every time they pinned an opponent, every time they got away with a dirty trick, it made me feel like civilization and decency were under attack. The stakes were high. The Bolos always closed the show.
When I later read Orwell's description of the Two Minute Hate in 1984, I likened it to the feelings I had when I watched the Bolos: pure, uncontrolled hatred, my grandmother and I screaming at the screen, venting deep rage that stemmed from a multitude of unrelated sources, but all focused on the little men fighting on the screen.
Admittedly, the Bolos were good wrestlers. They seldom lost. The more they won, the more arrogant they became. It was like watching the Soviet Union expand its influence in the world. Despite this threat, there was a reassurance in hoping that the bad guys would lose, no matter how much special power they had. The good guys might get tricked by the masked guys one week, pinned as the result of some deception, but they would be back to defeat and almost unmask the villains a few weeks later.
I say "almost" because I never actually saw the masks come off, although once I saw Johnny Weaver remove a sizeable part of one when he had a Bolo tied up in the corner ropes. The referee stopped it from happening by ending the match because of some real or imagined technicality. But still, humiliation and defeat for the Bolos pleased us, even if somewhat incompletely. This was important. Every morality play needs hope, but it also needs evil to have purpose. After the mask is removed, what else is there?
As life sometimes imitates art, life sometimes imitates professional wrestling. Grappling and rolling about in friendly, or not so friendly, play was natural to most of the boys, and a few of the girls, in my neighborhood. Fighting was something you had to do, or else you stayed in your house. So it was surprising when I got a phone call from Frank, proposing that I come over to discuss the idea of staging wrestling bouts on the mansion grounds.
Frank was not the kind of guy who would normally engage in violent games. He seldom came out from the mansion to mingle, but this fine summer day, when I went to visit him, he surprised me by appearing on his veranda dressed as a Bolo from head to foot: tights, tank top, mask.
At least I thought it was Frank.
A deep voice spoke through the masks:
"I want you to get another guy and wrestle us a week from today, out there." He pointed to the long green lawn. "Six o'clock."
I hesitated. I was not really sure who was speaking to me.
"What's wrong? You scared?"
Yes. I was afraid of the mask, but I asked who he meant by "us."
He held up a second mask.
"I have a partner. He'll wear this mask. Can you get another guy?"
Where did he come up with those masks? I never found out. His mother may have made them, or he might have mail-ordered them. I guess I was too amazed to ask. The Bolos were here! They were looking for a match. Courage rose in me and I agreed. The masked man extended a hand of agreement, and I grabbed it, shook it, hoping it really was Frank.
"I'll get somebody," I said.
I turned and walked home, wondering if I had just made a terrible mistake.
I had a week to find a partner.
The first guy I went to was my best friend, Ricky Jonson, but he scoffed at the whole idea. I think he was afraid, but hid it behind arrogance. He was a gifted basketball player and did not want to risk injury.
After Ricky, since it was summer and many people were out of town on vacations, the pickings were slim, but finally, I only had to look a few houses away: Jerry Hamrick. He was a tough, spirited boy I had fought more than once growing up—better with fists than grappling. I knew from pinning him more than once that I could have done better for a partner, but I knew that he would be there.
Frank and I worked out a few more details as the bout drew closer. The most important thing was that each side lose at least one bout. That was how the pros did it. The third bout was up for grabs. That was essential if we were to have an audience and if we were to put on a good show. Frank recruited a close friend of his, Terry Cline, to be the second Bolo. Neither of these guys struck me as being competitive, even though they were older, but that was fine: the most important thing was to put on a good show.
I was eleven years old going on twelve. It was an unnecessary but certainly attractive feature of the whole thing that Frank's sister, Joan, five years older than I, would be the referee. This was inspiration, a way to rub shoulders with a girl I admired as an athlete, a person, and, yes, an object of adolescent lust.
Word got out in the neighborhood, and when the evening of the match arrived, a large crowd of neighbors came though the bamboo forest that separated them from the mansion, paid their fifty cents admission to Joan, and settled down for the show.
Jerry and I waited on the screened veranda that opened on to the great lawn. The Faux Bolos were not to be seen.
I had never performed for such a crowd, but I was not intimidated. When I heard Joan introducing us in her best possible imitation of Big Bill Ward, I nodded to Jerry, and we burst through the veranda door, sprinting onto the lawn. We wore simple, everyday summer attire: T-shirt, shorts, tennis shoes, all white or dirty white. We pumped our fists and jumped around the way we had learned from our wrestling heroes. The neighbors cheered.
Joan introduced the Bolos, and true to form, they approached the ring, strutting with arrogance and disdain for the ignorant and the unwashed, amid booing and reproachful catcalls. All was going as planned. They gestured defiantly to the audience and grunted insults at all of us.
"We'll show you how we do it up north!"
The ring was a chalked box on closely mowed grass. I was to start for us. Frank would start for the Bolos. Joan, dressed very similarly to Jerry and me, took center ring, called Frank and me to the center, and told us to commence. We circled each other, then I rushed him, got an arm under his groin and an arm under the opposite arm, and lifted him off of the ground onto my shoulders. I had learned this move and what followed from the television guys. Holding Frank aloft, I spun around a few times, then dropped him on his back to the grass.
Airplane Spin and Atomic Drop successfully completed!
Frank could not move. Joan counted off three and he was pinned. The crowd roared.
"Make it last longer," he whispered as we ungrappled.
In the next round, Terry, the other Bolo, had little trouble with Jerry, but they did extend the bout longer. I took the cue, and in the next round, I made it interesting by letting Frank get the upper hand a few times, only to escape his grasp. Acting came into play more. The crowd liked it, and everyone had something to cheer about. Each team made several tags, some very dramatic—a wrestler, almost pinned, stretching out and slapping the hand of his leaping partner.
Eventually but inevitably, I pinned Terry, and the bout ended. The reaction of the audience was enthusiastic and encouraging: clapping, hooting, hollering, and whistling. We made about thirty dollars total. We agreed to do it again in two weeks. The only change was that Jerry would be out of town, so I had to find a new partner. And this: "You're going to have to lose some time," Frank said.
"It would have been better tonight if you had lost. That would have set up the next bout better. You know, the revenge element. Bad guys get to win too. Like Superman. What good is it to beat Lex Luthor if he always loses?"
He had a good point, but it was the wrong one for me. I let the whole idea go and started looking for a new partner.
Mike Barnes' father was a railroad man. Mike's mother was one of the best-looking women in town, a full-blooded Cherokee. Mike inherited her dark eyes, skin, and hair. She was a very pleasant, kind, and hospitable lady. Mike and I were friends when we were smaller. For some reason he was gone for a couple of years, then came back. He was changed, harder, tougher.
When we were younger, I had whipped him in a fistfight by landing a couple of lucky punches on his nose, knocking him to his knees, and spraying blood on both of us. I did not know then why we were fighting, and it had upset me because he was my friend. I cried as hard as he did, but it felt good to win.
I do not remember how I came to recruit him for the wrestling match, but I did, and when the match rolled around, and the neighbors once again showed up on the mansion grounds, I was glad he was on my side. I did not want to have to fight him again.
He was much stronger, faster, and bigger. He was also hard headed, and when I suggested losing a round, he told me I would have to be the one to lose because he was not going to let either one of those two guys pin him, fake or no fake.
Unfortunately, I had the same attitude.
"At least string it out," I suggested.
He snorted at that, so I knew I would have to do what I could to make it a show.
An added feature of this match was the championship trophy: a giant Coca-Cola bottle wrapped in aluminum foil. It was placed on a card table near the chalk box. The story was that it belonged to the Faux Bolos and they were there to preserve it. Since they had lost the only match I knew of, I was unsure as to how or against whom they had won it. There it stood, an object of both desire, because it was after all a championship trophy, and contempt, because its origin was questionable, and it was made of glass and aluminum foil.
Regardless, Mike and I wanted it.
Mike took the first round and it was quick. He pinned Terry in less than a minute.
The body language of our opponents became uncertain and hesitant.
I took the second round and wrestled both Frank and Terry. They had improved some since the last match, though they lacked the physical strength to back up their new moves. At one point, both of them were on me and I was struggling to keep from getting pinned. Joan broke it up and dispatched Terry to his corner, leaving the chalked box to Frank and me.
Frank approached, crouching, saying something that I could not quite make out. Then he had his arms locked around my head, and he whispered in my right ear as we fell to the ground: "Lose. Just this one. Lose. Please."
It was too sad. It was important to him that we do it right, that we be true to the spirit of what he wanted to re-create. I mustered a moment of compassion and objectivity, but only a moment.
I threw him off as we hit the ground, found my feet, then dove back to catch him on his back. Joan was beside us and slowly, but dutifully, counted off the pin. One, Two, Three. Her tone told me how wrong I was.
I jumped up. Mike was grinning, but Frank was making a lot of noise, talking about fouls, and cheating, and breaking a deal. We laughed and headed for the championship trophy, but before we could get to it, Frank ran over and grabbed it, then ran off into the mansion. A hubbub erupted all around us as the disappointed audience turned toward home earlier than expected, only to turn back when Frank started yelling.
"You cheated! You lied! You lose!"
Looking up into the mansion, I saw him standing in the window of his room on the third floor. Still masked, he went on for a long time denouncing Mike and me. Mike wanted to go into the house, but Joan stopped him. He knew better than to go further. It was over. He left shortly after, and I do not think I ever saw him again.
"We won the trophy," I said to Joan.
"You broke the deal," she said. "You did not win it the way you agreed you would."
I tried to argue with her, but she was too good, too right, too much the voice of reason. I was wrong, and I knew it. We were supposed to lose one round and we refused to. It was kind of like Adam and Eve: Do whatever you want except this one thing. It was something all the old television wrestlers knew and lived with: Do not refuse to lose.
So we did that one thing, broke the one and only rule of the game, and there in the window of his room stood Frank, yelling defiantly, refusing to be defeated, screaming at us like God on High banishing the Original Sinners.
At that moment, it angered me, but today I am glad he did not take losing so well. I am glad he kept the trophy and retained whatever sense of dignity or success it gave him.
I never was able to get close to Frank or the Majors family after that. I never felt welcomed at their house, and I regretted it, but moved on to other things.
At sixteen, I went off to military school. I played football and basketball there. They had scholastic wrestling, too. The wrestling coach, also the line coach in football, wanted me to wrestle, but I did not have the heart for it. Football and basketball were fun, but I knew scholastic wrestling would not be like wrestling the Faux Bolos. I knew I would probably get my ass kicked. "This ain't like that rasslin' stuff on television," he said, as if to make it attractive, but it had the opposite effect. It sounded ominous.
The military school did not allow televisions, so I lost touch with televised, or professional, wrestling. Instead, I read a lot. Big words and lots of names and dates entered my brain, rolled around on my tongue, and staggered into discourse. I wanted to be an intellectual. I went to school at Chapel Hill with that intention, but wound up another beer-swilling idiot, save for brief periods in which I would hunker down with books and assignments, pop a pill, feel intelligent, and learn enough to pass my exams.
It was a cold, wet Saturday in early December, my junior year. I was finishing my last exam of the semester: Victorian British Literature. I had been up all night reading the assignments I should have been reading all along. Fortunately it was great stuff, Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins striking me as especially fine. The exam lasted several hours. I wrote, mostly on the Tennyson and Hopkins questions, what I felt were inspired answers. I was one of the last to finish. As I handed in my answer book, a giant fatigue swept down on me. It followed me back to my room at Hinton James.
Once back in my dorm room, I sat down with a six-pack of Schaefer beer in front of a small, black and white television. My girlfriend, also having just wrapped up a tough exam schedule, lay sleeping in my bed. I drank and watched the end of the Nebraska-Oklahoma football game. Darkness rose through the misty trees around the dorm, far below our seventh-floor room. Laughter, shouts, loud voices seeped through the cinder block walls. Despite my exhaustion, there was a festive feeling in the air. Exams were winding down. Students were relaxing and beginning to head home for Christmas.
I drifted, relaxing, letting go. I let my eyelids fall. I could finally sleep. I nodded.
The voices of the football announcers faded.
I do not know how long I slept, but when I opened my eyes again, still sitting in a chair with a beer in my hand, football had been replaced on the television screen by professional wrestling: Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson against some young victims whose names were not familiar. One of them was a black man, a rarity in the old days, at least around here.
It had been several years since I had watched or even thought about these guys. My feelings toward them were very different. I hated them. I felt contempt for them. They were the antithesis of all that I thought I was trying to be: vulgar, simplistic, moralistic, brutal, and stupid. I connected them to much of the evil I saw in the world because they encouraged violence and stupidity. I saw subtle political messages and cultural statements, the grinning faces of lying politicians and pointless war. I saw these old athlete-showmen not as they were—men at work playing out an ancient drama—but through a filter of snobbery and elitist prejudice.
Then I thought about my grandmother and me, screaming and jumping up and down watching Mike Clancy lay it on one of the
Bolos. I was ashamed of what I had been.
I turned off the television and crawled into bed beside my girl, holding her as close as I could against the cold, the past, the uncertain future.
Two years later, after graduating and moving back to Woodlawn for a brief spell, Ricky Jonson, the basketball hero who had refused to be my wrestling partner, talked me into going to a wrestling match at what is now Cricket Arena, but at that time, 1974, was the Charlotte Coliseum. I found the whole thing in bad taste, but went out of friendship. It seemed important to Ricky.
We had ringside seats. The crowd was crazy. The show was great. Even through the pseudo-intellectual bubble that I surrounded myself with at that time, I could see how amazing it was that a man as big as Swede Hanson, six feet five or six, more than three hundred pounds, could do a hand stand, pivot, then catch some other guy in a headlock with his legs.
For the first time since I was twelve years old, I respected the athletic ability of the television wrestlers. Maybe the outcome was predetermined, and fake, but so is the ending of any drama. No one ever took anything away from an actor for being able to fake well. The difference in professional wrestling is that there is a point where acting stops and a real contest goes on, such as the moment when Swede took his victim, and his own body, down to the mat with a thud that rocked the whole coliseum.
I never found my way back to wrestling as a fan. There are still things that disturb me about it—the violence for its own sake, the stupidity. Perhaps it is too real a reflection of life for me.
Still, I linger sometimes when I come upon it while scanning the cable channels. Now, the wrestlers are bigger and they talk more, going on and on in Jerry Springer show fashion. They posture, weep, beg and plead, threaten, belittle. Large parts of the programs are spent in laying down a plot line leading up to the matches, revealing underlying animosities, alliances, deals. Romances between men and women wrestlers figure into the never-ending war among the characters. None of it seems as good to me as the old stuff. Like so much of our culture, it has mutated, been made bigger, more grandiose—the old formula with a bunch of new stuff that is supposed to make it better. Maybe it does. Maybe I do not appreciate it, but the crowd does.
I drive by the old mansion grounds almost every day. It is all still there. Not long ago, there was a threat that condominiums would wipe them away, but the good guys won out. The neighborhood rose up and protested and the developers backed away. The green lawn is still open and well tended by new owners, the bamboo and the big house shading it the way they have for more than a century now.
They hold on, reminding me every time I pass by that many things change, but one essential remains unaltered: Everybody has to lose some time. The crowd has to have that if they are to come back, or have any passion about the play. It is a concept, a rule that runs through life: light and dark, yin and yang. It is a truth supported by a lie. Whether I or others can appreciate it or not, the show will go on.
David Childers grew up in and lives in Mount Holly. His last story for this magazine was about the Charlotte Roller Girls roller derby team. He is also a singer, songwriter, and poet.
Andy Smith is a comic book artist who has worked for Marvel, DC, and Image Comics, among others. Some of the titles Andy has worked on are X-men, Superman, Green Lantern and Stormwatch. He lives in Charlotte. To see more of his work go to www.andysmithart.com