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.
Warming to our task, we sought ways to develop even more showmanship. We pestered our mothers into dyeing our long winter woolen underwear, mine a blazing crimson, his a regal blue. Worn under our bathing suits, they made strikingly colorful tights. My brother, who had some talent for hand-lettering, turned out two beautiful signs on white wrapping paper begged from the lady who ran the bakery shop. One read CRIPPLER CHASEN, the other MAULER MACKAY. We pinned them to the backs of our bathrobes.
And we came up with two more pieces of theatrics, so secret that we told no one about them.
Mr. Wilson was appreciative. "You boys will be a riot," he promised. He showed us the mimeographed programs he had prepared. It listed the gymnasts and pyramid builders by name. In a special section, set off by heavy black lines, we read:
WRESTLING EXHIBITION FEATURING
Crippler Chasen (112 lbs.)
Specializing in the Paralyzer Hold
Mauler MacKay (108 lbs.)
With His Famous East Indian Death Grip
This, of course, necessitated further rehearsals. We decided that my East Indian Death Grip would be a backbreaker whereby I would appear to snap Bob's spine across my knee. He applied his Paralyzer by placing his fingers on my jugular vein, immediately rendering me senseless and rigid.
As Mr. Wilson predicted, our appearance on the auditorium stage was greeted by waves of laughter and applause. Shortly after getting the mayhem under way, we sprang our first surprise. Bob dropped me with a right hand to the chin. I got up. He knocked me down. I arose on rubber legs. He belted me once more. I staggered to my feet and spit out four teeth. The audience gasped at the sight of my horrible toothless grimace. The lost teeth were in truth four navy beans, and my apparent dental tragedy had been achieved by blacking out my four front teeth with licorice.
After a time, it was Bob's turn to shock the onlookers. We maneuvered ourselves to the corner of the mat where he had deposited his bathrobe. In its pocket was a small jar of watered ketchup that had been removed by stealth from his mother's kitchen. After I had felled him with a series of forearm smashes, he lay inert upon his stomach facing away from the audience. Leaving him there for dead, I pranced about beating my chest and hysterically proclaiming myself the victor. The crowd's attention thus diverted. Bob was able to smear his hands lavishly with the ketchup. He arose, obviously defenseless, and I resumed my sadistic headhunting attack with fists and forearms. He dropped to his knees, pitifully covering his face with his hands. When he at last struggled upright and presented his gory visage to public view, several women in the audience screamed.
Next, I applied my East Indian Death Grip. Bob escaped just in time. He retaliated with the Paralyzer which, naturally, transported me to dreamland. However, my Death Grip had done its awful work. As he arose to accept the plaudits of the crowd, he clutched his back, groaned terribly, tottered and collapsed. Mr. Wilson called it a draw.
After the curtain had come down, Bob and I lay upon the mat congratulating each other and awaiting the expected tumultuous ovation. But, as sometimes happens with dramatic actors, we had somehow failed to captivate our audience. Applause was polite and scattered.
Next morning, during Mr. Wilson's third-period gym class, Bob and I begged him to allow us to do it again next year. Mr. Wilson appeared to think otherwise. It seemed that the telephone in the school office had been jangling without letup throughout the morning. Obviously the well-bred of our community were unfamiliar with the fraudulent aspects of professional wrestling. Several of the callers asked when Bob and I might be expected to be up and around again. Some suggested starting a fund to help our parents with the medical and dental bills. Others characterized Mr. Wilson as a corrupter of youth. A few wondered aloud whether or not he might be legally charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors. Words such as "resign" and "fire" peppered their complaints.
We were sorry for Mr. Wilson—but, deep down, we were mighty conceited about those angry calls. They were better than applause.