Legendary Saturday Nights

When I was a kid, I watched professional wrestling with my brothers, Dave and Jon. We watched the AWA in Minneapolis on Saturday nights at 6 p.m. on channel nine, when my parents would be getting ready for bowling. They bowled in a mixed doubles league at Maple Lanes in Fridley, Minn., with various couples, but mainly Arnie and Ethel Keller sometimes Marge and Bob Guelker, occasionally with Sherry and Wayne Parks – Wayne was a lefty —  and later with Bev and Mick Helvenkca. Mick was a helluva bowler, but Arnie was my favorite, by far.

AWA Wrestling had a strong lead-in, the Lawrence Welk Show. Good lord, that was an awful, awful show. “And da, one and da two …” But it was a good lesson to learn as a kid, you have to go through a lot of crap, just to squeeze an ounce of pleasure out of this world.

My mom would make hamburgers in the fry pan or she’d boil some hot dogs in a pan that I’d like to make popcorn in. It would take a couple of washings to get that wiener taste out of that pan. After dinner, Mom would head to the bathroom to prepare. I can still smell the combination of hairspray and perfume. She was awesome. Dad would have a highball. Or two. A brandy-Seven.

Dad threw a back-up ball. An unusual ball to throw for a right hander; it hooked from the left to the right. I don’t know anyone else who threw the back-up. My dad was a solid bowler; he carried an average typically around 172-175 or thereabouts. Mom fluctuated between 140 and 145.  I can still see her ball. It would skid halfway down the lane before rotating to the pocket.

Mom and Dad would bring me to bowling on occasion. Just me. I was the youngest. Still am. I remember getting sodas from the vending machine. It would drop a plastic cup and a bunch of that crunchy-type of ice, then from two spouts, the machine would dispense cola syrup with a carbonated fluid of some sort. It was a mini-engineering miracle. I loved that crunchy ice.

But I digress … on Saturday night, when Mom and Dad left for bowling … Jon, Dave and I would watch wrestling.

AWA Wrestling had its perennial champion, owner and former NCAA champion for the University of Minnesota, Verne Gagne. His co-owner was promoter Wally Karbo, who Jesse “The Body” Ventura always referred to as Wally Karibou. The announcer and interviewer was Marty O’Neill, a tiny man who always wore dark glasses and held a long wand-like microphone.

One of the first wrestlers that captured my imagination was Dr. X. He wore a mask with an ‘X’ on the forehead. I can’t remember much about him; he was mysterious. Everyone tried to take his mask off. Who was under that mask? One day Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkel’s tag-team partner, broke Dr. X’s leg by jumping off the top rope, an illegal move. From that day on, Ray Stevens was known as Ray “The Crippler” Stevens.

My brothers and I loved everything about the no budget, no frills TV show. It was shot in a studio in Brooklyn Park in front of a studio audience of about 100. Once a month or so, there would be a card at the St. Paul Civic Center where the good wrestlers would go at it, but on the television show, the big-name wrestlers would basically beat up the jobbers.

Our two favorite jobbers were George “Scrap Iron” Gadaski and Kenny “Sodbuster” Jay. They wrestled in solo matches, but were best loved as a hapless tag-team duo. They lost a thousand TV matches in a row, seriously, a losing streak that lasted years, then one Saturday night Scrap Iron and Sodbuster won. After taking beatdown after beatdown, the jobbers got their hands raised. That was so awesome.

The wrestlers on these shows were real deal tough guys. They were barrel-chested shooters, who had paid their dues living the hard life on the road, getting $5 for a night’s work, busting their heads open for a couple hundred drunks. Until they arrived at the AWA …

These guys didn’t do a lot of high flying acrobatics. They fought. The Wrestler Who Made Milwaukee Famous was a man known only as The Crusher, a cigar chomping brawler. He was the most popular wrestler in the Midwest, ever. His tag-team partner was his cousin, Dick the Bruiser.

The Crusher was ahead of his time. Stone Cold Steve Austin should pay residuals to The Crusher. Wrestling is based on good vs. evil. I went to one of those TV tapings. And they told us to cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys. The Crusher was a rule-breaker. For all intent and purposes, he should have been a bad guy, but instead he was beloved.

How ‘bout dat?

That was The Crusher’s catch phrase. Here’s another piece of trivia … the greatest bad guy wrestling manager was Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. The Crusher gave him another nickname that stuck. Bobby “The Weasel” Heenan. Pop goes the weasel.

The Crusher had a finishing move called the ‘bolo punch.’ In the grand scheme of things, it was simply unspectacular. He’d beat up his opponent until the guy was barely standing up. In fact, the poor guy would be bent over at the waist. Crusher would grab a handful of hair; he’d jaw with the crowd and then start the ‘bolo punch’ windup. It was an elaborate series of swings before he unleash an unholy upper cut. Occasionally, he’d actually make contact. Either way, that was all she wrote. Once you caught the bolo punch, you were out, done, finished. Crusher would make the cover and record the 1, 2, 3.

Everyone had their finishing move: Dr. X, the figure four; Verne Gagne, the sleeper; Wahoo McDaniel, would drop a vicious elbow; Baron Von Raschke, a Nazi or at least a Nazi sympathizer, would torture his opponents with ‘the claw’ to the temples; Dusty Rhodes, would cause pandemonium, baby, with his own bionic elbow; the High Flyers or High Cryers, if you will, would jump around, giving opponents a series flying drop kicks.

British champion Billy Robinson was the master of 1,000 holds and he could get his opponents to submit with any number of moves, but the one move that my brothers learned and applied on me the most was the Boston Crab.

If anyone ever put you into the Boston Crab, you would believe that wrestling was real.

My favorite part about wrestling wasn’t the in-ring action. I loved the interviews. AWA Wrestling would end many shows with a cliffhanger. “Who will be wrestling the Road Warriors in two weeks at the St. Paul Civic Center? It’s going to be The Crusher and … folks, we are running out of time, tune in next week and find out who will be Crusher’s partner.”

So you turned in the next week, The Crusher would come on, wearing shades, and chomping on a cigar. “My partner to fight dem bums at the St. Paul Civic Center will be … Baron Von Raschke.”

”Crusher, you have got to be kidding me! You and ‘The Clawmaster,’ Baron Von Raschke, will be taking on the Legend of Doom, this Saturday at the St. Paul Civic Center.”

The menacing, bald German, would hold up his powerful hand in the shape of a claw, and say, “Dat is all the da people need to know!”

But wrestling was just the appetizer for our legendary Saturday nights.

Dave, Jon and I did not have Xbox. Or cable. Or email. We had a clicker and four channels, and we had imaginations. We dreamed up new games, mostly based on traditional games, but with a twist.

We built a basketball court in our garage. We cut out the bottom of two ice cream pails, those big one-gallon deals, and nailed them up in the rafters. My dad was equally crafty; he had stuff stored all over the rafters. It was a crowded court. We played basketball with a tennis ball. You couldn’t really dribble the ball, so in our game, you had to fake dribble. We were sticklers for rules about dribbling, but we weren’t so particular on calling fouls.

It was fun. Sure, by the time you left the hot box of the garage ball basketball court, you’d be walking on rubber-leg street. Everyone could dunk, but everyone could also block dunks, so you had to work it.

We played a game in the backyard, called ‘Interception.’ You had a quarterback, receiver and defender. It was a ball control game. You’d get four downs to score a touchdown. I just remember playing under the ‘light,’ around the rose bushes and look out for the tree.

Speaking of that tree … a might oak reaching a mile into the sky, dominated the alley end of the backyard. We had another game called ‘Home Run Derby,’ a whiffle ball version of the big league game. Our game was harder. We played with the standard whiffle ball and bat, but my brothers could both throw a wicked bender, slider and screwball. Here is the twist. Home runs were hard to come by because you didn’t just have to hit it over the fence; you had to hit it up and over the mighty oak. Homeruns would tend to end up on the roof of our neighbor’s house on the other side of the alley.

Sometimes we’d play inside.

We played a game we called, ‘Goal Line Stand,’ where I would pretend to be Chuck Foreman going over the pile. Jon and Dave would be the defensive line and when I would jump in between them, they’d toss me into the air onto the bed … just like Chuck Foreman.

We took the footstools and played football on our knees. The footstools were our blockers. We had those kind of pants from Sears where your knees would wear out before your pants would.

At some point in the night, we’d get thirsty. Dave would do the honors. Mom would occasionally get us an eight-pack of pops; a variety pack … Orange Crush, Dr. Pepper, A&W, Pepsi and sometime, on the rarest of occasions … Grape Crush. That was a special treat. Dave would open a bottle and, with much scrutiny, would pour the pop into three glasses in equal amounts. Once we were all in agreement as to the fairness of the pour, we’d toss in some ice cubes. The glasses all had cartoon characters on them and the glasses were all old jelly jars.

Those legendary Saturday nights were fleeting. Mom and Dad kept bowling, but before I knew it, Jon and Dave got friends and found other things to do on the weekends. I ended up watching the Love Boat alone.

Those Saturday nights were the best.

My brother Jon passed away on Aug. 1 at the age of 43. The Crusher died on Oct. 22 at 79. This story is dedicated to their memory.

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