Then Verne Gagne Moved!
When I was maybe eight, Dad took me to see my first (and only) professional wrestling bout. It was incredible! There were various events, including two tag-team bouts, which were the most exciting. One guy was getting clobbered, almost pinned, almost pinned, almost pinned, and then he managed to reach the corner and tag his partner, who jumped on top of his opponent and saved the day! I still remember it, 65 years later!
The other tag-team match was even more memorable: it was bisexual! No, wait, that's not the word — it was "mixed." Two women started out, but each was paired with a man, and various interesting things happened (probably they would have been more interesting had I been twelve instead of eight) during the periods when a man and a woman grappled in the ring.
These preliminaries were mere warm-ups, however. The main event featured Verne Gagne, American Wrestling Association "World Champion," and some opponent who looked nasty, complete with a black scowl, black trunks, black robe, and maybe a black mask. (So far as I recall, all the contestants were white, but I'm not sure.)
To my knowledge, this was the first (and surely the last) time that Decatur, a city of about 65,000 right in the center of Illinois, had ever hosted a World Championship in any field of human endeavor! Surely it was held (no, I don't actually recall) in the Masonic Temple Auditorium, where all major events in Decatur took place. Surely it was sold out. Surely the crowd was yelling itself hoarse. Certainly I was.
The first minutes passed in a blur; I can no longer recount them to you reliably. But I still remember the fabulous climax. Both wrestlers were standing in the center of the ring, exhausted from their heroic efforts. Then the masked challenger stepped back and launched a sneak attack! He bounced off the elastic ropes, and catapulted himself feet-first at Verne Gagne! Our hero, caught unaware, crashed down like a redwood. Soon he regained his feet, however, only to have the evil challenger do it again! Again, though, Mr. Gagne managed to get up.
And then ... then, Verne (may I use his first name?) had endured enough! When he saw the challenger go back to bounce off the ropes for a third and possibly fatal attack, he bounced off the ropes and launched himself feet-first as well!
Both pairs of feet met in mid-air, some five feet above the mat! Perhaps 500 pounds of male flesh fell to the mat with an enormous thud. Both men lay stunned, possibly unconscious. A hush descended upon the crowd. The referee started his countdown, "One, two," but had to break off in confusion — how could he count out both men? Who would be the winner?
And then ... then, Verne Gagne moved! He rose up! Well, at least he turned over and got onto hands and knees. Groggily, he moved over to his supine opponent and fell on top of him. He could do no more.
"One, two, three," called out the referee, and it was over. Stunned, we filed out.
The next day, I told the story to all my friends at school. They too were impressed. Who wouldn't have been? Evil had been vanquished! Truth and justice had triumphed!
Yes, looking back, I am astounded that even at age eight, I failed to see through it. Why hadn't Verne thought to move his head to the side — just a few inches — when the challenger launched his feet at him? At least the second time? The third time, why did simply falling to the mat from five feet above it knock out both wrestlers? For that matter, how in the world might Decatur, Illinois, be hosting a World Championship wrestling bout in the first place? On a Tuesday night, at that? And didn't Mr. Gagne successfully defend his championship about as often as the Harlem Globetrotters — who also came through Decatur — defeated the College All-Stars?
Did my Dad see through it? And just not say anything, since disclosing the fraud would have taken away my immense pleasure in recounting the saga to my friends? I don't know — after all, decades later, many grown-ups still claimed to believe that Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, and all the rest were for real. Indeed, Verne Gagne, who retired finally in the 1980s (!), became a wrestling promoter and wound up as the sole owner of the American Wrestling Association! In turn, the AWA was "the breeding ground" for Hogan, Ventura, and all the rest, according to the Associated Press.
Let's just say that the 1950s was simpler times.
Yes, there is a parallel to the simpler times that historians presented, back then, in their "consensus accounts" of Columbus, the Cold War, and everything in-between. Vietnam and Watergate have made us all a bit more sophisticated, a lot less naive.
But that's not where I'm going with this essay. Verne Gagne died last week, age 89. That AP article is his obituary. Gagne started out as a real wrestler (high school, college, and AAU) before he became a fake wrestler. Some textbook authors were real historians, too, before they became fake historians for Pearson or Houghton Mifflin. Let us raise a glass of Bud Lite to Verne Gagne tonite!Copyright James W. Loewen
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