My grandfather, Papaw, moved in with us when I was in junior high. Later, when my dad was transferred to Omaha during my high school years, Papaw went along with the rest of the family. I stayed behind to finish high school.
Papaw was a taciturn man of occasional wit and wisdom…and slightly more than occasional whimsy. One day in Omaha, he returned from his afternoon walk (he could cover miles) with a four-foot high marijuana plant he had recognized growing on a railroad easement. He added it carefully to dad’s tomato patch. He’d heard the controversy about the plant and was curious. When my dad got home from work that evening, he felt that curiosity was gonna get the whole family tossed in the hoosegow and destroyed the evidence tout suite.
Papaw accumulated 78rpm records whenever he ran across them and would play them on his ancient turntable for hours. His hearing was no longer sharp. Thus, he cranked the turntable to life and cranked the volume up to eleven and leaned in. It was a sight to see. I couldn’t help but think of RCA Victor’s logo and caption; “Listening for his master’s voice.” I can’t truly say that Frankie Carle and his Orchestra writ scratchy and large made me a better man, but my Papaw seemed to find great value in the ensemble.
One day we were at a flea market and he noticed my interest in a cardboard box of about 20 “Tom Swift” books. When we returned to the car, the books were in the back seat, courtesy of Papaw. I can’t say TOM SWIFT AND HIS MOTOR-BIKE made me a better man, but I cherished the books then and still have them…he said bookishly (that’s a joke that only Tom Swift cognoscenti will get…and wince at…sorry).
Papaw believed what he saw on TV.
He believed it was real.
He was an uneducated, unsophisticated man, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew movies were stories and not real.
Here was a window through which you could see things that were really happening somewhere and not get arrested for peeping. You could look in on other people’s doin’s.
Don’t laugh too quickly. The plausibility of Hitchcock’s wonderful Rear Window depends on just that premise.
Remember, this was decades before “reality TV.” But Huntley and Brinkley were real, weren’t they? Ed Sullivan was live. Lawrence Welk was live (I’m not quite sure about Myron Florenz, but Bobby and Cissy were certainly a lively and charming young couple). All those game shows were live – maybe crooked, but live. The baseball game of the week was live.
The possibility of confusion was real and live on TV.
Papaw seriously proffered that Dorothy Malone and other members of the cast of Peyton Place had better mend their ways before disaster came a’knockin’ at the door. He would not miss an episode and wondered if Brother Bob from our church should go see those folks.
He believed professional wrestling was real.
I spent the summer of 1968, between school years, in Omaha. The professional wrestling scene in Omaha was thriving. Every Saturday night at the arena, there were hours of “championship” matches, blood matches, barbed wire challenges, and tag team mayhem, all accessorized with glitter, capes, masks, top hats, canes, and keffiyehs. Three or four thousand fans would pile in to scream and throw things.
It was a real good time.
During the week, to promote the Saturday events, portable rings were set up at the local malls and the lesser stars of Omaha’s wrestling world would go a few rounds to whet the appetite for Saturday night.
On Wednesday evenings, one of the local TV stations would set up the portable ring in their studio and surround it with 70-80 rickety chairs on rickety-er platforms. For an hour, the stars of Omaha’s grappling firmament would prance, sneer, yell, leap, kick, bite, slug, strut, threaten, and make imaginative use of those rickety chairs.
The invited audience would scream insults and jeers at the villains (no expletives had to be deleted – the crowd understood it was live TV, and it was a different time) and then line up to get autographs after the bouts.
Wednesday evenings in our living room would find my Papaw in the chair closest to the TV. This is not because he was being pushy. The rest of us wanted sit behind him and watch him watching wrestling. It was quite a show. He flinched with every punch. He rose from his chair with every leap from the turnbuckles. He kicked with every drop kick.
We laughed and had a whee of a time pointing out sheer fakery of the presentation. He was oblivious to our questions;
– How can a fighter smack another fighter on the head with a metal folding chair and a) not send him to the hospital, and b) not send the chair swinger to jail?
– How come every bout ended exactly in time for the commercial break?
– How can a fighter hide a mysterious debilitating substance in those skin-tight outfits?
– Why can the masks never be completely removed no matter how comatose the masked scoundrel is?
– Since this is in a TV studio and all the wrestlers are using the same dressing room, wouldn’t they just destroy themselves there?
– Isn’t it convenient that Cowboy Bob, wrestling good guy and horse owner/trainer, would return to Omaha every summer when the local race track opened, defeat Iron Mike for the regional championship, fight wrestlers and race horses all summer, and then lose the championship back to Iron Mike a week after the track closed for the year?
Papaw was undeterred in his faith.
One Wednesday night, he got so caught up in the TV action, he flung himself backward, overturned his chair, and dumped himself on the floor.
We didn’t laugh at that.
Dad decided this had gone beyond amusing and into the realm of; “Oh yeah, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt or a perfectly good chair gets busted.” He obtained three tickets to the next Wednesday’s TV wrestling broadcast to cure Papaw of his grappling delusions.
There we were: three generations; Will Senior, William Junior, and June’s Boy, watching the participants laughing and joking with each other as they assembled the ring and warmed up. And there we were a half an hour later when the bouts began. It was all I had ever imagined; shouts and grunts and growls and screams – 250-pound men in tights leaping from the top ropes of the ring – dead men, face down on the mat – same dead men miraculously resurrected for a jaw-dropping thirty seconds of inexplicable victory – chairs flung, tables smashed, mysterious substances deployed – loud vows of vengeance to be inflicted; “Just wait till Saturday night at the arena! You won’t want miss it!!”
I was pretty sure I wanted to miss it.
We skipped the autograph session and headed home.
Papaw was pretty sure we had witnessed some clear illegalities that evening and that perhaps we should notify the police. His faith in the veracity of wrestling remained unshaken.
My grandfather lived to be 99 years old.
I love him and still miss him. He was a good guy and a real good time.
But I suspect…
…he would fallen hard for reality shows…
…he would have voted for Trump.