Charlotte Zietlow’s back in town after her sad duty to attend her beloved grandson Henry’s memorial in St. Paul, Minnesota Sunday. Henry was killed in a head-on collision near Hayward, Wisconsin, last week.
Charlotte adored Henry. I meet with her just about every Friday afternoon so we can work on her memoir. I scarcely exaggerate when I say she shared news about Henry every time we’d meet. He was a brilliant student, an accomplished violinist, a rower, and perhaps the nicest kid you’d ever want to meet. He was a freshman at Bowdoin College in Maine, his father Nathan Zietlow’s alma mater. Nathan had gone on to Harvard Law School and would become a highly successful corporate attorney. His mother Sarah Risser had studied forestry at Yale and attended several other top-notch colleges for her graduate work. No one had any doubt that Henry — no matter what field he’d choose to enter — would be equally as successful as his parents.
Charlotte’s kids, Nathan and her daughter Rebecca Zietlow, both were super-duper achievers. Each was a Phi Beta Kappa scholar; each earned college scholarships galore. Rebecca, who also attended Harvard Law, has become one of the country’s foremost experts on the 13th Amendment. She works now as a law professor at the University of Toledo and is a visiting professor at the University of Vermont law school. Both Nathan’s and Rebecca’s kids are following a similar path of success, earning scholarships and awards, creating art, playing music, and making their little corners of the world better.
I said to Charlotte one day, “You know, you’re awfully lucky. You were happily married to a talented, loving, decent man (Paul Zietlow was a respected literature professor at Indiana University from 1964 through his retirement). Your kids are great. Your grandkids are great. Do you ever sit back and realize how fortunate you’ve been?”
Charlotte immediately countered: “Well, Paul and I were raised right. And we raised our children right.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, “but I know a lot of parents who raised their kids right but some of those kids turned out to have profound problems or be jerks or even suffer terrible diseases.”
“Maybe,” Charlotte said, grudgingly. She’s a great believer in hard work and paving your own road. But sometimes irony can be ugly; sometimes a car can come down that road, traveling in the opposite direction….
She was lucky. She is lucky, if less so now.
With this holy land celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday this week (and with some pretending to mark the occasion, even if they have no business doing so) and with Black History Month beginning a week from tomorrow, I thought it’d be a neat gesture to bring out my interview with local cartoonist Nate Powell for this week’s Big Talk.
Powell, a bestselling creator of graphic novels like Any Empire and The Silence of Our Friends, co-authored with Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) and Andrew Aydin the March trilogy. March tells the story of Lewis’s life as a civil rights warrior. Lewis suffered a fractured skull on Bloody Sunday, March 5, 1965, when state troopers and local posse members attacked hundreds of freedom marchers outside the town of Selma, Alabama.
I’ve celebrated King Day for years, annually watching the documentary “King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis.” I’ll watch it again this year — probably Saturday night — but it’s starting to seem…, well, unseemly for a white guy like me to claim the day.
Aw, to hell with it. I’m all in on King Day. And, like every year, I’ll cry when Nina Simone begins to sing “The King of Love Is Dead.”
You can celebrate, too, by tuning in to Big Talk this afternoon at 5:30 on WFHB, 91.3 FM. I’ll post the link to the podcast of the show either tonight or tomorrow morning, depending on my laziness quotient.
It was in late summer or early fall, 1983, when I struck out on my own and started working on what would turn out to be my first feature article for pay. It would be for the Chicago Reader, an alternative newsweekly I’d go on to write for until the early years of the new millennium.
One of my circles of friends had become hooked on what was then the relatively unknown phenomenon called professional wrestling. We were hip to the heroes and villains like the Iron Sheik, Hulk Hogan, Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, Sgt. Slaughter, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, and Big John Studd. We watched matches on UHF TV stations (the more established VHF channels turned their noses up at the spectacle).
So, I heard about a big event to be held one Saturday evening at the then-Rosemont Horizon, a second-tier indoor arena that sat, at best, some 14,000. It would be called the Battle Royal, the idea being there’d be some half-dozen undercard matches pitting individuals and one or two duos against each other. And then, in an orgasmic finale, a couple of dozen wrestlers would crowd into the ring and begin slamming, pile-driving, leaping, forearm shivering, and otherwise mayhemming their way toward being The Last Man Standing.
The night’s card was put together by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo’s American Wrestling Association. The old-schoolers Gagne and Karbo pre-dated technology like pay-per-view and, to be sure, the internet. The pro wrestling racket made its dough almost strictly through ticket sales. The industry was run on a shoestring. The wrestlers were paid peanuts. All too often, wrestlers who sprained an ankle or broke a bone had to pay their medical expenses out of their own pockets. In fact, when wrestlers were injured, their bosses basically told them it was their fault, that somehow they’d missed a step or forgotten to protect themselves in the intricate choreography that made up the matches.
I wanted to learn about the people who paid good money to see these staged encounters. I’d sensed that the lot of them believed what they were watching on TV was real, dangerous, blood-drawing violence. Guys’d shatter boom boxes over each others’ heads. They’d smash each others faces with folding chairs. One guy was known to brandish a horsewhip. Another, brass knuckles. Somehow, none of the wrestlers seemed ever to miss the next match, even after they’d been pummeled and assaulted with deadly weapons. Like no one else before in my town, I’d get the real story from the mouths of the folks who bought these shows hook, line and sinker. I called for my first press pass, went out and bought a couple of fresh reporter’s notebooks, and slipped my shiny new microcassette recorder into my trench coat pocket. I was off to be a paid journalist.
I walked into the arena and gasped. It was filled to the rafters with baying, howling, shrieking wrestling fans. The attendance later would be announced at better than 15,000, a good thou more than capacity. I’d have bet the real number was closer to 20,000. There was no place to walk as every available inch of aisle space, hallway space, and even in the tunnels leading into the seating areas was taken up by spectators. I elbowed and bulled my way through the crowd, interviewing fans, getting beer spilled on me, and having a whale of a time.
I asked one guy if he believed what he was seeing on the mat was real. Of course it was, he nearly shouted. He turned out to be a touch more sophisticated than the average fan at the Horizon that night. He explained to me that when the suit-and-tie crowd went to go see a Shakespeare play, “Julius Caesar,” say, they might recoil in horror when the gang surrounds the emperor and stabs him to death. It’s the same thing here, he said.
I didn’t have the heart to counter-argue that when the suit-and-tie crowd went home, they didn’t hold malice in their hearts toward the poor slob who’d played Brutus.
After the event, I hustled over to the nearby Air Host Motel, the cheapest of dives, on Mannheim Road, just south of O’Hare Int’l Airport. I’d gotten a tip that the wrestlers normally stayed at the place and that they’d likely gather in the motel lounge for hours into the night after the show. Sure enough, all the big names were there. Ric Flair. Jesse “the Body” Ventura (the future conspiracy theorist and governor of Minnesota). Nikolai Volkov (the despised Russian villain). Hillbilly Jim. Rick Martel. Ravishing Rick Rude. Mr. Fuji. Baron von Raschke, and more. The latter two wrestlers, BTW, were old birds, representing the aging World War II crowd’s enemies, Japan and Germany.
Standing in a corner, nursing a highball, was longtime ring announcer Gene Okerlund. “Mean Gene,” as he was dubbed — ironically, natch — by Jesse Ventura, was still wearing his tuxedo jacket but the ends of his bow tie lay undone on his lapels. I sidled over to Okerlund and chatted with him for a good fifteen minutes. Baron von Raschke passed by, carrying the early edition of the Sunday Chicago Tribune, and bade good night to Okerlund. “I’m tired,” he said in his faux German accent — he was born in Omaha, Nebraska. “I can not keep up wit’ you kids anymore.” Okerlund was a mere two years younger than von Raschke. von Raschke, Okerlund whispered to me after the wrestler had gone, worked as a substitute elementary school teacher when he wasn’t goose-stepping around the ring.
I’m thinking about all this because Gene Okerlund died on January 2nd.
I’m also thinking about this because the folks who made pro wrestling the mega-success it would become almost immediately after that Battle Royal seem to me the same types who cast their lots with Li’l Duce, our current president. They were people desperate to believe in something even in the face of all available evidence. Let’s go back to the Shakespeare reference. Play-goers engage in what’s known as “suspension of disbelief.” We can convince ourselves to believe the actor on the stage is trying to kill the other actor on the stage with a dagger — but just for the moment the action occurs. Wrestling fans — and Trump supporters — don’t suspend their disbelief, they wallow in a form of pure, unadulterated, childlike belief.
It’s no coincidence at all that Trump himself got involved with wrestling, in 2007, long after the American Wrestling Association was eclipsed by Vince McMahon’s gaudy and aggressively-marketed World Wrestling Entertainment syndicate.
I was in shock that first moment I walked into the Horizon, gaping at the thousands and thousands of folks who’d waited all week long for the show and had filled the place. I had no idea how many of them there were in this holy land.
Just about as shocked as I was watching the presidential race throughout the summer and fall of 2016.