When I was 10 we lived in Augusta, Georgia. A friend of my mom’s adopted a baby. The baby was a giant. Not literally a giant. It was neither jolly nor green, nor iron, but it was a really big baby. My mom’s friend insisted that the agency told her that the father was a professional wrestler. She was convinced, due to the size of the baby, and the strangely morose eyes that sat above big black half moons, that the father was the Undertaker. This was a serious point of pride for the mother, not to mention a really cool origin story for a kid that may one day need one.
There was a boy named Travis who lived around the corner from us. He had all of the wrestling action figures: Rowdy Roddy Piper, Sargeant Slaughter, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, the Million Dollar Man, and a little plastic ring where he put his miniatures into action, their short inflexible arms, and permanently crab-clawed hands pinning one another against the ropes at his will. He invited all of the neighborhood boys over to watch Wrestlemania one night. I wasn’t really into wrestling, not beyond the unavoidable kid-in-the-eighties glorification of the Hulk. I mean, I didn’t know how to put someone in a… well, I still don’t know… a Half Nelson?
The ever present debate about the reality of the action in Wrestlemania arose. Was it fake? Was it real? Were these characters? Did men really wander the Earth with these unlikely personas, expressing the endless rage that arose from the endless drama of lives that seemed completely immersed in what was supposedly a profession? Did they go to the supermarket in spandex and leather with handkerchiefs tied around their heads? Could we grow up to be like them? Would it be a good thing if we did?
This was an early and serious engagement with the borders of fantasy, and well timed to coincide with the years in which Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss gave themselves over to the Diary of Anne Frank and All Quiet on the Western Front. The first Gulf war was on, and for the first time, I was questioning the honor of G.I. Joe, not to mention my step dad, who was a Marine. Sadam Hussein was a cartoonish villain whose image pinned itself well to the bullies and bad guys that my cartoons and kids books had brought into my cops and robbers world, but it was just beginning to dawn on me that a villain as pure as the media depicted had no place in the real world. Kids in class would jumble the letters in his name to DAM AS, not fretting over the missing N or S, and then add INSANE, because it rhymed with Hussein. “DAMN ASS INSANE,” they would yell. The mustached man in military dress intrigued me. He looked like Stalin, and what was more mysterious than Russia, home of that strange and contrary ideology that I knew from overhearing adults “was a fine idea, but would never work because people were naturally lazy.” Hussein could easily have been one of the lovable bad guys of the WWF because he embodied so much charisma of the easily vilifiable kind.
We were also studying the Civil War… In Georgia… shades of gray abounded as my Southern bell of a fourth grade teacher told us of the heroicism of Lee, the alcoholism of Grant and the tangential relationship of slavery to the war. The Southern mythology of the classroom battered itself against the wider American mythology that I got from television, books and my mom. Heightening the awareness of the strange tension of the state I called home, was the ongoing debate over the Georgia flag’s continued use of confederate imagery. I became obsessed with the bizarre significance of this strange cloth that had always hung from important buildings… and by implication, the stars and stripes that hung at its side. It was becoming clear that nothing was clear.
Was it real? Questioning the authenticity of WWF heroes started fights. Travis, a white kid, and a fervent believer, became enraged when Sammy, a black kid, said that he’d read it was all an act. A fight was scheduled. Our fights never erupted spontaneously, but were allotted times in the not too distant future so that we could all elicit the fullest pleasure from the buzz of the wait. The news spread around the neighborhood accompanied by the perverse pleasure of drama to come. Factions, which would dissolve as soon as the fight ended, were formed. Weapons of minimal destruction were amassed: fragile sticks, water balloons, pine cones, pee-filled water guns, switch blade combs… it was strange how we innately knew to only bring implements that pantomimed our violent fantasies.
Travis and Sammy met by the tree in the creek. It was probably only 20 yards into the light wooded area that ran between two different sets of back yards, but it always felt as if we were miles into the jungle, away from the panoptic eye of the neighborhood elders. The other boys surrounded them, while I, as always, lingered back, pulse racing, afraid of catching a stray pine cone. There were lightly racialized lines drawn in the factions, but it wasn’t complete. There were a couple white kids backing Sammy, and a couple black kids backing Travis. We were still young, a few years later it would likely have been a complete divide. It seemed strange that as gray areas intruded further and further into our mental worlds, our physical ones grew more segregated.
Words were exchanged, balloons flung, fragile sticks snapped on contact with thighs and biceps, pine cones stung slightly against bare skin, switch blade combs were brandished in what must have been self-consciously faux threats, usually a punch was thrown. I don’t remember a punch that day. I just remember the rabble disintegrating into two sides, running away from each other, shouting hollow taunts, enacting our own flaccid version of the Outsiders.
A couple hours later we probably all met up in the alley behind the circle K and talked about the afternoons drama, remembering, or mis-remembering, each individual exploit, grudges forgotten until someone else challenged that sensitive border that kept real violence out of our fantasy world. Were these outbursts of soft violence preparing us for something? Were we imitating the world we thought we would have to enter? Were our fantasies playing some part in predetermining the nature of the society we would one day steward? Could we have done it differently?
I recently attended Wrestlemania with my girlfriend’s little brother and another friend of mine. It was Shawn Michaels’, who retired at the following Monday Night Raw (which I also attended with my girlfriend’s little brother), last fight. He was beaten after an epic battle with the Undertaker, the supposed father of my mom’s friend’s adopted baby. I was not a wrestling fan as a kid, nor am I now, but my world, as probably any boy’s who was young enough in the eighties, was one that was immersed in wrestling lore. Watching the Undertaker take down Shawn Michaels, and this time, unlike my ten year old self, being confident that the action was choreographed, made me think of the Georgia that I left for Chicago when I was 13.
My girlfriend’s brother had ringside seats, while my friend and I sat in the balcony. It wasn’t what we’d expected. The crowd was less lively and less violent than the crowd at a football game despite the occasional shout of ‘kill em’, or ‘rip his head off.’ Mostly, people sat calmly, laughed, yelled, taunted, heckled, but what was overwhelmingly clear was that everyone over the age of fifteen, well, almost everyone over the age of fifteen, was in on the joke. The crowd was diverse in every way imaginable, though admittedly male heavy. In my section there were flags flying: Mexico, Israel, Germany, Japan, France, Japan, Argentina, Japan, Canada, Japan… lots of Japan.
And then came the retirement speech. Shawn Michaels stood in the center of the ring and proceeded to bring a testosterone pumped stadium to tears. He cried, children cried, 40 year old men cried, I nearly cried myself. It was touching because it broke the same boundary between fantasy and reality that had been so sensitive to the tweens of my Georgia subdivision. In that moment, a person said goodbye to the fans that had supported him throughout a long and heralded career, and it was impossible to separate the persona from the body that stood there. It was as if at the age of forty-five Johnny Depp gave a bon voyage speech at the Oscars in character as Jack Sparrow, and we all felt it more deeply for the awkward defense of the disguise.
More cynically, it reminded me of conversations about good ol’ George W. The question that people obsessed over in the midst of the war he waged was one of authenticity, of intention. While many people did concern themselves with the results of his actions, the conversation always tended towards the topic of whether or not he perpetrated them from some sincere place, or he, like the DAMN ASS INSANE man that he deposed, was an impossibly evil persona rather than the inevitably conflicted mixture of intentions and neuroses that most of us are. In then end, why was it important to us whether this was an act of authenticity or duplicity? Shouldn’t we have been more concerned with the act itself? I realized most of us hadn’t come as far as we thought since our days of debating the authenticity of wrestling with fragile sticks and urine filled balloons. We were still trying to figure out which aspects of our violence were real, and we were still taking a perverse pleasure in the drama.
So, was our fake fight over whether or not the WWF fights were fake preparing us for something? Were we learning something in that lightly wooded jungle with our implements of minimal destruction? Almost certainly, but what? Were we preparing to be warriors, to run off to the distant deserts and take down whatever Stalin look-a-likes may occupy the sandy palaces? Were we trying on elements of an identity that we’d yet to assemble? Were we practicing the defenses that we’d have to put up to make it through year after year in an often inhumane society? Were we practicing to become the source of that inhumanity?
I honestly don’t have much in the way of answers to any of those questions. But, from my present stance, nearly nine years into the sequel of the war in the gulf that set off so many initial questions about personas of good and evil, I think I can safely say that to this day most of us still haven’t divided the fantasies from the realities of our aggression, even as the consequences become more and more real.