W4 ™ (Whole Wide World of Wrestling)
When the level of mayhem could no longer satisfy, the governing body of W4 ™ ratcheted it up. Among the featured newcomers were Cannibal and Pygmy. Cannibal was a spandexed giant imported from an unnamed Pacific island, who wore an elaborate mask modeled after Hannibal Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins’), in The Silence of the Lambs. In mid-match, Cannibal would extricate himself from the mask, and, like Lecter, proceed to rend his screaming antagonist, or, if you believed the skeptics among us, to rend the high end tear-away latex body suit the victim wore over his –or her!-- actual flesh.
The second featured newcomer was Pygmy. Ostensibly from an unmapped region in Africa, Central Asia, or South America, Pygmy was a headhunter. Entering the ring without the requisite equipment, the small, quick athlete would dart away from his slower opponent, nevertheless enduring a modicum of punishment. At some point in the match, he would be thrown through the ropes down onto the apron. Only then would his female associate poke her smiling face from under the ring and slip Pygmy the tools of his trade: knife, scalpel, a diminutive hatchet, and the garotte, with its polished wooden handles. The tiny, but nubile, associate would proceed to distract the referee by means of a game of peekaboo, running helter-skelter beneath the ring and darting into and out of it, so that, whichever way he turned, she would be behind him. Meanwhile, Pygmy would perform the apparently lethal decapitation.
Again, of course, our skeptics purported to deconstruct the ruse. According to them, the actual head of the hapless and apparently headless victim was stitched inside a body suit, from which vantage he would look out through the nipples as Pygmy struck off his second, papier-mache’ head. But regardless of our belief systems, we granted the headhunter our uncritical affection, for, like most of us, a ninety pound professional wrestler would always be the underdog. As for Cannibal, suffice it to say that he only did what we dreamed of doing.
Whichever of the two new stars was featured in a given match, making virtual mincemeat of yet another young Adonis or old fatty, and flooding the ring with either human blood or red paint, a plethora of bells, whistles, sirens, lights, and rattling thunder (or sheet metal) would provide cover for any slip-ups. When the head was off, or the flesh eaten, all would go dark, and an awed hush would descend, broken only by the scrabbling feet of the custodians (presumably), who rushed into the ring (presumably) to clean and clear it. Some minutes later, the lights would come back up, and it was as if nothing had happened. There sat the spanking white canvas ring with its gleaming brass stanchions, padded turnbuckles, and so on. And there stood the stoic referee in his polished shoes and immaculate striped shirt and black pants, arms folded across his chest as he awaited the arrival of the next contestants.
It was, of course, only a matter of time, hype, and the accumulation of suitably impressive resumes before we would get to enjoy the inevitable clash of the giant, Cannibal, and the pygmy, Pygmy. What was especially thrilling about this prospect was that W4 ™ officials began dropping broad hints to the effect that audience participation might be permitted. We held our collective breath.
* * *
Six weeks ago, I received a notice in the mail that reminded me of my draft notices during the Vietnam War. (I was deferred twice, the first time for a fish allergy; the second, in order to attend graduate school.) Several other documents were enclosed. I opened the notice with proverbially trembling hands.
W4 ™ (Whole Wide World of Wrestling)
(their address and fax number)
_____ (date filled in)
Dear __________ (my name filled in),
Congratulations. You have been selected to participate in the featured bout, CANNIBAL V. PYGMY. Please plan to arrive at _____ (time filled in) on _____ (date filled in) at ________ (name of arena filled in).
1. Signatures and Fee
For each of the enclosed forms (see below), in the spaces provided, append your SIGNATURE and the DATE. Then, using the pre-addressed envelope, return the first and second copies of all four forms (see below), along with a check for ____ (amount filled in), to cover the costs of one-time health insurance for this event. (Note that the U.S. Postal Service will not deliver mail that does not have sufficient postage.) Retain the third copy of the forms for your own records. A copy of the insurance policy will be forwarded to you at least one week before the date of your scheduled appearance.
- Agreement to participate in match (APM).
- Medical liability waiver (MLW).
- Participant’s fee/financial remuneration waiver (PF/FRW).
- InterviewAgreement form (IAF).
In addition to the signed, returned MLW, please instruct your primary care physician to forward to us, either by fax or regular mail, a short statement on letterhead to the effect that (s)he knows of no medical condition which might make it hazardous for you to participate as a spectator-performer in a W4 ™ (Whole Wide World of Wrestling) event. This letter must be received by _____ (date filled in).
4. If you are accepted for participation:
--Please appear at ________ (address of side door) of _____ (name of arena) at the time indicated on your letter of invitation (above.) Your name will be included on the list of those authorized to receive a (one) complimentary ticket. In order to claim your ticket, you will be asked to produce an official photo I.D. (such as a passport or driver’s license.)
--Please wear non-marking athletic shoes and loose-fitting trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, both made of durable materials. You should not wear a “costume” of any kind, and you should wear either no head gear, or a baseball cap without a logo or with a logo that in no way replicates or competes with that of the W4 ™ (Whole Wide World of Wrestling).
Important: Prior to the day of the event, please commit to memory the following details incident to participation:
--You will be seated ringside to the west of the apron between two representatives of the N.Y. State Sports Medicine Department (NYSSMD), who will both be wearing conspicuous name tags.
--When the match reaches the 8:07 mark (there will be a large digital clock on the wall directly opposite your seat) … [in the interests of suspense, I will skip this next part –for now] … Thereafter, no matter what happens, DO NOT RETURN TO THE RING. At the conclusion of the match, assuming you have signed and returned the enclosed InterviewAgreement Form (IAF), you may be asked by one of the television announcers to say a few words, as follows:
“Announcer: So _____(my first name inserted), What did it feel like to actually participate in a Whole Wide World of Wrestling event? Was it a dream come true?
You (smiling): Yes. Awesome!
Announcer: Glad you enjoyed it, _____(my name repeated). Back to you, _____ (name of other announcer inserted).”
Please do not forget to commit the contents of this impromptu interview to memory.
We look forward to receipt of the necessary documentation pursuant to your participation. Again, congratulations. And remember, “Many are chosen, but few are body-slammed.” (joke)
Yours in the spirit,
President, CEO, W4 ™ (Whole Wide World of Wrestling)
* * *
A week before the event, I rescued a notice in my spam box to the effect that, all paperwork having been completed, they looked forward to my participation. Attached was a copy of a policy for single-day health insurance coverage. In the notice, there was also what I assumed to be a joke about Cannibal and Pygmy paying me a “personal visit” in the event that I failed to show up. What were they thinking! I memorized the instructions immediately.
Any description of this very special evening must prove anticlimactic. Passing through the metal detector at the main entrance to the arena, I confess to a degree of stage fright. But when I encountered the heady sights, sounds and smells of the frenetic crowd, I was once again myself. (My only regret is that regulations no longer permit these arenas to be smoke-filled.) As I took my seat, the two physicians nodded simultaneously and cordially in my direction.
The under-card passed in a slow-motion dream until, at last, the main event arrived. By the time the contestants and their gaudy entourages had completed their grand, Caesarian (i.e. Roman triumphal) entrances, and the referee had managed to forestall mayhem until the bell could ring, I was already on high alert. As the grapplers closed, I focussed half my attention on the big clock on the opposite wall, and half on the riveting proceedings unfolding within the squared circle.
For the first 8:04, back and forth swung the pendulum of arranged combat. There was only one civilian intervention. At 4:02, a fat, bald man wearing a blue track suit and glistening white tennis shoes was supposedly knocked unconscious with a rubber folding chair by Pygmy’s heavily made-up assistant (who seemed less short, in person). This man’s job was to stop the chair from descending on a dazed Cannibal’s head, when he missed a drop kick and plunged down onto the apron. I felt a slight twinge of envy at my colleague’s rather baroque role, until he nearly ruined it with a tasteless, hammy finale. Regaining consciousness after only a few seconds, he rubbed his pate vigorously, then began to dance around the assistant, as if he were daring her to bonk him again. A discreet word from one of the omnipresent physicians made him behave himself. He returned to his seat wearing an expression that could equally have been chastisement or lingering mock-befuddlement from the blow.
At last: 8:04! Wonderful! Barely in time, at the precise moment the facial savaging seemed about to commence, I got to carry out my scripted instructions: “… you should stand, roll up into the ring, and, without exerting undue force or otherwise behaving in a manner that might inflict injury, gently push Cannibal away from you and off the top of Pygmy. After that, without hesitating, roll back out of the ring (trying not to fall), and re-take your seat.” In the event, I got to push a crazed Cannibal off a recumbent and ostensibly unconscious Pygmy. Although my role was crucial to the match, I do not wish to overstate it: I entered, I performed, I exited.
The remaining 7:53 played out with no further spectator intervention. But, as the final bell sounded (and sounded and sounded), it began to look as if nothing could keep the bout from ending with at least one fatality. Then, suddenly, the crowd was hushed, as down the aisle hurried a most unexpected trio. Costumed so as to suggest the three main western monotheistic faiths, and holding up the skirts of their robes, they rushed and rolled into the ring and, in pantomime, cajoled the grapplers into uncoupling and giving each other the kiss of peace. The Match was over; the crowd (we) roared.
But that, of course, was not quite the end. Escorted by the two physicians, I proceeded to the television table. There I received (unscripted) a kiss on the cheek from Pygmy’s nubile assistant, and, as a further surprise, at the conclusion of the scripted interview (see above), a certificate of appreciation from W4 ™, signed not only by the CEO, but by both of the now glistening combatants. During my interview, the pair stood alongside me, part of the TV tableau, beaming at everyone in sight, arms wrapped in awkward comradeship around each others’ shoulders (one being more than a foot taller than the other). The three clerics waited patiently to one side, all the while bowing and smiling silently. As for the bald man, given his histrionics, I was unsurprised that he was not even interviewed. Since the match had been (predictably) a draw, the big crowd appeared to exit the arena pleased, but not completely sated. Not that I dream of being invited to participate in a second match… .
* * *
It is time to tear away my own mask. As you may or may not have guessed, I am a former academic, an erstwhile Associate Professor of Comparative Linguistics (my specialty: Middle-French Phonology) who, laid off and pensionless during these difficult times, must now be content to sustain my wife and myself by grilling eponymous burgers at “The King.” In the autobiographical spirit, too, let me explain the context of my moment in the wrestling sun. It was, you see, my sixty-fifth birthday. My present was the expense money entailed by the W4 ™ appearance.
The birthday party, which took place the next evening, was also wonderful. My youngest grandchildren had constructed a hat for me in the shape of the paper crown distinctive to my employer’s mascot, but home-made and, hence, much nicer. I was also given two T-shirts, stencilled by my two talented teen-age grandchildren. To moderate applause, I modeled these shirts, in turn, at the party, then put them away so as not to soil them. And what had been stencilled on the shirts? I blush to think of it. Since my name is George, one is a picture of me as Curious George. As my wife explained: “You’re a playful intellectual, dear, and a curious fellow.” On the other shirt is a somewhat idealized image of me, sporting blond ringlets: Gorgeous George. Do you remember him?
In the middle of the party, right after dinner, came what I may call the main event. My wife had arranged for separate telegrams to arrive from the wrestlers. From Cannibal: “Happy B-day, George, Baby. No hard feelings!” And from Pygmy: “Georgie, Mister. You saving my bacon! Much thenk.” After that, I sat back and happily surveyed the table. The cake –chocolate with pink, green, white, red, and yellow icing—was topped with (what else?) a picture of me pushing Cannibal off Pygmy (vanilla ring, chocolate stanchions, etc.).
Then, just when my happiness was at its apogee, a small voice at one ear whispered, “But it’s all fake, George.” (Did the voice refer to the sport or to the ingredients of the cake, such as, presumably, Red Dye Number Two?)
“Never mind Killjoy over there,” riposted the voice at my other ear. “Happy birthday, George, you only live once.” Yes, true, very true. And, since it is true, I vowed never to forget either this wonderful birthday party or the magnificent gifts attendant thereunto. With that happy thought, I made the first cut.