Thursday, September 6, 2012

At Ease! The First Wrestler That I Ever Met...

Every epic has a beginning.  While my wallet might cringe at the thought, my wrestling memorabilia and autograph collecting has been an epic over the past two decades or so.  Chances are that if you're reading this, you're in the same boat as I.  But it's fine, relatively harmless, and celebrates the form of sports and entertainment that so many of us love.  In the "Rock 'n Wrestling" entry of a few weeks ago I showed the coloring book that started off the memorabilia end of my collection.  Now we will take a look at not only the first wrestler that I had the chance to meet, but that oh-so-important first autograph as well.

It was in September of 1988 that the encounter took place.  My incredible parents were always 100% in-tune to my likes and interests.  Unless it was something objectionable, they were supportive of what I enjoyed and usually took some interest in it themselves.  Both of my parents grew up in families that enjoyed Pittsburgh's Studio Wrestling program in the 1960's.  Another of my loves at the time, Star Wars, was introduced to me through my folks loving the films upon their initial release.  Even G.I. Joe, a brand which at the time was in midst of revitalization though the "A Real American Hero" line, was slightly followed by my mother and father through the cartoon and comic book respectively.

I don't recall exactly how, but it came to our attention that Sgt. Slaughter himself, the real life "Real American Hero," would be making an appearance on a Saturday afternoon at a Monroeville, PA electronics/appliance store.  The name of the store, which did not seem to stay in business very long, has sadly escaped my usually sharp memory.  The date was quickly thrown onto our family calendar and I can remember nervously anticipating the event.

This is where some unavoidable facts regarding yours truly shall finally be revealed.  Although I was a wrestling fan at the time, it was actually Slaughter's G.I. Joe connections that made this meeting a can't-miss event for me.  Aside from William Perry in a far smaller capacity, Slaughter was the human face of G.I. Joe, which was probably my favorite brand during childhood.  Little did I know that it was the beginning of something far greater.

The morning finally came and as always we arrived early, a valuable trait that has stayed with me to this day.  Monroeville, PA (home of the original "Dawn of the Dead" film as well as the character of Dr. Bob Kelso from "Scrubs") was not far from my home and is essentially a suburban business area.  Despite this and the possibility of a large draw, I was the first fan in line.  Although a crowd eventually formed behind me, I really don't remember how big it became.  A desk was set up at the back of the store near the television section with a Sgt. Slaughter poster tacked to the wall behind it.

As I mentioned earlier, I can recall being nervous.  The same kind of nervous feeling that came along with me during visits with Santa Claus.  I wasn't scared, I didn't cry, and I always managed to smile and be simultaneously polite and enthusiastic.  It was just a natural nervousness that I would imagine many children experience.  I remember the Sarge entering through the back of the store where the signing took place, but it was my dad who often recalled that the door Slaughter was to come through was locked and that he actually had to shout and pound on the door to be let in!

I remember that an older woman in red with short gray hair was either in charge of the appearance or acted as if she was.  A stack of promotional photos labeled "United States Wrestling Alliance--USWA" (not that USWA) and "Raskin Sports Productions of Elizabeth N.J." were provided and the woman was looking through them.  Many years later through research I found out that this was one of the various independent organizations that Slaughter wrestled for at the time.  It is often forgotten or not even known by casual fans of Slaughter via the G.I. Joe connection that the Sarge was not with the WWF throughout his run with Hasbro and Joe.

Slaughter was clad in a camo jacket that had "G.I. Joe" emblazoned on the front pocket.  My mother guided me towards an extremely friendly and gracious television hero.  We shook hands and exchanged names--yes, he did say "I'm Sgt. Slaughter!"  After personalizing the provided photo to me in red marker with his familiar signature (strangely I did not bring any G.I. Joe items to be autographed), I sat on his knee and we pointed to the camera in unison for a photo op that would ensure personal bragging rights for a long time following.  One thing that I couldn't brag about was the "Jim Cornette Jr." fashion ensemble I wore that day.  It didn't matter as I had met THE real Joe, Sgt. Slaughter.

Until other local meetings with Diesel, Alundra Blayze, and Hillbilly Jim in the '90s and eventually plunging into the indy scene in 2001, this would be my sole wrestling meeting.  The first that ended up becoming the starting point for hundreds.  I've met the Sarge again a few times since then and he ranks as one of the nicest and most personable wrestlers not only in my book but in the memories of the hundreds of thousands of fans who have met him.

It was at a 2005 meeting with the Sarge that the 1988 magic was "rekindled."  Bringing the '88 Polaroid with me to be autographed, the Sarge suggested that we recreate the past and that this time he would sit on my knee!  It ultimately became one of the funnier and more memorable "meet and greet" moments for both myself and friends who were with me.

I'm often told that I'm lucky to have met so many wrestlers and have acquired so many autographs and pieces of memorabilia.  It's a hobby that I took pride in long ago that eventually took on a life of it's own.  I don't think the "luck" lies in the items or television heroes, though.  For me, the luck was being the child of two incredible parents who encouraged me to pursue the things that I enjoyed and sacrificed so much to see that I could do just that.  I dedicate this entry to them.  I owe them for so much more than just the kindness of taking me to that event twenty-four years ago.  They're my "Real American Heroes."

1 comment:

Rich Williams said...

My first wrestler meeting was with Sgt. Slaughter also, at an indy show in 1999. He signed photos before the card started. I remember being extremely nervous to actually walk up and meet him, having been a fan of his since his WWF run in the early 80's. However, I must echo your statements and say that he made me completely at ease in very short order by being one of the nicest guys I've ever met. Very friendly, with a good sense of humor too.