By Greg Clark, November 24, 1945
“I’ve got two ducats,” announced Jimmie Frise, “to the wrestling match.”
“Ducats?” I inquired.
“Free tickets,” explained Jim. “Dead heads. Passes.”
“Jim,” I enunciated, “I have made it a lifelong principle never to accept free tickets to anything. They are free for either of two reasons. Either they are trying to pad the house, because they can’t attract a paying crowd, or else they are trying to interest you in the show for ulterior purposes.”
“Does it occur to you,” demanded Jim bitterly, that there may be good guys in the world who are just good guys? Is it possible for your small suspicious brain to conceive that maybe somebody just wanted to do a friendly thing?”
“Who gave you the tickets?” I asked.
“Bill Tooke,” replied Jim.
“Aaaaah,” I leered. “The promoter of the wrestling bouts!
“Bill has been a friend of mine for years,” cried Jimmie indignantly. “I’ve known him long before he ever was a promoter. He and I have played hundreds of games of snooker pool together. What is there more natural than that Bill should drop in and hand me a couple of ducats to the bouts? Haven’t I sent him a platterful of trout in the spring? Haven’t I given him the odd bass…?”
“I wouldn’t object,” I replied, “to a fight promoter sending you the hind leg of a moose in return for a platterful of trout. But it looks fishy to me when he drops in and hands you a couple of tickets to a wrestling bout he’s interested in.”
“And what,” gritted Jim, “do you suspect he has in mind?”
“He has in mind,” I informed him, “that you will persuade me to come to the wrestling bout with you, and we’ll do a story on it.”
“Did I,” shouted Jim, “invite you to come with me? I had no earthly intention of inviting you to come with me! I merely announced that I had a couple of ducats to the wrestling match, if I remember right.”
“Your intention,” I asserted, “was to interest me.”
“I hadn’t the least intention of asking you to come with me,” declared Jim hotly. “I know your attitude towards wrestling. I know your attitude towards all manly sports. Do you think I want to spend a whole evening beside you, listening to you sneering at the contenders, at the referee, at the very crowd around you?”
“Backside sports!” I sneered obligingly. “Five thousand sportsmen sitting on their backsides watching two fake sports fighting in a ring for money!”
“See what I mean?” muttered Jim to the office walls.
“Rugby,” I scoffed. “Fifteen thousand sportsmen and sportswomen sitting muffled in rugs athletically watching 15 guys rolling in the mud!”
“Aw, go ahead,” groaned Jim, starting to work furiously at his drawing board.
“Racing!” I pursued caustically. “Twenty thousand sportsmen clutching gambling tickets in their sweaty fists, watching eight little sportsmen on horses racing around a circle.”
“Okay, okay,” breathed Jim deeply.
“The only sport in the world,” I stated, “is that in which people participate. Fishing, shooting, tennis, golf – they’re sport. But all these so-called sports events, which consist of 10 guys doing something and 10,000 guys sitting watching them, are the reverse of sport. They’re evil. They’re destructive. When the great Roman Empire first began to totter, they built their first arena.”
“What bunk!” protested Jim. “Can you imagine a rugby team going out and playing another rugby team without an audience, just for the sheer sport of it?”
“If they did, they would really be sportsmen,” I pointed out, “and not young gentlemen exerting themselves for gain.”
“Gain!” Jim yelled in fury. “Do you mean to insinuate …”
“To stand forth,” I cut in, “before all his fellow students as an outstanding rugby player is a form of gain to a young man going to Varsity.”
“Well, the whole of life then,” insisted Jim, “is a form of gain. Everybody tries to stand forth. The housewife tries to cook well, in order to stand forth as a good housewife. The good mechanic tries to excel at his machine, not merely to male wages, but to stand forth among his fellow workers as an outstanding man. You think you’re so smart! All you’ve done is bring to light the true character of sport. Sport in its widest and best sense is the contending between men to show who is the better and the best man. Or the best team of men.”
“Heh, heh, heh,” was all I could think of.
“From babyhood,” pursued Jim hotly, “right through life to the grave, the best feature of the struggle of life is the contending to bring out the best in us. What do they have baby shows for? To give people, at the very beginning, a chance to show that they are the best.
Why do young expectant mothers knit, knit, knit? Is it only to prepare warm clothes? Not if you look at what they are knitting. It is to get ready to try and show the prettiest baby on the whole street. Why do they have reports cards in school? To show who’s the smartest. If life was without these contests, if life consisted of nothing more than a dull routine in which nobody was expected to try and get ahead of the other fellow, how long do you think it would be before the world would slip back into the native thatched villages from which we have risen?”
“We’re already half way back to the native thatched village,” I retorted, “when 15,000 of us are content to sit back in easy chairs and watch two gross, bulging gladiators from the caveman age squash each other to death.”
“It’s all part of the competitive system,” explained Jim. “I admit it isn’t the best form of sport.”
“You’d rather go fishing?” I taunted.
“Certainly,” replied Jim. “But don’t put any sanctimonious airs on about fishing. You talk very unctuously about going fishing in order to enjoy nature. You are always sounding off about the non-competitive character of fishing. It is for itself alone that you go fishing. But I never saw anybody come so pompously up the village road as you do when you are carrying a creel full of trout. And I must say I know nobody who has had his picture taken oftener holding up a big pike or a big bass …”
“Now just a minute,” I protested.
“I have often noticed,” went on Jim strongly, “that guys who aren’t much good at competitive games are always ardent followers of sports in which they can take their wives or young sons with them, such as fishing”
“Now, look here,” I insisted.
“In fishing,” proceeded Jimmie, “there is no referee. In shooting, there is no umpire. That kind of sport appeals strongly to a man who is trying to excel but who prefers to excel in his own opinion rather than under the scrutiny of his fellow men. If he uses worms, nobody is looking, and he invariably has a trout fly on his line by the time he emerges from the stream to meet his fellow sportsmen. If he shoots a partridge sitting on the ground, who is to see him? It was always ‘racing across, at 40 yards, on the wing,’ by the time he meets up with his fellow hunters …”
“Speak for yourself,” I said bitterly.
“In all men,” rounded off Jim, “there is a desire to excel at something. When the time comes in a man’s life that he realizes he can no longer excel anybody – that is the tragic hour. Life itself, business, industry, the home, the school, the church, all our institutions are based on that desire to excel that is the very spark of our existence. And sport is that spark applied for fun, for relaxation, for leisure. It is the one field in which we can watch others excel without personal pain.”
“It’s sadistic,” I submitted. “We like to see others suffer.”
Jim hit the drawing board a violent bang.
“Okay,” he shouted. “DON’T come to the wrestling!”
But I did.
After all, there is much to be said for Jim’s point of view. If thousands and tens of thousands of people, young and old, go to hockey games and race-tracks and prize-fights and other activities in which a tiny fraction of one per cent of those gathered does anything more than sit and yell, there must be something in it. A man of my age can’t be right all the time. It would be bad for him. So I went.
It was worse than I thought. In the nasty wet November night, we parked our car and walked with a throng into a cold, large, damp arena already blue with fog of cigar and cigarette smoke. We were a little late getting there, Jim being always late, and the first bout was already under way, so that the shadowy arena was full of the deep wolf-like baying of humanity calling for a kill. We were shown to our seats, which were hard benches. If I ever take a free seat, I like it padded.
Not only were the benches hard, but the people sitting in the gloom all around me impressed me as a very hard lot, too. The only lights were the spotlights centered on the ring where the wrestlers were lying down together in the most grotesque attitude. In the dim reflected light, swirling with smoke, I took time to glance around at my fellow sportsmen.
Now, I do not mean to insinuate that these were underworld types. In fact, I was astonished to see, sitting four places to my right, an old and respected friend of mine who is sidesman in a church and a great leader in the social life of Toronto. But in this dim and smoky setting a strange change had come over him. He was smoking a cigar and was leaning forward with an expression of fury on his face.
Amid the baying. I heard him distinctly yell: “Break his neck! Twist his head off!”
I sat up as high as I could and looked at the ring. Just in time, too. In the livid glare, I saw the two contenders, heavy, gross men, stager heavily to their feet, back up and then charge each other like bulls. You could positively feel the collision of them. It thudded on the thick air. One got a strangle-hold on the other, walked him slowly, terribly backwards and bending him back, started to saw his victim’s neck in short, savage strokes, along the ropes of the ring… The arena went mad. But instead of them charging the ring and putting an end to this monstrous thing, they were standing on their benches, cheering!
It was all over. The cheering died. I stood I on my bench. I supposed the victim was dead, his head rolling on the mat. But in a moment, as the roars died away and everybody turned their attention from the ring to one another, I saw the two contenders jump down and walk up the aisle past us. The man who had had his head sawed off was grinning and waving to friends in the audience.
“Fake!” I yelled shrilly.
Jim pulled me down by my coat.
But my yell had attracted notice, and my friend the sidesman and social worker leaned over and shook hands with me.
“Well, heh, heh,” he cried above the din. “I’d never expect to see you here! I thought you’d be away deer hunting…”
“It’s over,” I said.
“Have a cigar,” he cried, holding out a fat one.
Now, I never smoke cigars. But there was something in the air, something in the shrewd, excited faces around me that upset my normal attitudes. I took the cigar.
There is something also about a cigar that is very disturbing. Grip a cigar in the corner of your mouth, and it gives you a very curious feeling. A feeling of importance of mastery. Jutting out of your jaw, its rich aroma bathing your face, a cigar does something to your ego. It fortifies it. Take a modest, self-conscious little man and put a big cigar in his teeth, and he begins to swell.
And by the time the cigar has burned down to a butt, and the butt is firmly clenched in the side molars, jutting rakishly out of the corner of his mouth, a man has masculine feeling impossible to inspire with a cigarette or even a big pipe.
I lighted up the cigar during the intermission between bouts. The next item on the card was between a pair of local palookas of some fame, but a long way off from being headliners. After sizing them up through my cigar smoke, I selected the one in blue trunks for my money. And he received the benefit of my voice for about 15 minutes of agony, during which his opponent, a vicious type if ever I saw one, bent him, corkscrewed him, butted him, gave him the elbow in the wind pipe and one thing and another, until he lay limp and beaten.
It was in the intermission after this bout, by which time my cigar was a butt and I had it clamped in masterly fashion in my left molars, that Bill Tooke the promoter, passing up the aisle to get the headliners, spotted Jimmie.
“Hi, Jim,” he yelled. “What are you doing back here? I’ve got seats up front for you. HEL-lo, Mr. Clark! How are you enjoying it?”
“So-so,” I said between clenched teeth and the cigar butt. “So-so.”
“Aw, come up front,” pleaded Bill. “You’ll enjoy it better.”
And under his personal ushering, Jim and I went to the front where the seats were the sort you should give away free. Good comfortable ones.
By now, the chill had been driven out of the arena by the heat of the crowd, and we took off our coats and relaxed. Past my cigar butt, I nodded in that casual sporty fashion, to several prominent people lounging around the ringside. I jutted my jaw out und gazed up at the ring as if wrestling bouts were just a dab of salted almonds to an old sportsman like me.
When the two behemoths for the headline bout came swaying and thudding down the aisle to the ring, I nearly swallowed my cigar butt. The last of such men, I had always thought, had been painted on the walls of caves 10,000 years ago. Only in cartoons, I imagined, could such human mammoths be conjured up. They were hot merely colossal. They were prehistoric. Their arms were bigger than my legs. Their torsos were as wide as my torso, from Adam’s apple to the seat of my pants, turned sideways. They were hairy, their chins were granite blue, their heads were mere knobs and their eyes were sunken in the bone that you could not see them. They moved slowly, ponderously. To the rising storm of cheers and boos, they grinned, and their grin would chill your blood.
They hoisted themselves up over the ropes with all the grace of steam shovels hoisting two tons of rock out of a hole. Under the garish lights, they turned and stared contemptuously out over the throngs, now hysterical with roars and yells. The worst looking of the two threw off his bath robe and came over and leaned on the ropes right above us. He stared down gloomily and bared his teeth at us in a prehistoric snarl.
Gripping the cigar butt firmly, I bared my teeth back at him in a snarl and felt butterflies flying around in my stomach.
“Quite a boy,” said Jim.
“Glrp,” I replied, biting hard.
“My money on him,” said Jim.
“Was he looking at me,” I asked, “or at you?”
“He was just looking around,” explained Jim easily. “They always do that.”
The announcer stood forth and bellowed the formal chant, e-nouncing Bolo the Executioner in this corner; and in that corner, Przffst, the Head Hunter, champion of the World.
Przffst, the Head Hunter, was the big gorilla that had snarled at me.
I threw my cigar butt away.
The two stood up and acknowledged the formless roar of cheers and boos and a sort of frenzy settled over the vast arena, the way the sound of machines fills a factory when the power is turned on.
The referee skedaddled back into a corner. The two human rhinoceri pulled their heads in like turtles and bent their arms wide from their sides and began circling. There was no dancing or prancing, as in boxing. It was more like two Mark VI tanks preparing to kiss each other. Quite softly, they clutched. The crowd went berserk.
Up went Przffst, the Head Hunter, as though he were light as a feather, as though he were made of celluloid, hollow. Bolo the Executioner had lifted him as a child might be lifted, made three slow rotations of himself and his awful burden held high over head, and then, bracing himself so that his fat body seemed suddenly to corrugate from neck to knee with a thousand cords of muscle, hurled the Head Hunter to the mat with a thud that made my chair jump.
I went mad.
“Kill him, kill him,” I screeched above the tornado, trying to pierce my lone voice like a knitting needle into the ears of Bolo the Executioner. “The big stuffed sofa! Jump on him. Break all his four legs. He’s full of horse hair … he’s stuffed …”
“Don’t Get Excited”
But before Bolo could land – though he jumped into the air, folded his knees and tried to land with his 300 pounds on Przffst’s stomach, knees first – Przffst, with an incredible agility, rolled and bounded to his feet, crouching.
In the fraction of an instant’s silence that befell, my voice jabbed: “The Head Hunter! He needs a head!”
And as he closed with Bolo, his head appeared over Bolo’s shoulder, as though he had his teeth buried in it. And though his eyes wore sunk about an inch into his cheek bones, I swear they were looking straight at me.
They twisted and fell and rose and fell, all in one massive ball of about half a ton of human flesh while I kept silence. Then Bolo, by some means invisible to my eye, though the crowd must have seen it for they roared, got a foothold on Przffst; and his mouth as wide as a lard pail in agony. Przffst threw up his arms and went face down on to the mat, his giant frame shuddering like that of a hippopotamus pierced by Zulu spears.
“Kill him,” I roared, jumping up, “break his leg off, the big mattress! He’s stuffed! He’s full of hay …”
“Don’t get excited,” said Jim, pulling my arm. “It’s only starting. They’re just warming up …”
For in truth, the hateful Head Hunter, despite his agony, got some kind of a foul hold on Bolo, that splendid specimen, that friend of man, that St. George, that killer of dragons; and over went Bolo in one vast shudder of agony, letting go Przffst’s foot. And Przffst was on top of Bolo, smashing his face on the mat, thump, thump, thump. I could feel my chair jolting.
On and on it went, under these vicious lights. On and on went the tornado of sound. Time and again, Bolo, whose unpleasant features slowly evaporated every time he got the splits on Przffst or sawed his neck on the ropes, almost had the world champion killed. But always that dreadful monster, appearing more dreadful each time, by some fiendish and foul trick, broke the magnificent Bolo’s grip and sent him shuddering to the floor.
And each time the Head Hunter nearly died of strangulation, my plaudits for Bolo rang and pierced the typhoon. Turtle head, upholstered hogshead, stuffed dummy, gorilla, I called him. But Jim shouted cheerfully to take it easy. “They can’t hear you,” he said.
So phony, fake, fraud, I called him, humbug, lead-swinger, forger, window-dresser, gold-bricker, dope, mudcat, slug.
I looked around. How I would like another cigar!
And then it ended, I didn’t see it actually. All that happened was that Bolo the Executioner was on his broad back. And the Head Hunter was tossing his dressing-gown on lightly and vaulting over the ropes like ballet dancer.
He wore that terrible grin. He paused and looked down at me. I had no cigar butt.
“Hey,” he snarled, “cut me off at de knees and call me Shorty.”
He reached down lightly.
“Git up in dere wit your friend,” he chuckled. And he tossed me up there.
When Jimmie and Bill Tooke got me back down in my chair, Jimmie said: “He couldn’t have heard you.”
And Bill Tooke said: “I wouldn’t have had this happen for worlds. He didn’t know who you were.”
“But he knew what I was,” I said, before I thought.