Friday, November 27, 2015

The Sea Mark by Russell M. Lawson

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for Sea History magazine for the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: A scrutinizing look at what John Smith, adventurer, said about his journey to New England in 1614, and not what critics have said since.

My Thoughts: John Smith certainly left a paper trail, but unfortunately, most of it was written with audiences in mind. His journals were meant for public consumption, for future funders to consider backing one of his excursions or his proposed settlements; for future adventurers to think about joining him in the New World; and for other men of what he believed to be his class to sweat when mulling their comparison to his manliness. He wrote with technical skill where needed, he grovelled before kings and princes when necessary, and, most of all he boasted.

Not every boast was self-directed. Smith boasted widely about the lands and waters of New England, beckoning others to come across the Atlantic and see for themselves the potential for fortunes to be made in fishing, whaling and mining. It must have been hard to sit by in England and not make at least one journey to the New World, for the adventurous spirited. I know that given the right circumstances, I might have been swayed.

Consider it! An entire continent of open space. We today try to find nooks and crannies of nature on which to walk for a half an hour (ask me about my books on the topic), and so it was in early seventeenth century London. There may have not been an environmentalist ethos in those days, but there was overcrowding. And plague. And pestilence. And lack of opportunity.

So, when we read his work, says author Russell Lawson, we should read his words only and take them for what they are. Critics have had 400 unfettered years to jab at him, and have piled on each others' words. Give John Smith a chance to speak for himself.

That said, try to think about a few things. He campaigned for the job that went to Myles Standish, to be the military escort of the Pilgrims in 1620. How different a world would that have been? Would relations with the Native American have been different at the start, with Smith already having years of good rapport? Consider the depths to which he had explored the New England region. If he had been on the journey to Boston Harbor in 1621, he would have been going back to Boston Harbor. But the Pilgrims turned him down for a military man who came with less personal fanfare.

Then again, there is the skirmish with the natives at what became the town of Cohasset, north of Plymouth. Lawson reports on the confrontation and says that there were no casualties; locals have always believed that Smith's men killed one of the Natives attacking them on the way out of the harbor. As Lawson states, Smith was a violent man in a violent age.

Lawson's book reopens the story of  John Smith in New England by starting us back at page 1. We see the rocky coast of Maine through only Smith's eyes, and live only in his world. We are not jaded by what naysayers, both contemporary and modern, have had to say. It's a refreshing way to look at an four century old tale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling's American Dream by Dusty Rhodes with Howard Brody

Why I Read It: I've been kind of stuck on memory lane, reliving my childhood, all the way down to Saturday morning television.

Summary: The life and times of one of pro wrestling's unlikeliest heroes.

My Thoughts: I took two things away from this book. Dusty Rhodes had a huge ego, but he balanced it with a self-deprecation that sprang from his own awareness of that ego. Second, there was an overall sadness to the book that stemmed from the fact that late in life Dusty lived in the past and couldn't shake it.

But what a fun ride.

Dusty's career spanned the 1960s to the 2000s, and as such he crossed paths with all the greats of the last half century. He moved from the territorial era to the modern day in which the industry is generally controlled by one man. He likened the old system to one run by the mafia - an idea I've since seen echoed on a film about World Class Championship Wrestling. Each local boss was a don, and you didn't cross him whatever you did. Ironically, a second theme - itinerant wrestlers being screwed out of money by local promoters - was echoed in a book I read by a stand-up comedian who lived the same sort of travel-by-day, perform-by-night life. Perhaps it was his simple upbringing in Austin, Texas (a place of dusty roads) or maybe that early struggle to collect what was owed to him, but Dusty definitely sticks to the theme of money throughout the book.

The most beautiful aspect of this book for me is the voice, and I don't mean that in the traditional artsy way of an author searching for one. Dusty had his speech patterns and mannerisms (and his lisp) that made you know, without even seeing the screen, that you were tuned into the right place. His voice was unmistakable. And so it was in this book. I could hear his words as if they were coming directly out of his mouth. It made the book fly. One line has stuck with me, making me giggle every time I think of it, but I can't repeat it here because of a few words in the sentence. It was just so Dusty.

Dusty Rhodes came, too, with a blurred racial story. He grew up in a mixed neighborhood, where the upbringing meant that race meant nothing to him; people were just people. He picked up a lot of African-American mannerisms that stayed with him throughout his career. It was something lost on me at the time, but I understand it now. In order to mock him, Vince McMahon, Jr., took a white wrestler known as the One Man Gang and turned him into a mumu-wearing "African Dream." When Ted DiBiase needed a "valet" to go with his "Million Dollar Man" gimmick, Vince assigned a black wrestler he named Virgil - as in Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., Dusty's real name. When Virgil went to the rival company, WCW, he became Vincent.

Aside from the frustrations of an aging wrestler seeing his era pass, and once you get past the obvious ego issues, Dusty's recounting of his life is filled with love and good times. The man knew how to party and to just generally have fun. He makes outrageous claims throughout the book about his escapades that are supported by quotes from others involved in the episodes. His carriage race with Andre the Giant must have been a sight to see, two gigantic men with humongous afros dueling their way down a New York City street. One of my favorites is from Mike Graham, a Florida wrestler who took Dusty out on a boat. He instructed Dusty to hop off the bow and carry the anchor up the beach so they could ground the boat, and Dusty jumped too early. Sinking to the bottom, he turned and marched out of the water and up the beach, still clutching the anchor and without losing his baseball hat and cigar. Turning, he said, "Damn, is that really what you wanted me to do?"

There are touching aspects to the book as well, especially as they concern his family and his relationship with his son Dustin. If nothing else, Dusty lays it all out in this book, and doesn't mince words. And his legacy lives on, through his sons Dustin ("Goldust") and Cody ("Stardust").

Reading this book, one gets the notion that despite the odds, being born the plumber's son, digging ditches to earn his first wages, Dusty Rhodes laughed his way through life, like I laughed my way through his book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Foxcatcher by Mark Schultz with David Thomas

Why I Read It: I was an amateur wrestler.

Summary: The story of the rise to prominence of the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, and Dave's murder, all seen through the eyes of Mark.

My Thoughts: The year that Mark won his gold medal at the Olympics, I was an amateur wrestler. My career was brief, really just that one year as a Bulldog 157 at Rockland (MA) High School, but I still carry the highs and lows of that year with me wherever I go.

I wish I could say the Schultz brothers inspired me in some way, but I was too obsessed with other things happening in my life at that point, including my parents' divorce. In all honesty, my dad encouraged me to get involved with the sport, knowing I was a budding pro wrestling fan. He wanted me to see what wrestling, not "rasslin'," as he would say in an over-pronounced way, was all about. I loved the sport, the teamwork and the league championship that our varsity won that year. And I did more than hold my own against my opponents, some of whom I remember to this day, 31 years later.

It's always odd to me to consider where I was in my life when other events in other people's lives were playing out.

There's a strange wall that goes up when we consider our Olympic heroes. We tend to see them on stage, on TV, geared up with all the sponsored equipment from their chosen sports, and see dollar signs. The Schultz brothers story flips that imagery on its head. At least for the wrestlers, support was always minimal. Life was tough. As a non-revenue college sport (when compared to football, for instance), it never translated into big dollars after NCAA eligibility ended. While outstanding wrestlers could still compete on the national and world stages after college, the best jobs they could hope for in the sport were coaching gigs at the diminishing number of universities that hadn't canned their programs in the face of Title IX. A few of the bigger amateur wrestlers could go pro - Steve Williams, a teammate of Dave and Mark became "Dr. Death" to a generation of fans - but going "pro" in wrestling is not the same as going pro in football or baseball. In 2013, the IOC announced wrestling was done as an Olympic sport, only to reinstate it seven months later. It all had to do with its money-generating capabilities.

Faced with these financial barriers, Mark and Dave put up with a lot to follow their passion when they signed on with John du Pont's Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont's madness is a central theme of the book, and is somewhat parallel to the madness of King George. Du Pont's money and fame bought him any indiscretions he wanted, save for murder.

One of saddest aspects of this book, apart from the obvious one, is Mark's personal history of distrust for his fellow human beings. There were undoubtedly people in his past who had his best interests at heart, but whom he targeted as enemies. It worked for him; it fueled his fire and got him three world championships. But one wonders if he could have found his inner peace, the stability he craved so much, had he just let down his guard a little.

I hope he's found his peace.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

When the Balls Drop by Brad Garrett


Why I Read It: I'm a huge Everybody Loves Raymond fan, and I loved what Brad Garrett brought to the show

Summary: Half the book is biographical, half the book is opinion; from the start, all of it pushes the envelope.

My Thoughts: If you've ever watched a stand-up comedian on Comedy Central and thought, "That guy's pretty funny - I'd like to see him live," then you know what I'm talking about here. There are actually two comedians per performer: TV and live.

On TV, they are observational, witty and cleanly funny. Live, they are foul-mouthed and fixated on topics they know are edgy, or, as Hawkeye Pierce once said on M*A*S*H, "over-the-edgy." Sex, drugs, race, everything is on the table for discussion.

In other words, if you came to this book looking to find "Robert Barone, New York City Police Department," you will be surprised to find he's not here. This is Brad Garrett, the stand-up comic.

The author does a wonderful job of telling the story of how he got to this point in his career, from local stages to his first Tonight Show appearances (although he doesn't mention that he was the voice of Hulk Hogan on the Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, which is how as a 13-year-old I first heard his voice!). He walks us through his days of running with the Rat Pack, or at least opening for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra, and occasionally being invited in for pizza after the shows.

Mostly, though, the book is about Brad's tackling of midlife. I stop short of calling it a crisis, because that's the point of his book; he thinks he has it figured out, and is telling all the men reading his book his plan for beating it: get a pre-nup, marry a 31-year-old and if you have an opinion, let it fly.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker

Why I Read It: I already knew all the players.

Summary: The common theme is early death, the repeating story of the American professional wrestler's life.

My Thoughts: I'm torn over whether or not professional wrestling needs this quality prose. But then, professional wrestling exists in two realms, real and fantasy. The fantasy side, at its best, is certainly worthy of the best words we can throw at it. When we suspend disbelief (and the author, David Shoemaker, tends to believe we've been doing that for longer than we let on) and we let the story play out, we cheer and jeer, we live the story along with the characters on stage.

At its worst, outside of the ring and backstage, the drugs flow, the steroids pump through the veins; murder has even occurred. The people we root onto victory in the fantasy world are can either match their stage personalities or be diametrically opposed to them. Heroes are villains and vice versa; we can't trust what we see in the squared circle. Sometimes, like the square peg in the round hole, the character does not always fit the wrestler.

Shoemaker's book features numerous dead wrestlers who passed before their time. Many fell around the same time, when drugs overwhelmed the sport. At that time, I was being weaned from watching it regularly, but the news still made it my way. Kerry Von Erich was dead. Really, another Von Erich, so young? Junkyard Dog was in a car accident. Andre the Giant was finally overcome by his acromegaly. They seemed to fall like flies.

Shoemaker weaves the greater themes of American history into the narrative - race, family, geopolitics etc. - and brings us to a closer look at what we saw flash before our eyes in the arenas and on TV, an extended video review of the matches we saw live. We all "knew" that a head butt from a black wrestler or a Pacific Islander was more painful than one from a white man. Why? An overhead chop from a Native American Chief (whether or not he was an Italian named Joe from New Jersey) hurt more than one from an Italian named Joe from New Jersey. Why? The author walks us through the past that made this bizarre world come into reality.

In a way, for me, the look back through time was eye-opening. In at least one instance, I can say that I was there. One chapter tells the tale of the "Macho Man" Randy Savage, pinning his winning of the WWF Intercontinental Championship from Tito Santana at the Boston Garden as a seminal moment in his career. The fans cheered that night as if Hulk Hogan had won; Macho Man was the heel, but the power of seeing a title change, of seeing the new guard take out the old, of seeing history (scripted or not) right before our eyes, was powerful enough to make us root for the dark side.

Yes, morbid curiosity drew me to this book. Although "life" appears in the title, the book is predominantly about death.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Rebel League by Ed Willes

Why I Read It: I was on skates at 3.

Summary: "The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: I wish I was there.

Unfortunately, I was born just too late to truly appreciate the beauty of the WHA. It closed up shop when I was 8. As far as I knew when I started watching professional hockey religiously, the Hartford Whalers had just always been a part of the NHL. I had no idea that they had just merged into the league, or that they had been part of the upstart movement that was the WHA.

After reading this book, I'm left to wonder what impact a TV contract would have had on the league. Without it, the league still pulled in thousands of fans per game, somewhat akin to what Major League Lacrosse teams bring in today, perhaps a little higher on average. Had they had television in the markets where they played, outlying cities the NHL had not yet touched, like Houston, Quebec City and Winnipeg, and had they been able to deliver some of the one-of-a-kind entertainment that league provided, would they have drawn bigger crowds, increased their revenue and had a longer run?

So much of the reason for the league's existence was to buck the establishment, to free the players, and in essence, the fans. The NHL had its system. The rich got richer and the players got beat up, financially. The WHA imported the best European players and drafted kids considered "underage" by the NHL. They had started to create a greater product than the NHL was willing to produce. In time, it would have proven to be the more entertaining league (if it wasn't already by 1970s standards) and therefore would have grown.

It was, for instance, the league where Wayne Gretzky got his professional career started, and Gordie Howe played hockey with his two sons. It was where Bobby Hull made his last stand, reinvigorated by the arrival of two European players who helped revolutionize the North American game.

It was also the home of the players that would inspire the movie Slapshot, not to mention the harbor of refuge of some of the world's wackiest goalies. One claimed he was living several lives at once, essentially unstuck in time like the main character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

So yes, I wish I had seen it rolled out, though I wonder if I would have paid any more attention to it than I did the USFL or the XFL. Today, with the constant informational assault under which we daily stand, my guess is no. But in the '70s, in a town that didn't have an NHL club? I bet you I would have. And I'll tell you one thing - had the league had Ed Willes writing about it during its heyday, they would have had something else great going for them. If you get hockey, you will openly laugh at the story of the league as told through his words.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs by Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hebert

Why I Read It: A continuing fascination with the history of professional wrestling.

Summary: "The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: There's a belief out there (a cheap way of saying that I don't remember where I read it or heard it first, but I know I didn't make it up) that says that in whatever age you became a fan of a particular sport, you consider that the "golden age" of that sport. For instance, if you were a Yankees fan in the '50s, in the '70s you looked back with wistful reverence at Mantle, DiMaggio and the gang. You probably don't like the designated hitter rule, free agency, etc.

I used to think that I was stuck that way as well, but I think my broad perspective as a historian has steered me clear of such pitfalls. But, in a weird way I long for the old days that happened before what should have been my golden ages.

Let me explain.

I was 12 when Hulk Hogan ran over the Iron Sheik and took the WWF title.I witnessed the beginning of the end, when professional wrestling's territorial system broke down and Vince McMahon's monopolistic machine ran roughshod over North America. One day I was in my living room watching the Grand Wizard lead Sgt. Slaughter down to a little television studio ring in Connecticut to put the cobra clutch on Salvatore Bellomo and the next I was tuned in to Wrestlemania with millions of other people.

But get this - I miss what happened before those days. And this book just fuels that fire.

In those pre-Hulkamania days, wrestling was local. We had the northeast, Stamford, Connecticut, based territory, which was, incidentally, the old WWF. We also received broadcasts from Dallas, Texas, but the worlds were one hundred percent separate. There was no way in hell that Kerry Von Erich would ever wrestle "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. No way, no how, never, ever. Neither organization admitted the other existed, at least not on the air. In those days, pre-cable, pre-internet, you could do that. And so, in that way, Montreal was a territory unto itself.

It was a beautiful thing. You could build a storyline without having to rely on facts. A wrestler could come in from the outside and start fresh, or with a backstory of having terrorized some other part of the world, and barely anybody would care to check; you suspended your disbelief, whether you thought it was all real or not. Wrestlers changed names, gimmicks, gear and nobody ran reports to expose who they were in former lives.

But the amazing thing about the wrestling world is its transitory nature. Wrestlers did move, from territory to territory as storylines or drawing power ran out. And because so many of them had long careers, coming in and out of "retirement" into their 70s, for some, they bumped into each other all over the continent and the globe. As such, any singular territory was a crossing ground. Montreal was such a place. The best wrestlers in the world moved through, or stayed permanently: Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, Hulk Hogan and more.

Montreal, too, was a proving ground. Many of the world's best known wrestlers of the '50s through the '80s were born and bred in the area, men like the Vachons, the Martels and the Rougeaus. This book shows how they started local, made their marks elsewhere and returned to continue the long legacy of professional wrestling in the province of Quebec. In short, while this book is about wrestling in Montreal, it is full of familiar names. If you watched the WWF in the late 1970s, you will now get the rest of the story of who Dino Bravo was before he headed south for Connecticut, and learn that Rick Martel had a brother who wrestled, too. Moreover, you will learn that the Rougeaus, who we in the '80s knew as Jacques and Raymond, were, and are, just one generation of Montreal's dynastic wrestling family.

Wrestling has more or less come and gone for Montreal. Its heyday is definitely over, though there are still points of pride, like Kevin Steen, now known as Kevin Owens, the current WWE Intercontinental champion, born in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu, and there will always be the start-up indy organization that can never compete with the WWE. But it has a glorious past, one that I miss, even though I wasn't there.

The authors bring the book forward through time and fill each chapter with mini biographies of the many wrestlers, Quebec-born and non-Quebecers, who made the scene great. There are comical moments, like when the Chicago area promoters first get a glimpse of Jean Ferre, and immediately change his name. "In Montreal you're calling him Giant Fairy?" And so, Andre the Giant was reborn. The format lends itself to repetition of information, but it's worth it once one is engrossed. It reinforces the melting pot history of the territory, and of professional wrestling in general.