From the early 1960s until that dark morning I left home in 1970 the only times I recall my family spending together (unless you counted those awkwardly silent early evening dinners and my father’s, thankfully diminishing, Sunday drives with us all crowded in our dirty white Ford Galaxie Starliner), were around our tiny black-and-white TV set watching professional wrestling. Once a week, we’d gather in front of that old, battered Philco 4248-E sitting on a coffee table in our living room; twist, turn, and fidget with the foil-wrapped rabbit ears antenna in the forever losing battle for better signal reception; and watch two hours of televised wrestling matches.
With a cold soda in one hand and the other grabbing for whatever salted snacks my mother had set out for this hebdomadal occasion, we’d scream and shout at the boob tube—or sometimes at each other—cheering, laughing, gasping, and grousing as the matches unfolded. Heck, we were even allowed to curse, albeit mildly, during those contests between hefty, husky contenders of the square ring as they fought until someone was injured, cried uncle, or was counted out.
Once a week at precisely 7:55 p.m., my father, mother, brother, sister, and I would stop whatever we’d been doing and meet in front of the idiot box for our peculiar, pugilistic powwows. Though each of us had been either doing homework, housework, checkbook balancing, dog walking, telephone calls, bathroom business, or any other manner of activity, all was put aside as we took our place before the telly, as our allies from across the pond are jolly well fond of quaintly calling it. Produced by the Capital Wrestling Corp., the program—simply titled Heavyweight Wrestling and usually broadcast from the District of Columbia’s National Arena—was my family’s favorite form of entertainment. Hosted by commentator Ray Morgan alongside ring announcers “Friendly” Bob Freed and “Smiling” Sam Morgan, it featured main-event to low-card grapplers from the World Wide Wrestling Federation.
Bruno “The Italian Strongman” Sammartino usually wrapped up each main-event segment by defending his right to keep the world championship heavyweight belt. The heels and heroes of the wrestling ring that he fought with or alongside included Buddy Rogers, Gorilla Monsoon, Klondike Bill, Haystacks Calhoun, Fred Blassie, Dr. Jerry Graham, Crusher Lisowski, Bobo Brazil, Chief White Owl, Killer Kowalski, Professor Tanaka, Argentina Apollo, The Shadow, Hans Mortier, Cowboy Bill Watts, Waldo Von Erich, Lou Albano, Tarzan Tyler, Luke Graham, and The Golden Terror, to name a few. These gladiators would unsuccessfully try to wrest the belt and championship crown from Sammartino’s strong grip. My family adored every minute of the blood, sweat, and tears offered up by those battling brawlers. We loved some scrappers and hated others. Our alliances with combatants could shift as easily as the ocean’s tides, depending upon the fighters’ hooligan high jinks.
The bouts we witnessed on the tube were often recreated by me and my siblings. Camel clutches; armlocks; headlocks; full nelsons; half nelsons; mandible, shoulder, and stomach claws; bear hugs; and Boston crabs were watched, remembered, and rehearsed after each viewing. The only problem was my brother was a poor judge of how great a smackdown his younger family members could physically tolerate. Maybe because Leslie, our younger sister, was a girl, he’d go easy on her. I, on the other hand, got the crap beat out of me regularly. These beatings began even before Leslie was born. My brother either didn’t know his own strength—and he was a strong little SOB—didn’t care, or was a sadist who just liked to hurt me. His beatdowns were so severe that he broke my right arm in two places during one of these fights. A day or two after my cast was removed; he wrestled me again while my parents were out and re-broke the arm. At that point—let’s call it the breaking point to make a point—my parents forbade him to wrestle with me. That didn’t stop these big vs. little brother matches; he just made sure no one saw them.
Since Leslie was closer in age and size to me than I was to my brother—and since she did not inflict the pain that my vicious older brother enjoyed dealing out—we’d rassle. From the time she was four, which meant I was seven, we aped what was on TV by staging our own home wrestling matches. I suspect we were just as guilty as the bulky performers we imitated in that our many mano-a-mano matches were more of an act than wrestling. Exaggerating agony when enduring holds or pinned down for the count of a make-believe referee while grunting our anguish and reflexively flapping our arms in distress, it was a faked-out fight to the finish.
We even adopted names and personas like the pros. I called myself The Eagle. I’d steal a little dab or two of my brother’s Brylcreem to grease up my hair, styling it into a V and plastered to my forehead. Although we didn’t have a real wrestling ring with ropes and turnbuckles, I created a signature move in which I’d leap from the make-believe top rope with arms and legs extended spread-eagle to flatten my opponents. I called it the Bird Dropping. My backstory went like this: Raised by a kindly eagle that had lost her chicks, I grew up in a nest on a mountaintop and had learned the technique from that motherly mama bird. Without ring ropes to soar from, however, I was—fortunately—never able to drop the Bird Dropping on anyone.
My sister insisted on going by The Glorious Leslie. She fashioned a cape for her character using her small security blanket. Her signature move was the Go Boom! When her opponents were on the mat, she’d plunge butt-first on them over and over while shouting “I fall down - go boom!” with every slam. Her backstory was that she was an angel from heaven who fell on unworthy adversaries. Since she was smaller and lighter than I was, I never was hurt when victim to a Go Boom! attack. More times than not, I found it so funny when she said “I fall down - go boom!” in her baby voice that I’d begin to crack up; laughing so hard that I’d become helpless and she could pin me down for the count.
As we grew bigger and older, we wrestled less and less, and as many children, families, and friends do, we grew apart. My sister never lost her baby fat. Instead, she gained more and more weight over time. From chubby to husky to ultimately obese, she ate and ate, packing on pound after pound. In the beginning, my parents reasoned she was just big-boned. Finally, they became worried enough to seek medical advice. One practitioner thought it could be an underactive thyroid. He explained to them that when the thyroid gland does not create enough thyroid hormone—a condition called hypothyroidism—it upsets the body’s metabolism and how well it burns calories. All the other doctors they visited for second opinions just thought she was eating too much and should be put on a diet.
My folks, placing their faith in the democratic process, embraced the opinion of the majority. From then until the time she was an adult, they monitored my sister’s food intake to regulate what she ate. Just as my brother snuck my beatings behind my parents’ backs, my sister snuck food. The more they reprimanded and sometimes even punished her, the more she ate in secret. By the time Leslie turned nine, she was five foot three and heavier than either me or my brother. Over time her weight mushroomed and continued to increase.
Like my brother suffered insults, taunts, and teasing from school classmates about his cryptorchidism, my sister received verbal assaults about her weight; hog, blimp, cow, lardo, whale, fatso, piggy, tubby, hippo, chubs, heifer, fatty, sow, jumbo. It was no better when she’d returned home from school. I’m ashamed to admit that I too took to making her life miserable by ridiculing her weight problem whenever I needed anyone to pick on to feel superior. My brutal barb of choice was: “Fat, fat, the water rat, had fifty bullfrogs in her hat. When she went to bed, bumped her head, and couldn’t get up in the morning.”
Children can be so cruel, and I was atrociously merciless. My heartless words took their toll on my prior wrestling partner. She kept on binge eating. Unable to face her world of pain, she also gradually began staying in her room for longer and longer periods of time. Was it the result of my nasty little rhyme? I don’t know because we seldom spoke to one another anymore. While sticks and stones may break your bones, words can also hurt, and the words we say can seldom be erased or completely taken back. My words damaged who we were, and we were then beyond repair.
Though my brother left for college and I departed for good a few years later, Leslie never left home. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more of a recluse now than she became back then. At over two hundred pounds she graduated high school and then trained as a nurse. She met an older man from Ireland who needed a green card to remain in the USA, so they married. But Leslie never left home. Her Irish husband moved into my parents’ house, where they lived with my folks for decades. When my father died, they remained with and cared for my mother until her death in 2013.
Me? I rarely ever returned to visit since my departure in 1970. I went once for a family holiday celebration in 1978, in 1985 when my dad died, and in 1991 to visit my mom at the home she shared with my sister and her husband. That was pretty much it. When my mother died, I did not attend the funeral. What’s the point? Perhaps her surviving friends who were there thought I was a bad son. I would not argue with that assessment. Neither my brother nor my sister and her soon-to-be-divorced husband, however, could’ve cared less. My mother was dead, so she’d feel no pain or remorse from my absence. At least that’s what I told myself at the time.
As far as I know, my sister never succeeded in managing her weight disorder. I do know, however, that after working as a nurse in hospitals and clinics, she returned to school for certification in emergency medical training. Then she drove an ambulance for many years in Texas, attending mostly to those injured by road accidents or gunshot wounds. It was Texas, after all. Though I never took the opportunity to visit her, the image of my two-hundred-plus-pound sister, driving like a bat out of hell in an ambulance with sirens screaming and red lights flashing to aid those hurt and bleeding, causes a smile to spread across my face. Just think, maybe one of those she helped with her EMS skills and the gurney-loaded, first-aid stocked chariot was a long-ago acquaintance who had used words to hurt her. Who knows, right?
Psychologists speculate that some individuals who overeat, especially women, do so as a form of self-protection. The extra flesh and the layers of fat are insulation used to keep the harshness of others from penetrating and hurting them. It’s like a suit of armor that protects those wearing it from those intending injuries. That’s a fascinating theory full of possible insights into our motivations. But when all is said and done, the odds are equal that we’ll just never figure these things out.
I have figured out, however, that what my sister did with her life, I did not. She made a conscious decision to care for people—even people she did not know and perhaps some who had brought sorrow and pain into her life. Let me state right here that I am impressed by what she did. I admire the person she molded herself into. When we staged those wrestling matches in our home all those years ago, one of us would pretend to be the hero and the other the villain, the heel of the fake fights. In real life, my sister was the hero. Toward the end of an all-night shift, my sister and another paramedic went out on one last emergency call. Driving like bats out of hell, sirens screaming and red lights flashing, to aid someone hurt and bleeding, my sister’s ambulance was broadsided by a drunk driver barreling through an intersection at over eighty miles an hour. My sister was killed in San Antonio, Texas in the hot and humid dawn of August 10, 2018.
Adversity: it’s that unpredictable factor in the formula of life. Why does it break or weaken some but make others stronger? There may be much in this world to question, but The Glorious Leslie of Wrestling was, unquestionably, a better person than I.