A part of my childhood officially closed on Monday.
Before moving to Rolla for the final time in 1974 my family lived in a number of small communities in the bootheel of Missouri, southern Illinois, Alabama and Arkansas.
Much of my youth was lived in the south. We would play in cotton fields and buy Funyuns and chocolate sodas from general stores located right, smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood (no real zoning laws in the little towns I grew up in).
And before I discovered baseball, basketball and football I discovered professional
wrestling on television.
Most of my grade school years were spent in Arkansas, and a big part of every Saturday morning, somewhere between the Jackson 5 and Archies cartoons, the weekly Mid-South Wrestling program aired out of Memphis. So my typical Saturday morning was Trix and wrestling.
Memphis wrestling, even for a pre-teen, was off-the-wall crazy. Among the heels and baby faces that kept you from getting up to get a second helping of Sugar Smacks were Sputnik Monroe, Tojo Yamamoto, Jerry Lawler and...the biggest name of all...Jackie Fargo.
Lawler later called himself the "King of Wrestling." And Memphis was home of another king...Elvis.
But there was a time when Jackie Fargo was the true King of Memphis.
Pretty much every male of all ages in my small world during the early 1970s knew of Jackie Fargo. Jackie was bleached blonde. Sometimes he was a baby face (good guy); sometimes he was a heel (bad guy). But it didn't seem to matter what corner of the ring he was in, Memphis loved Jackie.
And so did I.
Jackie didn't look like the 'after' picture of the before/after magazine ads of the time that showed that poor, skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face before he beefed up and got his revenge. No, Jackie didn't have the John Cena build. No wrestler did back then, except maybe Bruno Sammartino or 'Superstar' Billy Graham (you didn't see them on Mid-South Wrestling; you had to go to the drug store and buy the wrestling magazines to see the 'East Coast' talent, which I did every other week after my folks got paid).
But when Jackie scowled and pointed his finger into into the TV camera to make a threat against an upcoming opponent, you knew somebody was in trouble.
Jackie had skinny arms, skinny legs and a big belly...kind of looked like everybody's uncle of the time.
In fact I had an uncle – actually it was my dad's uncle, Uncle Wheeler – who claimed he had a go with Jackie in the ring.
Page 2 of 3 - Everybody's got that 'weird' uncle, and Wheeler was ours. Weird, that is, in a good way.
Now, like many of the males in my family, you really couldn't believe everything that Wheeler would tell you. Call it "creative" truth...or do what we did and just call them Wheeler's stories. But it was sure funny how he told them! Wheeler had one eye that was kind of crooked. He said it was because he went to a wrestling match one night where Jackie Fargo was in the ring. Wheeler said he got so worked up that he, too, climbed in the ring. And, after holding his own briefly, Jackie gave him a rough exit from the ring.
That was a funny story to me, because I saw Jackie do the same thing to other wrestlers every Saturday morning.
One time, around 1971 or 1972 when we were living in Monette, Ark., it was after supper and my dad said, "Come on, help me take the trash out."
I didn't think it took two of us to take the kitchen trash outside to dump it, but I did what I was told.
We got outside and my dad said, "Come on, get in the car!"
Again, I did what I was told, and he took off, laughing. Had he let my mom in on his plans for the night? I have no idea. Knowing him, he didn't.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Let's go to the wrestling matches in Blytheville," he said.
Blytheville was about 25 miles down the road. It was a BIG city (I'm guessing it was probably around 15,000 population at the time, which compared to the tiny towns we'd lived did, indeed seem huge).
I'd never been to a live wrestling card; just saw it in my living room on Saturday mornings. We got to the Blytheville American Legion Hall and the wrestling was as live as it gets.
I'll never forget the sights, sounds and smells. Smelled like smoke and beer. And you knew it was a big event when the lights went down until it was pitch-black everywhere except above and around the ring. The ring had your undivided attention. And I've never heard a sound as loud and authoritative as the ring bell that started and ended matches.
It was all new to me. Obviously, it was very familiar to my dad, who knew his way around the place quite well.
I knew some of the wrestlers on the card. But then they announced the main event: Jackie Fargo vs. ...I don't have a clue. It didn't matter, because JACKIE FARGO was getting set to come down the isle to the ring!
Page 3 of 3 - Wide-eyed, I looked at my dad. He got out his checkbook, gave me a piece of paper and a pen. While he went to get himself a brew and me a Coke, he told me to go on up and get Jackie's autograph.
Are you kidding? Actually MEET and TALK to Jackie? Heck, I'm going to need my Corn Pops to get through this.
I meekly worked my way to Jackie's corner. For several minutes before the bout both wrestlers signed autographs. Without saying a word or breaking stride, Jackie took my pen and paper, signed his name and gave them back with sudden swiftness.
He later took off his shiny robe and the action began.
Jackie won, but not before he spilled a little blood.
I have no idea what happened to that autograph. We went back to the wrestling matches a couple more times, just me and my dad. Couldn't tell you who we saw, but that wasn't the point.
My dad and I didn't do many things alone. He worked hard, played hard and wasn't home much. A few years later we moved to Rolla, I inherited the family car and I wasn't home much, either.
We lost my dad about a year ago.
And on Monday, Jackie Fargo, too, died. He was 85 years old.
But there was that one wonderful night decades ago when I had both my dad and Jackie all to myself.
That one glorious night, when we snuck out of the house and went to see Jackie Fargo. The night that probably stands out as my most vivid childhood memory.
I miss my dad. I miss Jackie. And I miss my Sugar Crisp Cereal.