- The Polish Prince
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 156]
During Prohibition, Granny Wiskowski sold bootleg gin out of her living room, and at the end of her life, she was still a skilled gambler. The night she won a gold-and-turquoise Miami Dolphins pendant at hospital bingo, she took down the box from her bed stand, held it out to me and poked a figure into my sternum. “Don’t take no shit from no one,” she said in her hoarse half-Polish, half-English whisper. I had never heard an adult swear except in anger, and now I wasn’t even in trouble. I hooked the clasp around my neck and wore the pendant for most of the decade, right through the tarnish. A necklace. My new favorite team. [End Page 157]
The Dolphins meant nothing to Granny Wiskowski. Her game was pro wrestling. Much to the embarrassment of her daughters and family, including my father, her eldest grandson, she watched it day and night, in her living room, while sitting in her rocker with the blinds closed, fishing cans of warm beer out of a cooler and screaming at the television. Until the late 1980s, when she died, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) broadcast to St. Joseph, Missouri, a regional feed from Kansas City, on which Granny would have seen Johnny Valentine, the Missouri Mauler, the Butcher and his manager Dandy Jack, even Danny Little Bear: all large white men who had once played football and now worked nights for five and ten dollars a match. It was not a particularly inspired era of wrestling. Danny Little Bear wore an American Indian headdress and whooped as he walked to the ring. He was from Jonesboro, Georgia. Like all the NWA wrestlers, Danny won and lost on a regular basis to the King “Handsome” Harley Race, Kansas City’s native son, who co-owned the alliance and toured locally as its national champion.
The wrestlers Granny Wiskowski cheered at the end of her life were small and fat by today’s standards. Not yet steroidal, they were naturally grotesque and so harder to turn away from. Angry noses busted open on faces year-round. Lips hung with deep scars. The fittest wrestlers squeezed their massive guts into singlets; their hair was thinning on top, and they were thick around the neck, their arms and chests and thighs so top-heavy that only their calves seemed to narrow, if slightly, into the high laces of boots. Such bodies seemed impractical for doing spectacular things, and they rarely did. Matches turned on extended holds and stare-downs. However they bled on cue, scaled the ropes or fell neatly to the canvas, wrestlers from that era spent a good deal of time in close holds, sucking air and grunting out the next sequence of moves, fine-tuning their choreography as the crowd cheered or lost interest.
Villains, or heels, are the most skilled wrestlers. During a match they are attentive to craft, expanding the simplest of kicks and punches into fantastic flops, lying immobile for pins while exuding, as only the defeated can, that certain air of helplessness that says a match is finished. Any wrestler can preen, strut and point. Only the villains can sell fake devastation to a vigilant spectator like Granny Wiskowski, who favored the worst heels in the bunch, the biggest jerks who cheated blindly and riled the crowd, crying foul to the referee one moment and blinding him with a handful of sand the next. It takes a particular inclination to love against type, one that Granny possessed in spades. The satisfaction of [End Page 158] wrestling is, after all, vengeance: that someone should be held accountable for how we love and hate. Wrestling heels are uniquely suited to provide such satisfaction.
According to family legend, after an argument, Granny pushed her husband down the stairs to the cellar. She left him there for several hours. Ion Wiskowski was a stout man, reputedly righteous and bright and loving to his three daughters, but I don’t know whether the account we have of him...