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Kid Christmas 2: My Grandparents and Professional Wrestling

December 2, 2016

Grunge vintage television with antena isolated on whiteIt was right after Christmas and we were heading to see relatives in Western Pennsylvania, which included Baba and Grandpap.  You would have loved them:  he a burly grizzled man, she a thin, gentle but tough-as-Pittsburgh steel woman.  My great-grandparents were a hoot.  They were the hardy, honorable sort you would read about in the 1960s textbooks: Russian immigrants who came through Ellis Island, looking for honest work and a chunk of land for settlement.  Mike and Anne Paholich did just that;  they settled right outside of Pittsburgh in the tiny town of Tarentum, Pennsylvania and after years of Grandpap working in the coal mines, saved up enough to buy sixty-five acres for farming.  Ah, we loved piling in the VW bus and tooling across the state to see Grandpap and Baba (Russian for “elder woman”, a term of gentle respect in our family).

I think it was either 1968 or 1969 when Zockoll elementary-age clan ran into our great-grandparents’ home and after hugs, head-kissing and “ah, my boychik” in a heavy Eastern European dialect, we prepared to go run around the corn crib, barn, water pump and other fascinating delights of a farm.

But today was different.

We stopped in the living room. There was a television set.

This was big news.  Up until now, Baba and Grandpap had owned a Philco radio for all of their broadcast needs.  You remember those sets from the decades earlier?  It was about 500 pounds and took about an hour to warm up.  It had a dark walnut stain and had a mysterious white-on-black numerical face that added to the mystique of the old Russian farmhouse.

This was different.  It was like America had stepped into Baba and Grandpap’s house.  The little TV looked almost out of place, that smallish plastic set, which I believe had a screen of about 16 inches.

Mom said they bought it for themselves after the January 7th Russian Christmas.

But my story isn’t so much about why they bought the set.  I want to tell you what they watched.

I can distinctly remember two programs they watched religiously, every time the programs came on.  One was a faith healer’s show, Kathryn Kuhlman’s I Believe in Miracles.  Baba would sit in rapt attention as the show explained the many transcendent events throughout the world, unexplained except for Divine intervention.

The other one, believe it or not, was WIIC’s Studio Wrestling, a weekly pro wrestling program broadcast from the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.  Whenever we heard Sousa’s El Capitan March strains coming from the living room, we raced in to watch the action.  Baba and Grandpap would cease all farm activities and plant themselves in their respective seats.  There would be Grandpap, firmly in his easy chair, while Baba would sit on a backless wooden chair with a bowl of green beans.  She would peel nervously.  We took our places and made sure they had a clear view of the set.

What a night!  Our hero was a local champion named Bruno Sammartino, whom I remember had this great bounce-off-the-ropes maneuver that always flattened a bad guy.  This met with great approval from Grandpap, who always relayed an appreciative grunt each time it happened.

One of the heroes that got everyone’s attention was a guy who dressed up as Batman, and wisely took off his cape before wrestling.  Each week the opponent would vow to defeat Batman and unmask him.  We sat horrified at the thought.  Batman unmasked?  Baba was just as upset.  We could hear her as the announcer would scream: “Oh no!  It looks like the Shiek has some sort of object and is trying to stab Batman!”

Baba: (stringing beans faster): Oh, yoy.

Grandpap: Hush.

Batman would always win, much to the joy of the elementary crowd in the room.  Even Grandpap stopped squeezing the chair’s arm so hard.

There was also a fun side event: An elderly woman named Ringside Rosie would be heard screaming at each match.  She had a front row seat for every program, and she was a beast, hollering at the action.

My favorite, though, was a tag team wrestler by the name of Stan “the Man” Stasiak, who was also known as the Crusher.  This guy got the biggest rise out of Baba and Grandpap.  He was mean, he grimaced fiercely, and worse of all, he had the Heart Punch.  

He would iron-grip an opponent and then show the crowd his gripping claw of a hand.  He would then squeeze the other guy’s chest as if he were trying to stop the man’s heart.  The guy would scream in dramatic fashion before passing out.  It is hilariously overblown as I remember it now, but it would throw Baba and Grandpap into a frenzy.

Grandpap:  Why the referee not seeing these things!

Baba:  Oh yoy.  Oh yoy.

We kids were yelling as well.  The bell would ring.  Pandemonium in the Civic Arena as well as the Grandpap household.  Then he would go back to the fields, she to the kitchen.

Strange Christmas memory, I know …but don’t we all have quirky recollections of holiday fun?  I chuckle every time I recall those evenings:  it was weird but we had a blast.  It made my great-grandparents that much more special.  It showed a fun dimension we hadn’t seen before.

My great grandparents both passed away while I was in college.  Grandpap died of a stroke.  Baba died only a month or so later after falling and breaking her leg.  She just gave up, though.  The doctors said that she died of a broken heart.  I believe it.  She lost her great love here on earth.

Baba and Grandpap were both Believers, and my many memories of them are warm and in anticipation of a future reunion when I also get to Heaven.  I am going to rejoice and celebrate the Savior with my beloved relatives.

But I have this sneaking suspicion Baba and Grandpap will be walking Heaven’s perimeter, looking for a wrestling match.

Oh, yoy.




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