A group of heroic-scale men were slamming and bouncing each other around a wrestling ring, their routine syncopated by the thud-boom-thud sound of bodies striking a thinly padded surface.
Outside, the sun was playing across the fields of drying cornstalks that border this farm town near Minneapolis. But those sweat-suit gladiators were absorbed with preparing for their graduation-day exercises at Verne Gagne's summer camp for tough guys.
"A lot of tavern brawlers look up at the TV above the bar and say: 'Hey, I could be a wrestler, too,' " Gagne observed as he took in the action at ringside, his elbows resting on the apron.
"So they sign up for our training course, only to find that it's no fun having a 275-pound man jump on you. Many of them pack their gym bags and go right back home the first day of camp. To make it, a guy has to have a dream that'll keep him going through all the punishment we subject these rookies to. That's what we're really running here: A camp for dreamers."
Thirty-five years ago, in the first golden age of TV wrestling, Gagne was the heavyweight champion of the world--or at least of those parts of the Earth that he could reach in quick jumps from his home base at Chicago's Marigold Gardens arena.
In those days, he wrestled upwards of 250 times a year. Now he is the principal wrestling promotor in Minneapolis, from where he sends out a younger generation of grunt-and-groan artists to entertain audiences in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
For the past dozen years, Gagne also has sponsored an annual training camp to develop new talent. Each semester, 15 to 25 students enroll for the two-month course in half-nelsons and submission holds. Inevitably, only a handful make it through their black-and-blue studies.
Professional wrestling is part athletic competition, part show-business and part an exercise in group self-hypnosis. Outside the arena, even long-time fans speak cynically about their heroes' pulled punches and faked injuries. But once the matches begin, they immediately lose their critical faculties in favor of a yelling-and-screami ng identification with the ring action.
Real or illusion, wrestling is a demanding activity that requires its participants to be in tip-top cardiovascular shape--strange, considering how generous their waist measurements can be. So Gagne begins by putting students through an intensive conditioning program of which the Marine Corps would be proud. Most rookies flunk out at this stage.
The survivors learn wrestling's basic offensive and defensive strategies, and how to hit the canvas at full speed without winding up a bag of broken bones. A perennial crowd-pleaser is for one grappler to lift his opponent overhead then hurl him to the mat, javelin-style.
Today, instructor Brad Rheingans was putting the surviving three-member class of '86 through a series of advanced maneuvers.
Repeatedly, Rheingans dashed across the ring and threw himself into the ropes, which distended under the impact of his momentum, then catapulted him back. At the midpoint of his return trip, he would execute a backward half- flip, extending his legs into a drop kick of near-lethal force.
Before putting his students through this human-boomerang exercise, he showed them in slow motion the secret of how to hit the ropes at just the right angle so the stunt wouldn't backfire by leaving them tangled in the strands and helpless before an opponent's counter-attack.
Listening to the ring ropes sing at each slingshot encounter with a wrestler's body, Gagne nodded and sighed. The nod was approval of his assistant's teaching method. The sigh was a reflex response to his obvious nostalgia for a time when his own co-ordination was still up to such gymnastics.
"I was a farm kid. We lived just down that road," Gagne recalled, pointing through the windows of the rambling frame-and-brick house that serves as a gym and dormitory for his students. "At night, we'd gather around the kitchen table and listen to Bronko Nagurski's matches on the radio. Remember, the Bears fullback? Back in pro football's barnstorming days, he used to wrestle in the off-season just to make some real money."
The relative economics of those two sports had not changed much when Gagne graduated from the University of Minnesota just after World War II. As a college football player with All-Star Game credentials, he was worth a $5,000 contract offer from George Halas.
But after tasting the Bears' training camp, he accepted a wrestling promoter's counter-offer. He already had gone to the first post-war Olympics in that sport. In his first year as a professional he cleared $30,000. Within three years, his earnings had tripled.
"In football, or even baseball, an athlete has a very limited time as a pro. But with wrestling, as long as you don't get hurt, you can go 20, 25 years," Gagne noted. "So by the time you're ready to call it a career, it seems like that ring up there has been your whole life."
(The 60-year-old Gagne had his last bout in April. "When he signed up for that match, the family extracted an iron-clad promise from Dad that if he so much as considered another comeback, we could commit him to a mental institution," his daughter Kathy said.)
Climbing out through the ropes to take a breather, Gary Lindgren sat down on the apron and seconded Gagne's motion. Lindgren is an enormous man whose broad shoulders and pinched waist comprise a triangle of Euclidean perfection. He keeps his equally perfect oval head clean-shaven so that he almost seems constructed of gigantic geometric shapes rather than of flesh and blood. Yet he lowered himself to the canvas and tucked his legs under his backsides Indian-style with the delicacy of a ballet dancer one-third his size.
"It (puff) doesn't get (wheeze) any easier. Even (gasp) the second time (pant) around," he said, gesturing back toward the heartbeat-elevating fun and games he had just left. For the 35-year-old Lindgren, this season's camp was a rerun. He was an alum of the class of '80.
After his first graduation, Lindgren explained, he was serving his apprenticeship on the tank-town circuit, making coffee-and-donut money via a small percentage of the night's gate receipts. At one stop on the tour, a more experienced opponent drop-kicked him right out of the ring. His head met the hall's concrete floor at full force, and he was left a victim of Bell's palsy--a neurological impairment that robbed Lindgren of full control of his facial muscles.
"For two years after the accident, I had to tape my eyelids shut to try and get some sleep," he recalled. "The doctors said I'd never fight again. But all those nights of lying awake in bed, all I ever thought about was getting back in the ring."
Being a professional wrestler is more like an addiction than a career choice, Lindgren noted by way of explaining his willingness to tempt the fates a second time. Indeed, it is such a hard habit to kick that, for a few minutes of glory, you willingly accept a life whose principal ingredient is boredom.
On the road, the routine is always the same. Every morning you drive from the site of last night's bout to that of today's match, check into the hotel and, if you're lucky, find a matinee movie to kill the afternoon. Exiting the theater afterward, you strain to remember the name of the town, even as you're asking directions to the arena. Finally, the moment arrives that makes it all worthwhile.
"When they announce your name, the crowd either yells or boos, depending on what kind of role--good guy, bad guy--you take," Lindgren said. "By the time you make it down to ringside, some people are so worked up they're either patting you on the back or trying to bop you over the head with a beer bottle. Once, down in Texas, this old lady pushed a cigar right into my shoulder. I've still got the scar--see?"
Deep down inside all of us, there is a second personality waiting his moment on the stage, Gagne noted. He was trying to explain why it would be a thrill for a fighter to have his flesh seared by over-attentive fans. Something about a wrestling ring allows this hidden personality to surface.
"A lot of people think that we assign our wrestlers their roles. You know, make one guy a big, bad Russian, and another a good guy in a white hat," Gagne said. "As a matter of fact, we tried something like that the first couple of years we ran the camp. But it didn't work very well. So we learned to be patient and let a young wrestler find that somebody he's always wanted to be. Give him a few bouts, and it'll surface."
Lots of times, Gagne added, the results would have been hard to predict. A big, intimidating-looking man, like Lindgren, turns out to have a mild- mannered ring persona. Alternately, an all-American-boy type turns into a brutal, eye-gouging street fighter. Sometimes, a wrestler has to struggle through several ring-personality changes before finding one with which both he and his fans are comfortable.
"Have you seen Sgt. Slaughter? The fighter who comes into the ring in army fatigues and carrying an American flag?" Gagne asked. "When he started working our circuit, he was a masked man, like the Lone Ranger. But that didn't do much for his career. Then one day a buddy who was in the National Guard brought him a uniform, and the instant he tried it on, he found himself."
A promotor's job, Gagne added, is to provide audiences with a psychological smogasbord. A balanced card should offer a few exotic foreigners for the local xenophobes to despise; a flag waver or two to stir patriots' hearts; a scientific wrestler, who plays it straight, for any purists in attendance; and a scowling, back-alley brawler to bring out the worst in all of us.
"A smart promoter works to all fantasies, and in recent years, we've had to follow world events closely, too," Gagne explained. "When the Middle East or Iran was a hot spot, we couldn't book enough Arab-looking fighters. When Reagan gets tough with the Soviets, we have to find Bad Boris types in a hurry. If South Africa stays in the news, we're going to need a lot more black wrestlers."
At this point, Rheingans declared a time out, and he and his two other young pupils joined the ring-apron bull session. For their part, Jerome Saganowich and Brian Yandrisovitz announced that, in advance of their first professional match, they already have decided upon their ring roles. Home-town buddies from Allentown, Pa., their goal is to fight as a tag team and have the name "The Mercenaries" embroidered on their silk robes.
"That way, wherever there is a civil war or a terrorist attack, we can fight for that country and show its flag to the fans," Saganowich said, explaining his and his partner-to-be's choice of ring motifs. "Brad and Gary keep telling us to wait until we've had a few fights before we settle on our role, and we know that as the new boys on the circuit we'll have to fight separately until we prove ourselves. But for years, we've dreamed of climbing into the ring as 'The Mercenaries.' "
Yandrisovitz added that after playing high school football together, he and his buddy drifted into the kinds of jobs that are a blue-collar community's equivalent of college and the professions. But the glory they had known on the athletic field continued to haunt them, especially on nights when the local arena hosted a professional wrestling show. It took awhile for them to discover that Verne Gagne's camp could be a point of entry into professional athletics, even longer to convince their parents of the viability of their project and to save up for the $3,000 tuition and the cost of their room and board.
"All along, my pa, he's a mechanic, kept ridiculing the idea," Yandrisovitz recalled. "But when he finally saw how serious we were, he told me: 'Stick with it, son. I only wish I'd had the guts to take a chance when I was your age.' "
"The day we left Allentown to come here, three carloads of our buddies drove us to the airport," Yandrisovitz added. "That's a big reason why we stuck it out through those first, tough days of camp, when so many other guys were giving up. There was just no way Jerry and me could go home and face our friends as dropouts. Half our buddies are out of work. We just had to see our dream through to the end."
Rheingans noted that it is not just wrestlers who have to have dreams to live by. Oftentimes when flying to a match--his own career has advanced beyond the car-pool, one-night-stand stage--his seatmate will inquire after his profession. When he announces that he is a wrestler, the fellow often will ask, "Of course, wrestling is a fake, isn't it?"
Before answering the question, Rheingans always asks his interrogator for his line of work. If, say, the other fellow replies that he is a lawyer, Rheingan observes that every time he goes to court his own attorney and the other lawyer go off to one side and chatter in some special language that only the two of them understand. Then they come back to announce which side won the case. "OK," Rheingans concludes, "I'll admit that my profession is not always on the up-and-up. But, for comparison, tell me how yours stacks up?"
Yet the strange thing is that doubters really want to believe, Rheingans added.
"It never fails," he said. "No sooner do we get set about his profession and my profession than my seatmate will come back a second time to ask the question the other way around: 'Come on, you can be honest with me,' the guy'll say. 'After all the hoopla and role playing is over, wrestling matches are for real--they are, aren't they?' "