Bret's 88th Birthday Tribute to Stu
An article by Bret about his dad as part of a special 8-page pull out in the Calgary Sun, Wednesday, April 30, 2003 in celebration of Stu's 88th birthday (May 2nd) and the 50th anniversary of Stampede Wrestling. (Note: There was no column on Saturday, April 26, 2003)
I read a folk tale about a father pursuing a son who’s run far away from one world to the next. The father called to him, “please come back!”, but his son looked across the great gulf between them and shouted to him, “I can’t get that far!”. So his father yelled to his son, “Then just come back half way!” But his boy replied, “I can’t go back half way!” And finally his father shouted, “Walk back as far as you can - and I will go the rest of the way!” (Ron Hansen)
People outside of my family, usually think of my father as a gruff grappler famous for making the toughest of men scream for mercy. The perception is right. Make no mistake about it, even considering the many wrestlers of all shapes and sizes that I’ve locked up with from near and far, Stu Hart is the toughest man I’ve ever known.
But he is also the most fair and compassionate man and an indulgent parent to twelve children. My father has iron hands that have brought down giants - but these same hands have also gently cradled wounded birds and stroked the dogs and cats that follow him from room to room. My father is a man of gentle strength. He takes a common sense approach to life that enables him to keep a calm head when things go wrong, or to unleash his harder side when he deems it necessary. It’s a balance I may not have understood as a young boy but that I quickly came to respect.
I remember when I was quite young, tossing a football around in the yard with my brothers and my dad would come out and punt these perfect spirals really far. He’d tell us about when he played with the Edmonton Eskimos in ‘37-’38 and he put his huge, strong hands lightly over mine and showed me how to line my fingers up with the laces.
Years later, when I played defensive tackle my dad drove me to practice every morning at 5:45 and he picked me up in the afternoons. High school football is one of my fondest memories and I used to think that was because of my triumphs on the field or with the cheer leaders but now, being a dad myself, I realize the really special part was the time I spent with him in his car getting pointers and listening to the radio. Even then I thought it was strange that lots of times Paul Simon’s song Loves Me Like A Rock came on as that is the perfect subtitle for our entire relationship.
I can remember getting into one of my regular school yard scuffles at Wildwood elementary. I was in grade 3 and locked together in a stale mate with this bigger kid when my dad arrived to pick me and my grade 6 brother, Dean, up for lunch. Dad started driving back and forth in front of the school honking the horn of his old beat up 8 door limo and Dean said we’d better hurry up or dad would kill us. Well, I was far more afraid of making my dad angry than I was of this kid so I released a face lock I had on him, jumped up and ran off, the whole time him and his buddies yelling “chicken” at my back. When I got in the car I was kind of upset, thinking I’d somehow soiled the family honor by retreating and upon hearing Dean’s assurances that I was not a chicken my dad quizzed me on what had happened. When we got home, he pulled me aside and told me if I ever get in trouble to reach up and grab hold of my opponents face, almost like I was going to kiss him and then use my back teeth on the tip of his nose and bite the hell out of it. After school that day me and the big bully were locked together in a tangle of arms and legs out by the old soccer posts when he suddenly jumped up screaming and crying and ran all the way home. The kids gathered ‘round couldn’t figure out what happened and I just casually said, “aw, I guess he’s chicken.” I walked away and softly said out loud, “Thanks dad”.
On the other hand, I remember a time when I said” thanks but no thanks, dad”. It was the night before the city champion-ships in grade 10. Mom kind of got on Stu like why don’t you show him some wrestling (mom never really knew what went on down in the dungeon in our basement) so I figured it can’t hurt (oh yes it can!) he might show me that one little trick move to win. After enduring each torturous hold I’d explain, “But I can’t do that,dad, because I’ll get disqualified.” The next day I showed up for the cities feeling all confident and ready that the training session would pay off but I was so sore I could barely raise my arms or move my head and I lost my first two matches and got eliminated. Thanks but no thanks - but it still meant a lot to me that my dad was there to “help” me.
The next year I was city champion when Johnny English came to town wanting to wrestle for Stampede. He had a pro championship belt from England, was about 35 years old, fit and strong - but just too small to compete with the big bodied men in the territory. So, my dad calls me down to the dungeon and asks me to wrestle this guy. It reminded me of a lion that catches an antelope for the cubs to practice on. It was a pretty even match until Stu starts giving me instructions from the sidelines and next thing you know I was stretching this guy pretty good. I knew Stu loved every minute of it and was proud of me and as for Johnny English, he rode off never to be heard from again.
Then they brought in Yagi, a Japanese rookie pro wrestler. Stu and Mr. Hito called me down to the basement (again) and asked me to wrestle the guy but I immediately said he was too big and besides I was 16 or 17 and he was 24. They convinced me to give it a try just to help get his conditioning in shape. Well, next thing you know, I took him down with amateur moves. Well Yagi was really tough and he didn’t like it one bit that I got the upper hand. Apparently I was making him look bad but I didn’t realize that because I was just doing what they’d asked. Stu had stepped out for a few minutes and came back to see Yagi fighting really rough and dirty. He bent my fingers back and another time he bit me to get out of a hold. Well.... Stu just grabbed this guy, enough was enough - and stretched the s**t out of him. It was as scary as I can ever remember anyone being tortured in the dungeon. The guy was screaming and crying - and it was all because my dad saw him cheat and take cheap shots on me.
Then there was the night this guy tried to steal Stu’s old Caddy but he couldn’t get up the driveway because there was too much snow. My dad didn’t even call the police but I know the guy probably wished that he had because Stu grabbed him and stretched him - and then called his parent’s. Next thing you know Stu gave him a job as an usher at the matches, which goes to show you that my dad is big hearted but just won’t stand for himself or his family being treated unfairly or underhandedly.
I guess I knew that about my dad at an early age because when I was 11 and watching him and Archie the Stomper Gouldie from the first row of the sold out Pavilion, I didn’t like how Archie was taking liberties with my father so when the match spilled out of the ring in front of me I stuck out my foot and kicked Archie in the butt, leaving a Basketmaster imprint for all the crowd to see. I was defending my dad as he always defended me. Years later my dad thought I was good enough that he chose me to team up with him against Stomper and John Foley. I watched from the apron as he planted a series of upper cuts on Foley and thought about how far I’d come and how proud I felt to be there as my dad’s partner.
I phoned my dad up the other day and he lamented that, like myself, he doesn’t watch much wrestling any more. Like me, he misses the way it used to be, when pro wrestling was an art, and watches it from time to time to satisfy his curiosity. We agreed that it seems to be coming full circle, back to athleticism and telling stories with your body in the ring and we both hold our breath in relief, anticipation and hope that it may yet live on for another generation. It turns out that we both enjoy Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and It’s funny to find out we both think a lot of Kurt Angle’s background as an amateur wrestling olympic gold medalist. Stu pointed out his big neck and how you can just tell he’s a legit tough guy. Suddenly Stu was talking about how he was schooled by a bunch of old shooters up in Edmonton. What was it about Edmonton that attracted or created some of the toughest guys ever in the entire history of wrestling? I hear a lot of them were cops. No doubt the crime rate must have been pretty darn low!
Next thing you know Stu was talking about New York. During WWII Stu was in the Navy and on leave he hitchhiked to New York City in search of Toots Mondt, a legendary wrestling promoter in the 40’s. Stu was looking to open a door for himself so he could switch from amateur to pro wrestling, where you could earn a decent living. In those days the business was built on shooters with the showmen rounding out the cards. Besides, there was always a local ruffian who thought he could take on the top guy and it helped to tell ’em he had to go through some other guy first - a shooter who would put his lights out and send him home with his tail between his legs.
In my day the toughest guys wouldn’t have been the Hogans, Dynamites, Stone Colds or the Bret Harts. I’m sure they’d agree with me that nobody would want to find himself on the wrong side of Bad News Brown (Allen), Earthquake, Scottie Steiner, Haku, Shamrock or Goldberg - to name a few.
Stu made his way to George Brothner’s gym, at 42nd and Broadway, because it had already earned a storied reputation as a sparring spot for all the top shooters - (it was also a work out/hang out for all kinds of circus performers - jugglers, midgets, acrobats - and boxers!) Stu was told he could find Toots Mondt at a local coffee shop.
Toots was sitting there sipping his coffee and reading the Daily News and Stu decided to walk by him - a couple of times. Toots casually mentioned to Stu, “You have a big neck. You must be a wrestler.”
“Well, in fact I am, “ Stu answered. “Where are you from, then?” When Stu said he was from Edmonton Toots continued, “You must know Jack Taylor then?”
“ Yeah, I’ve worked out with Jack Taylor ...” To this very day Stu describes Jack Taylor as, “...the toughest son of a bitch there ever was” Toots figured that anyone who had worked out with Jack Taylor could work for him. Stu had a job waiting for him when he got out of the Navy, in ‘45.
He met and married my mom in New York and toured the states for two or three years, making out well enough that he was able to come to Calgary and start a territory of his own.
Stu wasn’t afraid to lock up with anybody. I saw on the news the other day that a tiger had escaped from a zoo. Next thing you know the tiger is surrounded by lots of men with lots of guns - when the trainer comes zooming up to the rescue. He walks up to the cat, pats it on the head and they walk away together.
It instantly reminded me of a Stampede from days gone by when my dad wrestled a tiger.
Well, he, of course, went out of his way not to let my mom find out!
And, of course, it was in the paper the next day. My mom was surprisingly calm, saying, ‘That must have been interesting, Buff, why didn’t I know about that?” Mom thought because it was a trained tiger it was harmless. If there is such a thing as a tame tiger.
Well, about 6 weeks later we were all huddled around the TV watching Untamed World and they happened to mention that a tiger can decapitate a Yak with one swipe of it’s paw. We all took a collective deep breath, anticipating mom’s reaction.
“Stu! What were you doing in there wrestling that tiger!” - and so began an amusing ongoing conversation that wasn’t really resolved during the following three decades of marriage. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with my dad’s pet name for my mom, which was Tiger Bell - or what similarity my dad might have seen with wrestling a tiger!
To work for my dad the audition (initiation?) was simple. First you had to wrestle Stu and if he thought you were tough enough you were in. In those days the Canadian dollar was strong and all kinds of athletes from South of the border - and from everywhere else too - came to Stu looking for their break into pro wrestling. Stu especially liked training football players and amateur wrestlers.
In the late 50’s - maybe ‘59 - a young brute of about 23 from Carbon, Ab., showed up at the matches confident that he could beat Stu’s top guy - or anyone else on the card. He was brawny and strong, in fact he would have looked a lot like Bill Goldberg. This guy was rarin’ to go and was climbing into the ring to fight anybody. Containing him was a challenge until Stu talked him down by somehow convincing him that Al Murder Mills or Tiny Mills could easily have ripped his head off. The guy was a total mark and Stu invited him to the house on Sunday to “ see what he could do”. His name was Archie Gouldie and as Archie The Stomper he went on to become the best “total package” that Stampede Wrestling - or maybe any territory - had ever seen. Archie scared me pale many times when I was a boy!
Meanwhile, on Saturday afternoon, in the elevator at the Hudson’s Bay, a short but muscular Italian man by the name of Bruno, who had been pestering Stu to teach him how to wrestle, spotted Stu getting into the elevator and jerked him by the neck, insisting that Stu show him how to wrestle! Anyone who knew Stu in those days would know this wasn’t a smart move! Extremely irritated Stu invited the feisty little man to come to the house, “ ...at 2 o’clock tomorrow afternoon ...”
Bruno and Archie arrived at the same time. My almost eighty-eight year old father recalled to me a few minutes ago, “...ere ... I kicked the s--t out of both of them quite soundly....... head between the knees ... hip to the head ... I had Archie where he kept trying to scoot on his ass ... he finally scooted in the corner ‘till he had nowhere to go... gave them all the ugly stuff ... Everything!”
We never saw Bruno again. Archie came back the next day, a big enough man to feel humbled, and said to Stu, “ Sir, I want you to teach me to wrestle.”
It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed. The legit tough guys, like Kurt Angle, are still on top. And all the zany characters that make the show go. My dad loved them all, the midgets, even the misfits he bailed out of jail - but his true passion is, was and always will be the shooters.
“Ere ... I just wanna get the stiffness out of my knees,” Stu told me today. “ I don’t expect to wrestle like I used to but I could still give ‘em a fight.”
You’ll get no argument from me on that, dad! I started out by saying that people ususally think of my father as a gruff grappler famous for making people scream for mercy. In the movie, Road To Perdition when his father’s character is scrutinized a son replies in simple elegance, as if the very question is non sequeter, he was my father. Yes! And my father is my biggest hero. The only man I want to be is what my dad has been to me.