Friday, May 20, 2011

Back in the Day

Brace yourselves, gentle readers, I have a confession to make...I used to watch Pro-wrestling. I even attended the occasional live event.

I worked in Customs at Pearson Airport in Toronto in the 1980s. Wrestling had made a remarkable resurgence, and I got to know the wrestlers on a first (real) name basis. Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Big Boss Man, Andre the Giant, Hillbilly Jim, the Bushwhackers, George the Animal Steele, Miss Elizabeth, One Man Gang, Brett "the Hitman" Hart, Jim "the Anvil" Niehart, Brutus "the Barber" Beefcake (sigh, in acid wash double sigh)...I cleared them all at one time or another. This post is in honour of Randy "Macho Man" Savage, who passed away in a car accident today.

Sunday afternoons around 1630 hrs they'd start arriving. (That's 4:30pm for non-24 hour clock people) As soon as their afternoon match in Dayton, Ohio or Detroit, Michigan or Columbus in  was over, the wrestlers would pile on the puddlejumper commuter planes and hopscotch across Lake Ontario to Toronto for the 1930 hrs show at Maple Leaf Gardens. When mountains with feet starting arriving in the Customs Hall, you knew the wrestlers had shown up. Half the time, they weren't sure where they were, or who they were fighting. Often, their combatant for the evening's match was standing behind them in line.I remember the British Bulldogs running into the customs hall at 1900 hrs (7pm) because of weather delays. They were scheduled to fight in the 1930 hrs card, but luckily, they were part of the Royal Rumble that night and had some time to meet the handler with the bulldog who was standing in for Matilda before they made their grand entrance. (after he was alleged to have set his snake loose in the customs hall, Jake the Snake Roberts was banned from bringing his own snake in, and had to borrow one for his Toronto matches.)

The wrestlers were a funny bunch. If the fans recognized them, they would go into their wrestling personae and put on a small show. The Customs officers quickly learned that things went more smoothly for everyone if "yes, you knew who they were, and no, you didn't really care." For the most part, with very few exceptions, the wrestlers were respectful and friendly, and tried their best to sign autographs and pose for pictures with their fans. It got a little tense when the "good guys and the bad guys" were in the hall at the same time sometimes, especially when they had travelled together.

We got to know them on another level, because we saw them coming and going so often. For many of us, the wrestlers knew us by name. For example, Brett Hart noticed and commented once when I cut my shoulder-length hair to a much shorter cut. Andre the Giant and One Man Gang, both of whom had to duck to exit the customs hall were quiet gentlemen who never failed to say please and thank you. Hillbilly Jim would often come through customs in his overalls, while Iron Mike Sharpe was always in a suit. George the Animal Steele and Miss Elizabeth travelled virtually incognito.

Working the midnight shifts on Sunday nights sometimes had unexpected bonuses. For example, in the height of the Hulk Hogan-Macho Man battle, we knew weeks ahead who has going to win when-we'd seen the script, but were sworn to secrecy. They often travelled together, sitting side by side in the deserted departure lounge at midnight.

We could occasionally turn the tables on the wrestlers, much to their amusement. The Ultimate Warrior was my friend Janie's favorite wrestler of the time, next to Hulk Hogan. He was entering  the customs hall one evening, and Janie grabbed the rope by her desk and did a fair imitation of his "shaking the ropes" move, just as the deputy chief of the airport arrived to greet a VIP. The Ultimate Warrior cracked up, and Janie just shrugged and processed the VIP. He was a fan, and ended up with an autograph from the Ultimate Warrior.

One of my best memories of those times, though, occurred about 1am one morning. We had a lull before the next drug flight (jargon for a flight from a drug source country that required special handling, and there was a drug lookout on the flight so the RCMP were in the hall) and a few of us were going up to the cafeteria for a break before the next round of mayhem. As we walked along the empty departures area, we noticed the Bushwhackers walking towards us, on their way to catch the red-eye to the next night's fun. Approximately 6 uniformed customs officers and 2-3 RCMP officers paused,  and then we all started to do the "bushwhacker stomp" in perfect unison towards the gob-smacked wrestlers. They paused a minute, and then bent double, laughing so hard they were gasping.  As we drew even with them, they joined us for a couple of steps, and with a "good fun, that" they went to catch their flight and we went to grab our coffee.

I changed jobs and moved from the terminals. Wrestling became more and more about T and A and extreme stunts, and less about the professionals.Owen Hart died.While it holds a special place in my heart and was a big part of my life working in Customs, I haven't watching it in years.  .

So RIP Macho Man. You will always be part of my Customs memories. Thanks for being a good entertainer, a great person to your fans, and a friendly and polite person to clear through customs. Nobody could rock pink leggings, sunglasses and headbands like you. "Ooooh, Ya."