Authors: Bret Hart
Soon Smith met a beautiful, hot-tempered Puerto Rican girl named Maria, after she cursed him out in Spanish one day on the beach. Before long he was talking to her, drawing diagrams in the sand, explaining how there were ten Cadillacs parked around the big house where he lived with his rich and famous father. Maria warmed to him, but of course he failed to tell her that most of the Caddies didn’t run, and that none of them were his.
I had a nice dark tan now, and I wore my black bullrider cowboy hat everywhere I went. At night, I’d wander past the prostitutes as I headed for the beach. The moon lit my way as I followed the black rocks that stretched out into the ocean. Waves washed over little crabs scurrying on the sand, and big ships blinked their red lights in the distance. I’d sit out on the rocks, drink a carton of orange juice, treat myself to a chocolate bar, eat bananas and wonder what my friends back home would think of what I was doing. I’d been doing a great job of pretending to get the shit kicked out of me, rolling around in pain, reaching out desperately to Smith, fighting back just enough to get cheers from the fans. I realized that I had a knack for it, and I was determined to be the best loser Puerto Rico had ever seen. I could be great if I wanted to be—the fans told me so with their eyes. The truth about these fans is that they had great sympathy and emotion because they really believed. They loved their wrestling so much that they could—and would—kill you without remorse if you offended them or let them down.
I had the pleasure of meeting the legendary Bruno Sammartino, the former WWWF Champion. He was really nice and even posed for a picture with Smith and me. But I have to say that I didn’t think he was anywhere near the worker that Dory Funk Jr. or Harley Race was. I was disappointed in the cage match he had with Gorilla Monsoon; if the same match had played out in front of the Calgary fans, they would have booed the two of them out of the building. In their defense, I was well aware that Sammartino’s New York wrestling style sold out Madison Square Garden every month, but it was probably the phoniest wrestling anywhere. To see realistic wrestling, you went to Japan, or to Calgary, St. Louis, Kansas City, Amarillo, Minneapolis, even Portland or Louisiana. I didn’t know how or when or where I learned these things, but I knew they were true.
Gorilla Monsoon was a nice guy. His real name was Robert “Gino” Morella, and he had the kindest things to say about Stu. When I mentioned this to Stu on the phone, he told me he had trained the 350-pound Gorilla in the dungeon back in 1961. Gino had been undefeated as an amateur wrestler, and was the only wrestler on the U.S. national team whom the Russians couldn’t take off his feet.
Stu chuckled about how he had crossfaced Gino down in the basement, locking his arm and pressing down on his shoulder, forcing the Gorilla to the mat and bloodying his nose. “The big bastard was pretty hard to contain after that,” Stu said.
I was learning that pro wrestling wasn’t all fake and could be very painful. I had a match with King Kong, a five-foot-two, 350-pound human boulder from Argentina, who did a belly flop and landed on me like a slab of concrete, knocking all the wind out of me. To him, I was just a piece of meat. I never gave him the satisfaction of letting him know he had hurt me.
Afterwards, in the dressing room, King Kong shook my hand and said, “Gracias.” He stood as high as my nipples. I smiled down at him, thinking, Fuck you, fatso. It was all part of paying my dues.
In Puerto Rico, I understood for the first time the creativity and the drama required to be a great worker: the art of making it all seem real and telling a story using my body. I would show them all . . .
Out on the rocks, I made a pact with the full moon, asking God to watch over me as I decided to dedicate my life to this crazy profession.
Smith began socializing with a notorious New York wrestler by the name of Dick Steinborn. He was the son of Milo Steinborn, a wrestler from my father’s era. Dick was to his respected father as Smith was to Stu. As a wrestler, Dick bordered on genius and at the time was rated as the best junior heavyweight in the business. But he was equally renowned for sketchy maneuvers. Dick took Smith under his wing, and the two of them sat for hours drinking beer, conjuring up scams.
Kikay came around from time to time. One night he took Smith, Maria and me to a strip bar. A beautiful bronze dancer came over to me and she seemed very interested. I was bedazzled by her long hair and the dark curves of her body. I asked Kikay to tell her that I thought she was beautiful.
His face turned red and he rattled on in Spanish. She left the table abruptly and never returned.
Months later, Maria told me Kikay had made it clear that I was taken—by him. Kikay never tried anything, but I always sensed that he wanted to ask me something but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.
Back in the lobby at the Tanama, Smith was propositioned by two teenaged prostitutes who were sucking red lollipops and wearing tight red dresses. He was happy courting Maria so, like a good big brother, he negotiated on my behalf. I wasn’t sure I was interested, although they were very pretty.
Smith haggled and said, “I got her down to ten bucks.” I dug into my jeans. “All I’ve got is eight.”
We called home every Sunday. I told Stu how much I hated it, and he told me to ride it out. Smith and I decided to leave at the end of June, stopping in New York to visit my mom’s sister, Aunt Joanie, before going back to Calgary. When Smith broke the news to my mom, she asked him to put me on the phone and promptly broke down in tears. “Please, dawling, you can’t let Smith get anywhere near your aunt Joanie! Please promise me.” My mom’s relatives thought their Canadian cousins were the picture-perfect family, the Kennedys of Canada. Mom thought that Smith would expose in a few moments an image that had taken years to cultivate.
Without giving her away, I said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll take care of it. I promise.”
That night there were too many heels winning matches, so the hapless Hart brothers were going to go over. It didn’t mean much to anyone else, but I was excited, especially because it was an honor for me to wrestle at Roberto Clemente Stadium. The Pittsburgh Pirate had been a sports hero of mine until he died in a plane crash when I was fifteen. I thought this night would be one that I’d tell my children about someday.
The stadium was packed, and the buzz of the crowd was electric. As we waited to make our entrance, I noticed two pea-sized spiders, red as little tomatoes, perched above me on opposite sides of the doorway, having a stare-down. Suddenly they charged each other, colliding and dropping in front of me on a single thread, dangling and spinning furiously. I said to Smith, “Maybe they’re fucking.” And then I realized it was a fight to the death. It lasted a full minute, until one spider wrapped the other in a silk coffin. Those two spiders turned into a symbol of my time in Puerto Rico, where death was always hanging in the air.
Smith scored the win with a sloppy sunset flip in front of a sold-out stadium full of roaring fans. I was surprised when they rose to their feet, jumping and cheering for us. Smith really overdid it, throwing his fist high in the air and shouting like a girl, jumping around me, humping my leg. “We won! We won!” He was a nut, but I loved him for it.
We would leave Puerto Rico on July 2, my twenty-first birthday. Victor insisted that because of everything Stu had done for him and Carlos, he would treat Smith and me to lunch before we left. I wouldn’t know until I got home that I’d lost twenty-five pounds in Puerto Rico; all I knew was that I was grateful for his offer.
I’d been trying to talk Smith out of visiting Aunt Joanie, so I was relieved—and amused—when he came to me with a plan. He’d met a pasty-faced platinum blond out by the small, filthy hotel swimming pool, which had a dead rat floating in it the whole time we were there. She invited Smith and me to stay at her well-to-do par-ents’ dairy farm, just outside Chicago. So, instead of New York it would be Chicago—and I kept my promise to my mom, sort of.
Smith and I arrived by taxi in time for lunch with Victor. We were famished, because we’d skipped our usual feast at the La Concha. After we’d waited for nearly an hour, Victor came out of his office with his car keys jingling in his hand. “Sorry, boys, no time today. We’ll do it another time. I’m busy.
Got to go.” We walked all the way back to the hotel, missed the buffet and never did eat that day.
On the Wednesday before we were to leave, we did TV tapings at a studio in Bayamón. It always seemed to be pouring down buckets of rain, yet it was never cool, always hot and sticky. The town reminded me of a short, wet crying scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There was a six-year-old albino kid who hung around the studio with sad, hungry eyes. I remember him running away as fast as he could, screaming, being chased by a cockroach as big as a mouse; it seemed to be gaining on him as they ran down a muddy street.
I was sick and tired of the heat and the squalor. I vowed never to complain about the Calgary cold again and began counting the seconds until the flight. Then Smith had a change of heart. He’d fallen in love with Maria and was going to hang on for a while longer. I was happy for him, but I was out of there.
Smith and I teamed up for a six-minute TV match with Frenchie Martin and Michel Martel, the hottest heel team the territory had ever known. We were going to get squashed, which was fine by us. I liked Frenchie and Michel, and I was happy to do my small part in helping them get over.
I took my usual shit-kicking and tagged in Smith. He was hoping to shine ever so slightly in case Maria saw the match on TV, though I doubted she could afford a TV. Michel and Frenchie ate Smith alive, slapping and kicking him, leaving red marks all over his chest. Smith was annoyed at their obvious potatoes, and they could barely refrain from laughing as they tagged in and out to dish out more punishment. Smith sulked about it for the rest of the night.
I was standing in the dugout in Ponce watching when Michel Martel dropped to one knee and gripped his chest. Something was wrong, for real. Frenchie worked the rest of the match and took the fall. He slung Michel’s arm over his neck and carried him back to the heel dressing room, doing his best to protect Michel from the flying debris. Frenchie laid him out in the shower, letting the cold water run over him, and he suddenly sat up and said he was fine, chalking the episode up to indigestion from some Chinese food he’d eaten too close to match time. They dressed and hurried to beat the crowd. They were heels, so they had to park far away from the building or their car would have been destroyed. They slipped out of the building, running with their bags, zigzagging the fifteen blocks to their car. Michel felt sick again as they were driving. Frenchie pulled over to the side of the road so Michel could stick his finger down his throat in order to throw up. But he collapsed again. Frenchie lifted him back into the car and raced to the nearest hospital. The orderlies who put Michel on a gurney told Frenchie, “Your friend is dead.” Michel Martel was thirty-four years old, and his heart gave out. He was the first of my wrestling brothers to die. I was proud that he had his last real match with me, and that he smiled all the way through it.
It was my twenty-first birthday, and I was finding out that the wrestling business would always be about the things I learned along the way.
I had a nonrefundable plane ticket to Chicago, so I left with the farmer’s daughter. On the flight, she said her purse was in the overhead bin and asked, “Hon, would you mind buying me a drink?” I figured, What the heck, I’d be staying at her house and eating her food. She had plenty of drinks.
When we landed in Chicago she said, “Wait here and I’ll see if my dad’s out front.”
I never saw her again.
I had $2,000 in my pocket to show for what I went through in Puerto Rico, and I was afraid I’d be robbed in Chicago: The only images I knew of the city were of Elliott Ness and The Untouchables. I remembered that Keith always said that if I was ever in a bind, I should go to the YMCA. I asked for directions at the airport, and I ended up at 2 a.m. on a train along with street urchins and the night shift. I guess I was a midnight cowboy, with my bullrider hat pulled down over my eyes.
I got off at Wabash Avenue at 3 a.m. and carried my bags through deserted streets to the Y. The guy at the desk said check-in was in three hours and that the cheapest room was eight bucks. I paid him and took the key, only to find the furniture was smashed, the mattress was slashed, and there was blood splattered everywhere! I went back downstairs and asked, “How much is your best room?” He said $24. I said, “Fine,” and asked him to hold my bags. I backtracked a few blocks to a fancy hotel where I stretched out on a couch in a side lobby for a few hours until I could check in at the Y.
I had a couple of days to kill in Chicago before my flight back to Calgary. On my first Fourth of July in America, I ended up down by the railroad tracks behind the Y, with no shirt on, just my jeans and cowboy hat, trying to keep my tan and listening to hoboes playing harmonica and singing the blues. I found a place where I could peek between tall buildings to see just enough of the fireworks to be impressed.
On my last day, I bought a small portable TV. I thought I’d bring it back with me to plug into the cigarette lighter of Stu’s van so the whole Stampede crew could watch Hockey Night in Canada as we zoomed across the Prairies. I was on my way to my room with the TV when I was approached by a strange little guy who looked like Scrooge McDuck.
Out of nowhere he started to tell me that I had a beautiful voice, and he kept insisting that he wanted to come to my room and teach me how to sing. I didn’t want Scrooge McDuck, or anyone else, to know what room I was in because I was worried the TV would be stolen, but I was still too good-natured to be rude. I thought the only way to get rid of the guy was to follow him to his room, where he wanted to show me his scrapbooks.
I could tell that he lived in that tiny room; there was a shelf full of dogeared paperbacks mounted on the wall over his bed. We sat down on the bed and I was looking for my first opening to get out of there, images of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy floating in my head. Scrooge plopped three big scrapbooks down on our laps and began flipping through pages of clippings and programs; much to my surprise he actually had been a singer, when he’d had a life. He seemed harmless enough now, but when I opened up the third scrapbook I was stunned to see two men screwing on the cover of a gay magazine. He gently put his hand on my knee and asked, “Do you like?” In a recoil reaction, my fist smashed him right in the face, knocking him against the wall, bringing down the bookshelf and covering him with books. He lay there twitching, pretending to be out cold, with a deep, ugly cut oozing under his right eye. I felt bad that I hit him so hard, but I was never going to sing the way he wanted me to. I picked up my TV and left.