Grandpa Pete stood nearly 7 feet tall and weighed 265 pounds. Years of pumping iron, college wrestling and hard labor for UN railroad had made him tough as nails. He had to turn his broad shoulders sideways to walk through a doorway. His arms were so muscled that when he lifted a pencil, a thick blue vein, stretching from shoulder to wrist, bulged through his flesh like rope.
His hair was white and stood atop his head like a shock of lightening. He had pale blue eyes and thick white bushy eyebrows with mutant hairs that stretched upwards towards his hairline. He possessed a peculiar talent for being able to raise one eyebrow at a time so that, at any given moment, his face resembled that of a cartoon villain. His smile was huge: beneath his pencil-thin white mustache revealed two missing front teeth. We called him “The Mauler”.
Father, brother and I would visit The Mauler every Sunday. Thelma, his wife, my grandmother, would busy herself in the kitchen making soup, bread and peanut butter cookies while we sat in the living room watching Stampede Wrestling. The Mauler called it “wrastling” because, as he put it, “wrestling is a real sport where men, women and children get hurt and sometimes die.”
He rooted on his favorites: Brett “The Hitman” Hart, Davy Boy Smith and The Dynamite Kid. They were the good guys. I rooted mine: The Cuban Assassin, Bad News Brown and my all-time favorite, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. They were the bad guys. The Hammer had bulging forearms like Popeye. I loved the way he would leap from the top rope and drive his elbow into his opponents – leaving them unconscious.
The best part of the Sunday afternoon visit was after wrastling. Ed Whalen would no sooner announce, “in the mean-time and the in-between time,” when The Mauler would turn on me, raise his eyebrows menacingly and growl, “I’m gonna crush you, little man.” “I’m your worst nightmare, Grandpa,” I would respond – barely able to contain my laughter.
The Mauler would grab me, put me in a headlock, tousle my hair, then flip me around and spin me like a helicopter propeller. There was nothing that my puny 9 year old body could do to stop him. He would crush me over his knee in a mock backbreaker, flip me upside down into a pile driver then body slam me into the soft sofa cushions. I was a rag doll in his giant hands.
“Are you boys ready for lunch,” Thelma asked? I had, before The Mauler had a chance to answer, climbed up onto the back of the couch. “I’m gonna put you in the ground,” I screamed as I leapt from the couch and buried my bony elbow into the back of his neck. Only instead of bouncing off like I always did, The Mauler dropped onto his hands and knees. “You got me,” he said, rolling over onto his back.
I raced into the kitchen to eat my lunch. Thelma had set out a feast of ham, scrambled eggs, hash browns and toast. I was so hungry I didn’t notice that The Mauler was absent from the table.
“We have to go,” father urged.
“Grandpa is sleeping,” Thelma said.
I walked down the hallway to his bedroom and stood in the doorway. The Mauler was crashed face down on the bed. His arms were twisted behind his back in a strange way. I entered the room and kissed him on the back of his neck. It was cold and salty. Even little boys know what death tastes like. “I love you, Grandpa,” I said.
We buried The Mauler the following Sunday.