Stu Hart, my dad, My Hero
BRET HART -- For SLAM! Wrestling
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 halfway!" But his boy replied: "I can't go back halfway!" 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 who 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 12 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. 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 1937-38 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 a.m. 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 cheerleaders. But now, being a dad myself, I realize the really special part was the time I spent with dad in his car, getting pointers and listening to the radio.
Even then, I thought it was strange lots of times when 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 in a stalemate with this bigger kid when my dad arrived to pick up me and my Grade 6 brother, Dean, for lunch.
Dad started driving back and forth in front of the school, honking the horn of his old, beat-up eight-door limo and Dean said we'd better hurry or Dad would kill us.
Well, I was 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 he and his buddies yelling "chicken."
When I got in the car, I was kind of upset, thinking I'd somehow soiled the family honour by retreating. Upon hearing Dean's assurances I was not a chicken, my dad quizzed me on what had happened.
When we got home, dad pulled me aside and told me if I ever get in trouble, reach up and grab hold of my opponent's 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, the big bully and I were locked in a tangle of arms and legs out by the old soccer posts when he suddenly jumped up, screaming, crying and running all the way home.
The kids who gathered around couldn't figure out what happened and I just casually said: "Aw, I guess he's chicken."
I walked away and softly said: "Thanks, Dad."
On the other hand, I remember a time when I said: "Thanks, but no thanks, Dad." I was in Grade 10 and it was the night before the city championships.
Mom got on Stu, saying things such as, "Why don't you show him some wrestling?" (Mom never really knew what went on down in the dungeon in our basement). 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 city championships feeling all confident the training session would pay off. But I was so sore, I could barely raise my arms and I lost my first two matches and got eliminated.
Thanks, but no thanks -- but it still meant a lot to me 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, fit and strong -- but just too small to compete with the big-bodied men.
So, my dad calls me to the dungeon and asks me to wrestle this guy. It reminded me of a lion that catches an antelope for the cubs to practise 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. As for Johnny English, he rode off, never to be heard from again.
Then they brought in Yagi, a Japanese rookie. Stu and Mr. Hito called me to the basement (again) and asked me to wrestle the guy. I immediately said he was too big and, besides, I was 16 or 17 and he was 24.
Next thing you know, I took him down with amateur moves. Well, Yagi didn't like it one bit. 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.
Well, Stu just grabbed this guy -- enough was enough -- and stretched the s--- out of him. It was as scary as I can 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 cheapshots 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 he had.
Stu grabbed him and stretched him -- and then called his parents. Next thing you know, Stu gave him a job as an usher at the matches, which goes to show you my dad is big-hearted but just won't stand for himself or his family being treated unfairly.
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 a sold-out Victoria 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. I was defending my dad as he always defended me.
Years later, my dad thought I was good enough to team with him against Stomper and John Foley. I watched from the apron as he planted a series of uppercuts 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 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 it seems to be coming full circle, back to athleticism and telling stories with your body in the ring. We both hold our breath in relief, anticipation and hope it may yet live on for another generation.
It turns out we both enjoy Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. We also both think highly of Kurt Angle's background as an amateur Olympic gold medallist. Stu pointed out Angle's 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 in Edmonton. What was it about Edmonton that attracted and/or created some of the toughest guys in the history of wrestling?
I hear a lot of them were cops. The crime rate must have been pretty darn low!
Next thing you know, Stu was talking about New York. During the Second World War, Stu was in the navy and on leave when he hitchhiked to New York City in search of Toots Mondt, a legendary wrestling promoter in the 1940s.
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 him 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, 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 earned a storied reputation as a sparring spot for all the top shooters. (It was also a workout/hangout 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, when 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 said.
"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."
To this day, Stu describes Jack Taylor as "the toughest s.o.b. there ever was."
Toots figured anyone who had worked with Jack Taylor could work for him. Stu had a job waiting for him when he got out of the Navy in 1945.
Stu met and married my mom in New York and toured the U.S. for two or three years, making enough so he was able to come to Calgary and start his own territory.
Stu wasn't afraid to lock up with anybody. I saw on the news the other day a tiger had escaped from a zoo. Lots of men with lots of guns surrounded the tiger when, all of a sudden, the trainer comes zooming 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. He went out of his way not to let my mom find out but, of course, it was in the paper.
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 six weeks later, we were all huddled around the TV watching Untamed World and the show happened to mention a tiger can decapitate a yak with one swipe of its paw. We all took a deep breath, anticipating mom's reaction.
"Stu! What were you doing in there wrestling that tiger?"
And so began an 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, Tiger Bell.
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 came to Stu looking for their break into pro wrestling.
Stu especially liked training football players and amateur wrestlers.
In the late 1950s -- maybe '59 -- a young brute about 23 years old from Carbon, Alta., showed up at the matches confident he could beat Stu's top guy or anyone else. He was brawny and strong -- in fact, he would have looked a lot like Bill Goldberg. This guy was rarin' to go.
Containing him was a challenge until Stu talked him down by somehow convincing him Al 'Murder' Mills or Tiny Mills could have easily ripped his head off. The guy was a total mark and Stu invited him to the house to "see what he could do."
His name was Archie Gouldie and, as The Stomper, he went on to become the best 'total package' Stampede Wrestling -- or maybe any territory -- had ever seen.
Archie scared me pale many times when I was a boy.
Meanwhile, one afternoon, in the elevator at the Hudson's Bay, a short but muscular Italian man by the name of Bruno spotted Stu.
Bruno jerked Dad by the neck, insisting 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."
Bruno and Archie arrived at the same time. My almost 88-year-old father can still recall the meeting.
"I kicked the (bleep) out of both of them ... head between the knees, hip to the head. I had Archie where he kept trying to scoot on his a--. He finally scooted in the corner until 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 some things haven't changed. The legit tough guys, such as Kurt Angle, are still on top and all the zany characters still make the shows 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.
"Err, I just wanna get the stiffness out of my knees," Stu told me this week. "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 people usually 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 sequitur: "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."