Not that it helped me much in childhood frays, but I was the only kid on my block who could boast, with absolutely no fear of contradiction, "My father can lick your father." Frank August Jares Sr. was a professional wrestler, the nastiest, meanest, basest, most arrogant, cheatingest, bloodthirstiest eye-gouger around. No rule, referee or sense of fair play ever hampered his style. In short, the sort of man a boy could look up to.
In his prime Pop was just a shade under 6 feet tall and weighed 230 pounds, with short brown hair, a neck like a steel pillar, big bicepses and ears much more like cauliflowers than rose petals. Most people can fold their ears in half, but Pop's seem to be made of solid gristle and will not bend more than half an inch. He had, and still has rather thick lips and prominent cheekbones, a Slavic countenance that would fit perfectly in a Warsaw union meeting or the Notre Dame line. His wrestling stage name was Brother Frank, the Mormon Mauler from Provo, Utah, but really he was just Frankie Jares from northside Pittsburgh, the son of a Bohemian butcher from Czechoslovakia and a U.S.-born mother, also Bohemian. He never heard English spoken until he went out on the streets to play with the other kids. At age 12 he had both upper arms decorated with tattoos, and at 14 he was out of school and driving a truck. Naturally, he grew up to be a tough guy, but sometimes a gentle tough guy. He spanked me only twice in my life. Even though he traveled a lot, I thought I knew him, but I actually did not know him well at all until I spent one summer with him in Tennessee and Alabama—the summer of 1956.
Pop was Southern Junior Heavyweight wrestling champion, operating out of Nashville (the senior champ, I figured, had to be King Kong, but I never met him). I finished my freshman year at USC in June and flew from Los Angeles to Nashville to join Pop, Mom and Frankie Jr., who were living in a nice trailer park alongside some Grand Ole Opry stars and other assorted footloose folk. It was my job to accompany the old man on the southern wrestling circuit—usually Birmingham on Monday, Nashville on Tuesday, Kingsport, on Wednesday, Thursday to Bristol, Friday to Knoxville and Saturday in Chattanooga. After the matches in Chattanooga, we would drive all night back to Nashville, stopping once on the way at a mountain café for sausage sandwiches and ice-cold milk. Sunday was rest time at the trailer-park swimming pool. Back on the road Monday. "I don't know a single damn highway number," Pop said, "but I can take you to the back door of any arena in the United States by the shortest route."
He told me I was a bodyguard, a ridiculous idea (the only thing I guarded was his precious 1956 Studebaker Golden Hawk, a favorite target of his enemies after the matches). On his brawny arms he had that faded green artwork—a flag, an anchor, a star, a sailor girl, an Indian maiden, a Kewpie doll and so on. The only tattoo that would have fitted on one of my arms was a skinny snake, and not even that if the snake were coiled. Pop often said I had arms like garden hoses and a neck like a stack of dimes. He could see better out of his one good eye than I could with my glasses. But we entertained each other, I by listening and he by telling tales of his travels, his brawls, his riots and his bloody third-fall finishes.
For instance, somewhere between Nashville and Blytheville, Ark., he told me about Hawaii. There he had not been Brother Frank, but the Golden Terror, mysterious scourge of the mat. Yellow mask, black sleeveless shirt and, according to irate fans, yellow streak down back. By pulling hair, illegally using the ropes and just generally ignoring the Boy Scout Code, he prevented any good-guy opponent, or "baby face" in the lingo of the trade, from ripping off his cover. Actually, he had such an intricate way of fastening the hood that it would have taken the Pacific Fleet to unmask him. And if it had happened, nobody would have known him anyway. Well, hardly anybody. In his free time Pop wore his own face as he lifted weights and wrestled at the YMCA with various Islanders, including one Harold Sakata (later to become Tosh Togo, the evil Jap ring villain, and, still later, Oddjob in the movie Goldfinger). "You know," said one of his friends after a workout, "you're such a good wrestler you should go down and challenge the Golden Terror." Pop felt a little like Clark Kent, and somehow no one connected the giveaway tattoos.
Of course, there had been other aliases. Pro wrestling is a world of unrelated brothers and Italian noblemen from The Bronx. Every Indian is a chief, every Englishman a lord, every German a Nazi. Pop was once Furious Frank Jaris. And Frank Dusek of the roughhouse Nebraska Dusek clan. And Frank Schnabel, brother of that despicable quo, Hans and Fritz. One of his finest guises was The Thing. He used a horrible orange-red dye on the hair on his head and on a new crop of whiskers. He fixed up a wooden suitcase with THE THING printed on it in spangles and a hidden button that could be pressed to bring forth a sound similar to an aroused rattlesnake. He flew to Chicago to make his fortune and was granted an athletic commission license in the name of M. T. Bochs. He strolled the sidewalks of such towns as Gary, Ind. and Racine, Wis. in top hat, elegant topcoat, vest, striped pants and spats—and that fluorescent hair. Decent citizens who had seen his matches would curse him. "That's just what you are," said one little old lady, "a dirty, dirty thing." Pop smiled politely and said, "Why, thank you." As long as little old ladies had no hatpins he was polite to them. But he made no fortune and eventually went back to being the plain old Mormon Mauler.
Between southern whistlestops that summer of 1956, as the souped-up Studebaker cruised along at 60 mph and we tried to hit rural mailboxes with empty Dr. Pepper bottles, Pop often talked about wrestling fans, as testy a group as you can find this side of a Brazilian soccer stadium.
One time in Pico Rivera, Calif., Pop told me, he was walking to the dressing room between bleachers, and a man 12 feet above him reached down to hit him, slipped, fell to the concrete floor and broke his own neck. At various times in the ring Pop had been hit by whiskey bottles, lighted cigarettes and paper clips shot with rubber bands. During a match against Vincent Lopez (not "Lopez speaking") in Redding, Calif., Pop pulled himself under the ropes while flat on his back, a sneaky trick to get the referee to make the baby face let go of his ankle. A ringsider stood up and slashed Pop's forehead with a beer-can opener. The wound took 17 stitches to repair. He also had been stabbed with a knife, cut with a broken mirror and punctured with fingernail files.
In Bremerton, Wash., Pop treated kindly, fair-dealing giant Primo Camera with something less than minimal courtesy. As he ran the gantlet on his perilous journey to the dressing room, an indignant woman threw a lighted book of matches that hit his sweaty body with a painful sizzle. He stopped to analyze the woman's ancestry (even Pop could not hit a lady), but between them stepped a belligerent man who said, "That's my wife." Pop slugged him and yelled, "Then teach her better manners." The arena erupted into a riot, and dear old Dad had to stay under police guard in the dressing room half the night.
The fans were really stirred up one night in Bridgeport, Conn., he said. They completely misunderstood Pop's gentle nature and were intent on dismembering him. "I know my crowds," he said. "If you don't have the experience, you get killed. You have to jump right into the middle of the milling mob, never go in the opposite direction. A silent crowd is much more vicious. That silent 'heat,' that's the vicious crowd. The punchers and scratchers are much less dangerous. They wind up hitting each other most of the time." Well, this night in Bridgeport, Pop was in the middle, all right, and not enjoying it, but he happily sighted a policeman battling his way through the mob. The cop finally made it to Pop's side and then unhesitatingly bashed him over the head with a billy club.
At the Wilmington (Calif.) Bowl in the mid-'40s Pop and his original partner, Brother Jonathan (who was really from Utah), won a tag-team match and were chased around the building by an angry pack of sailors intent on seeing justice done. The Brothers made it into the dressing room finally, but one sailor made it inside before they got the door locked. Another wrestler held the sailor and said, "Here he is, Frank." Pop walked toward him with fist cocked, and the poor man collapsed in a faint.
Then there was South Gate, Calif. For 32 straight weeks, Pop recalled, he and Wee Willie Davis took on and defeated all comers, each week with some nefarious tactic. Their favorite ploy was to have Willie, a huge man, slowly back up into his own corner so Pop, standing outside the ropes, could reach through his legs and yank the opponent's legs out from under him. There were 27 sellouts in those wild 32 weeks. After a while the South Gate police refused to respond to any more riot calls, so Promoter Frank Pasquale had to hire his own guards.
One night after the South Gate chaos Pop was driving through East Los Angeles when he was forced off the road by four men in a jalopy. They were going to teach Brother Frank some manners. They got him as he was halfway out the driver-side door and beat and stomped him until he got away by rolling under the car. Pop was so furious he went out and bought a pistol, stashing it in his glove compartment for the right moment. Nothing happened the next week, although he and Wee Willie were as wicked in victory as ever. But two weeks later the quartet forced his car over at almost exactly the same spot. Pop leaped out of the car brandishing the pistol like Jesse James (not the Houston wrestler Jesse James, but the outlaw). Three of the attackers jumped back into their car and sped away, with Pop emptying the pistol into their trunk. The fourth was so scared he fled across a field, leaving one of his shoes in the middle of the street. Pop twisted the shoe into a useless hunk of leather and ended his gun-slinging career the next day by tossing the weapon into the sea.
At Long Beach's civic auditorium, he told me, a drunken fan once climbed up on the ring apron and hit him behind the neck. Pop shoved him off, as a man would shoo a fly. A woman sitting at ringside claimed the man landed on her, and she sued the arena, Pop and everybody else in sight. She lost the suit (because, luckily, the match had been kinescoped and the jury could see for itself what happened), but it still cost Pop more than $500 in legal fees. After the trial a man in the courtroom, the very same one who had climbed onto the apron, walked up and apologized. He did not offer to pay Pop's lawyer.
Of course, antagonizing the customers was the whole idea, Pop explained, so you had to expect a little jab from a fingernail file once in a while. On those long rides between little towns he told me about "finishes," building up the "heat" to just the right temperature until the arena seemed ready to explode, then ending the match in some super-duper, slambang manner guaranteed to bring all the people back the following week for a sequel.
There was this time down in Panama, where he was known as Hermano Frank, a holy man from Utah with seven wives. He wanted to be a heel, as usual, but the Panamanians loved everything he did and he gradually became, much to his chagrin, a baby face (just imagine The Joker helping Batman catch crooks). He taught a husky sailor, Strangler Olson, how to "work" (throw fake punches, apply harmless step-over toeholds, etc.) and play the villain's role.
For the big finish Strangler was to throw Pop out of the ring and be disqualified, thereby setting up a juicy return match. To make it look better, Pop had a razor blade carefully secreted in the waistband of his trunks. During the inevitable confusion at ringside he was supposed to cut himself just slightly on the forehead. It would not hurt any more than running a fingernail over the skin, but it would look as bad as a battle wound. However, Pop could not find the blade and used the next handiest thing, a bottle cap lying nearby. He stood up with a face full of gore, and the fans went berserk, attacking poor Olson like maniacs.
"The crowd was beating the poor guy to death," said Pop. "I figured I had to save his life. So I started screaming, 'Let me at him! I'll kill him! Let me at him!' The mob parted and allowed me to get to him. I pretended to beat him right into the dressing room and the door slammed safely behind us."
Some finishes were more goofy than bloody. In San Bernardino, Calif., Pop and a cohort were wrestling the Dirty Duseks in an all-heel main event. A moth landed in the center of the ring, so he put up his hand and stopped the match with silent-movie pantomime. Very slowly he leaned over and tried to pick up the delicate little moth and, naturally, it fluttered up and away. In awe he looked up and watched its flight. Then boom, that dirty Emil Dusek sprang from his corner, socked Pop on his inviting chin, knocked him cold and won the bout.
That summer in the South had its share of crazy adventures, too. Pop had been on his way to Charlotte, N.C. and was supposed to stop off in Tennessee just to help out the local bookers for a couple of weeks. The couple of weeks stretched into nearly two years. He quickly won the Southern Junior Heavyweight belt from Sonny Myers in Birmingham in 1955 and from several other guys in several other cities. It was such a big territory that nice little "bits" could be reused in practically every town. Pop kept the big, fancy belt in the trunk of his car and wore it into the ring for big matches. Baby faces loved to grab it away and chase Pop around the ring bludgeoning him with it. He won a big trophy in Memphis, then promptly broke it over the Mighty Atlas' head. The belt stood up under the punishment, though, and made a dazzling prop.
Pop was wrestling Spider Galento in Chattanooga one night, and it was sort of a contest between them to see who the crowd hated the most. In such instances the people usually pick a favorite, and he is forced into being honorable and decent. Galento entered the ring first and by a series of struts and poses had the fans despising him immediately. So Pop came into the ring and showed off his ill-gotten belt. Still, the crowd obviously hated Spider more. So Dad shouted up to the Negro section, way up in the back, that he was tired of their being deprived and he was going to give them a close look at his belt. He did just that, delaying the start of the match 14 minutes as he slowly wandered among them. By the time he got back in the ring the whites hated him as much as if he had sung The Battle Hymn of the Republic over the loudspeaker.
New Good-Guy Galento proceeded to please the white portion of the crowd by punishing Brother Frank with good, honest holds. In a few minutes even the Negroes were back hating my evil father. At one point Galento had Pop by the throat and, in the time-honored wrestler's pantomime, asked the Negro gallery if he should hit him. "Yes," they screamed. Then he asked the lower balcony. "Yes," they screamed. Then the ringsiders. "Yes," they screamed, in a frenzy of anticipation for the delicious moment. But when he asked the vendor selling Cokes at ringside, Pop came alive and did the slugging himself. "What the hell," muttered Spider during the next quiet headlock, "can't you wait until I get my heat?"
The riots in Knoxville, Pop's most lucrative payoff town, sometimes started as he entered the ring, depending, of course, on how vile he had been to the hero last week. He usually needed a riot-squad escort to make it back to the dressing room after the matches. I remember once we had to sit there until 1 a.m. as the mob milled around outside, all the time Pop worrying about his Studebaker. We finally walked out a side exit and encountered a large, hostile crowd. Pop just picked out the guy with the loudest mouth and invited (invited?) him to shut up. Then we calmly climbed in the car and drove off. At least he was calm.
We always hated to go to Gadsden, Ala. The people were nasty, the arena was a junk pile and there were no showers. The wrestlers had to take spit baths in the men's room, treatment even Class D baseball players do not get. Pop was champion and thus had a $50 guarantee, but the other boys usually had to settle for the $15 to $20 minimum. I was kept pretty busy. First I counted the house (you could do that in the weed patch towns) to make sure the promoter did not pull anything on the old man at payoff time. I had to guard the men's room door while he was cleaning up and then run out and guard the Studebaker.
After an unruly main event in Gadsden near summer's end, he was leaving the ring amid flying insults and flying chairs. Two or three teen-agers were giving him a particularly bad time, and he looked over at the dressing room door and saw me peeking out, enjoying the rhubarb from a safe distance. He beckoned me out. He, a former weight lifter who had pressed 270 pounds, snatched 260 and clean and jerked 330, was calling out his arms-like-garden-hoses son to protect the family honor. Reluctantly I went, wondering why the hell I had not been born to a hod carrier. I challenged the leading heckler to come down from the stands and fight me—which should have been an easy assignment for him, but a peace officer burst out of the crowd just then and grabbed my arm, apparently thinking I was causing the hassle. Pop grabbed my other garden hose and dragged both me and the sputtering officer into the dressing room. It took an hour's argument, a phone call from the head booker in Nashville and some phony flattery to keep the Jareses out of the Gadsden jailhouse. And when we got to the car, the aerial had been bent in half (it was not as tough as my father's ears). We never went back to Gadsden, but I'll always remember that night as the most exciting since Gorgeous George gave me a gold-plated "Georgie" bobby pin and swore me into his fan club.
The best melee of all was in lovely Kingsport, jewel of northeast Tennessee. I was in the heel's dressing room (heels always seemed to be the funniest storytellers) when someone stuck his head in the door and said, "Riot!" The dressing rooms were on either side of an unused stage, and when we ran to the curtains we saw Pop fighting his way to the far doors with the aid of a couple of cops. The crowd was in a nasty mood—which was typical. Three or four of us sprinted the long way around the side hallway to the front doors, but by the time we got there Pop had realized he was going in the wrong direction and had started back through the howling mob to the stage.
We raced back down the side hallway, bounded up the steps and saw that the policemen were busy knocking fire-breathing fans off the stage. Brother Frank was lying face down on the floor of the stage, not moving a muscle, as what seemed like the entire population of northeast Tennessee tried to reach him for one last swing or kick. Finally the cops quieted the crowd, which must have thought the old man was dead or dying. The curtains were drawn, and I waited for the wail of an ambulance, for surely Pop was in need of medical aid. But the sly possum suddenly jumped to his feet, not a mark on him, and strode into the dressing room with a sinister grin on his face, basking in the hatred of the fans and confident that next week there would be a packed house.
How many people showed up or what foul deeds Pop perpetrated I don't know, because I returned that week to college for my sophomore year, which turned out to be awfully dull somehow.