Tuffy Truesdell, who says he was the last middleweight wrestling champion of the United States and the first man ever to go into the water to wrestle alligators for a living, took the martini from his wife, who was mixing them in the seat behind him, and sipped from it. As befits a man of patience and serenity, one who has traveled the breadth of the land for years, Tuffy drives at a leisurely pace. Lee Truesdell occasionally bids him go just a bit faster, but she has herself learned to be comfortable on the road as long as there is a guaranteed booking ahead.
Before she met Tuffy, Lee toured as a professional square dancer with Midwestern Hayride and for a time served as one of those girls on a spinning board whose job it is to get narrowly missed by a blindfolded knife-thrower. After many years of crisscrossing the North American continent, there is contentment in both their lives whenever Tuffy's stubby little legs reach the accelerator and carry them along somewhere.
At this time they were headed out of Green River, on the martini leg of the day's journey, bound for Price, Utah, where they expected to find a good meal and lodging for the evening. If Victor, a huge Canadian black bear who rides in the back of the elongated, airport-type limousine, should express interest in some hors d'oeuvres for himself during cocktail hour, he will be provided with peppermint candy. It is a high level of civilization that Tuffy presides over. The man who has his wife, a redhead, mixing martinis in the middle seat of his limousine and a contented bear who responds quickly to his orders domiciled behind her may be said to have found law and order.
The drive through the dark, slow and silent, produces a sensation almost of stealth. There is no notification that there is a live bear inside the limousine, for if there were Victor would have no peace, suffering instead the adoring harassment of bear admirers. Victor is a celebrity, having been in the film Paint Your Wagon and on television many times, ranging from The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace to What's My Line, To Tell the Truth and, periodically, Truth or Consequences. Victor is typecast.
On a regular basis, though, Victor works as a wrestling bear. This particular evening the group in the limousine is on its way to Salt Lake City, where both Tuffy and Victor will wrestle the next night. That is, they will wrestle different people. At sports shows and fairs, after Victor has taken on all comers, he squares off against Tuffy. When they work the wrestling circuit, however, Tuffy returns to his former profession and takes a regular people match, while Victor goes against the most despised resident villain.
Tuffy will not wrestle alligators anymore, though. He could be the first person to work both bears and gators on the same bill, but Tuffy is not interested in that distinction. "I'm not greedy," he says. "It was only a few years ago Lee and I are in Canada with the alligator farm, raising Victor, and we actually don't know if we can make it through the winter to open up in the spring. It was just bad business, trying to make that alligator farm go."
"For 200 alligators in Canada, you got to keep the heat up in the winter," Lee explains.
Having bears fight professionally in public places is nothing new. In the past a whole hungry dog pack would be loosed on a trapped bear, an exercise so savage that vestiges of bearbaiting statutes remain on the books and harass Tuffy Truesdell. Early this month Victor nearly was benched in Chicago by an Illinois law calling for fines up to $200 for everyone who watches the fighting or baiting of a bear. But 9,200 risked it during the halftime of a Chicago Bulls-San Francisco Warriors game and Victor defeated Bulls General Manager Pat Williams, among others. Officials of the Anti-Cruelty Society observed closely and decided Victor was hardly the one being baited. Only twice has Victor legally been prohibited from wrestling. This occurred in Lewiston, Me. and Pasadena, Calif., two animal-loving cities that have distinguished themselves by sanctioning other atrocities: the second Ali-Liston fight and the annual Rose Bowl parade.
Brave men have often taken on bears head to head. Paul Bryant, the football coach, earned his nickname that way. Tuffy himself recalls challenging a transient wrestling bear while he was still in his teens. Wrestling bears were not uncommon then, especially for what in the fair and circus business is called a "concert." That is the act you have to pay an extra two bits to see once you get talked inside the tent for an original quarter to see the whole show. Traditionally, hermaphrodites and wrestling bears have been the most popular concerts.
"It was mostly the huge European brown bears you saw in the days I was growing up," Tuffy says. "The first time the guy just told me that if he gets me down be sure to pull in my head so that all the blows would get me on the shoulder. They could hurt you easy. You couldn't get away with that now. There's too many people walking around looking for lawsuits."
It costs Tuffy about 5% of his gross to obtain various types of insurance, but it is financially impossible for him to afford the premiums he would have to pay to actually insure the people who choose to climb into the ring and take on Victor. You wrestle him at your own risk. Since Victor has had the pleasure of about 50,000 different opponents by now, the lack of insurance is obviously not a prevailing deterrent. Occasionally, when Victor first gets to town, there is some public reluctance to match muscle with him. When that happens Steve Renfrow, a young man learning the bear business who travels with the Truesdells, serves as a "stick," which is an old carny euphemism for confederate. He comes out of the crowd and volunteers so that his bravery will inspire others. By the end of Victor's stay in a town much greater demands are placed on his services, since many young men come back for a return bout, invariably bringing along a girl friend, wife or other members of the family who will be impressed by bravado.
Statistically, it is safe to say that Victor has a better record than even the Harlem Globetrotters, something on the order of 50,000-0-1. One time a professional wrestler on the West Coast named Don Leo Jonathon did hold Victor to an honest 10-minute standoff. At that time both Don Leo and Victor weighed 350 pounds. Victor, who is 11 years old, now carries about 450 pounds on his 6-foot frame. Don Leo, in the intervening period, has failed to keep pace.
It is not really surprising that so many succumb so easily to the urge of wrestling a 450-pound carnivore. In the first place, there are some reassurances. At the age of 9 months Victor's claws were removed and so were his nippers and fangs, a bear's business teeth. Victor is also muzzled when he performs. Nevertheless, the main thing is that Americans are suckers for bears. People who have never seen Victor before, who have no idea how vicious he is or whether or not he has all his teeth—to say nothing of whether or not he intends to employ them—are forever sticking their fingers in his cage.
But such is our upbringing. There are, for instance, the Teddy bears—named, significantly, after our most jovial President, T. Roosevelt—that every child starts life with. There are Winnie-the-Pooh, Smokey Bear and Yogi Bear, all genial one-of-the-gang companions. Television's Gentle Ben was portrayed as only incidentally a huge bear. Really he seemed more like Jackie Gleason or Hoss Cartwright or any other of our happy, harmless, heavyset TV pals. And Victor himself is contributing to the general misunderstanding of the temperament of bears (The Grizzly Bear Murder Case, SI, May 12 et seq.). The trouble is, just about everybody likes bears, and Victor is an especially nice and peaceable bear who wrestles people just because it's one good way to make a buck these days.
Actually Victor doesn't care much for wrestling. Tuffy has another bear, a huge Alaskan brown named Sonny, who wrestles professionally under the name of Gentleman Ben and works a different circuit with a wrestler-handler named Gorgeous George Allen. Sonny, who is already 7'6" and more than 600 pounds at the callow age of 6, is much more temperamentally suited for his vocation than is Victor. Sonny likes to beat people up.
Victor, however, does little more than pay back in kind. "He don't ever like to go on once he's got someone down," Tuffy says. "Other bears usually want to get mean, paw people, knock their wind out. Not Victor. And you can never get him to wrestle the same guy twice in a row. When Victor beats someone he can't see why he should have to do it all over again."
Victor is also something of a purist, disdaining gimmicks. "He'll do tag teams," Tuffy explains, "but he won't have nothing to do with battle royals." Victor has learned some impressive holds, though, such as the monkey flip, which is Tuffy's old standby, the hip roll and the flying mare. When he and Tuffy give exhibitions they always save the flying mare for last, and then Victor gets his soft drink. He will also take candy with his lips right from your lips, he is mad for ice cream and he enjoys beer and other adult beverages.
After a match, though, he settles for a bottle of pop. He used to get a Coke or Pepsi, which is pretty normal bear fare, but Tuffy has concluded that carbonation is bad for bear kidneys. Now Victor gets Kool-Aid, which has no carbonation but is very sweet.
In an eight-page pamphlet entitled Wrestling Bear, Victor himself discusses the subject of food in some detail. Under the heading "Bear Grappling Gossip by Victor the Bear," he writes:
"Then comes DINNER, and how I can stack away the groceries. Youv'e [sic; bears are notoriously weak on contractions] heard the old expression, 'HUNGRY AS A BEAR'.... well, it's really true, but We Bears are strictly vegetarians.... My favorite foods are apples, oranges, heads-of-lettuce, and honey. Naturally, I love soft drinks and candy. All Bears do, but especially me.... I am glad I don't have to dodge bullets and scrounge around in the woods for a few wild berries and green leaves. What a LUCKY, LUCKY BEAR AM I. I love travelling [sic] in the car. The hum of the tires on the pavement rocks me to sleep and you know how Bears love to sleep. We are famous for it.... I'M QUITE A LUCKY BEAR."
As a matter of fact, i'ts (as Victor might say) the time of the year when he really should be catching a few Zs. Even some of the best of the trained bears have to knock off for several weeks each winter, but Victor goes a full 52. Mostly it is a case of keeping him comfortable, letting him sleep in every morning and giving him lots of food and activity. This is one reason why the Truesdells and Steve Renfrow are on the road, headed for Salt Lake City. "We're working while other bears are hibernating," Tuffy says proudly. "You got to keep 'em busy or they revert back to being a bear and go to sleep."
Victor, who apparently has been listening in on the conversation about bears, takes an attachment on his collar and runs it across his cage, making a grating noise that is the signal that he is awake and hungry. Steve feeds him some peppermints, and Victor walks around his cage in appreciation. He has lots of room, for Tuffy has built special racks on the top of the limousine to keep the wrestling mat, luggage and spare straw out of the way.
"Financially," Tuffy says, "with the backup bear we are protected if anything happens to Victor, and we got a lot of new ideas, so we don't even need the bear business anymore. But we like working the bear, and Victor is one of us now. Finding Victor was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. If I hadn't gotten to him when I did he would have been a carcass in the next hour or two. His twin sister was already dead, and we estimated his mother had left about 30 hours before. So you can say, for Victor and me, there's a lot of fate on both sides."
Stumpy and powerful, an Occidental Oddjob, Tuffy stands about 5½' tall and weighs just over 190. "I'm 53 now but, of course, I'm going to live to 100," he says with matter-of-fact authority. Altogether, he evokes the best memories of Julius, the brother of Jeff—in Mutt and Jeff—who was known as "the strongest little man in the world." Tuffy is understanding and generous, apparently having rid himself of all misdirected aggressions one particular day when he was 6 years old and the school bully picked on him. He thrashed the bigger boy, proving his stature and losing a first name he despises—Adolphus—at the same instant. He has been Tuffy since.
Tuffy migrated to wrestling from boxing as a teen-ager because his short arms left him at such a disadvantage as a pugilist. "I had to quit school in the 11th grade to help support the family," he says, "and the next year I went into the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the CCC I worked eight hours a day, hard work, for eight months, and I really developed. Then I worked for a St. Louis bakery.
"In those days carnivals had what you called athletic shows, where there was rasslin'. I could make three, four, five dollars a night, more than I was getting at the bakery. It was the Fourth of July, let me see, Fourth of July '37, someone said they're having an athletic show at the carnival down at Bonne Terre, Missouri. I had put this Model A together, and I rode it down to Bonne Terre and started rasslin'. Well, I rassled 17 boys that day, beat them all, and then at the end there was this big old woman who was in the show, and I rassled her, too, because there wasn't nobody else left. I made $75 that day, and I soon started wrestling professionally. But it was tough getting matches. Nobody helped you. There wasn't too many who made it, believe me. If you wasn't a winner, you didn't make a living. It was those kind of days."
By this time in professional wrestling, weight classes were becoming somewhat superfluous. Everybody was content to settle for the big men; middleweights, such as Tuffy, and other smaller men lost favor. Tuffy was always pretty much of a straight wrestler, anyway. He did create, and name, the monkey flip, which had a certain color to it, but he disdained the more exotic theatrics, and once resisted the urge—when Jewish wrestlers such as Leo Newman and Ruffy Silverstein were big—to use the nom de guerre of Izzy Tough.
Tuffy's career was further slowed when he was tossed from a ring. He received extreme unction and needed three holes bored in his head. After a brief military stint that lasted until Army doctors found out about the hole-drilling episode, Tuffy went to Mexico, where there was still an interest in lighter wrestlers.
"I drove down to old Mexico," Tuffy says, "and they booked me all over, in six of the republics. I have been in all of the states of the union except Alaska, all the provinces of Canada except Newfoundland and in six of the republics of old Mexico. Anyway, we were building up for a big match against their champion, Tarzan Lopez, in Mexico City when I was offered a tidy sum to perform in such a way that I would be welcomed back.
"I was always a clean wrestler, but this time I should have taken the money. I should have known. I beat Tarzan Lopez, but they threw everything in the world at me and I just did get out safely. Now I had the belt of old Mexico, and there was no U.S. middleweight champion anymore. There was just about six of us middleweights left that were active. The title was dormant, so I was just proclaimed. Nobody could beat me anyway, except when they had too much weight. I was the last of the middleweight champions. There was no more money in it. I would have stayed in rasslin', because I had the knack of winning then, but when the chance came I had to get into something else. I tried a thing with midget rasslers; I trained two boys, Pee Wee James and Tom Thumb. And then I started working the gators and after that the bear."
"It's good to be back in rasslin', on the regular circuit," Tuffy is telling Steve. He and Victor have been working sports shows and fairs for more than a year now without returning to a real ring. Steve has never even seen Tuffy wrestle a person and is enthralled at the prospect. Tuffy has picked out a green-and-gold sequined jacket with bright-green trunks in which to begin his comeback. Lee, of course, made the jacket, but she will not be there to see it adorn Tuffy, for she abhors wrestling and always finds a polite excuse not to attend.
Tonight Lee just stays back at the motel and watches TV, while Tuffy and Steve and Victor head out to the Salt Lake Fairgrounds. A cheerless, antique fortress, the Salt Lake Coliseum is like a lot of places that wrestling calls home now. It is an altogether drab and sorry place, except for the ring, which glows there in the bright shaft of light that television demands. It is like the lacquered face of a faded chorus girl, distracting customers from examining too closely the rest of the sagging premises.
The people there are of two age groups, adult and child, but of one mind. All are excited, even flushed with anticipation, and when at last the action begins they are so captured by the antics that there is a constant shifting in the stands, mostly as the devotees rush closer to the ring to shout imprecations, to threaten villains or to sling paper cups and more offensive missiles.
Tuffy locates his old pal, Ox Anderson, who is co-promoter of the matches. A grandfather who laughs with the full force of his 300 pounds, Ox is still a wrestler of some local note. He is an inveterate villain. "Har, har, har," he bellows as they greet each other. "Tuffy, har, har, har." He pretends to grab Tuffy by the beard and pull it, a gesture Ox manages with such a practiced hand that it is obvious he has done it often to hirsute opponents in the ring.
"Ox," Tuffy says.
"Har, har, har," Ox replies. "Look at you." They pat each other's tummies.
"How are you, Ox?"
"Fine, but if you get any smaller, Tuffy, har, har, they'll have to bury you in a shoe box, har, har, har."
"It's good to be back in rasslin'," Tuffy says.
Ox is letting his tag-team partner, Matt Gilmour, wrestle Victor tonight. He'll get a chance at the bear himself on a later card. "Bears are real smart when it comes to fighting," Ox says, "and I should know, because I've wrestled them all. Bears know how to get at what they want. I remember one lime when Terrible Ted was getting at a mean age, and I was bothering him in his cage, and all of a sudden he reached right out and got a hold of me and pulled me right in through the swinging doors on the cage. I was in with Terrible Ted for several minutes."
Tuffy leaves Ox and strides inside to inspect the arena itself. His eyes sweep past the stark ring, across the whole scene, and his nostrils flare with the heady scent of nostalgia. It is only at times such as this, or when little children rush up to him and feel his biceps and then jump back in awe, that it is really noticeable that both of Tuffy's ears are cauliflowered.
"They've tried to do away with rasslin'," he says. "A lot of states, you know, they make it be billed as an exhibition. You can't call it a contest. But rasslin' goes on stronger all the time, because it is what the people want. There'll always be rasslin', no matter what these state commissions say, because it is what the people want."
The game's popularity baffles those who cannot tolerate its transparency, and it is permitted to survive only in official contempt. The fans are disparaged as crude and witless, but usually any excesses are just a matter of their devotion. They believe so fiercely in the whole experience that wrestling, for all its sham, becomes more real than other respectable sports—real, perhaps, only in the sense that life is but a dream, but real nonetheless. On the way back to check on Victor, for instance, Tuffy passes The Shadow for the first time.
A masked marauder suspected of speaking with a Russian accent, The Shadow is a recent addition to the Salt Lake City stable of wrestlers. He is all business. He takes no chances on letting the secret of his identity loose on a Shadow-hating public. He keeps his hood securely in place at all times, even when with his associates in the locker room while performing his ablutions.
The Shadow looks over Victor, who is enjoying a beer and other treats before his match. Before long all the wrestlers come by to examine the visitor. Johnny War Eagle, who affects an Apache haircut—one strip down the middle of the head—moves particularly close. "You better stay away, Johnny," an observer warns. "That bear don't like Indians."
Matt Gilmour, a heinous dastard on the Coliseum bills and the one scheduled to oppose Victor, at first gives his opponent a wide berth, staring him down, then comes closer for a personal scouting report.
"Where can you pin him from?" he asks at last.
"Try to get him so you can hook around his legs," Ox Anderson suggests. Ox is introducing his granddaughter to Victor. At a safe distance the referee, tattooed, with the body of an old cherub, watches with marked apprehension. The exercise of caution is one way to get to be an old rasslin' referee. "I ain't never refereed no bear before, and I ain't going to work this one neither," he allows.
He does, though, and the souvenir program makes it quite clear why. It says: "This certainly seems time to take our hats off to Matt Gilmour for excepting [sic] the match with a 1,000 lb. [sic] bear as his opponent. It can be very dangerous and he will have to be on the alert for any strange move this animal may make. However, Promoter Wilson says, this match was made to prove that he has control over his men [including referees] and they will wrestle the matches he lines up. If they are afraid, they can try to work for another promoter.... One thing for sure, this type of match is unique and a treat for the fans. DO NOT COME TO THE RING OR TRY TO PET THIS BEAR. ANY SUDDEN MOVE COULD SCARE THE BEAR AND DISTRACT THE WRESTLER AS WELL, PUTTING HIM IN GREAT DANGER."
This may be described as a subtle clarion call. The grunt-and-groan buffs of Salt Lake City would gladly give up their homes and children to place Matt Gilmour in but a spoonful of danger. First, though, before Matt places his well-being on the line against Victor, Tuffy has his own match against Bob Norman.
This causes considerable emotional confusion for the fans. Tuffy should be a villain of the first order. He is a stranger and he wears a beard. But Tuffy does not act mean, and after good exchanges he keeps jumping up and offering to shake Bob Norman's hand in a show of respect. When at last Tuffy pins Norman with a monkey flip the fans can only exhibit an ambivalent reaction. They have never had to deal with a good bearded man before.
Tuffy now returns with Victor. Matt Gilmour, resembling a gay fireman, is already in the ring. Attired in shocking red spangles, a color so glowing that his whole body seems iridescent, Matt is stalking the ring, crying out, "Where is that damn bear?" and "Bring that damn bear in here." When Victor arrives Matt goes for a conference with his manager, Ox. The referee, setting his pattern, slays in any corner neutral to the bear.
Tuffy unleashes Victor (his muzzle is already in place), and Gilmour jumps right in, making ferocious noises and gestures to match. He tries various maneuvers; Victor finds it mostly tedious. A couple of times when he and Gilmour wrestle over to the side of the ring Victor tries to get through the ropes and leave. Tuffy has to push him back in. Ox cries out suggestions like "Break his arm, Matt!" and "Give him a bear hug, Matt, har, har, har!"
Tuffy works the hardest—as he does whenever Victor performs. He circles the ring, moving laterally in darts and stops, not crossing his feet, never taking his eyes from the bear. There is a deep, new intensity to him now, and even perhaps there is fear. He does not relax until the match is done. Ada Ash, a girl wrestler who first took Victor on a preliminary tour, was subsequently mauled to within an inch of her life by her own trained bear. A wrestling bear handler in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. was killed by his charge last year. "You never know," Tuffy says later. "You are never sure. You can't forget that this is a bear. I've taken care of Victor and loved him since he was a month old, but how do you know that just once when he gets to wrestling, or anytime, he will not strike out with one blow and revert to being a bear. He is a bear."
At last Victor has Gilmour down under his bulk, but just then Ox climbs onto the apron of the ring. "Don't worry, Matt, I'm coming," he cries. The fans gasp. At the highest level a wrestling match activates audience reactions like the Saturday matinee response to the escapades of Tom and Jerry.
And so a loud cry, equal parts alarm and anguish, rends the air as Ox enters the ring. Some call: "Look out, bear." Others advise: "Turn around, Victor, please." Actually Victor has his eyes riveted on Steve, who is preparing to get the Kool-Aid ready. Ox is closer, approaching Victor from the rear, moving furtively, like a vaudeville drunk creeping up the stairs with shoes in hand. Victor keeps looking at Steve. Matt is making noises to indicate that the breath of life is oozing from him. The fans are yelling: "Look out, Victor, it's Ox behind you."
Somewhat casually Victor at last starts to rise, and, as he gets to his hind feet again, Ox grabs him from behind. There is a gasp from the crowd. It is unwarranted. The fans do not know this, but grabbing Victor from behind is a stratagem comparable to bunting on Brooks Robinson. Whhoosshh, there goes Ox, flipping over, the flying part of a flying mare. He lands on his rear, right next to the prostrate Gilmour. The fans go wild. Tuffy relaxes. Steve rushes in with Kool-Aid in a soda pop bottle. Victor takes it in his paws and, sitting, knocks it back in style.
Tuffy came late in life to wild beasts. Victor was the first one he had ever attempted to train, although he had experienced somewhat less sophisticated dealings with another kind of creature. These were alligators. He got mixed up with them after he ran out of middleweights and was running a hash house. A promoter called him up and asked him if he would like to wrestle gators. Outside of the Everglades, this was pretty much a new act.
Tuffy agreed and went to Corpus Christi, Texas, where the incumbent gator wrestler was in action. Tuffy was supposed to watch this fellow, who was from Florida and well schooled in the art, pick up all the tricks and then go out on an alligator circuit of his own. Unfortunately the fellow with the gators was not cut out for his work and to prepare himself for wrestling them had taken to depending on large quantities of intoxicants.
The afternoon Tuffy arrived the gator man was already pretty warmed up for his evening match and, while showing Tuffy how to feed an alligator, he got his hand badly bitten. With that, he gave up the business on the spot and headed back to Florida, leaving Tuffy to wrestle the gator—Tuffy never having seen one up close before, much less having wrestled one.
This is important, because there is a way you wrestle alligators—or there had been a way that all practitioners of the art had followed. "Florida wrestlers," Tuffy calls them with uncharacteristic scorn. Their style is to clamp the gator's mouth shut and then turn him over by twisting his mouth and, by extension, his neck. This hurts the gator, which has a long neck, and it goes along and flips over. Then, since only its top jaw is hinged to open and that is now flush to the floor, the alligator is relatively harmless and can be pinned with a flourish.
Not knowing the niceties of his new profession, Tuffy just went out and started pinning alligators with half nelsons, like they were Tarzan Lopez or somebody. "I'd lay my shoulder in his neck," he explains, "so my head was just out from where he could bite it." Tuffy did not know much about caring for the reptiles either, and usually he kept them alive by having them sleep in his hotel shower and jamming food down their necks with yardsticks. "Alligators got no devotion," Tuffy says. "They'd just as soon starve to death as work with you."
Moving north from Corpus Christi, Tuffy came to London, Ontario, where his ungrateful alligator expired one night in the shower. This spiteful gesture was aggravated by the fact that there was a big advance that night. So Tuffy put the dead gator in his box and took him to the arena. In the ring he got some attendants to sort of shove the alligator out of the box. Tuffy grabbed the gator before he slid to a halt and, with lots of activity to compensate for the alligator, who was providing none, Tuffy wrestled and pinned the reptile before a very appreciative crowd.
The next day Tuffy went down to the Detroit zoo, bought a new gator and was off again. Shortly after that a New York agent named Bill Shilling Sr. saw Tuffy's act and said, "Can you do that in water?"
Tuffy said, "Sure." He was talking straight through his hat, but he knew it could be his big break. "I couldn't show any doubt," he says. "Besides, I figured it was a lot like back in Missouri, where we would go in the water and catch fish—carp mostly—with our hands and haul them out. It was what we called hogging carp. But it isn't like that at all. The gators have all the advantages. They've got transparent eyelids. The one thing going for you is gators are all the same. They got no personality. The only gator I ever had was any different was Rodney. He was a crazy gator. He had eyes that popped out of his head, and he was durable. During the time I had Rodney I must have gone through 50 backup gators. They won't eat; they don't care. But Rodney was mean. He would stalk me sometimes. It was great. If alligators was teachable you would teach them that. In Milwaukee, Rodney caught my head under water and that was 40 stitches. And I still got these two stiff fingers from another bite he give me."
With his gators, Tuffy hit the major league sports-show circuit, making up to $2,000 for a 10-day spot. He played on a lot of bills with Ted Williams, who was fly casting. He was on TV, on Super Circus and the Ken Murray Show, which was then one of the hottest shows on television because this girl named Laurie Anders, with two big round eyes and bosoms to match, would come out and say, "Ah like the wide-open spaces." One time Tuffy even went into the deep end of the Purdue University pool, 13 feet down, to haul out an alligator and pin him. He got so adept that on every show he would do a 2½ roll with the gator, which meant Tuffy was on his back under the gator twice.
Unfortunately alligator wrestling has never been characterized by a sustaining interest, and by 1955 Tuffy and Lee had taken all their gators to Wyoming, Ontario, which is near the Michigan line. The Truesdells figured that Canadians would go for the opportunity to see Florida gators right there in the frozen North, but the premise was wrong, and the road they located on definitely was. "We tried everything, go-cart races, everything," Lee says.
"We added monkeys, a zebra, an African lion, even a sacred cow of India," Tuffy says. To tide them over, Tuffy would take occasional jerkwater spots wrestling the gators, but he could not stay away from the alligator farm long, because they had Victor by now and he was growing up fast.
Tuffy had begun thinking about working up a bear act as soon as gator wrestling started losing appeal. He let the word out among his hunter friends in Canada that he was looking for a cub. One day some hunters called to tell him they had shot a female bear that had been disturbing their camp. Tuffy tracked back the bear's steps and found her den. Victor was lying there beside his dead twin sister. He was probably 4 weeks old at the time. He was 11 inches long and weighed 4½ pounds, which is smaller than his head is now.
Tuffy took the little bundle home, and he and Lee nursed him with a bottle. They would cuddle Victor on their laps as they watched TV and encourage him to run around and roughhouse as if he were a member of the family. He was made the high school mascot, and everybody loved him. Victor was altogether different from the alligators.
"There isn't one man in America in a million who would go into the water and bring these gators out and wrestle them," Tuffy says. "Well, knowing that is very much to me. But with the bear it is not the same. There is this accomplishment, that I trained this wild animal. The best is when you see him just lying around, like just lying around and loving a little boy. That is the satisfaction with the bear. What that is is enchantment."
When it became plain that the alligator business was never going to prosper, Lee and Tuffy decided to take off. It was the fall of 1963, and the first frost was near. They sold or gave away the monkeys, the sacred cow of India and all the animals. They kept only three alligators—a hedge against their bet—and one day they just drove away, heading South and never looking back.
They began picking up bookings for Victor, and when they reached Phoenix they found so many dates in the area they decided to settle down in the sun for a few weeks. One day as Tuffy drove by a large automobile lot he noticed what appeared to be some sort of shallow well. He felt it might serve as a good place for Victor to be tied up and to find exercise. Tuffy went in and inquired and as an afterthought suggested the bear might attract some business for a couple of weeks. Tuffy had never much thought of sales promotion before.
So Tuffy was paid a few dollars for letting Victor stay there and occasionally working out with him. Soon people began to inquire into the possibility of wrestling Victor themselves, and one day a particularly insistent young man said, "Hey, I'll give you a dollar if you'll let me." Tuffy thought to himself: "Look, a dollar is a dollar," and said O.K. At this point other spectators started fishing up dollars themselves. Lee came by, and Tuffy said, "We're in business."
They stayed at the car lot for 16 weeks, making more dollars all the time. Everybody prospered. A survey showed that 80 new cars were sold directly on account of Victor attracting potential customers. Tuffy has been booked solid ever since, not only with Victor but with Sonny (a/k/a Gentleman Ben) as well. The Truesdells have a large ranch in Missouri now and a mobile home in Ohio. And recently one of the most famous entertainment facilities in the country offered Tuffy the chance to have Victor wrestle there permanently, year-round.
Lee and Tuffy don't know about that. They're not at all sure. Both of them have been on the move all their lives. It is their style. They do not forget, either, that the one time they stopped they flopped. Maybe some people just do better and think better while they're moving, all the time on the road. Ostensibly they had Victor working in Salt Lake over Christmas and New Year's to keep him active; more likely they do not want to stop and risk going to sleep themselves. Besides, every American dream does not have to have a picket fence in it.
"Can you appreciate this?" Tuffy says. He is sitting in a motel room after a good day on the road, with a good steak in his belly and a glass of good sipping bourbon in his hand. "See if you can appreciate this. I'm in Alexandria, Alabama, this little town last summer, and we're out at a fair which is seven miles from the town, and there's 500 people at the fair, and 400 of them have paid to watch the bear, and the manager is saying, 'Tuffy, Tuffy, you're taking everyone away.'
"Now I've got this offer to work the bear in this beautiful place that is known all over America. They want Victor. There's million-dollar rides all around us. I know just where they would put us, and there's million-dollar rides on either side. Now I've got to think about that. Lee and I have been thinking about that ever since they asked us. But do I need that? I mean, maybe it would be nice, but now—can you appreciate this—do I want to be just another bear act?"