Bright Lights in a Small Town
by Tim S. Dills
I grew up in a small town in north Georgia called Blue Ridge. The town is isolated from most major cities. Atlanta is about a hundred miles south, but access then to the big city took you through other small towns where momentum was slowed by traffic lights, speed zones and locals who travel at their own pace. Chattanooga, set seventy five miles to the northwest, was closer, but the main road to get there was, and still is, a snaky stretch of pavement wide enough for two cars headed in separate directions resting on the edge of a mountain on one side and a river on the other. As a wrestling fan this posed trouble for me. It meant I never had the chance to see the big cards pushed on the weekly TV shows I watched.
Of course, there were other problems. Most of my time growing up I was much too young to drive to these events that sounded so tantalizing. Since mom and dad weren't big mat fans, the thought of one of them driving me to a card at Atlanta's City Auditorium or Chattanooga's Memorial Auditorium was also out of the question. On occasion, an independent group would pass through and present a card. I was able to see a few of those, but I felt somehow they lacked the punch and pizzazz offered by the weekly TV shows and the big un-televised shows they constantly reminded viewers about.
So, I learned to be content with what I had. And, what I had wasn't bad. Living in the mountainous part of Georgia meant that with a little manipulation of the outdoor television antenna, I could pick up TV wrestling from not only Atlanta and Chattanooga but also Knoxville, Asheville, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina. (I once heard Jim Cornette did something similar when he was growing up, and after hearing that, I felt a certain kinship with one of my all-time favorite wrestling personalities.) Of course, this plan totally ruined any plans mom and dad had to watch anything important to them on Saturdays. They indulged me, though, their youngest son, yet constantly reminded me that what I was watching was "fake."
Anyway, a fateful day occurred in mid May 1981. On the Chattanooga version of Georgia Championship Wrestling, Freddie Miller gleefully announced that the stars of GCW were coming to Copperhill, Tennessee … just fifteen minutes away from where I was sitting at that moment.
GCW was on a roll in 1981 featuring such stars as Ted DiBiase, Robert Fuller, Tommy Rich, Junkyard Dog and the Fabulous Freebirds: Buddy Roberts, Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes. My mind raced with the possibilities of who might make an appearance on the card.
Anticipation quietly gripped my being for the days leading up to the card. When the day, Thursday, May 28, arrived, me and my dad made the short drive to the small town high school gym.
Although after he reads this he may give me the answer, I'm not sure why my dad came along, not that I minded. My dad had been a wrestling fan in the 1950s and early 1960s until he realized everything wasn't quite what it was made out to be. He then could have cared less about professional wrestling. Maybe mom convinced him I shouldn't go alone or maybe he was interested, but didn't want to admit it.
We purchased our tickets (for either three or four dollars I don't recall) and ventured into the gym. We sat down on the left side of the building on the bleachers. The gym was mostly full as the unusual sideshow called pro wrestling made a quick stopover. The bright lights had come to a small town.
A professional wrestling audience, an interesting mix and match of the community hosting the event, is a sight to see and on this night in 1981, amidst the smell of popcorn and the chatter of the locals, we gathered for a night to cheer and hiss and to be entertained for a few hours, and after settling in our surroundings, we were ready to taste the main course. The bell sounded and we were ready to let the good times roll. Nick Patrick, a referee seen on national TV week after week, darted out from the dressing room followed by Pat Rose and then by Jimmy Powell. Both these men had worked the Nick Gulas territory which Nick had sold in 1980 and then both had appeared on the Georgia TV show. This night they worked hard and the match went to a fifteen minute draw.
Up next were two veterans of the mat game, Ted Oates and Gypsy Joe. Oates had worked Georgia for years, usually with his brother, Jerry, and was received nicely by the fans this evening. Joe had been one of Nick Gulas' main attractions during the late 1970s and always looked like a tough man. Oates, though, took the victory from the wily veteran.
A tag match followed featuring Ricky and Robert Gibson against Bryan St. John and Bobby Eaton. The fans were really into this match and the four stars did not disappoint, especially when the fan-favorite Gibson Brothers took the win. I vividly remember thinking after it was over what a good match I had just seen, although at the time I understood very little about what made it so entertaining (good wrestling and good psychology combined with likable talent).
Finally, the main event took center stage. Olympic strongman Ken Patera, who had just returned to the Georgia circuit, faced Steve O. After a few minutes, Patera dumped O over the top rope to get disqualified and end the night's festivities. I remember thinking how short the big event of the night lasted. Despite that, my first card with major stars I had seen on television and had read about in the newsstand magazines was nothing short of incredible to this wide-eyed small town boy.
I have been to many other cards since then. I have been to pay-per-views and TV tapings and regular ol' house shows. I still mostly enjoy attending a card when I can, even though the in-ring product has changed so much since that spring night in 1981 it is barely recognizable.
Some things, though, don't change. There always seems to be someone in the crowd who harasses the bad guys, just like in 1981 when a woman in the front row needled Patera, Eaton and St. John. There always seems to be someone who seems genuinely nice when approached, just like in 1981 when Ted Oates sat on the bleachers and watched the matches, yet politely honored every autograph request. There always seems to be some humorous babble among the fans, just like in 1981 when fans sitting behind me and my dad discussed Michael Hayes' long hair for a good five minutes.
I look back on that spring night in 1981 and remember that I watched the matches in mostly silence. And now, years later, when I watch the matches live, I still watch in mostly silence. In arenas and gymnasiums clogged with cigarette smoke and cluttered with plastic cups, I sit beside fans from varying social and economic backgrounds who scream and yell and stomp their feet and watch as the performers tell a simple story, often about good and evil, through the use of some basic wrestling moves disguised with a dash of drama and a dollop of psychology. I sit there in the silence and, like a small town boy blinded by the bright lights, marvel at it all.
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