a Branford Perry story by Stephen Brooke ©2016
I only saw Larry Large wrestle in person once.
The name made me smile, at least inwardly, in that Larry wasn’t more than an inch taller than I am and fairly average as professional wrestlers go. Still, it was the name he had chosen for the ring and that was what the posters read for his occasional appearances there. That ring would be found somewhere on the minor league circuit around Florida, high school gyms, National Guard armories.
Larry had no pizzazz, no show-biz instincts. His choice of an alias only punctuated the fact.
He’d moved down from somewhere in Ohio, leaving an ex-wife and kid, and used his life savings to open a gym. I worked out in that gym eventually, but that wasn’t where I met Larry. He moonlighted as a bouncer at some of the clubs where I played, but that was not where I met him, either. Nope. I met him at school.
“Aw, they want me to take more classes to get my certificate.” Larry was holding some sort of official document. “I have a master’s degree. I don’t need to fool with this shit!”
I gave Christine a quizzical look across the low table. “Larry has a degree in psychology,” she explained.
Christine was Larry’s girlfriend. She was also an high school teacher, general science, mostly, at Barry High. That's the new school, up north of town. It was new back then, anyway.
Back then — back then I was still doing the starving artist thing and made ends meet by substitute teaching. Larry was subbing, too, but our paths hadn’t crossed because we usually worked at different schools.
But one morning — way too early, of course, but that goes with the job — I got the call to come up to Barry and so I found myself in the teachers’ lounge, across a table from Christine and Larry. That’s how I got to know them.
And even after they broke up, I would sometimes see one or the other at school. I saw much more of them at the gym, once I started going there.
Oh, the break-up? I think his constant financial woes had a lot to do with that. He took to sleeping in the gym, eventually, and taking odd-jobs besides the bouncing. I have no doubt that is why he decided to try his hand as a pro ‘rassler,’ even though he was well into this thirties by this time and not exactly prospect material for the big wrestling organizations.
His real name was Larry Lund. Lawrence G. Lund it said on the business license hanging in his gym and, no, I don’t know what the G stood for. I started working out at that gym a while after meeting him and Christine. It was actually kind of close to my digs, out in the industrial park across from the airport.
My trailer sat in a park just up the road, close enough that I could bicycle over. I rode my bike a lot in those days, up and down the streets of Genoa, to the beach or to hang downtown. That’s if I didn’t have a call to teach that day; I’d get a couple of those most weeks.
Though Larry usually subbed up at Barry, it was unusual for me to be there. Mostly I was called to Genoa High, the school I’d attended myself — it was the only high school in town, not that long ago, but growth is inevitable in Florida.
Christine — Chris, once I got to know her — worked out too. I mean, really worked out as in competitive bodybuilder. That was something Larry had done, up north, and he had a shelf of trophies displayed in the gym as proof.
Though I sported a decent set of muscles at one point, I never felt a desire to compete. Or perhaps I did but recognized that I could never be good enough to go beyond local events. What's the point then? I was happy just to look good without a shirt.
With the shirt on, you probably wouldn't have been able to tell I’d ever been in a gym.
“Have you thought about it?” were his first words when I walked into the gym that day. My leg day, incidentally. I knew what he was referring to.
“Are you sure about this, Larry?” I asked.
“Hey, Bran-man, we both know there’s no one better for the job.” Around here, he should have added. He was picking me from a fairly small pool.
I shrugged. “I’ll give it a try. Did you like the ideas I threw out before?”
“Sure, they were good. The hustler thing.” He gave me one of his squinty smiles, the ones that made him look somewhat Neanderthal. “I guess you’d better start on that pencil mustache.”
“If it’s gonna be a pencil mustache,” I informed him, “I can use a pencil.” Hey, I was a show-biz pro, sorta.
Yes, Larry had asked me to stooge for him, to be his second at ringside, to maybe add that bit of pizzazz he was missing. I was no actor but I was used to being on stage with a band, so I didn't mind a crowd watching me. Also, I was in good enough shape to handle the job, but not big enough to distract from Larry as main attraction.
So Hustler Haskell was born. Was I original? Not very. There was a lot of Jimmy Hart, another Southern boy, in the persona we created. I created. Larry mostly just gave yea or nay on my ideas.
A pool cue. I would carry that and whack Larry's opponents surreptitiously. An unbuttoned shirt and a clunky medallion. I was the perfect cliché, I thought.
Then came the night of my unveiling. Lund was still something of an apprentice, still working in shows organized by the wrestling school he attended. That meant no real money, of course, but in a sense I was in school too. Class was called to session in a smelly high school gymnasium in Arbeka, where I preceded Larry Large down the aisle, serenaded by the scattered boos of a less-than-packed house.
I felt pretty ridiculous. That is until I was in front of the crowd. Then it turned into pretty much just another gig. Not one of the better ones, either. I would really rather have been somewhere playing guitar. Or even bass.
A crumpled paper cup bounced off my shoulder. That was okay. I’d had worse things thrown at me.
So I did my best and hammed it up good. Sure, that's my opinion but I know it’s right. The thick-set Larry pulled himself onto the apron, planted his wide feet — more than Triple E, I would suspect — and waited for me to open the ropes for him. I put my cue over my shoulder and gave his a opponent a supercilious look. The look he gave me back was kind of scary, or meant to be, so I backed away and hid behind my ‘man.’
From there, though, it plodded. Larry was really a pretty good wrestler, a top amateur when he was young, but not exciting in the ring. And he pretty much had to carry his inept opponent, who was slated to win despite Hustler Haskell and his trusty cue-stick.
It proved to be a one-time performance. Larry decided an obnoxious manager — that would be me — was the wrong direction for his budding career. It seemed that the fans actually liked him, for the most part. He developed a friendship with one of the other small-timers and they partnered up around the Florida circuit for quite some time after that. I didn’t care. I don’t think Larry and I were ever that much of actual friends, either.
Only once in person, I said. But there was television.
Yes, Larry’s big break, his appearance on a nationally televised program. I made sure to tune in on that Saturday afternoon for the broadcast, straight from Atlanta. Well, it was taped, I’m certain, but still.
Even the announcers couldn’t help but sound bored, as Larry went through the motions of a ‘mop-up’ match with star Rod Remington.
“This Larry is a large boy. He could give Rod some trouble,” came the laconic remark of the color commentator.
At which moment, the muscular Remington picked Larry up like a small child and deposited him on the turnbuckle. Naturally, when Larry attempted to leap on his adversary from that perch, he was slammed into the mat and took the one-two-three in short order.
It was pretty much typical of what one would see on TV in those days. It was also pretty much the end for Larry's dreams of breaking into the big time.
I heard he got his teaching credentials eventually, closed the gym, and took a job as a coach. Actually, out in Arbeka, which is on the other side of the county, out among the ranches and tomato fields. But I had already said farewell to Genoa by then.
I didn’t see Larry in the months before I left. I had taken a job at the Y that summer, in their youth program, and was working out there. Chistine was another matter.
Larry's dreams weren't her dreams, nor were they mine. “I don’t feel like competing anymore,” she had told me, during the days when she and Larry were still sometimes on, sometimes off. Those days faded into the ones when she and I started being something more than friends. But where Larry had trouble making ends meet, I had no ends at all.
Just a starving artist — that was me. I was chafing in Genoa. I knew that. My home town, the place I had returned to after bouncing around for a decade. It could never be my home port again, only one more harbor where I might drop anchor for a while. I suppose Christine was chafing too, wasn’t she? Looking for her own new course to chart, one away from Larry and all he had been in her life, all the entwined sets and reps and diets and heartbreak.
We sailed together for a couple months and then our winds blew us apart again. Blew us apart, and me away.
This is a story about (and narrated by) my 'other' Florida boy character, Branford Perry, who has appeared in a handful of tales. As with the Ted Carrol stories, there are bits of autobiography thrown in here and there. But I won't tell you which bits they are.