01 Before it All Began
I wish that I could recall what my early childhood was like. Maybe if I had written my memoirs when I was thirty I could have remembered, but this old brain does not recall anymore. I was born at the turn of the century, in fact, I was considered a new year’s baby. Born January the first in eighteen hundred ninety-eight, the year of our lord. My father owned a ranch in Denton County, Texas. I was one of eight children. I had four brothers and three sisters. I landed somewhere in the middle.
I spent a lot of time in my youth raising cattle because that is what our family did. We raised cattle and sold them off to butchers, rodeos, farms, boot makers… I learned a lot in those days, but little of it stuck with me. I guess my connection to animals remained and if I had not worked with cows all those years I probably would not have been able to steal a horse at twelve and start my life. But, that is getting ahead.
I did not go to school much. I went on occasion and so did my brothers. I think our father thought that one of us might make something of ourselves, but he needed too many hands on the ranch to let us all go. We sort of traded off. I probably spent a couple months a year going to class. I learned how to read, how to do my arithmetic, and some basics civics. My sisters tended the calves and helped mama with the house. They did not have a chance in this world, but back then, they just dreamed of marrying well.
I also worked for Denton Record Chronicle in the winter months when the cattle prices were down. Less demand, you know. The winter did not have butchers and farmers competing with the rodeos and cattle drivers for available cattle. If I was not learning or tending to the herd, I was either in the town square trying to sell papers or hanging around the telegraph office waiting to hear about the wrestling matches.
I had an obsession with wrestling. There was something about the clash of two powerhouses putting one another into impossible positions and using both their physical dominance and their intelligence to out maneuver their opponent.
In 1907, a carnival came to town. It was the first time we had a carnival stop in Denton. We were one of the bigger counties in the state, but the town of Denton had maybe four thousand folks that were close enough to actually go to the carnival. More showed up than you would have thought, more showed up than the carnival folks had thought.
They did not stop because they thought it was a good place to make some money, but because there was damage to the old Kansas-Missouri-Texas rail line. It was a couple days before the line would be fixed and the carnies just figured they had set up the tent and make some money.
It is one of my first memories. I was just nine years old and I remember the whole family making the hike to the fairgrounds. It was one of the only times I remember the whole family going somewhere together. It was not the same back then, you did not just up and leave very often. There were things to be done and animals to be tended to. So, that carnival was a special treat that children today would not understand.
I can still feel the dust in the hot summer wind making me squint my eyes as I watched the big red tent come into view as we trudged across the university campus to reach the fairgrounds. It was a couple hour walk that would have been twenty minutes on horse, but we did not have five horses to take us all. I could not believe the size of the tent, I could see it from a mile away. The excitement built within my belly and I got more and more giddy until we reached the edge of the grounds where they had a humongous sign that we walked under that read ‘Johnny J. Jones Exposition - The greatest feats of man under one tent, one midway, and one spectacle for the entire family’.
It was kind of like Christmas to me. I spent so much of my time working and learning when you got a chance to just have fun, it was special. Outside of Christmas where we got a new toy and a morning where pops did all the work this is the only memory I have of a moment in that family where we were all having a grand time.
I remember pops handing me four quarters. I had never held so much money. He assigned one of my sisters to stick with me. I can still hear his gravelly voice, “That money best last you both all day. I came here to see the show in the big top and play some midway games. The Wild West show is in the big tent around sundown and is a dime an entry. If you waste your money you will have to sit outside the tent and wait for us.”
When those words disappeared into the scuttle of people and ring of the calliope, he dropped those coins into my hands and rubbed his heavy calloused hand across my forehead tousling my hair in the process. I drug my older sister, Mazy, with me as I took off down the dirt path between the shoddily made booths and small tents.
We went overboard. The amount of food we ate, the games we played, and the sideshows we saw. It was a glorious day for my childhood. Mazy and I shared a humongous turkey leg. I swear the thing was bigger than my head. But, I think most things back then seemed large.
But, nothing was as large as Farmer Slate. When I was questioning whether or not to spend a nickel trying to get into the hootchie dance show, I noticed a circle of people rooting someone on just past the tent. I walked over trying to see over the spectators when a man suddenly stood up. He towered over the crowd of people watching. He was tall and muscular which he had on display only wearing a pair of tight pants and boots. His hair was a mess and matched his thick and unruly mustache. He laughed in a deep powering rumble claiming that he pinned his opponent in less than ten seconds.
As I reached the edge of the circle of spectators, I could see another man, much younger, much smaller crawling away from the scene.
“Any other takers? Spend one minute with me Andrew the Farmer Slate without getting pinned and win fifty green backs.” The man said as he slowly turned in a circle with arms spread wide.
Eventually, I would come to learn that the Farmer was at the end of his career. And even though I had heard tales of his matches with Tom Stat, Billy Mulders, and Geoffrey Dubois, he was well past his prime. Just a few months prior to my meeting him, he had lost back-to-back matches to Fred Gottlieb and never rebounded.
But, at the time, I did not understand what an out of shape wrestler looked like. In my head, the man in that dirt circle beating up kids twenty years younger than him was a living God.
I stepped forward looking at the giant.
“Costs a dollar kid.” Mr. Slate looked down at me expecting me to take him on. I just shook my head and tried to mumble my awe and inspiration to him. He patted me on the head and pushed me out of the way to see if he had any other takers past me.
I watched for hours as he manhandled teens and young twenty-somethings taking each boy’s dollar as he made him groan and scream in agony. After all the bravery had left the men and boys at the fair and the Farmer knew he wasn’t making any more money for the day he knelt down next to me and handed me a small piece of paper with an address on it.
“Squirt, I see the look in your eyes.” He did not know it, but he just gave me a name. “That’s the same way I looked at wrestlers when I was young. That address there is mine. I have a workout program that will help you get to where you need to be in the next ten years to try and do what I do. Send me twenty-five dollars and your address and I will send you the program.”
The rest of that day is a blur to me. I think it was a blur when it happened also. My mind was so awestruck by a real life grappler that I did not know how to handle it. My sister ate ice cream and saw the gorilla show while I just waited patiently for her.
Even at the end of the night when everyone met back at the big red tent, I claimed I spent all my money and waited for the family. I already had it in my head that I was going to send off for that correspondence package.
I missed out on the Wild West show. From what I heard about it on the walk home and the research I have done in the rest of my life, I believe it to have been a knock off Wild Bill’s show. But sitting on the dirt listening to what was happening on the other side of the tent, I could not have been more at peace.
I might have been the only non-carny out there. But, I watched the sunset while the carnival folks packed things up, shard some spirits, and collected their day’s pay.
The walk home took twice as long, partially due to the lack of sunlight, partially due to our feet hurting. It did not matter to me, I was trying to devise a plan where I could make twenty-five dollars and start my journey to becoming a professional wrestler.