02 Planning for My Future
You had better believe that my mind was perfectly focused on making that twenty-five dollars. I put in extra work where I could. I also was not the most ethical of children, I pocketed extra change when selling papers, I took money that my parents had laying out and lost track of. But it took a long time. Twenty-five dollars was a lot of money in 1907.
I think it was after six months I started to think that it would never happen. Around this time, I confided in a friend at school. He was a very small kid for his age. He must have been a few years older than I was, but looked to be younger. He was full of hair, dark hair that invaded everything. His name was Trefor Baker. His family were bakers. They emigrated from Italy twenty years before and dropped their real last name because they did not want it known they were Italian. It was not a good time in the states for Italians. They had originally landed in New Orleans. But were ran out of town when the chief of police was shot to death by a supposed Sicilian. They fled to Texas.
Denton seemed like a good place for them to settle because of the huge alliance mill that towered over the town. Any place with that much focus on wheat would have space for bakers.
One day at the schoolhouse Trefor and I were chosen to go get the water for the class. Back in those days, we did not have running water in the schoolhouse. Instead, we would make a trek a half mile to an old well. We would pump out a couple buckets of water and bring it back for the class.
During the walk there and back, I quizzed him on the carnival from the previous summer. I asked if he went, what he saw, and how much fun he had. It was so much fun reminiscing over that weekend. But, he had not seen Andrew ‘the Farmer’ Slate. I told him about the man and his physique. I reveled in the fact that I was telling the tale of this amazing man who was physically dominating every man and boy at the fair. Trefor was infatuated with the story. So much that we stopped halfway back to get it out of our system before we got back to class.
The importance of the conversation was him agreeing to go in with me on the correspondence course. It had been six months and I had collected three dollars, mostly in pennies. Trefor would scrimp and save with me and although it would take nearly a year from the time that I met the Farmer, we would be able to afford the training that I so desperately wanted.
I still remember the mailman seeing me in the barn on his way to our house and stopping to give me my first piece of mail. As an adult, we forget the magic of someone recognizing us. But, when I was ten years old and the mailman handed me a package with my name written on it, I wanted to jump out of my skin in excitement.
When you spend that much time and effort to acquire something you use it. We were desperate to become grapplers. Every time I saw a newspaper article about wrestling, I imagined it was me living the big life, fame and fortune within my reach. Trefor and I would talk about it at school and twice a week we would sneak out and work through the program.
We were too far out from the city to have electric lights back then and because of that, we still ran our lives off the sun. I would wait an hour or so after the sky went dark and then I would crawl out the window and head to the barn. It was over a little hill from the house and using a gas lantern was not visible from the house.
Trefor would show up whenever he could and we would go through the illustrations and explanations. We would take turns applying holds to each other, escaping holds, and learning combinations of moves that flowed with one another. I thought back then that I was learning a sport, but since I was working with a friend and we were attempting to perform these moves without injuring each other I was really learning more about the professional wrestling world than I realized.
This lasted for a couple of years. The course was very extensive. As time went on it dominated more and more of our days. I used my daily chores with the cattle as a way to get in some weight training. We would find ourselves at the square reading articles together about the latest wrestling bouts and who the champions were. And two nights every week, we would grapple throughout the night in my family’s barn.
Even in school, we were usually reading or writing about wrestling instead of the subjects our teacher would suggest. I had become infatuated with the 1908 match between Gavrie Stepanchikov, the Russian lion who had been deemed the first world’s champion, and Fred Gottlieb the sneaky German who mastered the toehold. Stepanchikov had been World Champion for three years after defeating the American champion.
The two met at Dexter Park in Chicago. Gottlieb pushed the limits of the rules and wrestled a rough bout, with some closed fists and questionable holds. Even though Stepanchikov had complained about Gottlieb being covered in oil, the first fall went just over two hours. When the men returned from the dressing rooms for the second fall Stepanchikov forfeited the match relinquishing the title to Gottlieb. I would be there for the rematch in 1911, but the wrestling world would have already changed my life by then.
I think it was mid 1910 when Trefor and I had finished the course in grappling. We had big plans to run away and join a wrestling troupe. I think we would have if his family had stayed stable. A year earlier a bakery from Gainesville had expanded and moved into Denton. It would only take 6 months until Trefor’s family bakery would go under. They sold the shop and took jobs in the alliance mill.
Trefor told me that he had let it slip that he wanted to be a grappler and his father was enraged that he would abandon the family. The next day he donned a black eye and lots of bruising which his father claimed proved he would not make it in wrestling.
I do not know that I ever believed the story. I still think to this day that he got in a scuffle with a family member, but used the story to break ties with me. Looking back the best thing I could have done for that boy was to encourage him to go help his family, they meant a lot to him. Me on the other hand, I had no emotional connections to my family. They were my coworkers at best and wardens at worst. The best thing Trefor could have done for me was to push me away to find his own path, and he did that. I am forever grateful to him.
But, his story also gave me the excuse to make my move. I could not risk the chance that Trefor’s father would come and let my family know of my plans. I could not have my dreams ripped from me.
I remember that day seeing Trefor with all the bruising and swollen face. It bothered me. I was twelve years old and could only see the pain and misery. I could not see the love he had for his family, I could not feel the pressure for him to provide for those closest to him. All I could see was my friend giving up on me.
I spent that day on the square pretending to sell papers while I read through the Denton Record Chronicle and the Pilot Point Post-Signal trying to find some way out of town. From what I could tell there were no wrestling troupes anywhere near Texas in the heat of the summer. I would have to find a way to get to California or the northeast. My best bet was a carnival that was coming through Dallas in just over a week. I figured I could attach my hopes to their carnival and maybe they could lead me out of Texas to find my dream.
It was an awful night. I spent most of the day dreading what I would do and when my parents finally went to bed I snuck out and headed to the barn. I sat there for hours before I got the gall to take one of the horses and head southeast. I think it was my childhood saying goodbye to what I knew of as life. Everything I had learned to love at that point had taken place around that barn. Even today, where I do not feel any real connection to my family, I think down inside, my soul wanted to mourn the end of that life. It wanted a few moments to recognize that my life was starting a new and I would not have the luxury of being a child anymore.
It was a dark night that I do not remember much of. I tried at first to ride by the lantern light mostly because if that horse had broken its leg I would have had no other choice but to return home. But, once I got to the train tracks of the Texas-Kansas-Missouri rail, I realized it was easier to just let the horse use the moonlight. I was only five or six miles out when we got to a bridge that we could sleep under for the night. The bridge is still there today, but it crosses Lewisville Lake now. If that lake had been there, I do not know what I would have done. I might have turned back if I did not find somewhere to sleep for the night.