My brother was a big fan of professional wrestling in the late 60s and early 70s. Every Saturday afternoon, he’d monopolize the television and watch match after match after brutal match featuring such celebrated names as Larry Zbyszko, Chief Jay Strongbow, Gorilla Monsoon, Handsome Jimmy Valiant and the champ, Bruno Sammartino.
There was another wrestling fan in my house. My mom.
Casino gambling came to Atlantic City in 1978 and when I turned 18 the following year (the legal drinking and gambling age at the time), my mom and I would go to Atlantic City frequently. For ten bucks, a chartered bus would take us from Philadelphia and deposit us on the famous Boardwalk a mere 90 minutes later. A voucher from the bus company could be exchanged for a roll of quarters and a five dollar discount towards a buffet lunch. So, the trip essentially cost us nothing and offered the chance to break the bank, if luck would have it.
One summer afternoon, my mom and I were wandering through Bally’s Casino after several hours of yanking the handles of slot machines and trying to outsmart blackjack dealers. We decided to use our buffet coupons and made our way toward a bank of elevators. My mom pressed the call button and within a minute an elevator arrived. We piled in, getting a spot by the doors as they whispered closed. We stood silent as the car rose a few floors to our destination. The car stopped. The doors opened and my mom’s face lit up. Less than a foot over the elevator threshold stood Bruno Sammartino. The Bruno Sammartino. My mom blurted out a gleeful “BRUNO!!!” Bruno smiled broadly. No one else recognized him. No one. Just my mom. Bruno quickly shook my mom’s hand and nodded respectfully to her as he entered the now empty elevator car. Still, no one else said a word, though a few folks craned their necks and quietly pondered the identity of the hulking gentleman with the thick features and a cauliflower ear.
But my mom knew who he was.
He was the champ.