Tuesday, April 27, 2021



April 17, 2021

The other night as I lay on my prison bunk, eyes closed from the intense glare of the overhead lights, I thought of something funny I wanted to share with my mother, Lucille Norman, the next time we talked on the telephone. Abruptly I realized that I couldn't talk with my mother. She had passed away seven months before, at age 91. She was gone. I wouldn't hear her distinctive laugh again, except in my memories. I wanted to tell my nephews and nieces stories about their grandmother before I passed on, too, and they were lost.  So I’m starting with this one.

Tampa, Florida — Summer, 1967

I finally had my dream job, bag boy at the Winn Dixie grocery store, known then as the Kwik Chek supermarket, in Temple Terrace. I was seventeen, the summer before beginning my senior year at King High School. My father told me that if I wanted a car I had to pay for it, and the insurance, instead of going into debt. Bagging groceries for the rich Temple Terrace customers and earning tips was the fastest way of getting my own car, so I wouldn’t always be going on double dates with my best friend, Steve Wyman.

Every week, since I'd turned sixteen, when my mother bought groceries I had asked the store manager, George Morse, if he had any openings. For over a year the answer had always been no, check back with me. I took him at his word, and every week I asked him again.

On this day my mother was buying only enough for that day's meals, since we would be leaving the next morning early to visit my mother's family, the Walker's, on vacation.


Mr. Morse always greeted my mother. ''Mrs. Norman.''

''Good morning, Mr. Morse.''

Mr. Morse was a huge man, towering over everyone, but he was nice, always friendly with the customers. We'd been shopping at the Kwik Chek for years, and Mr. Morse had watched my brothers, Dan and Tom, and me, grow bigger every year. I walked over to him as my mother checked out.

''Got any openings?'' I asked, going through the motions, knowing what his response would be.

He pulled out a burgundy clip-on bowtie that all the bag boys wore with their white shirts and handed it to me.

''You start tomorrow at four o' clock,'' he said, smiling.

''Uh...'' I was speechless. I didn't know what to say. I almost lost the job before I got it.

My mother spoke up for me. ''Mr. Morse, we're leaving for Texas tomorrow morning for two weeks' vacation. Could you save the job for him? He's a good worker.''

''Sure. Have a nice vacation. See you in two weeks.''

''Thanks, Mama.''

We had a great time visiting with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in East Texas. Two weeks later I started my new job, $1.40 an hour minimum wage, plus tips. My coworkers, Mike Tanner and Dennis Wyatt, fellow King High students, showed me the ropes.

Average tips were twenty-five or fifty cents in change, with certain prized customers giving out dollar bills. They were the ones the bag boys competed for.

I hustled. Every couple of hours my pockets would be full, and I'd go to Judy, a friendly cashier, who would count my change in exchange for paper money. I saved every penny I could for my car fund. Every customer got their meat purchases double-bagged, so the meat did not leak through. Half-gallons of ice cream separately wrapped, canned goods on the bottom, eggs, bread and potato chips on top.

Dennis would toss in a carton of eggs and loaf of bread on the bottom, then throw in canned goods and a leaking package of ground beef on top. If he got the groceries to the car without the bags ripped open, it was a miracle. And he complained that the new guy got more tips!

Although Temple Terrace was an affluent bedroom community for Tampa, some of the regular customers were tightwads, and didn't tip the bag boys.

Temple Terrace was formed in the 1920's when a developer bought a large Temple-variety orange grove on the north and west banks of the meandering Hillsborough River, the water source for Tampa. He built a golf course and country club alongside the river, then sold lots and Spanish mission-style homes to rich people. He left enough orange trees so that most lots retained at least one, providing tasty fruit every year.

Golf carts competed with Cadillacs for prime parking spots in front of the grocery store and Rexall drug store. By the 1960's many of the original houses had been replaced by modern mansions, but there were still old-style homes occupied and for sale in the subdivision.

Omar Lightfoot was struck by lightning on the fifth hole of the Temple Terrace golf course, as he reached his backswing with a five-iron, and died. Before that happened, he was the local realtor who whispered to the gossips about impending sales. That's how we heard that a famous professional wrestler had bought the old house on the golf course. He wouldn't confide the name. That got all the bagboys talking and speculating. Teenage boys drove by the Spanish-style home hoping to spot someone famous. All we saw were painters putting on fresh paint.

Everybody knows professional wrestling is fake. Well, MOST people know it's fake, along with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter bunny, but there are still believers who are convinced those good guy-bad guy matches are for real, and the Great Malenko was trying to kill Eddie Graham until Jack Brisco interfered.

But the non-believers didn't discount the fun we had watching ''Championship Wrestling From Florida'' each Sunday afternoon. Gordon Solie announced the matches and did the interviews, buildups to the real matches on Tuesday night at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

Cowboy Luttrell was the promoter who arranged all the wrestling matches in Florida. He lived in Temple Terrace, of course. His daughter, Belinda, was my classmate, but no one ever asked her about wrestling. No ''Does Dusty Rhodes ever hang out?'' no ''What is Haystacks Calhoun really like?'' questions. She was rich. She ignored the poor, the student riffraff. Such thoughts never crossed her mind.

Dennis Wyatt was the first one to spot him. He came rushing in the store pushing an empty grocery cart. He appeared to be hyperventilating. He couldn't catch his breath. ''He- he-he's here!'' he said.


'' Jo- Jo- Johnny...'' Dennis froze up.

Johnny Valentine walked into our store, the automatic doors opening for him. He looked around, took a cart from the line, and began grocery shopping.

He moved slowly, like he was in pain. He was. I learned later that although the fight results were predetermined, those body slams and falling off the top ropes caused real damage, and most wrestlers lived in chronic pain.

He spent a lot of time grocery shopping. He spent a longer time in the meat department. ''The Beef People'' was the Winn Dixie motto, and Johnny Valentine liked what he saw, buying up steaks and roasts. Mr. Tyner, the meat market manager, made several special cuts for him.

Eventually he made his way to Judy's checkout line. Judy had been there for years, had several special customers she was friends with, and liked me to bag her customers' groceries. That's how I got to meet Johnny Valentine, the massive Viking warrior, bigger than Mr. Morse, with thick blond hair, whose signature wrestling move was The Sleeper Hold. If Johnny Valentine got those huge arms around someone's neck, ring the bell, match over.

Judy gave me the ''do this one right'' look. It wasn't necessary. I didn't have any intention of getting put in The Sleeper Hold in the parking lot for spilling his steaks from a soggy bag. First thing I did was double-bag enough large brown paper grocery bags, in spite of the sign: ''NO DOUBLE BAGS.'' Mr. Morse was watching. I didn't care. Mr. Morse didn't know The Sleeper Hold, or The Atomic Elbow.

I did a great job. In the annals of bagboys I should have had an entry. I never saw one person buy so many steaks. He didn't skimp on the fresh vegetables, either. He didn't appear to be the talkative sort, so I kept my mouth shut. He walked slowly across the parking lot. I pushed the overloaded cart behind him. He opened the trunk lid of a huge Oldsmobile. Big man needs a big car. I carefully loaded the full bags into the trunk so they wouldn't tip over if he took a corner too fast. That was unlikely, the speed limit in the residential areas being 30 mph, and his house only a few blocks away. I slammed the trunk closed. He took a dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to me.

''Thanks,'' I said.

He growled a response that might have been ''You're welcome.''

I rushed back to the store, pushing the empty cart in front me. Everyone was waiting to ask me questions.What did he say? What kind of car was he driving? (The parking lot was full, and he had parked a fair distance from the store). Did he tip you?

I held up the dollar bill, grinning. That was a mistake. I should have lied, told them he stiffed me. Now every bag boy in the house would be scrambling for The Wrestler's groceries.

One afternoon a week later he returned, accompanied by a teenage girl, presumably his daughter, wearing a tight miniskirt that got the stock clerks' attention as she examined cans on the dog food aisle.

One of the stockers, Orie Preston, a USF student who considered himself a ladies' man, approached her.

''What kinda dog you got?'' Orie asked, smiling.

She looked at him like a space alien with a bad odor had landed in front of her, spun, and hurried out the front door. So much for that.

I was just coming through the automated door returning a cart as Judy began checking out Johnny Valentine's humongous order, having put a dent in the meat aisle. Perhaps seeing images of dollar tips in his head, Dennis, the worst bagboy in the store, quickly jumped into position, grabbed a single brown bag, tossed a couple of steaks in the flimsy bag, followed by a loaf of wheat bread, topped off with several tin cans. He casually tossed the overloaded, leaking bag into the cart and grabbed a second bag.

Johnny Valentine's head turned, his peripheral vision alerting him, like a Komodo dragon sensing prey. He stared for a moment as Dennis tossed in the first bag and reached for another.

''STOP!'' The Wrestler's deep voice rumbled, freezing all motion.

Judy stopped keying the purchases on the cash register. I stopped filling a bag at the next cash register station over. Dennis froze, a dripping package of steak in his hand, poised to be dropped in the empty bag.

Johnny Valentine pointed his finger at Dennis. Dennis's face blanched. If a lightning bolt had burst out of his finger and incinerated Dennis I would not have been surprised. Instead Johnny spoke.

''YOU — stop,'' he said, staring at Dennis. Then his glare turned toward me. Oh no! I thought. He pointed his finger at me, curled it in the ''come here'' signal, and said, ''You,'' gesturing toward the piled-up groceries.

I knew exactly what he meant. Bag my groceries right.

First thing I did was remove the crumbling bag of groceries from the buggy and dump it out. Start over. Double bag everything. Mike Tanner came in from outside and came over to help. That's what we did. If you didn't have an order and your coworker had a big one, you would step in to help get it done. Hurry, hurry. Don't let people in line wait. Mike wasn't aware of what had transpired thirty seconds earlier, so he grabbed a large brown bag and prepared to fill it.

''No,'' Johnny Valentine said, at a slightly lower volume than he'd used to freeze Dennis, eyes staring at Mike.

Mike stopped.

''It's okay, Mike,'' I said. ''I got this.''

That's how I became Johnny Valentine's personal bagboy.

So now, you ask, we've heard all about The Wrestler, what about Mama? How does she fit in to all this?

I'm getting there.

When we moved to Florida in 1958 from Texas, we rented a house near Plant City on Thonotosassa Road, across from a strawberry field. We were disappointed that the strawberry season was over.

Then we moved into a little house on Fowler Avenue in Thonotosassa, an unincorporated area that took up most of northeast Hillsborough County. The name came from the Seminole word for ''Flint Lake.'' It was said that if you could spell it, you must live there. People claimed that Native Americans had lived alongside the lake for thousands of years, and the area was one of the rare sources of flint in the state. I didn't doubt it. After it rained, you could walk through the orange groves and find arrowheads on top of the sandy soil. That was home. Temple Terrace was about five miles west.

My mother always grocery shopped on Saturday mornings. She was pleasant and charming towards everyone, remembered their names, and gave the bagboys dollar tips. Everyone greeted her.

Johnny Valentine came in that morning before Mama. I'd mentioned The Wrestler, but that was one of the last things my mother was interested in. Nevertheless, I was curious about what she'd think about the blond giant.

Mama was a small woman, petite. It's odd for me to say that now, since when we were children, she seemed so big. As her three sons grew, she seemed to shrink.

Johnny Valentine was at least twice her size.

From Judy's checkout lane, we could see down the grocery aisle to the meat department, stretched across the back of the store. Early Saturday morning there weren't many shoppers, so Judy and I watched the ensuing encounter.

My mother had her back to us as she examined packages of beef. The Wrestler worked his way down the meat aisle until he was directly to Mama's right. We watched. It was hilarious, like a silent movie comedy. She sensed or felt someone near her. She turned her head to see who it was. Her head was barely to his chest. The Wrestler was well over a foot taller than Mama. She stared at him at eye level, then slowly raised her eyes to take him all in. Her head turned upward, higher and higher, in profile to us, finally making eye contact. Her mouth open, she stared until Johnny Valentine noticed her. Uh oh! What was going to happen?

Then they began talking, standing in front of the meat counter. Other shoppers detoured around their buggies, no one daring to ask the giant to move along. Mr. Tyner, the butcher, was patiently standing by, holding a couple of special cuts he'd made for his new favorite customer.

We went back to work. I handled a couple of customers and came back in. By now Mama and The Wrestler were moving slowly down the aisles, one talking, the other nodding, carts side-by-side. The man who'd only spoken the words stop and no in several trips to the store chatted away with my mother like they were lifelong friends. I couldn't believe it.

Did I mention that my mother was easy to converse with?

They came to Judy's checkout together. A gentleman, he let her go first. She didn't have half the groceries he had. I motioned for Mike Tanner to take her groceries. I helped. I knew that if I didn't bag his groceries there might be trouble. She talked with Judy for a minute, then turned to me.

''I met Johnny, the man you were telling me about. I like him. He's a nice person.'' She nodded toward The Wrestler, smiling.

He nodded and smiled back. It was like how a great white shark might look, right before he ate you.

''I told him my husband and three boys love to watch wrestling on TV. He's going to bring you some tickets.''

Really? I was dumbfounded. Mama had tamed the savage beast.

Later that day Johnny Valentine's sexy daughter came in the store and handed me four ringside tickets to the Tuesday night wrestling matches at the armory. Everyone wanted to see them.

No way was my father going to take us to the wrestling matches. Number one, my father hated crowds. Number two, he hated standing in line, and number three, when he got home at night from twelve hours on his feet at work, he was so wiped out that all he wanted to do was eat supper, take a bath, and go to sleep.

But I knew where I could find three other people who wanted to go — my coworkers. Perhaps it seems odd that a female college student would go to the wrestling matches with three teenage bagboys, but when I showed the tickets to Judy, the first thing she said was, ''I wanna go.''

Besides, she was the only one of us who had a car.

Judy told Mr. Morse that Charlie, Mike, Dennis and she were taking the night off Tuesday, so get others to take our places. No way did the three of us bagboys have the nerve to tell Mr. Morse we were all taking off. Judy was not the least bit intimidated by him, though, and held up the tickets.

''Nobody asked me if I wanted to go,'' Mr. Morse said, grinning.

''You're the store manager. Buy your own ticket,''' Judy said. It seemed more likely that he was intimidated by Judy.

The armory was situated between Howard and Armenia Avenues in West Tampa, not a nice neighborhood. The building held about 5,000 people and was sold out. Cars were parked for blocks. Local residents with flashlights directed drivers to park on their lawns for two dollars. We found a good spot.

Inside, an usher directed us to our seats — ringside, best seats in the house. The house lights dimmed. Spotlights illuminated the elevated ring. The first match began, two fairly new wrestlers paying their dues, warming up the crowd. The matches were often like soap operas, long-standing grudges played out in the ring between good guys and bad guys. The good guy would get pounded and abused by the bad guy, then at the very end the good guy would miraculously recover, beating his opponent senseless just as the match-ending bell rang, the partisan crowd cheering.

Finally it was time for the main event, one-hour time limit, two out of three falls, Johnny Valentine and the Great Malenko, two villains, versus Texas brothers Dory Funk, Jr. and Terry Funk, present and former world champions, clean-cut, crowd favorites,

The match was underway, Malenko against Terry Funk. Johnny stood in his corner, waiting his turn to be tagged and enter the ring. I was watching him gazing at the screaming fans. He saw us and slowly winked.

Judy elbowed me, excited. “Did you see? He winked at us! My God, when he’s wearing clothes I didn't realize he was so big!”  Judy was a screamer. Every time Johnny Valentine got in the ring, she'd start yelling. ''Kill him, Johnny! Look out behind you! What's wrong with that referee?''

Nearby fans looked at us strangely. Judy didn't notice.

Our guys cheered the bad guys.

Everyone knew how it would turn out. Malenko would eye-gouge and cheat. Johnny Valentine would body slam and pound the brothers into unconsciousness, then the Funks would rebound, pinning the Great Malenko, while his partner, our benefactor, was tied up outside the ring fighting two intruders helping the brothers, the oblivious referee looking the other way. Good guys win again. At least that's how it seemed to be going.

The match was tied, 1 — 1. It looked bad for Johnny and Malenko. Both of them were bleeding from forehead wounds. Johnny lay on the mat, almost unconscious, as the Funks had their way with Malenko, taking turns punching him in the far corner. Time had almost expired. Then Johnny Valentine climbed to his feet, elbow-smashed one brother, punched the other in the head, spun him around, and put The Sleeper Hold on him. The Funk brother struggled, his arms windmilling, to no avail. Johnny's huge arms were tightly wrapped around his neck from behind, his flails weakening, until the referee signaled the Funk was unconscious. Match over.

The ending move with The Sleeper Hold, after the match, the winner would wake up the loser by holding him upright, sitting on the mat, the winner would rub the back of the victim's neck, then would hit him hard on the back. The loser would snap into consciousness, with no recollection of his ignominious loss. It was part of the routine — you put him to sleep, you wake him up. That always happened, the theory being that only the one who put him to sleep could wake him up.

Johnny Valentine was a villain. He ignored the sleeping Funk, helped up Malenko, and staggered to the ring ropes, preparing to leave. The crowd shouted for him to wake up Terry. Johnny ignored them, villain that he was. All the bedlam roused Dory, who began gesticulating, yelling for Johnny to wake up his brother. The ref got involved, threatening to reverse the win. Johnny got halfway through the ropes, on the ring apron, and stopped, watching the crowd go crazy.

Finally, reluctantly, he came back into the ring, raised up Terry in a sitting position, and slapped him hard on the back. Terry jumped up, confused, as his brother told him what had happened. They had lost. The crowd cheered his revival. It was all part of the game.

Cops escorted the two villains through the crowd to the exit.

We had a great time. Drained. That must be how the Romans felt as they left the Coliseum two thousand years ago. The Wrestlers were our modern-day gladiators, without swords.

It took a while to navigate the traffic jam, but eventually we made it out of West Tampa and home. Wednesday all Judy could talk about was the wrestling match. The other cashiers talked about having their boyfriends and husbands take them in a group.

Saturday morning Mama and Johnny Valentine entered the Kwik Chek together. I'd briefly told her about the match, but she wasn't very interested in wrestling. She and The Wrestler shopped slowly, chatting away, carts side-by-side.

Once, I asked her what they talked about, and she said, ''Our children.''

When they got to Judy's checkout lane she was beaming. Mike and Dennis lingered close by, jointly bagging my mother's purchases. I told Dennis if he didn't double bag my mother's groceries properly, if the eggs were broken, I would put him in The Sleeper Hold. I'd been watching Johnny closely.

Judy thanked Johnny for the tickets.

''You're welcome,'' he said, deep voice rumbling. ''Did you have a good time?'' More words than we'd heard before.

''Oh yes, it was wonderful. We had a great time. You're incredible,'' Judy said. She had a contagious smile.

A slight smile appeared on his face, then was gone. ''Thank you,'' he said. He seemed embarrassed. The villain didn't get many compliments, apparently.

When we got to his car, he turned to me before opening the trunk.

''You have a good mother,'' he said. ''She's very proud of you.''

''Yes sir,'' I said. I didn't know what else to say. I loaded his groceries and closed the trunk. He handed me a five dollar bill.

I didn't tell the others.