The Earl of Death
by Miguel Strother
I used to talk to death face-to-face at least twice a week.
His mask was made of course black leather, had silver wings
darting from either of the eye sockets and laced up in the back
with five dirty white strings.
When I moved in next door to Earl Patrick Freeman he was introduced
to me simply as Patty. Although I would never call him anything
else, I came to know him as much, much more. Patty Ryan, Bud
Freeman, Ace Freeman, and the Zebra Kid was a 5'10", 305lb
former professional wrestler who could tell stories about the
good old days until the rain stopped falling in Vancouver.
Patty was an anomaly; a circle and a square. He was a titan
of a man with hands the size of old portable typewriters and
just as scarred. More than just straight rights and leg drops,
he'd received no formal education but had an informed answer
for every question. With a toothpick spinning like a fresh idea
in the corner of his mouth, he routinely swept through obscure
categories in Jeopardy! before turning the show off and declaring
that it bored him. He could speak on any subject, from the Kennedys
to the Protestant Reformation, with a combination of keen understanding
and ringside wit that kept all around him enthralled.
Patty also had the savage, gray-eyed glare of a hardened tough
guy that kept everybody slightly off balance. He once told me
about brawling his way out of a bar in Northern Quebec after
a pack of snarly lumberjacks insisted on picking a fight with
him and massive fellow wrestler Jean Ferre. Ferre, Patty said,
had the most gentle soul of any of the hundreds of men he'd
traveled with and never fought outside the ring despite being
routinely challenged. But that night one lumberjack swung a
pint glass at him. "Jean split that hick open from forehead
to chin with one punch," Patty marveled in recollection.
". Later, Ferre would hack his way
out of those back woods and be known all over the world as Andre
the Giant. Although he battled his whole life and won his share
of scraps, Patty never fared quite so well.
At 55, the bones of Patty's knees were splintered to points
sharp as the barbs of raspberry brambles and his arteries were
filled with the silt of a diet that consisted of a regular course
of 'whatevers'. Such is life when rowing the asphalt waterways
of the road for Stu Hart, Al Tomko, and Vince McMahon, he said.
About a year into our relationship it became obvious to me that
I was actually watching Patty die.
Once when I was walking home from school I found Patty halfway
up the hill that led to our homes. He was hunched at a 90 degree
angle, hands stuck to the darkening grey of his track pants
and gasping for breath like an eight-year-old bulldog. When
I stopped to ask him how he was he growled and glared with such
ferocity that I left him there to wage his war alone. I later
found out that he was spending hours just trying to make it
around the block.
Routinely, I would walk across the cracked concrete patio that
separated the entrances of our low-rent townhouses, knock on
Patty's door and wait for the thud of footsteps and the mixed
scent of shag carpet and bacon fat to welcome me in. Whenever
I wanted to get away from my bickering parents I went over to
Patty's place. Not once was I turned away. Those visits stretched
from hours into days and kept me off the streets of the lower-income
district of the suburbs where I would otherwise have been breaking
into cars or guzzling cheap booze with one of my many troubled
As I sat there Patty calmly told me of the nameless drifters
who'd make a couple of bucks to enter the squared circle and
watch the so-called stars circle above their heads. He described
how broken they all ended up looking with their noses bloodied
and their eyes stinging with sweat and hard-to-admit tears.
Each had their own reasons for joining the brutal circus, Patty
said. Many were drug addicts or alcoholics and some just had
mouths to feed one way or another. Others still just thought
they'd walk into the ring and steal the cash by flopping early.
That was never, ever the case, he explained. Everybody who joined
this circus paid a very real price. Only the hardest and most
desperate remained. As difficult as it was for me to believe
as I listened to the sensitive tellings of his life, I guess
Patty was one of those.
Patty never really made much money while wrestling despite
his ferocious spirit. He was the kind of man who stood up in
church to call bullshit if he thought the preacher was full
of it and was much the same with promoters. It didn't bode well
in the business I am told. Patty had lost most of his possessions
in a house fire about ten years before I met him and even the
scotched taped and photocopied fifty cent programs of his life
in a make-shift ring had mostly disappeared. All he really had
were the stories that he so kindly shared with me.
Patty once told me about finding a dead body by chance when
he was a boy swimming on a languid summer day in his hometown
of Hamilton, Ontario. "You see something like that, somebody's
dead body with their lips inflated blue and their cheeks rotting
off, and it changes you forever," Patty said. "It
took me a long time to figure it out but it's like seeing the
whole of the universe unraveled in front of your eyes. I wasn't
..changed." The body was that of a man
who had been murdered on the tough steel docks of Hamilton over
a small debt. A young Earl Patrick talked to the police, told
them his story and went on his way. But Patty never forgot about
that summer just as I will never forget the time I spent watching
One night shortly after Christmas in 1989 my parents went out
to party with friends, which gave me license to do the same.
At about 2:30am, just after I arrived home, a small murder of
crows descend on the awning of our townhouse. Strange for the
middle of winter, I thought. Not once did they caw out in one
of their many voices. They just scratched away at the roof,
their necks tilting back and forth and the apertures of their
eyes snapping silver photos. Several hours later Patty had a
massive heart attack. His family pounded like savages on our
front door and an ambulance wailed like a widow through our
neighborhood trying to get to the scene and save the dying man,
but I didn't wake up until the next day.
That final night I imagine Patty stalked around the house wrestling
with his faith in the last hours of his life, locked in a match
he would never be able to embellish, before finally relinquishing
defeat. When the announcer's hand dropped to strike the final
bell I know that Patty walked out of that ring and the ropes
that had held him in his whole life fell away and the five strings
that held his mask fast finally loosened for good.
At Patty's wake I tried to speak a word but had yet to experience
death and had no way of dealing with its effects. Truthfully,
I was no match for the massive old entertainers that came to
eulogize one of their own. When I was done choking on my tears
Don Leo Jonathan, one of wrestling's original giants, rose to
his full height of nearly seven feet and read from the Torah
in a gruff voice. He was not Jewish by birth but recited the
kaddish in perfect Hebrew. We all closed our eyes and for the
first time I shared the pain, loneliness and understanding in
the big man's voice that most of the others in attendance already
has been tagged in.