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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. "One punch…". 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 friends.

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 scared just…..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 him die.

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 knew.

Miguel Strother has been tagged in.




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