I would have liked to have gone to church with Dusty Rhodes.
I never have, though, and now I never will. Dusty died on June 11 at age 69.
I stopped watching professional wrestling a good many years ago when I realized there was better fiction available elsewhere. But during my growing up years I stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling on Atlanta’s Channel 11. And if at all possible I was also in front of our 19 inch black and white television on Saturday afternoons to watch the card that was beamed to us from Columbus; I can still hear promoter Fred Ward telling shut-ins that he hoped they would be “up and at ‘em real, real soon.” My favorite wrestlers during those years were Joe Scarpa, who later became known as Chief Jay Strongbow (and who also died recently) and El Mongol, who was billed as being from Mongolia but was actually Mexican. I guess El Mexol wouldn’t have sounded right.
But the Golden Age of professional wrestling, as far as I’m concerned, was the 1980s, when Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair were in their prime and were fierce rivals in the NWA/WCW whose flagship program was on WTBS in Atlanta. The two showmen couldn’t have been more different; Flair, the “Nature Boy,” was the self-described “stylin', profilin', limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin' n' dealin' son of a gun,” while Rhodes, “the plumber’s son,” was a common man in his blue jeans, cowboy boots, and trucker’s cap.
To put it simply, Dusty Rhodes was real. His character seemed to draw on who he really was. He was flawed and imperfect but he persevered until he made it to the top, ultimately becoming a three-time world champion. And he seemed to understand what it was to be a real, struggling, working American. That empathy came through in the legendary 1985 “Hard Times” promotion for the upcoming event Starrcade ’85, an interview in which Dusty talked about Flair, who had inflicted an injury on him that had put him out of commission for a while.
He put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are, daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say “hey a computer took your place, daddy,” that’s hard times!
Dusty Rhodes was the American Dream because he personified that dream. He made us believe that those who worked in textile mills or in other blue collar places of employment—or who were the children of blue collar workers (I was one of those)—could make it, too. And he made us believe it by being himself.
One of my classmates at Gordon Grammar School in the late ‘60s was a pretty blonde named Tammy Murphy—whatever happened to her?—and Tammy could sing. Sometimes Mrs. Tenney and Mrs. Fambro would make her—I put it that way because it looked to me like she wasn’t crazy about doing it—stand in the doorway that connected their fourth grade classrooms and sing for us. When we’d go on field trips, they’d compel her to lead us in singing a call and response song where we’d repeat what she sang.
Oh, you can’t get to heaven (oh, you can’t get to heaven)
On powder and paint (on powder and paint)
‘Cause the Lord don’t want (‘cause the Lord don’t want)
You like you ain’t (you like you ain’t).
Lord knows, though, that a lot of us spend a lot of time trying to be who we ain’t.
Dusty didn’t try to be who he wasn’t. He was just who he was.
And that’s why I wish I could have gone to church with him.
A friend of mine who has been facing some problems told me the other day that he needed a church where people would just be who they really are, with all of their hurts, faults, and struggles. He said that he had an issue with the way that church folks try to mask their true selves and pretend that they’re better than they are. He needed them to be genuine, he said, “because I need to be able to be myself at church.”
Maybe having Dusty sitting in the pew would have helped us to remember that.
After all—and Dusty didn’t say this, although it sounds like something he might have said—church is not about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; it’s about helping us be the best sow’s ears we can be.
(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on June 23, 2015)