Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hard To Handle

by Peggy Lathan

Oh my goodness, where do I begin? The death of a friend is always hard to handle. I have mourned many of my wrestler friends in the past – Gene Anderson, Dick Murdock, Wahoo McDaniel, Ben Alexander, just to name a few. But I don't think I have ever been more shocked to hear of a wrestler's passing than I was the day I read about Johnny Weaver. Yep – I read about it on a wrestling message board and I couldn't believe my eyes. I immediately started calling people hoping against hope that it wasn't true. After all, Johnny couldn't be dead! It had to be a mistake. But, unfortunately, it was soon confirmed and I was totally stunned. I just couldn't believe it.

I had known Johnny for 30+ years. I was a front row "regular" at the matches in upstate South Carolina. I went to wrestling matches three to four times a week – every week - during the decade of the 70's and early part of the 80s and I was fortunate to be able to make lasting friendships with my wrestling heroes. Johnny was one of the first wrestlers I ever talked to and soon became not only my hero, but also my friend. I saw him every week, sometimes several times a week, and he'd always give me a hug and ask how things were going for me, and would ask about my Mom and Grandmother, who also attended the matches with me. He was just a sweet, kind person who was so easy to talk to and was always so available to the fans. He'd stand out in the arena and pose for pictures and sign autographs until it was time for him to wrestle. He always took time for the fans. That's why so many loved him, and why so many are mourning his passing. When you can make a connection with your hero, you never forget it.

But as lives go on in different directions, sometimes even the best of friends can lose touch. And during the late 80s and 90s, when the wrestling I loved so much began to change and Weave started working at the Sheriff's Department, that's what happened with me and Johnny. We lost touch for a few years.

But a few years ago, some friends of mine gave me a surprise 50th birthday party at a local hotel in Greenville. I have to hand it to them – I never suspected a thing. I walked into that room to a multitude of friends and family, some of whom I hadn't seen in quite a while. But can you imagine my surprise when I turn around and who do I see? Johnny Weaver! After so many years, Johnny took the time to drive to Greenville that Saturday afternoon to surprise me and help me celebrate my milestone birthday! And he even parked in back of the hotel because he was afraid I'd see the SLPERMAN tag and suspect something. I was just thrilled to see him again. And after that event, we stayed in close touch after that.

Since that time, I have been blessed with many opportunities to spend time with Johnny. My friends, Rochelle, Clay, Eddie and I have made many trips with Johnny to Myrtle Beach, where we joined up with Gentleman Jim Holliday at the local karaoke bar and I got to enjoy (and laugh – and sometimes cringe!) at hearing Weave sing every Willie Nelson song Jimmy had the music for. Johnny loved to sing that karaoke, and he always had such a good time there! And the first year we went to the beach, to my surprise, when he went swimming, guess what? He didn't wear swimming trunks – he wore those old, old red wrestling tights! Yep – 20 years later and they still fit him to a tee! That was a funny moment.

I was also fortunate enough to be invited to Johnny's house many times for cookouts and just to visit, not to mention getting to ride with him to various wrestling events that he attended. I was able to introduce him to a whole new group of fans of his – Dick, David, Carroll, Mike – all of whom grew up watching Johnny on TV, but never had the opportunity to actually meet him. He was amazed at the wrestling knowledge these guys had – he said they knew more about his career than he did! He really enjoyed getting to know them and talking to them about his early career in MACW. And they were all on his email list, too!!

When Johnny finally got a computer, we emailed each other almost every day. Because I didn't know what shift he was on each week, I didn't call him often because if I woke him up, he'd have trouble falling back asleep. But whenever he got up, he'd get on that computer and we'd "chat" with each other about college football, racing, baseball, and various other things. He always wrote in all caps with little or no punctuation. Sometimes it could take a while to figure out what he was saying. It was one of the little quirks of his that I will miss. I got a very sweet Valentine's Day e-card from him the day before he died. I will treasure that forever.

The things about Johnny that are my most treasured memories are: In the mornings, after he'd eat his breakfast (usually toast), he would work the crossword puzzle in the newspaper – and he was good at it, too. Nine times out of ten, he'd finish the whole puzzle. I also remember his little hand-held solitaire game – he LOVED playing that little game. He was always saying, "See if you can beat that," talking about his high score. And I couldn't! I also think about how he loved to mow his lawn. He had a large backyard and a riding lawnmower and he just loved to get out there and mow grass. And chase the rabbits out of his small garden area. And kill any snakes that happened to be lurking around his house. And let's now forget that red 1999 SLPERMAN Cadillac of his which today has only about 35,000 original miles on it. He drove his pickup truck all the time – only got the Caddy out for special events. Sometimes the Caddy's battery would be run down because it hadn't been cranked in so long and he'd have to push it out of the garage and jump off the battery. These are just a few little things that now mean so much to me and will stay fixed in my memories forever.

I know hindsight is 20/20, but looking back at the last six or so months of his life, I know that the Lord had a hand in the events that happened in Johnny's life of which I was a part. Last August in Charlotte, Johnny had a wonderful reunion and dinner with his old friend Rip Hawk. Later that month in Burlington, he had surprise reunion with Rich Landrum, Sandy Scott and Jim Nelson. It had been 25 years since he had seen Landrum, and the look on his face when Rich knocked on his hotel room door, and Johnny opened it, was priceless – What did he say? He looked at me and said, "Well, I'll be damned! You really got me!"

Then in November in Rocky Mount, VA, there was a second "reunion" with Sandy Scott and Jim Nelson, and most importantly, Johnny finally agreed to do an interview with the Mid-Atlantic Gateway and now his life story can be preserved as part of wrestling history. What a time we had – listening to Johnny tell his life story and looking at the clippings and photos in his scrapbook. And this didn't come across in his interview, but we all loved his impersonation of Brute Bernard!

In Rocky Mount, being as Johnny's 72nd birthday was only two weeks away, we decided to give him a surprise birthday party, as others on this blog have talked about. We turned the lights off (no pun intended) and had the candles on the cake lit. Johnny opened the door to the conference room and we immediately hit the light switch and all yelled out "Happy Birthday!" He was so thrilled and grinning like a cheshire cat! And what did he say to me? "Peggy, you got me again!" and gave me a big hug. Johnny was like a kid in a candy store – he was so happy to be there with his friends – both old familiar friends like me, Clay, the Kernodles, Sandy Scott, Rick McCord and Jim Nelson, and his "new" friends (Dick, David, Mike, Carroll, Kyle and Tonya), who he also loved dearly. Birthday cake, candles, birthday balloons, birthday banners, a gift of a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. calendar from the Rossers – we went all out for his surprise party. And I'm so glad I have that memory because little did we know, that was the last time we would ever see him.

Johnny always thought no one would remember him – but how wrong he was. He was an icon in this area – a true hero to many people. And he was loved by everyone. No one can talk about Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling without mentioning his name. He was MACW!

I will truly miss Johnny. Even now, it's unbelievable that he's gone. But he definitely is not forgotten. He will always occupy a place in my heart. And I will always remember just how happy he was the last few months of his life! And that gives me comfort and closure.

- Peggy Lathan