I flew out of Milwaukee for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood the day after Christmas in 1983. It wasn’t a long flight to St. Louis, but it seemed longer because of where I was going…and who I flew with.
There were three of us traveling together. We had never met before, but the common experience made it easy to converse and get to know each other a little. Also, this was back in the day when a flight would happen, even if only a dozen passengers were booked. Our waiting area was sparse.
While we were sitting around waiting, two very large men came to our waiting area…two very large colorfully dressed men. One was dressed in a lot of yellow and the other was dressed in a lot of red. They were both well over six feet tall and definitely had their clothes tailor-made just for them…trust me, the big and tall stores would’ve failed these guys. Their voices were loud and gravelly and pretty much everybody (all dozen of us) stared. These guys were also famous, that is, if you were into professional (ahem) wrestling at the time. All three of us army recruits apparently shared a love for professional (ahem) wrestling.
We didn’t have much time to dwell on it because they began to board our flight shortly afterward. The two colorful giants held back while the rest of us boarded. I imagine it was easier for them to move their massive bodies through an airplane after everybody else settled in. Anyway, the flight was sparse, as I mentioned, and we boarded quickly. All three of us recruits were seated together in one row on the nearly empty airplane, second from the front. I was about to make my move to the empty row in front of us (more leg room) when the colorful giants boarded. I didn’t feel like getting accidentally crushed, so I stayed put. Good thing, they were seated in the empty row in front of us. I swear, even sitting down they were taller than the rest of us.
Enough suspense…it was Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Yes, I broke my rules and named names…but I feel public figures have that coming. Now you’ll be able to imagine their voices (if you know who they are) while I finish the story.
Now you can imagine the sight of three young men on their way to the army sitting behind the two colorful giants in the front of an airplane. Yes, we were excited, and yes, we were awed, but we were also silent. I’m not sure why, but the sight of these huge guys just clammed us up. We finally took off and after 10 minutes, the seatbelt light turned off. The Hulk groaned, unhooked his seatbelt, and stood up…kind of. He still had to bend a little to keep his enormous head from hitting the ceiling. Then his eyes locked onto ours and he smiled.
HULK HOGAN: Where’re you guys going? (he asked with that deep voice of his, a little less animated than how he talks on tv).
ME: Basic training, sir. (I answered with what I now felt was a high pitched girly voice).
HULK HOGAN: Basic training? (the animation was creeping in). You guys are the real heroes!
ME: Yes, sir. (I answered with a slight swell of pride…the Hulkster just called ME a HERO!).
MACHO MAN: WHOAH YEAH! (said enthusiastically in a deep gravelly voice).
We spent the rest of the flight talking with them like they were normal people…like us! They were larger than life, but yet took the time to make us feel good about what we were doing. When we landed, they shook our hands and went on their way. It was only then that the nervousness returned for each of us. We now needed to board a bus to get to our final destination.
As time has passed and I think about that trip, I realize that Hulk Hogan was right. Our soldiers, sailors, marines, Coast Guard, and airmen are the real heroes. So are our law enforcement, firefighters, social workers, advocates, and volunteers. Also, in my personal case, my dad, the only man I ever looked up to. Everybody else starts eye-to-eye and works their way up or down. We young men may have been in awe of the wrestlers at the time, but to place them as heroes couldn’t have been more off the mark. They are entertainers and by their conversation with us, they showed that they understood their place in the world, even if others didn’t. These were good men, if even only for that moment.
The only regret I have about this experience was not asking Macho Man for a Slim Jim.
MACHO MAN: WHOOAAAHH YEAAAH! SNAP IN TO A SLIM JIM!