By Gary Tolley
As a kid growing up in the 1980s I enjoyed watching professional wrestling. My friends and I knew it was all phony, but even so, the “squared circle” had the power to draw us all in. It provided comic relief from the ho-hum days of middle school. Who didn’t enjoy a Gene Okerlund interview, or a wild episode of Piper’s Pit? Pro wrestling back then was simply a great product.
Wrestling was on TV once a week where I lived (Cable TV had not yet come to town), so on Saturday mornings I’d ask my grandmother (who was living with us back then) if I could watch wrestling on her TV. Her television was bigger and got the best reception, and she always said yes.
After adjusting the rabbit ears to tune in the wrestling broadcast, I’d lie on the floor glued to the TV. Most weeks my younger brother would watch, too. Grammy sat in her chair and did her crossword puzzles behind us. Most weeks my mom would check in and ask her what my brother and I were up to.
Grammy, who enjoyed our company, would answer with something like, “Well, the boys are watching the wrestling again. I just don’t understand why they like this sort of thing…but they are behaving.”
Mom would shake her head and walk away. Grammy would wink at us, and, granted a reprieve, we’d go back to watching the remaining matches.
Soon the broadcast would wrap up with Mean Gene promoting the next week’s show. He’d end his last wrestler interview by looking at the camera and saying, in that beautiful voice he had, “Well, one thing’s for sure – I wouldn’t want to be [heel wrestler] next week at the [____ civic center/auditorium/VFW] when [good guy wrestler] looks for revenge…”
It was formulaic and predictable, and it was all good.
On March 31, 1985 I saw the first Wrestlemania on closed-circuit TV at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, MA. I went with a couple of friends who liked pro wrestling – my friend’s dad drove us there. It was quite the event actually – the place was packed. The matches were entertaining, and all the big names participated. Legends like King Kong Bundy, Junk Yard Dog, Paul Orndorff, Greg “the Hammer” Valentine, and Hulk Hogan all put on a really nice show. Andre the Giant’s victory over Big John Studd in the $15,000 Body Slam Challenge was a highlight. Yeah, $15,000 was a nice chunk of change back then.
A Legend Approaches
Five months later, in August, my mom, brother and I flew cross-country to see a relative in California. We didn’t have a direct flight, though, which meant we had to endure a four hour layover in New York’s JFK Airport.
After landing at JFK we found a quiet spot in the middle of a long corridor and put down our bags. There was nobody around at all. My mom passed the time reading a book. While I was excited to be heading to Los Angeles, after about an hour of sitting around watching the planes I was bored out of my gourd.
Then, I saw him.
The Eighth Wonder of the World, Andre the Giant, was walking down the corridor toward us! He was so huge! With him was a very tall, thin brunette. My guess is she was working with the airline and escorting him through the airport. As I remember it they were speaking French.
(Andre may have been flying in from Canada. He had just defeated Big John Studd on August 18 in Toronto, and would next wrestle Bundy in September at Madison Square Garden. The Andre/Studd/Bundy feud would continue for many months.)
Andre was carrying a small hard-shell briefcase. While I can’t say for sure, the briefcase may have contained his wrestling boots and outfit, which would have been a major hassle to replace on the road.
I couldn’t believe it – Andre, one of the most popular pro wrestlers on the planet, had just walked by! None of my friends would believe I saw him. I had to get an autograph!
“Mom, quick – I need a pen and a piece of paper!” I pleaded. “That was Andre the Giant!”
“Who’s Andre the Giant?” she asked.
Even my grandmother knew the answer to that question.
Mom dug into her purse and handed me a yellow ball-point Bic pen. At this point Andre was getting farther and farther away, and closer to the security checkpoint. The only pieces of paper my mom had in her purse were the boarding passes we needed for our next flights, so she handed me mine.
I ran as fast as I could down the corridor and was able to catch up to Andre just before he got to the security checkpoint. A few people had recognized him at this point, and he seemed to be enjoying the attention.
Winded, I asked him if he would sign my boarding pass. He looked down at me, and, still talking with the brunette, took my pen in one hand and my boarding pass in the other. His hands were massive. In his hand the pen looked like a toothpick, and the boarding pass (basically a 3” x 5” index card) looked the size of a postage stamp.
He slowly signed the back of my boarding pass and handed it and the pen down to me. I said “Thank you!”, and he nodded, still in conversation with the woman. Again, he seemed to be in a jovial mood.
Back to the Well
I was stoked – I held in my hot little hands an Andre the Giant autograph! As I headed back to my mom and brother (I don’t think my feet were touching the ground) a woman working security at an adjoining gate asked me, “Hey, who is that?”
I told her who Andre was, and she asked, “Can you have him sign this piece of paper? I can’t leave my post.”
I said I would try, and trotted back over to Andre for another autograph. Andre hadn’t gone through the gate yet.
I asked, “Can you please sign this for that woman over there?”
He smiled at me, said “Okay”, and signed the piece of paper.
After thanking him again I walked over to the woman working security and handed her the autograph. By the time I turned around, Andre was on the other side of the security gate. In an instant he was gone.
I was thrilled with the autograph he gave me. He had written “Andre” in blue ink, and the signature, just like the man himself, was huge. It took up a big portion of the back of the boarding pass. I was on cloud nine.
Hours later we began boarding the plane to Los Angeles. When the man at the gate collecting boarding passes asked me for mine I handed it over, begging him to please give it back to me because Andre the Giant had autographed it.
He looked at the reverse side of the boarding pass and hesitated. Then he looked at me, and in a firm voice said, “I’m sorry, that would be against airline policy.”
My heart sank. I was crushed. I felt like Snuka had leapt from the top rope and flattened my entire being.
The guy jotted a note on the passenger manifest next to my name, taking pleasure in my disappointment.
“Looks like I’ll be keeping this one for myself” he said, motioning like he was putting my boarding pass in his shirt pocket.
The he chuckled.
“You’re all set!” he said, handing me back the boarding pass.
I got on the plane, and for the rest of the trip the boarding pass was tucked safely inside the book my mom was reading.
Andre went on to star in The Princess Bride a couple years later (he really did a nice job with the Fezzik role), and continued to wrestle as long as he could. His body was breaking down due to acromegaly, though. Sadly, he died just a few years later, in early 1993, at the age of 46.
Despite being dealt a bad hand health-wise, Andre chose to entertain millions of people around the world. He made the most of the short time he had on Earth. There’s a lesson in that.
So that’s my Andre the Giant story. Let the record show that I actually got Andre the Giant’s autograph twice on that summer day in 1985, which is pretty cool if you ask me.
The Memory Lives On
These days, whenever I’m stuck in an airport between flights I think back to the fortunate four hour stop I had in New York’s JFK airport so many years ago. The memory makes the time seem to pass quicker.
Then I’ll get on the jumbo jet, and at 35,000 feet the stewardess hands me a small glass of water and offers me a miniature pack of airline nuts, and I think of Andre’s funny line in The Princess Bride. You know the one.
Anybody want a peanut?
Rest in peace, Andre. We miss you.
Gary Tolley is a doghillmedia.com columnist
Copyright 2020 doghillmedia.com