Mil Mascaras and other heroes: Another Smith Place Story
Updated: Mar 17, 2022
Three would always remind me when it was Wednesday. Our young lives were defined by television days and Wednesday was Wrestling from the Olympic Auditorium Day. Both Three and I believed every word and action of the wrestling world. We hated Freddie Balasi and loved our masked hero, Mil Mascaras. We liked wrestler Haystack Calhoun because he was a gentle giant who wrestled in overalls.
But mostly we liked wrestling because it allowed us to feel like something mattered. While parents and other worried about wars and politics, we anguished and tormented over whether the caged wrestling match would be fair to our heroes or whether it was just a trap set up by the dreaded Balasi and his evil minions.
I remember when Sims told us that wrestling was fake. It’s all fake! None of them is really hurt. It’s fake blood. They practice all their moves together and they know who is going to win before the match even starts. My Dad told me that anyone who believes wrestling is real is a fool.
We knew Sims’ Dad and even as kids we knew he was not a happy man. He yelled all the time at Sims and his Mom, and he never had a nice thing to say about anyone. A kid would do something good at school and Sims’ Dad would hear about it and call the kid a teacher’s pet or make a crack about how the kid's parents probably did the homework. No one ever spent too much time with Sims’ Dad because he would eventually demand that you agree with him. When Sims told us his Dad thought wrestling was fake, that’s when we knew it was real.
Three and I would do all the chores assigned to us on Wednesday. We complimented our Moms and laughed at our Dad’s jokes on Wednesdays. We did anything to ensure that our understood late night watching of wrestling would be undisturbed and we could yell into our pillows at look at each other with opened mouths gapes of joy when our heroes won or punched our bed when our heroes lost.
Our home on Smith Place was small and my brother and I slept in a bed in the living room. My parents had divided the small area entering our home into a small sitting area for guests then a pathway to the kitchen and then divided the sitting area from my brother and I’s shared bed. The television sat on top of a mantel that was positioned above an old non-working electric fireplace opening. Some folks had a nicely framed pictures above their mantel. Our art was the television.
This was in 1965 and few people had color televisions. Most of the families on Smith Place had black and white sets and rabbit ear antennas to capture the signal coming from Los Angeles or Orange County into our Long Beach homes. Because of the dark when we turned on the television to watch wrestling we felt like alien children watching a transmission from an alien planet because the radiation from the television made the living room glow in a greyish white cloudy pallor that I always imaged purgatory must have been like.
Watching wrestling was an understood but unspoken contract with our parents. We were supposed to be in bed and asleep, but our parents knew that at nine o’clock on Wednesday nights they would be in bed, and Three would cross the street in his pajamas with his pillow and I would open the door quietly to let him in. His front porch light and our front porch light gave off enough light so looking out the window I could see Three clearly as he crossed the street.
We would then turn on the television and set the volume low. We had to sit about a foot from the screen to hear anything. We did not listen to much because it was the wrestling action that excited us. We did put our ears to the screen when Jimmy Lennon, the wrestling announcer would introduce the wrestlers and when he would announce the winner.
Jimmy Lennon was the voice of God to us. In his high pitched voice, he would announce: In the ring tonight Mil Mascaras (Mr. Lennon always pronounced it with a dignified Spanish accent) takes on Freddie Balasi (Boo, Boo, Boo!!!) in a match for the undisputed North American Heavyweight wrestling title. Tonight’s match is sanctioned by the World Wrestling Federation and is a no holds bar match. At the end of the match, he would say: And the winner by take down in the third round…
Three and I loved Mil Mascaras because he was a Mexican wrestling star. At that time, kids whose parents came from Mexico had few sports heroes in the United States. We did not know soccer or boxing or even baseball stars that came from our backgrounds. Mil Mascaras did. He was a good man who sought to do right, wrestling the world demons to try to help the little guy. We lived and died with each Mil Mascaras match, because when he won, we walked straighter and prouder and believed that we too could take on the world.
One night though our world began to crumble. Three came over as he always did but he had a face that looked like someone had punched him hard and he was still recovering. I turned on the set but Three did not jump up and down on the bed as we always did. I asked him if something was wrong. Three said he did not want to talk about it. But it was no fun watching wrestling while Three was so sad.
I asked Three what was wrong, but he would not say. I missed having Three get into the action with me. Three did not stay until the end of the wrestling show. He left just as the tag team match was starting. I knew something was really wrong, because Three left even as he knew that Mil Mascaras was going to be in the ring.
The next day I told Three about all the action he missed. I jumped through all the moves, pretended to leap the rope to tag myself into the ring, touched my partner's hand and showed how Mil Mascaras saved the day. Three had missed one of the best wrestling matches I had ever seen. Like the previous night Three did not seem to care at all about the wrestling match.
The following week Three told me he would not be coming over, and that he did not think he would ever return to watch wrestling. I asked him if I had done anything, and he said that we were still good friends and that he just did not want to watch wrestling anymore. I did not understand. After that wrestling did not seem that important or that much fun.
A few weeks later a police car was in front of Three's home and we saw Three’s father, who we all thought was a good guy, in handcuffs and being escorted into the waiting car. Three and his Mom were holding each other. She was crying, but Three had a look of anger in his eyes. Three looked like Mil Mascaras as he entered the ring to go after an opponent. I waved to Three but he did not wave back. He just turned around and led his mother back to the house.
Three and his mother, Doña Rosa, would move away a few months later. I did not even have a chance to say goodbye. Several uncles with trucks came and emptied the house. Three and his mom were nowhere to be seen. Some said the uncles had come to move them to Arizona to be near her family there.
One day as I was in the front yard pitching pennies against our front step, Sims stopped by and asked whether I knew what happened to Three. I told him I did not. Sims then relayed this story to me:
Someone was talking in the neighborhood about what a great Dad Three had and Sims’ Dad said, how can he be that great when he hits the wife he is supposed to love? Someone told Three what Sims’ Dad had said. Three said Sims’ Dad was a liar because he even thought that wrestling was not real.
While he did not believe the story, Three began to survey the situation as if he was in the ring. He started to see things at his home that he’d never paid attention to before. He noticed some pushing and shoving, which his Dad always blamed on Doña Rosa’s clumsiness. He noticed differently the dark eyes that Doña Rosa sometimes had. She had explained that she got the black eyes because she fell when she was dizzy one day. Now, Three was not so sure about what was going on in his house.
The day that Three was supposed to come watch wrestling with me it turns out he was on a spying mission. When his parents thought he was out, he heard his father yelling at his mother and he then saw him strike her hard until she fell down. He kicked her while she was down. He then left her crying and pleading on the kitchen floor.
Turns out that the next morning, Three went Mil Mascaras on his Dad. Three called the police on his own. He dialed zero and told the operator what he saw the night before. In minutes the police cars came and got Three’s Dad.
When Sims told me the story, I started to cry. I felt bad for Three because for all his life he thought his Dad was such a good man. Three realized that he had been just kid without seeing what his mother was going through. Sims told me to stop crying before he started crying too, and we looked at each other not knowing exactly what to do.
Sims’ Dad could be an asshole, but his calling out someone who pretended to be someone he was not, was right on the mark. Mil Mascaras had a thousand masks, always different for every match, but he was always good on the inside. You had to see into his heart to see who Mil Mascaras really was. Three Dad’s wore a mask we all thought was good on the outside, but we never knew his heart.
Sims’ Dad was still wrong about one thing: wrestling was real. Mil Mascaras taught us courage and what Three did for his mom was the most courageous thing I would ever see. No one can ever tell me that wrestling isn’t real.