Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes once in a while, if you’re really lucky, but you have to be able to listen to it. And just hearing it isn’t enough, either. Inspiration only means something when you’re able to put it into action.
Back in the early 1980s, I was an emotional mess. Puberty had kicked in early, and it turned me into an awkward, gangly kid. I was geeky, and had a bad haircut, and wore glasses when nobody else that I knew did. And I can point to two things from those days that changed my life, for the better. The first was that I discovered the music of the Doors, and the persona of Jim Morrison. And the second was that I found something that I really enjoyed doing. And the two are connected, in a very direct manner.
As I was first listening to “L.A. Woman” and trying to figure out what in the world a “Hollywood bungalow” was, I picked up a book called “No One Here Gets Out Alive” by Danny Sugarman. In that book, and through the exploits and self-destructive behavior of Morrison, I discovered the power that words had. Jim Morrison died well before I was born, but I felt like I had seen him. Sugarman’s words brought the dead back to life for me, back in the spring and summer of 1982.
The discovery of the written word made me want to get in on it for myself. And that’s when the inspiration kicked in.
The geeky kid that I was back in 1982 found an escape in the form of professional wrestling. It started with a weekly show on KPLR in St. Louis, Missouri called Wrestling at the Chase. Wrestlers were these imposing, larger-than-life figures. For me, they were superheroes brought to life. Even if the matches were fake, it was all about showmanship and playing to the crowd and establishing yourself as the Man. It appealed to me, in a way that nothing else did back in those crazy, terrible days.
I slowly gravitated from the St. Louis wrestling show to Georgia Championship Wrestling on WTBS in Atlanta. And the baddest wrestler of them all, that I could see, was Roddy Piper. Whenever he got in front of the camera, it was on. He would go on tirade after tirade, which I now realize was all designed to sell the product. He was the id, unleashed for all the world to see.
I wanted to be like Roddy Piper, free to speak my mind and go off in any direction that I wanted to. But I also realized that I would never be able to do this, not in the time and place that I was living in. So I decided to do the next best thing, and try to channel a little bit of Piper for myself.
My grandmother was dying in the summer of 1982, at the same time I was watching Piper do his thing. My daily hospital visits took me past a hospital mail slot, so I hatched out a plan. One night I put pen to paper, and imagined that I was standing there in the studio, singing the praises of Roddy Piper. Telling all the world about how bad he was, so that he could get into the ring and show everyone himself.
I got it all down on paper that night, addressed it to the editor of the wrestling magazine that I bought at the newsstand every month, and dropped it in the mail the next day when I went to visit my grandma. And then it was gone for a few months. I probably stopped thinking about it the moment the letter left my hand that day.
But everything changed one day in the fall. A friend had spotted my letter in the magazine, complete with a picture of Piper putting some other wrestler in a sleeperhold. As I read through my words, I thought to myself “These are my words, printed on a page, for anyone to read. Cool!”
I had no idea about what the circulation of the magazine was, and it really didn’t matter to me. I had taken a thought in my head–inspired by a desire to be just a little bit like Roddy Piper–and made it into something tangible. I had never known a feeling like that before. And I didn’t want it to be the last time I felt like that, either.
So I began writing, whenever I had the chance. I wrote for the high school newspaper, the college film guide, and for freebie newspapers that needed to fill space with something that wasn’t advertising. I wrote for work, where writing wasn’t really the job that I held, but the ability to run some words together in a coherent fashion was a good skill to have.
When Internet technology came along, I started writing for websites, as well as for my own blog. But whatever I’ve written, and wherever it’s been published, I always get echoes of that first letter I wrote on Roddy Piper’s behalf. That feeling will hopefully never go away.
Roddy Piper died on Friday at the age of 61. And, like Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper was only a show name, meant to describe a character that Roderick George Toombs had successfully brought to life. The inspiration that his character gave me, at a point in my life where I desperately needed something to go right for a change, is something I’ll always be grateful for.
Rest well, Mr. Toombs, and thank you.