Tail of the Dragon
“Yep, HOW camera guy. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Ok. I’ll count you down.”
FADE IN FROM BLACK
Western Carolina Big Time Wrestling Jamboree’s Special Charity Event
Swain County High School
Bryson City, North Carolina
Saturday July 25th
The bass drum pounded away at a brisk 1-2-3-4 pace through Halitosis’s earbuds. Sitting on the hard wooden bench inside the wrestler’s inner sanctum and sanctuary – otherwise known as the Swain County High School Gymnasium visitor’s dressing room – wearing a lucha mask, dressed in his nearly iconic black t-shirt with a block ‘H’ in the middle and wrestling pants and shoes, he leaned back against the recently painted, newish-looking maroon metal lockers and bobbed his head along to the beat.
A banjo began to play a fast but simple introductory part.
His eyes focused on the ‘Home of the Maroon Devils’ in white block letters above the lockers on the far end of the room about his opponent tonight. Nope, not any of his War Games foes- he’d be facing a wrestler named J.J. Bittinger- or ‘The Bear’ as he’s known as in these parts.
The vocals leaked out from the buds and were clearly audible over the bass drum and banjo.
“When nobody knows your name, nobody knows your face
Everybody counts you out long before you start that race
You can let ’em place their bets, let ’em laugh and drink their wine
Let ’em eat their words when you’re first to the finish line…”
Sitting next to him on the bench? None other than Halitosis’s wife Laura Bergman. She’d driven over two and a half hours from Chattanooga after working from home to meet up with him at the show. After she finished work a little early, Laura threw on an older model official HOW Ray McAvay baseball jersey (made famous by McAvay’s West Texas Adult Entertainment Legend friends Dark and Stormy) with ‘Show up…Punch in’ on the front and ‘Shut up…Get to work’ on the back, a simple pair of jeans, and tennis shoes. Lugging a suitcase and carrying case she’d packed to stay at the Eagle’s Nest resort with her husband until Sunday, Laura had raced out of the house and literally jumped into her car to get to the show on time.
Horne had given Halitosis Saturday and Sunday off from training while he flew to Rapid City, North Dakota for the Missouri Valley Wrestling house show with the rest of the MVW contingent on hand for the North Carolina show plus the Wrestling Guys Thunderbolt Smith and ‘Long Haul’ Rick Hall.
The HOW camera zeroed in on the backstage pass hanging from the lanyard Laura wore…
Appalachian Mountain Championship Wrestling Presents:
Western Carolina Big Time Wrestling Jamboree’s Special Charity Event.
DATE: Friday July 26th, 2019
BELL TIME: 8:00 PM
VIP BACKSTAGE MEET AND GREET: 6:30 PM
PLACE: Swain County High School Gym
Bryson City, North Carolina
…while Halitosis continued to bob his head to the beat.
“…This one goes out to those underdogs who aren’t afraid to bite
Change the game, break the chain, get off that porch and fight…
Laura looked up to and saw McAvay himself walking towards them. He’d already showered and dressed following his match earlier in the show. An untucked Hawaiian print shirt over a pair of jeans and regular shoes.
She gently elbowed Halitosis to get his attention.
“Huh?” Halitosis said, still allowing the music to soak through him like a good, relaxing hot shower.
“Hey Ray!” Laura called out to him. “Good match.”
Ray flashed a thumb’s up in return. “Thanks. Nice shirt.”
Laura nodded back. “Of course.”
He motioned towards Halitosis. “What’s he listening to?”
“Aaron Watson,” Laura replied. “I think the CD is called Red Bandana.” She leaned over to her husband and pulled one of the buds from his ear and listened. “Yep,” she confirmed after listening to a brief snippet. “This one’s called ‘Dark Horse.’ He really likes this song.”
Halitosis nodded in agreement and put the bud back in his ear to continue to listen to the song.
“Today’s your day in the sun, you’re rolling like a young gun
Now it’s your time to ride, let your dark horse run
They can’t measure your heart, they can’t tear you apart
You’re finally catching your stride, let your dark horse run
Through the fire and barbed wire
You’re a runaway train, there’s no turning back”
After the chorus, Halitosis pulled the buds from his ears. “Hey!” he said to McAvay.
“Nice tan, buddy. And it looks like you’ve healed up pretty good,” Ray observed. “How do you feel?”
“Like the song says, I’m feeling like a runaway train,” Halitosis said. “Focused on what I need to do. What’s going on out there?”
“Well, you’re missing a pretty good match, that’s what’s going on,” McAvay advised him. “Scott Stevens and Charlie Blackwell are doing their best to tear the house down out there. The fans are really into it.”
A roar suddenly exploded from the gym and sent enough energy through the building to vibrate through the walls and rattle the metal lockers causing Halitosis to raise his eyebrows.
“Well. I guess so.”
“So,” McAvay went on, “I wanted to say thank you and I really appreciate you willing to try out J.J. Bittinger for MVW and giving me your evaluation of him after you wrestle him tonight.”
Smiling, Halitosis answered back, “Hey, it’s the least that I can do to pay you back for everything you’ve done for me. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done, MVW has done, Dawn McGill, now Jackson Horne, too. I can honestly say I’m looking forward to War Games.”
McAvay cautioned him, “Just watch yourself. You’re rolling with a combustible mix of people: Max, Farthington, Scottywood, and Sektor.”
“I know,” Halitosis replied warily. “Especially Sektor.” He harked back to the brief encounter he had with John Sektor in Evansville that didn’t exactly go off as he hoped it would.
“Plus, your team is going up against a lethal den of snakes in Dane, Troy, Ryan, High Flyer, and Flair,” McAvay continued.
“I know,” Halitosis said with a little bit of irritation in his voice. He’d already had this particular conversation with Horne on several different occasions over the past week. “Trust me, I’m well aware of the threat the opposing team brought to the table. I’ve already personally experienced the sting of the Best Alliance not once but twice.”
“Okay.” Reassured, McAvay could tell from just the way Halitosis responded to his question that he had been prepped exhaustedly for the occasion by Horne. “Good. Just remember this. Keep your eyes open at all times. Be aware of your surroundings. Be ready for anything that happens. I can promise you in a War Games type of match, some crazy shit is going to happen. The trick is how to navigate you way through it,” McAvay counseled.
Halitosis knew that as well. As part of his training regimen, Horne had him watch the past five HOW War Games matches on film to analyze everything, how the matches flowed, how the winners survived to the end, and to see all the inherent surprises that can arise in that type of match environment.
“Horne’s been pretty thorough about the process,” Halitosis explained. “He pays a lot of attention to detail.
“I’m sure he does,” McAvay concurred. “I’ve also heard that he can get pretty crazy at times.”
Chuckling, Halitosis offered his take on Horne, “I think ‘certifiably insane’ would be a better description of him but actually, yes.”
The response made McAvay laugh. “Well, from my experience my friend, the best piece of advice I can give you is this: keep your cool and let the match come to you.” He paused for a couple beats and added, “Because it will, trust me.”
“Speaking from experience?” Laura piped up.
“Yep,” McAvay replied to her. “And it worked for me twice. Actually won me a War Games too.” He turned back to Halitosis. “So tell me, what’s the craziest thing Jackson Horne has done in the past week?”
“That’s easy,” Halitosis explained. “The first morning after I arrived at the Eagles Nest, Horne took us up to a place called Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort in a pickup truck. Afterwards, he made me stand up in the bed of the truck while he drove like a bat out of hell through a piece of road they call the ‘tail of the dragon.”
“Tail of the Dragon?” McAvay repeated back.
“Tail of the Dragon,” Halitosis said. “Three hundred and eighteen turns in eleven miles. Three hundred and eighteen turns trying to stand in the bed of a truck that’s being driven by possibly the worst driver in the world.”
McAvay tried to imagine doing what Halitosis tried to do. “Oooh. How’d it go?”
“Suffice to say, I didn’t make all the way through standing. He whipped that damn truck around the corner at a place called the ‘Gravity Cavity’ and that knocked me off balance. Then we hit a switchback curve near Parson’s Branch four miles in and that took me off my feet. Landed on my ass in the truck bed and slid all the way to the back tailgate. I was just happy I didn’t go flying out of the back of the truck.
McAvay couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Can I ask…why?”
“It was a test. Balance. Concentration and focus. Trusting your instincts.” Halitosis counted the three things on his fingers while responding to McAvay. “Actually, Jackson thought I did pretty well- nearly making it four miles out of the eleven before I lost my footing.”
Again, a wall of sound emanated from the gym and seeped through the walls into the dressing room. The faint sound of Blaire Moise’s voice could be heard. Blaire was working the show as an emcee with the Wrestling Guys and also handled the ring announcer duties for the night.
“I think they’re done,” Halitosis said. “Tell you what. When I’m done with War Games, we’ll do this over a beer again and I’ll explain Horne’s training methods to you in even more excruciating detail.” He stood up and began to stretch out.
“Deal,” McAvay immediately said. “I’ll talk to you soon. Good luck.” He turned and began to walk back towards the dressing room door.
Laura also stood up from the bench. She reached out and placed her hand on Halitosis’s arm. “Before you go to the ring, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Looking at his wife with a puzzled expression that said ‘oh?’ and which left him wondering ‘what?’, he braced himself and simply said, “Yeah? What is it?”
“I will but first,” she turned and faced the camera with a definite smirk on her face, “we’re going to need to say goodbye to Mr. HOW camera guy.”
An audible sigh could be heard, presumably from the disappointed HOW camera guy. The camera went up and then down before the picture disappeared.
FADE TO BLACK
Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort
Robbinsville, North Carolina
Wednesday July 31st
“We’d better get this fucking show on the road,” Jackson C. Horne said, staring at himself in the driver’s side window of his faded red and rusting along the bottom edge of the body 1995 Ford F150 regular cab and admiring his brand new black ‘Tail of the Dragon’ t-shirt with the white outline of a United States road sign with ‘Deal’s Gap 129’ inside. The shirt also had a rudimentary map showing the scriggly lines of US 129 snaking its way through the heart of the Smoky Mountains on it. “There’s a line of storms west of Interstate 75 on the other side of the mountains we’re going to run into if we don’t get moving.”
Stretching out in the grass next to the truck parked along the east edge of the parking area south of the resort, Halitosis adjusted his mask and tried to get loose. Today was the final exam. Today marked the day to find out just how much he’d learned over the past week and a half of working with Jackson. He’d flunked this test ten days ago. Today, he’d stare down the ‘Tail of the Dragon’ again.
Horne drummed four things into his head day after day after day. Balance. Concentration and focus. Trust your instincts. Attention to detail. Standing in the bed of the truck for eleven miles of twist, and sharp turns required all three in order to keep from losing his balance and falling. Or worse, losing his balance and falling out of the bed of the truck. Or even worse, losing his balance, falling out of the bed of the truck, over the edge, and down the mountain.
“All right then.” Horne marched to the driver’s side of the truck, opened the door which loosened up a few chunks of rust that fell to the asphalt below, and jumped in. He slammed the door shut which let loose another wave of rust flecks to shower the ground. “Saddle up and let’s go.”
After hopping up and down a couple times to warm his legs up, Halitosis made his way to the rear of the truck and hopped over the tailgate. “Why do I get the feeling that your name is really Patches O’Houlihan and this is your way of saying- “if you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball!”
Horne didn’t miss a beat. He slid open the rear cab window and told him, “If you want someone to throw wrenches at you, I can certainly arrange for that to happen.”
“Nah, not necessary,” Halitosis replied. “Besides, the punch in the nuts the Foul Pole gave me a few weeks back felt like a hundred steel wrenches, thank you.”
“No fucking sense of adventure,” Horne cracked back.
Halitosis returned the favor. “Nope. Especially when I get blamed for things you say.”
“Look at you,” Horne said. “Showing a bit of backbone. First you hold your own with John Sektor in Evansville and now you’re firing back at me. I guess Dan Ryan was wrong- you’re not just happy to be here, after all.” He fired up the 1995 Ford F-150 causing more chunks of rust to fall off the bottom edge of the body of the truck. “But then again, your opponents seem to have an issue with paying attention to detail- like actually getting the quotes attached to the right person. In a clusterfuck of a match like this, attention to detail is going to be important. Paying attention to detail means you’re ready for anything. Paying attention to every fucking, minute detail makes sure when the shit hits the fan during the match you’re not going to panic, you’re not going to freeze up in the moment, you’re not going to make a rash decision in the moment. Paying attention to the details mean you’ll be able to think on your feet. React and counter. Your opponents are so full of their own fucking bullshit that they think all they have to do is walk through the door and they’re going to win the match.” Horne’s voice raised and he began to go into full rant mode. “Well fuck that. Fuck their eighty-five dollar steaks. Fuck them and fuck their fucking sense of entitlement and fuck-.”
Halitosis’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Hey,” he interrupted Horne in mid-rant. “Do you realize you didn’t swear once in front of John Sektor back in Evansville?”
Horne stared back at him, not quite sure if he heard what he thought he heard. “What?”
“You didn’t swear once in front of John Sektor,” Halitosis reiterated.
Horne’s train of thought suddenly went off the rails and crashed and burned.
He was actually speechless.
“In fact, you called him MISTER Sektor,” Halitosis further pointed out, twisting the knife in even more. “What the hell was up with that?”
Finally, after an awkward and silent few seconds of stewing in the driver’s seat of his truck, Horne sputtered, “So what’s your fucking point?”
Grinning, Halitosis bent down and spoke through the rear cab window. “Nothing. Just paying attention to detail.”
For about ten seconds afterwards, Horne stewed some more.
He chuckled to himself and nodded as if to say “Okay. You got me.”
Then he floored the gas pedal on the truck.
“Oh shit,” said Halitosis as he suddenly felt the truck lurch forward and shifted his weight accordingly to keep his legs from coming out from under him.
Horne fishtailed as he veered right onto North Carolina State Route 28 and slammed on the brakes at the stop sign at the T-junction at US 129.
Halitosis caught his breath after Horne’s opening salvo. He felt the wheels spin again and the truck fishtail a bit as the truck headed right onto US 129 headed towards the Tail of the Dragon passing by the Deal’s Gap gas station, general store, and then the resort part of the complex where motorcycles were parked all over. He eyed the sign cut out to be gray dragon with ‘The Dragon’ with a second sign below with ‘Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort’ written on it and then the green road sign denoting ‘Maryville 35’ (miles away) above and ‘Knoxville 54’ below.
Horne already had the truck running forty-five miles an hour and blew by the ‘Speed Limit 30’ sign on a stretch of roadway that gently rose up along the small grade towards a sharp left hand curve. Halitosis prepared himself by placing his hands on the top of the cab of the truck and bracing himself. Horne slammed on the brakes and jerked the steering wheel hard left. At the exact same time, Halitosis focused his concentration on shifting his weight to his right foot and leg as the truck entered the curve. He gritted his teeth and focused on holding firm as Horne spun the steering wheel back and then the truck moved left and right before straightening up and continuing to climb.
“You warmed up?” Horne shouted back through the window.
“Just do it already!” Halitosis shouted back impatiently with a little misplaced bravado mixed in for good measure.
The next tight curve came and Halitosis made sure he was ready. But Horne actually slowed down and stayed in his lane instead of Dukes of Hazzarding through the curve and gave the masked luchador a momentary reprieve- or the calm before the storm. The truck came up on a worn ‘Adopt a Highway, Next 2.0 miles’ sign with a newer ‘Knox Area Roadsters’ below and attached to a sign post. Passing past a metal fence that ended at the edge of the road and the blue Tennessee, ‘The Volunteer State’ Welcomes You’ sign that marked the North Carolina-Tennessee state line- and the beginning of the Tail of the Dragon.
Okay. It probably wasn’t a wise idea to provoke Jackson like that. His driving is horrible enough. Didn’t need to give him incentive to find that extra ‘edge’ as he bobbed and weaved that rusted out truck along the twisting and turning path carved into the Smoky Mountains. The locals in North Carolina refer to the road as ‘that damn road to Tennessee.’ People say driving the Tail of the Dragon is about the driver, the pavement, and two hands white knuckling their way through the eleven miles and three hundred and eighteen turns of pure adrenalin. You don’t sight-see on this road or else you’ll find yourself missing a curve and slamming into the side of a mountain or going off the mountain’s edge. Each curve is different and they fly at you at rapid fire pace.
It’s so dangerous that trucks are no longer allowed to travel on the road.
It’s so dangerous that there’s usually a fatality or two every year on that eleven mile stretch of US 129.
Of course, standing in the bed of the truck adds an even more hazardous element. One, you’re held hostage to the driver- in this case, Jackson Horne- the worst driver ever. Two, if you get off the road even a little bit, it’s really hard to hold your balance.
Jackson felt this exercise was analogous to wrestling in a War Games match. Why, you may ask? Because of the random element. I have to read the match just like I read the road and anticipate what Jackson is going to do. I have to be ready for and anticipate surprises like when the wheels of the truck slide off into the thin gravel that could potentially start a bad chain of events. I have to stay focused on all things at all times just like I can’t switch off for one second in the event a sudden slam of the brakes…or a sudden swerve throws me off balance. Any little thing could result in a catastrophic end if I’m not ready for it. I have to think ahead. If I’m not ready for a curve, a bobble, or any sudden deviation from normal operating procedure, I’m going to be toast.
That’s why Horne preached over and over these four things: balance, concentration and focus, trust your instincts and attention to detail.
That’s why Jackson wanted me to train in the Smoky Mountains. Not to ‘hide away’ as has been claimed but to escape the oozing bullshit that’s slung around in the run-up to a major match like this. Am I aware of the little ‘slings’ and ‘arrows’ and ‘jabs’ being sent in my direction? Yes. Do I care?
You see, I don’t have to talk smack about my opponents to win this match. I don’t have to lower myself into that sewer because I’m not going to win this match with smack talk, trash talk, or any ritual putting down of my opponents. No, I’m going to win this match by doing my job and I’m going to help the eMpire team win the match. How do I do that?
Balance. Concentration and focus. Trust my instincts. Attention to detail.
That’s how I get through The Hump aka ‘The Gravity Cavity’ and Parson’s Curve at miles 3 and 4 without the issues I ran into the week before.
That’s how I survive the one Crazy Ivan maneuver Horne throws at me at the Triple Apex Corner at mile 8. For a split second, I got caught flat footed and nearly lose it but I recover just before the switchback turn and hang on.
That’s how I manage to stay on my feet at The Whip, a very sharp left hand turn at mile 10 after coming down the hill and picking up speed. I waited and waited as the curve approached and Jackson hit sixty miles an hour. I knew he’d have to take some sort of drastic action. And I was right, he nearly locked up the brakes at the sharp switchback curve and I completely locked in on shifting my weight accordingly when he made the hard left turn.
That’s the reason I’m still standing in the bed of the truck as Jackson prepares one last effort to get me off my feet. He swerves left and then right all the way down the hill. I see the Tabcat Bridge at mile 11.1. I summon every ounce of strength I have left and bear down knowing that Jackson’s throwing everything but the kitchen sink at me. Shifting weight, back and forth, totally focused on task for a quarter of an excruciating mile until…
“HOLY SHIT! YOU DID IT” Jackson exclaims from the front seat. “I DON’T FUCKING BELIEVE IT!”
It’s over. We reach the bridge.
Once we cross the bridge and begin to follow the Tennessee River…
I collapsed in the bed of the truck because there was a part of me that didn’t believe it either. Then I went back to something my wife said to me back in May before I wrestled Max Kael for the first time- ‘don’t be afraid of losing. More importantly, don’t be afraid to win. Yes, it’s a huge match. Don’t let the moment overwhelm you. Don’t let the occasion get the better of you. In fact, fuck fear. Don’t fear failure. Don’t fear success. And for God’s sake, don’t fear the moment.’
I’m not afraid of losing. And I’m sure as hell not afraid to win.
This moment will not overwhelm me. The occasion will not get the better of me.
I don’t fear failure nor do I fear success nor do I fear the ‘moment.’
I may be an underdog in this match, a true ‘dark horse’ in a match that includes some of the best wrestlers this sport has to offer, the fact of the matter is that I have just as much of a chance of walking away as the sole survivor and the HOW World Champion as anyone else in this match.
I’ve defeated three HOW hall of famers in three successive weeks.
I’ve won a tournament.
I was the first HOW World Champion of the Refueled era.
On the drive back to the Eagle’s Nest for the final time and full of adrenaline, I popped in the Aaron Watson CD, much to Jackson’s annoyance, and fast forwarded to my new HOW entrance music “Live or Die Trying.” I turned the stereo up full blast which further pissed off Jackson but I didn’t really care.
“Defying odds, I’m defying gravity
Rising above all the negativity
I’ve got a long list of things they said I couldn’t do
I didn’t know I couldn’t fly, therefore I flew
So I scratch and claw, chisel and chip
With a heart-shaped hammer and good firm grip
You get back up fighting when you fall
The worst thing you can do is do nothing at all
“Don’t wanna waste even one breath
Don’t wanna waste time being scared to death
So take that leap of faith
Go and shake your fear of flying
If you don’t believe then you won’t
So keep on losing until you don’t
You know you get just what you give so
Live or die trying…”
Earlier, I said my road to War Games was paved with persistence, perseverance, and patience. Seventeen days later on a two lane road that meandered through the Smoky Mountains, I also learned that attention to detail is the glue that holds the whole road together.
I’d conquered the Tail of the Dragon.
And now it was time to go back to Tampa and conquer War Games.