Sunday, October 21, 2012

From the turnbuckle pt. 2

Here is part II of the story I wrote about Mean Mike Miller. Also, here is an amazing video shot and produced by Rob Finch. We worked on this project about Mean Mike together.

Mean Mike Miller's Last Match from Oregonian News on Vimeo.

They came to see the mean man.

The crowd of hundreds may not have been the mob the Portland Armory drew when Portland Wrestling peaked in the 1980s, but for the Blue Collar wrestling league, last week's matches played before a packed house.

Mean Mike Miller had come out of retirement. The fans had come to relive wrestling's glory days. Remember the time you turned on your tag-team partner? they asked. And what about the cage match? The famous elbow drop?

So many people came, Miller barely had time to talk to the one fan who mattered. The one who had never seen him fight.

Yolanda Montero, 31, never watched wrestling. She didn't care for violence, scripted or otherwise. But Sunday night she stood ringside for the match: her first, her father's last.

Mean Mike Miller lost his daughter 27 years ago, just as he became a star in the Portland Wrestling Circuit. He tried off and on through the decades to look for his daughter but never found her.

Then last year Yolanda, who had been looking for her dad for years, too, found an online video of him wrestling. Her brother posted a comment -- "Anyone know how or where to find him?" That was all it took. A Portland wrestler saw it, and father and daughter reunited.

She soon moved to Portland from Florida to be with her dad. They rented an apartment together. They stayed up late talking every night.

Neither was proud of the way they spent much of their lives. Miller had remarried and had other kids. But the wrestling life was a fast-paced one -- "sex, drugs and rock and roll," he said -- and some of his kids resented him for choosing wrestling over them.

"I haven't felt this way in a long time," Miller said. "I haven't felt like a father. And she's made me feel like a father."

The talks would never replace the years, though. Thousands of Portland Wrestling fans had followed Mean Mike's career, watched him saunter to the ring as George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" rattled their seats. All Yolanda had was videos.

One morning over coffee, Miller asked his daughter, "What if you saw your daddy wrestle now?"

A week ago Sunday at North Portland's Eagles Lodge, fans clamored for Miller. They brought homemade signs and t-shirts, angled for an autograph. We thought we'd never see you wrestle again, they said.

Yolanda said, "I thought I'd never see him at all."

Her dad's fight against Psycho Sailor was the night's main event. When the bell rang, signaling the end of the third match, Miller tied a Harley Davidson bandana around Yolanda's curly hair.

He ducked into the bathroom to change into his wrestling clothes -- a black denim vest, chains and a black leather cap. He stepped out, flexed, then laughed at himself. It was his 61st birthday. His arms weren't quite the 19-inch behemoths they were when he made a name pile-driving and suplexing opponents.

He handed Yolanda his 2x4 -- named Lucille -- the one he once used against opponents. She would carry it to the ring then hold it on the sidelines.

The only time Yolanda had ever been in the spotlight was a track meet once. She wanted to throw up then, but this was worse.

She twirled the 2x4. She swatted at the air. But the board was heavier than it looked. It slipped, knocking against her new high-heel boots.

"How should I walk to the ring, Daddy?" she asked. "Should I strut?"

The bell rang again. The fourth match was over. Theirs would start soon. Mean Mike didn't want to enter the common way, so he and his daughter waited outside the lodge, in the rain, until they could crash through the front door.

The first notes of Bad to the Bone pounded the lodge. Yolanda took a sip of rum and coke to calm her nerves. Her dad waited, letting the first dozen bars play out as the crowd went crazy with anticipation.

They walked around the ring, shaking hands, hugging the fans who came to relive Portland's good ol' days. The saxophone solo that closes out "Bad to the Bone" had reached its peak before the duo ever made it halfway around the lodge.

Miller swung into the ring. Yolanda, holding Lucille and looking unsteady on the boots, stepped up to the ropes. But the spotlight no longer made her nervous.

"That's my daddy," she screamed.

Miller poked his opponent in the eyes, swung a few fists. He took a turnbuckle to the head then threw Psycho Sailor into the ropes and over his shoulders.

The match ended quickly. The mean man never hit the mat. With Sailor still dizzy from the spill, Miller grabbed Lucille from his daughter.

He clocked Sailor in the chin. The pin was quick and easy. Ringside, Yolanda did the funky chicken.

The bell rang. They hugged across the ropes. Then she stepped through, into the ring with her daddy.

-- Casey Parks

Friday, October 19, 2012

From the turnbuckle


Rob Finch and I have spent the last month or two working on a multi-part story about a former wrestling star who lost track of his baby daughter nearly three decades ago. Here's the first part. I'll post the second and Rob's amazing video in the next few days.

No one boos Mean Mike Miller anymore.

In the days when Portland Wrestling packed thousands into arenas every Saturday night, Miller was the villain everyone loved to hate. He sauntered to the ring to the tune of George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone," his shoulder-length hair waving behind him. Fans threw lit cigarettes at him. Ringside girls -- the Rosies -- cursed his name.

The fights ran in prime time every week for 38 years. The scene is Portland lore -- wrestlers became stars; kids clamored for autographs. Then, two decades ago, it ended, when the steroid-inflated soap opera of the World Wrestling Federation edged Portland's show out of the market.

Miller lost the jeers when Portland lost wrestling.

But now, after a few failed restart attempts and decades of quiet gyms, Portland wrestling is in the middle of something like a comeback. New leagues like Blue Collar Wrestling and DOA host regular matches. Rowdy Roddy Piper plans to debut an in-studio revamp of the old company this month on KPTV. Portland is ready, some say, for a return of the good, the evil, the suplexes and the pins that kids still imitate at home.

And Mike Miller? He's been out of the ring for a while, but he's back too, teaching the young generation of wrestlers how to body-slam, hip-toss and take a chair to the back of the head.

Even better, he will slip through the ropes one last time this Sunday night. And when he does, he won't be doing it for the boos -- though they once gave him the only rush that mattered. Mean Mike will do it for love.

A Tennessee boy
James Michael Hillman had 35 bucks in his pocket the day he became Mike Miller.

Like most boys who grew up in Whiteville, Tenn., he had few prospects. He never dreamed of being anything because no one he knew was anything. After high school, he drove a truck for the local factory.

In 1978, a promoter spotted him -- 6-foot-2 and barrel-chested, but otherwise physically insignificant -- and offered him a spot in a yard brawl. Back then, you didn't have to be special to wrestle. You just had to be willing.

The promoter changed his name to Mike Miller. The "Mean" came later.

He worked his way up through the Southern towns, fighting for $800 a weekend. He met a girl in New Orleans. They married. When she gave birth to an 8-pound baby girl, Yolanda, he knew he wanted to make an even better life for the family.

Back then, every little town had its own wrestling dynasty. Portland promoter Don Owen built Portland Wrestling into one of the most renowned. Superstars such as Andre the Giant, Ric Flair and Jesse "The Body" Ventura performed in front of thousands in the Portland Sports Arena.

Mike Miller didn't cuss, had never taken so much as a sip of whiskey, but the league needed more bad guys to add to a roster that included Playboy Buddy Rose and Rowdy Roddy Piper.

Miller grew his hair long, plastered a pair of black tights over his now muscular thighs and set his face into a permanent grimace.

"It was the dark side of me," he said. "I'd grown up such a Southern Baptist kid, so nice, so afraid of Hell. Now I could play it out."

Other wrestlers were faster, more athletic. Mean Mike brooded around the ring, a brute with a heavy fist. He stayed off the turnbuckle, wearing down opponents with grueling headlocks and arm twists. He painted an old 2x4 black, wrapped it in a chain and named it Lucille.

"He doesn't wrestle too scientifically," Dutch Savage said in 1982, "but he gets the work done in the ring."

Miller's career had finally taken off by 1983. But in a Centralia fight, his foot awkwardly caught an opponent's leg. The impact sounded like a tree thudding against the earth.

He couldn't wrestle, and the money dried up. Things turned. Miller's wife took Yolanda and headed back South. By the time he healed, he had lost track of his family. His wife moved on, changed her daughter's last name and never mentioned Mike Miller again.

Yolanda begged, but her mom refused to reveal her dad's stage name. "His name was James Hillman. He's a rolling stone, and he's gone," the mother said.

In the decade he wrestled in Portland, Miller busted his collarbone, broke his nose and separated his shoulder. Nightclubs held tables for him. Women went after him.

"The first time I ever seen him, I just fell in love with his hair," said Marion Martin, a fan who once stole his bloody shirt from a little girl. "They said he was mean, but with hair like that, he could do no wrong."

Miller remarried, raised a son and daughter and settled in for the good life.

The fight turns
Portland Wrestling aired its last match a week after Christmas 1991. Mean Mike rolled his opponent into a Boston Crab but lost when Ricky Martel wrapped him in a small package. Referee Sandy Barr slammed his palm against the mat. "One. Two. Three!" Miller stumbled through the Memorial Coliseum, and the crowd booed.

Some Portland stars went to the WWF. But Mean Mike didn't have the right bodybuilder, heartthrob look. He went back to driving trucks, moved logs off Mt. Hood. He worked as a bouncer and a prison guard. Finally, he went back to being nobody James Hillman and left for Tennessee.

"It was worse than a death," he said. "I didn't want to watch wrestling. Even if the TV was on, and wrestling was on, I cut it off, it hurt so bad."

But the WWF, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment, just kept growing. About 850,000 people bought Wrestlemania, its biggest event, on pay-per-view this year.

That hasn't been lost on local promoters. So last year, they launched an effort to rekindle Portland's famed wrestling spirit here. Blue Collar Wrestling began holding matches at the North Lombard Eagles Lodge.

The Blue Collar Wrestlers work the West Coast to take home a few hundred bucks a weekend. But the young fighters were reared on WWF wrestling -- off-the-rope acrobatics with little attention to story, said Blue Collar Wrestling co-owner Tex Thompson. They needed to work out storylines. They needed better choreography. They needed Mike Miller.

James Hillman returned to Portland in 2011. And as one of the Blue Collar wrestlers trolled YouTube for old fighting videos of his new mentor, he noticed a comment.

"Does anyone know how or where to find (Miller)," it read. "I have some important news to tell him about his daughter he had back in '81."

That was all it took. They found each other, and Yolanda Montero and her wrestler dad talked every night for three hours. She had lived in New Orleans until she was 20. Nothing in her life ever seemed to work out quite right. She made regular trips to the library, searching the Internet for her father.

Two months ago she came to Oregon, where she and her dad now share a Gresham apartment. In the videos Miller shows her of his heyday, she can see for herself the way the crowds loved to hate him.

"But I do get mad," she said. "Everybody's telling me what he did. All the wrestlers here have stories about seeing him. And I just wish I could have been there."

A month ago, over their morning coffee, Miller asked his daughter, "What if you saw your daddy wrestle now?"

Miller still wears all black, but he keeps his hair cropped close now. His notoriously long frame is hunched slightly. A walk that once looked broody now looks like taking it easy. But he has no trouble getting in and out of the ring.

He began planning the story for his last fight a month ago. The nighttime security job he works wouldn't let him off one Sunday night, so he missed that night's matches. Psycho Sailor -- a bad guy whose raspy bark sounds like Popeye -- took the absence as a chance to mock the old man. He played "Bad to the Bone" and marched around, declaring himself meaner than Miller.

Last Sunday, Miller refereed Sailor's match. The Eagles Lodge draws crowds of about 40 now, but the place felt packed. Mean Mike emerged, and the opening guitar chords of "Bad to the Bone" shook the lodge. He handed Lucille to an old lady and started Sailor's fight.

Back and forth, Psycho Sailor and his opponents bloodied each other, while Miller kept an eye on them. Sailor bent a baking sheet over Cowboy Tex Thompson's head. Miller rushed in to keep the peace. Fans raced around the ring to stay with the action.

One of Sailor's minions stole Lucille from the old lady and rushed Miller with a menacing yowl. Sailor grabbed Miller and pinned his arms back.

Miller looked ready to take a face shot like in the '80s. But he ducked, yanked back Lucille and ran Sailor and his minions off like a pack of raccoons.

"Get on now," he hollered. "You want some of this? I'll see you in the ring next Sunday."

The whole charade took maybe 10 minutes. No one booed. The cheers, in fact, were deafening.

-- Casey Parks

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Postcards from tiny islands

Boys catch praying mantises.

My brother once harbored a turtle. I hid frogs in the bra I didn't yet need. All we wanted for Christmas was a hermit crab. These days, I see a bug, and I run.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Between the click of the light and the start of a dream

Portsmouth Shell Station

I believe newspapers should introduce you to the people you might refuse to see -- either by accident, choice or habit. In Oregon, attendants pump your gas for you. I usually use that time to sneak a few pages of a book, text a friend or scribble something in a notebook. Thank god I have a job that allowed me to stop and meet the workers instead.

Here's a story I wrote that ran last week:

Gas across the street is 19 cents cheaper. But Donald Bateman and Tom Machen have built up a loyal following in the 12 years they’ve worked the pumps at the Shell Station in North Portland.

Together, they earn less than $20 an hour. They don’t get free gas. They don’t accrue vacation. They just believe the gas station at North Lombard Street and North Portsmouth Avenue fills an important spot in a community.

Even the most modern, on-the-go lives must stop, refuel. When Machen and Bateman talk about a decade of pumping gas, they don’t talk about making cars go. They talk about the moments in-between, when life pauses and offers a chance to connect.

They’re taciturn, the kind of guys you’d take for rough-necks as they filled your tank if you just sat there eating an apple and texting, as one woman did. But roll that window down further, longer, and you’ll meet men as sensitive and fervent as they are wisecracking.

In the breakroom, a sign hangs over the pot of Folgers that Bateman brewed when he unlocked the station at 5:45 a.m. that reads: “Even your most loyal customers have a choice about where to take their business.” It’s his guiding principle, Bateman says.

One September morning, a little old lady driving a mid-80s Chevrolet Celebrity pulled in. Machen slipped on his gloves — pumping gives him calluses — as Bateman went to meet her.

“This gal’s gonna be a fill V-power (premium gas) cash,” Machen said. And sure enough, she was.

The lady comes by once a week, always in the morning. Before he died, her husband told her that’s when you get the best deal, she said.

The surrounding two-mile stretch of Lombard has five stations. About 17,000 cars hit that pavement at 35 miles per hour or more every day, according to state records. Machen and Bateman distinguish themselves with what they call “person-to-person contact.” They remember names and fueling preferences. They wash every window. They celebrate birthdays.

Few drivers tip, though sometimes the pumpers take home about seven bucks a day. At Christmas Eve, they take home nearly $50.

When they talk about the station now, they sound like men talking about a noble cause. But neither dreamed of this life.

Machen, 49, was newly divorced with a child support payment due when he started in 2000. The station was a Texaco then, and when Machen asked about the help wanted sign in the window, the manager put him to work right away. Three days later, she had a car accident, and he became the supervisor. He hired Bateman, now 42, two years later. That job had three finalists, and he chose Bateman because he had driven from Carlton for the interview. Anyone willing to drive an hour for an interview to pump gas would be a loyal, hard worker, he figured.

They hit it off, and as the decade passed, they began to spend more time together. Machen comes to work an hour early just to talk the pre-dawn quiet away. On the Saturdays when Bateman isn’t out of town for a bowling tournament and Machen isn’t away at a wrestling match, they meet in the breakroom for a cup of Folgers.

“He’s the only person I really get along with,” Machen said. “Him and my tag-team wrestling partner.”

Out at the pumps, Machen looks like he’d get along with anybody. He trades school pictures of his daughter for snapshots of customers’ kids. He once got in trouble for dancing between the aisles. He smiles through a thick goatee when he talks about The Joker, a 40-something man who used to bring them donuts when he pulled in for his daily $7 top-off.

But the pumpers grow quiet remembering the day another customer — Grandpa — stopped bringing his Buick LeSabre in for his twice-a-week fill.

Grandpa’s daughter showed a week later with news that a semi-truck crashed into the LeSabre as Grandpa tried to make a left on North Columbia Boulevard. Grandpa did not survive.

“It’s tough,” Bateman said. “You get to know the regulars. Then one day, they just don’t show up.”

“After Grandpa, I didn’t even want to get to know customers for a while,” Machen added. “It’s just too hard to lose them.”

The Shell keeps a reader board up for community announcements. They memorialized Grandpa, and other regulars, there. Every few days, drivers see a new rest in peace, happy birthday or dinner special announcement. Once, a man proposed to his wife on the sign. A family welcomed home an Iraq veteran there, too.

But plenty of people ignore the board and ignore the pumpers. While Machen washes their windows, some avoid contact. Others push cash through only a barely cracked window.

Machen jokes that if he ever writes a book, he’ll call it “STUPID PEOPLE: It’s just common sense.”

Over that first cup of Folgers, sometimes the pumpers shake their heads talking about the guy who urinated in the car wash or the truck drivers who use the parking lot as a u-turn hub. Customers want to pump their own gas. They complain about the price.

Machen has an answer for that.

“‘I don’t make it,’ I tell them,” Machen said. “ ‘I just pump it,’¤”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life is Elsewhere

Coming soon to a tiny, computer theater near you: A short goodbye, Katie moving through the fields and into whatever life is out there.

Fox's last stand

Fox's last stand

Sunday, October 7, 2012

as if the syllables were made out of tin

Picture day

Sometimes I work off my own whims. Like last week, I saw it was picture day at one of the schools in the area I cover. I stopped in, took some pictures and wrote up this little dispatch.

Ms. Bussey doesn’t want to see any bad pictures. The Rosa Parks Elementary School kindergarten teacher spent picture day buttoning top buttons, fixing collars and wiping lint off 5-year-olds' shirts.

As Brennan Bachelor prepared to memorialize his first year of school with a prominent smear of chocolate above his lip, Daphne Bussey rushed into the frame.

“Just give me a little spit,” she said, holding up the cuff of his shirt. “Come on, just lick your shirt, let’s get that off there.”

One picture, just 10 seconds in front of a pre-positioned camera, can last a lifetime. You could have picked fights, drawn pictures, eaten mud or captured a turtle, but that one picture will tell the story of the whole school year.

Ms. Bussey urged the kids to make that moment a good one. “Show teeth, baby,” she said. “Oh, yeah, dimples, we love to see those.”

Read the rest on Oregonlive.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The barlife strays along your street

More from Needful Things

Add change, 2012

l: Casey Parks; r: Amanda Allen

Who shook the Valley of the Shadow

BCW Wrestling

BCW Wrestling

Wrestling was never about the fights, though, yes, I flying suplexed my brother any time I could climb on to the couch without anyone noticing. Wrestling was Macho Man Randy Savage's wedding in the ring. It was Sting going bad, Lex Luger going good. It was Cactus Jack gone missing and proof that, yes, life was really all good and evil. At 8 or 9 or even 12, I did not believe in a subtle in between. God didn't teach that and neither did wrestling.

When the pay-per-view fights rolled around, our lack of subscription didn't stop me. Sure, I longed for the kind of money that would make the screen come to life. What's $39.99 to a kid?

But my parents couldn't afford to rent The Royal Rumble, so my little brother and I crawled close as we could to the TV, laid flat with our ears flush against the speakers. The screen snowed white, but I could see the whole story in my head.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

I am shy, but you can reach me

Spent the weekend at the beach with C, watching the last light fade off summer.

Get away

Casey on the beach

Look for me another day.
I feel that I could change,
I feel that I could change.
There's a sudden joy that's like
a fish, a moving light;
I thought I saw it
-- Innocence Mission, "Lakes of Canada"