I’d like to say I saw the train wreck that was in my immediate future as I exited my mother’s station wagon at the curb of Wilson’s house, but I did not. I was too blinded by the excitement of validation, by the promise of being accepted into a friend group, by becoming cool and popular.
Of course, the whole thing couldn’t have gone worse. From the moment I stepped into the backyard, I realized Fred and Wilson didn’t intend for me to be a marquis member of the JWO, but a target for their jokes and a tackling dummy for their flying clotheslines and sleeper holds. They saw me round the house into the backyard wearing my thrift store fedora and black suspenders and immediately doubled over with stitches of laughter.
“Here he is, ladies and gentlemen,” Fred yelled in an announcer voice between giggles. “Skankin’ Sam!”
If you’ve ever watched an episode of pro wrestling, you know the majority of matches feature one wrestler you’ve heard of going against another guy as faceless as the Storm Troopers that got blown up on the Death Star. It’d be something like The Undertaker or The Rock fighting some nondescript dude named Sean Barber wearing a Speedo.
I realized I was to be that nondescript dude, my body sacrificed to the whims of the JWO’s writing team.
There was no wrestling ring, of course, just a patch of grass behind Wilson’s patio. Before we started the first match, I helped Fred and Wilson carry a bunch of random shit from the basement that could be used as weapons: a metal folding chair, a mop and bucket, a six-foot ladder.
The bouts themselves were a mix of improvisation and choreography. Steel wrestled Crackhead Bill first to show me how things worked, and then I was to battle Mr. Saturday Night himself.
I was given no real direction except that I was supposed to lose.
I tried to put up a fight as best as I could, my mind racing to recall the step-by-step directions I’d memorized from the internet, but it didn’t really matter. Every time I’d do more than stomp my foot and pretend to deliver a haymaker to Wilson’s face, he’d stop and give me instructions.
“Okay, now I’m going to swing from this tree branch and kick you in the chest,” Wilson would say.
“Okay, now I’m going to pull your suspenders and flip you over my shoulder.
“Okay, now I’m going to give you a pile driver.”
I let him do it all, getting thrown around the backyard like a rag doll, until the very end of the match when Wilson reached down and picked up an acoustic guitar.
“Okay,” Wilson said, gripping the neck like a baseball bat. “Now I’m going to break this guitar over your head.”
I threw up my hands. “I think I’m good,” I said. “I don’t want to get hit with a guitar.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt.”
I could feel Fred and Bill leaning in, eager to have me relent. I always felt like those After School Specials on TV were bullshit; the ones where the poorly-lit teenagers pressured the kid trying to fit in to drink a beer or tie a balloon around his arm for a hit of smack. But here I was, face to face with the largest social decision of my young life: did I take an acoustic guitar to the skull and cement my place as a JWO superstar, or would I back down and risk wasting all of those hours covertly studying South Park episodes and ICP lyrics?
“You guys have done this before?” I asked.
Fred and Wilson looked sideways at each other.
“We only have one guitar is the thing,” Fred said.
“I read about how to do it on the internet,” Wilson offered. “It’s not hard.”
Oh, great. So Wilson learned how to break a guitar over someone’s head the same way I learned how to do the Brett Hart’s Sharpshooter.
I don’t know exactly how lucid thoughts bubble their way to the surface of a murky teenage brain, but the absurdity of the whole scene became clear all at once.
You know what? I thought. Fuck this. This isn’t what friendship is about. I shouldn’t have to watch shit I didn’t want to watch or listen to music that sounded like garbage or have my delicate limbs dislocated in a figure-four leg lock. Trying to make these guys like me was making me more miserable than if I was eating alone in the cafeteria. Even my underdeveloped teenage mind knew this was an investment of diminishing returns, that they only kept me around to be the whipping boy.
When I told them no, they all kind of looked at each other and shrugged. “Fred,” Wilson said, turning the guitar toward him. “You want to try?”
Fred started to do his own mental calculus about whether his dome could withstand the force of high-velocity mahogany. “Let’s save it for the championship match,” he said.
I left Wilson’s that day bruised and filthy. My mom had several questions about the state of my grass-stained clothing, which I ducked with some bullshit excuse about riding BMX bikes.
I sat with the JWO at lunch for the next couple of weeks and endured being the butt of their jokes. They kept trying to invite me for another match, but I always came up with a reason to stay away.
The JWO unceremoniously folded not long after. I wish the reason for disbandment was something cool, like a gruesome injury that came as the result of Fred launching himself from a six-foot ladder. But I think they all just got kind of bored with it and moved onto other things.
I too moved on, spending more time with a guy named Matt who taught me how to play Foo Fighters songs on my guitar and showed me that if you synced Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon just right with The Wizard of Oz, you’d find a bunch of weird, hidden messages.
I moved on the way all friends move on, finding another useless hobby to fill my thoughts when school got boring. Friends came and went, dumb wardrobe phases and interests ebbed and flowed, and I always ended up okay in the end.
So when I see a kid at school wishing for it to all be over, for the tunnel to carry them into the brightness of the good part, I can’t help but understand. Because I, too, was once lost in the land of the Juggalos.