MeetingBretHart

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Writing started on Friday 17 Oct 08

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The Hitman

Bret "the Hitman" Hart is a former professional wrestler, Canadian-born, made famous in the United States with the World Wrestling Federation (since rebranded World Wrestling entertainment due to trademark infringement) throughout the late 80s and 90s, and loved all over the world - particularly in the UK, Germany and India. He is known for being the 8th of 12 children, all sons having wrestled at one time and all daughters marrying wrestlers; for being a good, solid technical wrestler who stands for good in an entertainment industry overrun with supervillain characters; for his long black wavy wet hair; and most uniquely he is known for his pink and black ring attire.

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He has been a role model for me throughout my childhood because of his professional achievement, his good human values, his voice that commands credibility and his good looks.

He retired from wrestling in 2000 due to a concussion and has since never regularly featured on any television programming. However, he was never far away from the media due to writing a weekly newspaper column, a disproportionate number of tragedies in his famous family and among his peers (including himself suffering a stroke in a bicycle accident), being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, releasing an anthology of his wrestling career on DVD, and finally an autobiography. The biography is the subject of this article.

Tour

On October 6th I was just doing some arbitrary internet surfing and looked at the 'Bret Hart RSS news feed' in my Google Reader.

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There was a news article that mentioned his book signing tour dates.

http://www.pwmania.com/newsarticle.php?page=225325653

Prior to that, I had thought 'one thing I want to do before I die in life is meet my childhood hero Bret Hart. I guess one day I'll go up to his house in Calgary'. I had no idea how that would come about and thought this book signing tour was as good a time as any to meet him. Besides, wrestler's lives are tragically taken when you least expect and this was one wrestler who I simply couldn't afford to be wrong about with such predictions.

I searched for locations ending in ', CA' and didn't recognize any of them. For some reason small towns had been chosen. Next stop, Google maps. Destination Torrance, CA. No good - I learnt that that's in Orange County in Southern California while I live in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California. I've never regretted living here but this was one occasion my paradise failed to provide me with the material wealth I craved. There was one other California location (not consecutively scheduled reflecting the travel horror that wrestlers spend a lifetime resigned to). 'Roseville, CA' - if this was not in Northern California then my dream would have been instantly shattered before I could start imagining anything. As the results map loaded, I was relieved to see the familiar shape of Northern California. But it was on the far side of Sacramento and would be a challenge going there on a weekday. I estimated that it was about a 3 hour drive. After thinking for a moment, I concluded '3 hours by car to meet the most important person in your life outside your family? One day in the future when you've spent hundreds of dollars of air travel to a temporary location where your paths may cross again, you'll regret not taking this chance. Cutting work early is a small price to pay'.

To go or not to go?

In the days that followed, I went from deciding to definitely go there thinking this was perfect being 7 days after my birthday (and hastily posting an Orkut community thread asking fans to write messages which I could present to Bret - I wanted to give him something unique so he wouldn't instantly forget me), to definitely not to go because of a Stanford Real Estate evening class that was the same evening (and skipping an expensive class especially from a short course is not something a responsible young adult like me does - I never cut classes as a student at school) and deleting that Orkut community thread which thankfully I had moderator privileges to do, to realizing I had mixed the dates up and that Thursday October 16th was free afterall. But I learnt not to put my foot in my mouth in the excitement of the moment.

Being the organized person as I am, I tried to accumulate a checklist of things to take with me in the 10 days that followed. I only ever found two things - the book which I wanted signed, and a printout of the Google map. I've never taken to GPS like the forward thinking techies of Silicon Valley or urban youngsters and found my recent experience with it frustrating.

The book was newly released in the US that fall. It had been released in Canada a year earlier but was delayed in the US because hundreds of pages required editing. Though I didn't know at the time of purchase from Amazon.ca that it would be that long, even a month would have been too long to wait for me to enrich myself with more information about the Calgary born star. I wanted his book as soon as I could. Besides, wrestler biographies have made for captivating personal reading - more than any other fiction or non fiction.

So I needed to make printouts of the maps at various scales, such as the following:

http://snipurl.com/4okyw [maps_google_com]

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Next Stop, Roseville...Eventually

On Thursday October 16th 2008, I saw it was 4pm at work and turned off my computer and cleaned up the daily clutter that accumulates at my desk. Then I realized I forgot to print those maps. Not getting enough map information has proven very costly in the past, including losing a friend after arriving late to her birthday dinner. I turned my computer on again, printed the maps and took off at 4:10pm, being careful not to give any signs to my manager that I was leaving early as I walked past her office several times to pick up my printouts.

I expected to run into traffic at some point, hence budgeting 3 hours for what Google said would be a 2 hour 25 minute journey. I hit it as I arrived on the East Bay from San Mateo bridge. I was expecting it to subside as I passed Hayward, but it never did until I had passed Dublin, Pleasanton, Livermore and Tracy. I was beginning to regret taking the alternate route to what Google had suggested. I felt the shorter route through downtown San Francisco would hold me up very badly until at least the Bay Bridge, and at the time it seemed like a good idea to get out of the Bay Area if nothing else within an hour.

I was worried that the whole signing, due to start at 7pm would start an finish before I arrived as if nothing had ever happened, as I've been unfortunate to experience with other eagerly anticipated niche events. This would have been especially threatening if the crowd had been small. Bret retired over 8 years earlier and his name was almost booed on a recent WWE Raw show when career arch-rival Shawn Michaels recited Bret's 'Best There is, Best there was, and Best there ever will be' slogan. So I wasn't optimistic he'd be missed by many people the way I miss him. When I started watching downloaded wrestling videos again back in 2005 after finishing college and finally getting my own computer, I was reminded how lost I felt without this idol's presence in my life. His words and manner of speech, and even his punches gave me confidence to securely and reassuredly navigate myself through the conflicts of teen life and school filled with unpleasant characters.

I tried to exercise the calmness that numerous self help books, audio CDs and meditation workshops I had tried to learn from had encouraged. I had to accept that there really was nothing I could do about the traffic. I could accept bad fate peacefully or tense myself to a rock and still get nothing. To a large extent I retained my compusure.

But when I got onto route 99 (just over half way distance-wise), it must have been about 6:30pm as it turned pitch black and I was an hour behind schedule. I felt it was time to take things into my own hands for the first time since stepping into the car that afternoon. I uncharacteristically shot my Chevrolet Cavalier up to 85 miles per hour, 20 above the American speed limit. Normally even when I accidentally creep over the speed limit there is plenty of other offending traffic to outdo me. But this time I was the uncivilized raging maniac risking his livelihood which, had family found out, would have found disappointing and frightening. I sped past several signs hoping those 'radar enforced' speed limit signs were bluffing as I've come to believe, and hoping that those cops would not come in search of me having never pulled up traffic that normally flies past me (making me feel like a bad motorist holding them up for staying under the limit). I was even trying to resign myself to getting a ticket in the mail within the days that followed (I haven't got one yet as of Sunday October 19th) and my 18 month period after my previous traffic violation was not completed, so I risked points on my license (which at the time I had forgotten about).

After passing Sacramento when it was 7:10pm and Bret was in the store signing autographs, I was beginning to feel better but continued my rebellious driving. Now I had the added danger of trying to read the maps as I tried to locate the freeway exit I needed. Thankfully the final strait from Sacramento to Roseville seemed to fly by as if I had been going down local freeway 101 to a nearby favorite restaurant.

I exited onto Douglas Boulevard hoping I was going in the right direction and seemed to go for an eternity as plazas came and went with no Borders logo. Several miles in, after about 4 plazas, I found that red and white Borders logo with some relief and now my emotions began coming to life. This was D-Day. As Good Ol' JR (wrestling announcer Jim Ross) would say, 'business is about to pick up'.

Borders

I pulled into one of the near parking slots in front of the large Borders store thinking 'Bret either is or isn't inside this building. My dream could be made or shattered with just a few more steps'. It must have been about 7:30pm, which considering all the horrible freeway traffic I encountered, was decent timing.

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I was tempted to just jump out of the car without gathering my vital equipment and begin my hunt for the crowd, but knew that once I went inside it would be almost impossible to drag myself out for fear of missing out on a few moments of magic. I patiently but untidily threw my digital camera, book, pen and anything else that I might need in my backpack and got out of my car, trying not to set myself up for disappointment thinking 'what if he's not there? Don't feel bad'. I was tempted to run across the parking lot road that ran in front of the store but remembered that a single moment of such impulse could have been fatal. Nothing, not even an emotional lifetime reward like this, was more precious than life itself.

After looking at a small poster on the glass door advertising Bret's appearance (which further calmed my fears), I went inside the familiar setting of Borders bookstore. I go either there or its national competitor Barnes and Noble almost every weekend. I enjoy the quiet, luxurious, spacious, well-lit atmosphere where I can sit down and read something intellectually stimulating in homely comfort. But this time I didn't look at any shelves. I just used my primitive senses to guide me to a hub of bustling human activity - though I had no idea what form that activity would take.

After a few blocks walking to the center of the big store, I saw a small crowd directly in front of me. While I had a big agenda, the first dream to fulfil was simply to see with my own eyes the real life human regardless of any talking, listening, signing or photo taking. Even if I got nothing else or lost it all, my pictorial memory was one thing that could never be taken away from me.

I looked for the trademark long black hair that defined him as much as his pink ring attire during his career. But all I could see in the distance was someone old sitting down at a table as I continued to walk closer. I assumed he was some kind of event co-ordinator. As I reached about 20 feet from the table at the back of the store, I realized that that old man was, in fact, Bret Hart himself! He was devoid of his black hair, which now I remembered had been replaced by caramel brown hair as I recall from his last major television appearance in 2006 at the WWE Hall of Fame. But he still had his golden tanned skin and good looks. He was surely the most handsome 51 year old I'd ever seen. Though it's never been well-documented, I think part of his worldwide popularity was due to his good looks.

There were 30-50 people. Not a huge line by celebrity standards but enough to give me plenty of time to formulate my plan to get the most out of this event.

I checked whether the lady taking photos in front of the table was designated employee or a customer with only personal motives. Thankfully it was a designated Borders employee to assist with photo taking, so I was relieved not to have to ask Bret to look at my mini-tripod mounted camera and wait for the auto-timer shot as I usually do when taking photos. This was something I just hated doing. I avoid asking favors of anyone if at all I can help it. But actually I would have been too embarrassed to use the tripod and would have resorted to asking another fan to take the photo for me.

Without getting in line, I took some photos of Bret still paranoid that he would disappear while my back was turned.

With those archived away, it was time for a hindering but necessary restroom break. Then I went and stood in a line of for a few moments. Then I thought I have enough time to see if Borders sells cards. I wanted to give Bret a card since that was a more reliable way to communicate how special he was in my eyes than 10 seconds of words while I was in greeting him. In the 10 previous days I hadn't had much time to subconsciously rehearse what I wanted to say to him but for 2 sentences.

I was in no rush to get to the front of the line. In fact, the longer I got to be in the area around Bret the better for me. I exited the line and went to the nearby card section. It seemed like they didn't sell simple thank you cards and until I finally got to the opposite end of the block of shelves which I looked up and down more than once, I was thinking of finding a substitute which gave some profound wisdom quote. Unlike people of my demographic (a software engineering with South Asian ethnic origin), I doubt wrestlers are exposed to such quotes to the point they seem corny (I get a lot of those from friends & family by e-mail).

I found a thank you card, and bought two, without looking at the price.

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One of those cards was purchased to make a duplicate of the card I would give to Bret so I could keep a record of what exactly I said to him. Now I remembered that I had forgotten to add to my checklist days earlier "write a thank you card and photocopy it". So having payed for it at the front of the store, I now had the challenge of writing the card and making a copy of it while in line. In the end, I didn't have the time to make a copy of it. But I did write several heartfelt comments in the original and shuffled forward with my bag dragging along the floor and me kneeling on the floor. A minute after sealing the envelope and writing with my ballpoint pen 'To My Hero', I thought it might be beneficial (for me) to include a photo print (on reused letter paper) that I intended to show to a hairdresser to cut my hair similarly to. My hope was simply to distinguish myself from the other hundreds Bret would meet in his 13 day tour. Also in my file I kept a photocopy of my driver's license which so far I'd found useful as ID when writing checks because I'd left my wallet at home. I figured enclosing the license with the card would give him my address, and who knows - he just might even write back to me. So I carefully tore open the envelope back open, neatly cut the two paper items with my utility knife (yes, I even keep one of those in my bag) and used the 2nd card's envelope to seal what I would give to him.

While I'd been frantically preparing that card I observed the fan behind me waiting to meet Bret. It was a little girl with a Bret Hart magazine, which I suddenly remembered I thankfully had too somewhere hidden away in my home. That girl surely didn't know much about Bret, she was only about 7 years old. Now I realized that I must have been one of the more die hard Bret Hart fans in this crowd.

I had a moment to relax and by now there were 2-3 parties in front of me, and an intimidating-looking security guard. I asked what his role was (in a very incoherent way), worried of being an annoyance to Bret, and trying to learn and obey any rules he was trying to enforce. He didn't have any such enforcement duties, at least not which he told me. And since I'd asked him a somewhat bizarre question, I made an effort to restore some credibility in myself by asking 'how did you get Bret Hart to come here?'. He shrugged, without much appreciation of the coup that this was 'right place right time'. It was obvious he didn't know much about the stature of this guest or the honor of the occasion that I wanted to share in.

I also talked to another Borders employee saying that my book was not from Borders, so I hadn't avoided paying as was necessary before getting it signed. Then as a bragging opportunity I told her how mine was the CANADIAN version purchased from Amazon, and that I couldn't wait a year for this book to arrive in the US to read it. Again I was emphasizing the specialness of the occasion to me.

With only 1 guest in front of me, I started to get nervous hoping I carried out my plan without a hitch and wouldn't cause any unfriendly interaction which would have haunted me for a long time. Then I thought, 'perfect way to break the ice - tell him you feel nervous and we can laugh together!'.

Face to Face

That was what I said after the camera lady had taken my camera and I had made the final steps to the legend. He looked vaguely in my direction as I carried my book and card. I handed over my book and watched him open it up to find a suitable page to sign. He was very friendly and quietly spoken, and at the time I was surprised despite that being one of his endearing traits. I had read things in other wrestlers' biographies saying that he was rather cold and distant with his peers. I've only once seen him smile in his career - and it didn't look natural on him. A smile is an easy and powerful way to get people to like you (and a weapon I have recently learnt to use on the many occasions I need to interact with strangers; for most of my life I copied Bret - he never smiled so neither did I), and he never needed that throughout his career. That shows how good he was in every other way.

Maybe he wasn't warm and friendly to peers, but he has probably always appreciated his fans and treated them well.

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While he was doing this, I suddenly realized I hadn't written anything on the envelope of the card. My pen was too far away to retrieve without causing an embarrassing disruption. Thankfully there were two extra Sharpie black markers in a transparent glass, so without asking for permission (I'm secure enough now to do such small things) I scooped one of the pens out and wrote 'To My Hero' again. Before I had finished writing, he had finished signing and looked at my pen briefly, without making any issue of the split-second hold up. I don't think he read what I'd written on the envelope at this point.

He extended his big, healthy, soft, tanned hand with his sharpie pen still in it, before I was ready to pose for the photo. But the star has the final word, particularly this star. So I reciporicated and we posed for the camera. I tried to give my usual smile being careful not to overdo it or to squeeze my eyes (I usually wear glasses, but not today).

Then as he was about to prepare himself for the next fan, I said 'this is for you' handing the card over. He said 'Great, I can't wait to read it'. While I doubt he was being any more sincere than any star trying to respond to an anonymous fan, those words meant so much to me. It was comforting to know that he will actually see what's inside it - hopefully in his hotel room before he goes to the next town.

With my encounter surely into overtime by now, one last important thing remained. I looked down at him and said 'would it be okay if a twenty four........twenty six year old guy gives you a hug?' (I wanted to make sure I didn't get on his bad side by taking too many liberties; as for the age - yes I've gotten to that age where I've lost count). Without any judgment or surprise, he said 'Sure'. So I bent over and wrapped both arms around his large shoulders and pressed my temple against the clean warm skin of his temple and as the lady with my camera said 'Awwwwwwww' (which, by the way, I felt was a useful little vindication of my over-the-top behavior that evening), I could feel my lip and eyelids tightening as if I was about to cry. The warmth that I felt when I hugged him was so emotional and I felt a real humanness to him. The closest thing I can compare it to is to physical contact my old brother - I used to play fight with him on our parents' double bed when we were younger, trying to imitate wrestlers like Bret Hart (once he put this really painful and unescapable hold on me that no wrestler has used to this day as far as I know, but since it somewhat resembled Bret's finishing maneuver he humorously dubbed it the 'double sharpshooter'). It was a good, firm, decent length hug which I will cherish as long as I live. I was like a kid going to Disney World for the first time, seeing and hugging the real Mickey Mouse.

I suddenly remembered some footage from a wrestling house show back in 1996 when a little girl was crying saying 'thank you, Bret' after being presented with Bret Hart's famous pink sunglasses (I wish they still sold these - I used to have one many years ago). At the time I thought 'that silly girl shouldn't be crying', but now I was playing those same words and manner in my head.

As I released my grip on him, and moistened my lip after the mild tension I said 'take good care of yourself'. This was something I had planned to say as I genuinely am worried that he will remain healthy for many more years. I think he interpretted it as the colloquial goodbye saying 'you take care of yourself too'. In one way it was not what I wanted to hear, but at the same time his nice words to me were nevertheless welcome. I got a bonus handshake before I left the table smiling as much as I could to please him, and thank him for giving me the most treasured moment of my life.

As I walked away from the table, I felt myself about to cry again. But I was too tense and beaming with joy for those emotions to be flushed out of my system (which tears are meant for).

That was it, and I was happy with how the encounter went. Well, almost it. There was still the small matter of seeing how the photo came out once I had retrieved my camera (had I not taken the weeks to write this article, the photo would be the only vivid record of the whole experience). Judge for yourselves.

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It certainly was an acceptable photo, and would be a very proud addition to my album. Though if I was being perfectionist I think I shouldn't have smiled too much. I came out dark. That aside, the first thing that came into my mind was 'this is like a clone of me'. Bret Hart has been key to my behavioral development and seeing our two faces side by side felt like I had met my maker. After turning the camera off, I gripped it with both hands on the sides symbolizing how this was mine, and mine forever.

I opened up my book for the first time and saw his autograph. I was glad he took the pain to give a full signature just like the one I've seen on a Bret Hart poster I bought back in 1993. Many celebrities just mark fans' shirts or magazines with a short zig-zag line (I'm thinking of Guus Hiddink, a famous dutch soccer coach, who I once saw doing this in a stadium back in London).

Bonus photos

There weren't many people remaining in line so I stayed throughout taking more photos. As I was shooting some video, the final person - a 2nd generation Nigerian - had camera phone problems. Bret showed no signs of impatience. After a moment of just standing there, I jumped in offering to use my camera and emailing it to him (it felt a bit strange saying the word 'e-mail' in front of Bret though I reminded myself that he is a human too who can use a computer!). This was driven by my desire to help others which has been as much a part of me as Bret Hart. Then as the lady took a picture I realized that it also gave me some bonus pictures of my idol. Another gentleman whose disposable camera's (in 2008?!) flash had failed him, was bailed out by my Canon Powershot A620. As Bret wrapped up, the lady thanked me for my help which didn't feel like any favor at all. In fact it was a privilege to help someone capture a permanent memory of Bret Hart.

As the two gentlemen came out of line I was eager to give them my contact details since they were at my mercy and it was not a position of power I wanted to toy with. As I was negotiating my complex plan to send their photos and searching for my business cards (the Nigerian said he didn't use e-mail!), Bret started walking down the small aisle with his party of Borders employees. I interrupted myself and shot some final footage of the Hitman, surely the last meaningful video I'll ever see of this man privately or on TV. As the door closed I shouted 'thank you' and waved, trying to erase any possible memory of being a stalker.

After some complex planning with the two men in an unenviable position of not holding their own photos in their possession, I handed the camera over to the Nigerian youngster saying 'Have as long a look at this as you want'. If it meant, anything as much to him as it did to me, he'd have appreciated those 20 seconds holding my camera walking to the front of the store. I tried to make conversation (the other middle-aged man was a local wrestler called 'the Reaper', surely inspired by the timeless legend 'The Undertaker') with both of them and find out whether they were die hard Bret Hart fans as much as me. In the end, I doubt it.

As I finally got in my car and sat down, I grabbed the spare card and tried to write down everything I could remember writing in the original, as well as the dialog with him on the back. I was able to recall most of it. Having done that, and pulling away back onto Douglas Boulevard I checked one final time that I had my $200 camera which at this point was worth thousands of dollars to me. I couldn't find it and stopped and panicked for a short while thinking the Nigerian fan had walked off with it. My front seat was a mess and thankfully I found it soon after (when I got home I thought I'd accidentally deleted all the photos and realized I'd lost EVERYTHING with no backup - those transfer moments are the most vulnerable it seems).

Mission Accomplished.

In the hour that followed as I was driving I reflected on what this meant to me without any music distraction or talking on the phone. I felt like I had just met God. The bible says do not worship idols but with all due respect, Bret Hart has sacrificed his mind and body for decades for my thrill while some imaginary humanoid in the clouds has done squat.

As I reached home at about 11:30 pm, my distance meter read 287 miles. The question I had been asking myself earlier that week was, 'Will it be worth it?' At this point it was a no-brainer and I don't need to answer that question. Maybe double the distance would have been a close call.

Earlier in 2008 I had been to a WWE live show for the first time (the Raw episode where Chris Jericho, a friend and countryman of Bret's, smashed Shawn Michael's head through an HD TV monitor) but was strangely left disappointed with no 'special' feeling to remember the event by. Meeting Bret made up for that disappointment

Below is the duplicate of the card I gave Bret Hart (though I swear the handwriting in the original was better!). It reads:

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