One night when I was 10 years old, I sat next to my dad and watched a man fall to his death. My first reaction was to laugh -- a contrived shriek bordering hysterics. I resembled a hyena that suddenly took the form of a fat little fifth-grader jiggling in his seat.
For a few short moments, I thought it was all part of the show.
This week we learned that Kemper Arena, that old sanctum of Kansas City barbecue, rodeos, concerts and wrestling matches, will soon be razed to make way for an agricultural events center. With its younger, more attractive relative -- the Sprint Center -- attracting marquee acts and sporting events up the hill, something like this was a foregone conclusion. And now, with Kemper's demise confirmed, the memories are starting to pour out across the town.
Good friend Brenna Hawley broke the news for The Kansas City Business Journal, and reactions swiftly followed on Twitter, that great marketplace for musings and attempts at humor both for good and ill. I took a stab, saying, "Farewell rodeos and wrestling matches and interning for an arena football team for a spring." A follower commented that wrestling matches still happen at Sprint, to which I replied that they didn't have the added chance Kemper provided that the building may fall apart at any moment. She took my tweet to be "totally harsh," especially, she said, considering the death of professional wrestler Owen Hart in 1999.
Quick to reply that referencing Hart's death was in no way my intent -- I had in mind nights spent writing news releases for an arena football team while being able to see through a hole in the floor of the press box; or the time that the building's roof actually did collapse -- thoughts of May 23, 1999 came rushing back. I remembered the night I couldn't go to bed, the night I aged a little more. I saw a man die, something I rarely think about and still seems unreal to type.
I had probably been a professional wrestling fan for the better part of three years at the time, though I heard stories about angering my mother as I turned the couch into a top turnbuckle at an earlier age. I would be a fan for a few years more, then grow out of it, then become embarrassed by it and then accept it like the other vices of my childhood (too much pop, Space Ghost, In Living Color).
That night, I couldn't have been more excited. It was a Pay-per-view (in Kansas City! My hometown!) and all the stars would be out. And I would get to watch in the nosebleeds with my dad.
We got there early, filed in and grabbed a drink and a snack. We watched the early matches and the fireworks that signaled the Pay-per-view was live. And then Owen Hart, portraying a character called "the Blue Blazer," was due up next. His was a bumbling, goody-goody character who urged kids to take their vitamins, say their prayers and drink their milk before punctuating the statement with a "Woo!" His nemesis this night was "The Godfather," who was escorted by "hoes" and often shouted "roll a fatty for the big pimp daddy!"
This night's stunt was supposed to be a spectacle. The Blue Blazer would descend from the rafters on a harness and get stuck as he neared the ring, foiling his hero's entrance. From there, he would wiggle in cartoonish fashion and fall about a foot or two on his face. Splat.
Previously, Hart had only performed the stunt a few times and was concerned about doing it in Kansas City as Kemper required a longer descent. Furthermore, that night's stunt required a quick-release mechanism on his safety harness so he could hit the mat in comedic fashion. To do this smoothly, it was decided that Hart would forgo the extra backup latches that are affixed to his harness for safety purposes. A year later, Hart's family would reach an $18 million settlement with the World Wresting Federation in 2000 in a lawsuit.
About halfway through the event -- titled Over The Edge -- the lights dimmed. A graphic on the big screen above signaled that it'd be the Godfather vs. the Blue Blazer up next.
"Intercontinental title on the line here: the Godfather to defend against the Blue Blazer."
Wink wink. Yeah, we know it's Owen Hart, but he thinks he's a superhero! And if you don't believe us, just listen to this.
A promo video followed.
"The Blue Blazer is back in the WWF because the WWF needs the Blue Blazer," Owen tells his interviewer in the video before a cheesy highlight reel of his character running around in a blue cape ensues. In one frame he's showed descending from the rafters, arms spread wide.
"Why me? Because the WWF needs a superhero like the Blue Blazer!"
"And one last thing in closing, to all my little Blue Blazers: take your vitamins, say your prayers and drink your milk. Woo!"
Before the video ended, the Blue Blazer plummeted 78-feet from the rafters into the ring. He hit the top rope and it threw him into the ring where he lay motionless.
Being 10 and a fan of the absurd -- I mean, the WWF put on matches where the loser would be buried alive -- I spent about a minute taking it all in like it was something we were predetermined to see in exchange for our paid admission. Another minute later, I began hoping it was. And then I just looked on quietly with my dad and thousands of others. When the video ended, the cameras pointed off into the crowd, away from the ring.
"We've got big problems out here," announcer Jim Ross said on the Pay-per-view broadcast.
A moment later, a pre-recorded interview with the Blue Blazer was shown on the screen above, while the referee who was in the ring at the time looked at Owen in horror. As the Blue Blazer on the screen talked about how The Godfather made his "blue blood boil," the Blue Blazer in the ring was lifeless as EMTs pumped his chest and put him on a stretcher. An image from the Associated Press, which would be on the front of The Kansas City Star and on other papers across the country, still gets me. It is of this scene and Owen's big left arm slumped below the stretcher while medics attempt to revive him. It's slumped in a way that looks like he is already dead.
As the pre-recorded interview neared its end, the Blue Blazer told the crowd he would always triumph over evil doers because, again, he always takes his vitamins, says his prayers and drinks his milk.
Owen Hart died less than two months before he and his wife's 10th anniversary, leaving behind a 7-year-old and 3-year-old. That night in Kansas City, the show went on. The WWF continued with it's Pay-per-view and my dad and I stayed and watched. We found out about Hart's death on the drive home.
There is no template for how to reckon with seeing a man in a superhero costume fall 78 feet to his death. All I remember is laying on my bedroom floor, uncomfortable and unable to sleep. More than 16,000 other people saw Owen fall to his death. As insignificant (and at risk of being offensive) as it seems to write this, I think that softened the blow a little. I never saw anyone die in my arms or on a battlefield or on an operating table. And it was someone else's father, brother, husband and son that died so there's always the thought that it was never really about us.
When Kemper Arena is gone, I'll think again about all the rodeos I attended as a boy, the smoked sausages the Kansas City Brigade staff supplied when I interned with them, the Kansas City Blades hockey games.
And then I'll go back to work. I'll go home and kiss my wife. I'll call my dad and tell him I love him. And one day, once again, I'll think about what we saw once more.