A Dog Story
I never thought anything would come between my parents. They always had such a great, loving relationship; I don’t remember them ever having a major argument or even really being upset with one another. But, with the unexpected discovery of an old photograph, that all seemed to change.
Like something out of a romance novel, they had met on the hotdog eating contest circuit.
Dad, having recently failed out of barber college (he could never get the sideburns straight), had entered his first contest on a dare from his friends Barry and Dirty Fred. With the five dollar entry fee he figured he’d at least get a big meal out of it, but once he started shoveling down those dogs, he had an epiphany: he loved competitive hotdog eating and was really good at it. He won that contest and the $75 prize money easily and from that day on he was hooked.
And, in a surprisingly little amount of time, he rose through the ranks to become one of the premier hotdog eaters in the U.S.
In October of 1981, Philadelphia, as usual, hosted the fourth and final leg of what was known as the “Dog Majors.” Chicago, Phoenix, Tulsa, and Philly. So far Dad had triumphed in the first three and was trying to become the first person since Marty Gutman in ’59 to win them all in the same year and he was the odds on favorite to do just that.
Mom never had any intention of entering that contest. Back in those days hot dog eating contests were primarily male-oriented events. In one southern town, after a few women entertained the idea of entering an upcoming contest, the WPD (Women for the Protection of Decency) had mailed off a stern yet painfully polite letter to the local newspaper proclaiming the sport “utterly distasteful” and any woman associating herself with eating contests to be “of the lowest moral character.”
But thanks to the prodding of her friends Myra and Easy Wendy, Mom, who was rather adventurous at the time, entered the contest. She had no idea it was one of the Dog Majors and only got in because of a mix-up with the applications. Nevertheless, on a warm Saturday afternoon she found herself surrounded by 24 men in front of a large plate piled high with hotdogs. And, just like Dad, when that starter’s pistol went off, Mom discovered her love (and talent) for hotdog eating contests.
Although she came in fifth that day (but easily beat the two enormous men on either side of her), she didn’t leave entirely empty handed. Dad, who had lost by about a quarter inch of bun, (and always blamed the loss on Mom’s distracting long auburn hair and dark eyes), had after the contest asked her out for some coffee and Alka Seltzer. Drawn (she told me) to his lanky but muscular frame and prominent Greek nose, she had accepted, and from then on they were inseparable.
They began entering contests together and usually (unless they had an off day, like the time Mom was pregnant with me and couldn’t keep anything down) would come in first and second respectively. They were known as the “Bonnie and Clyde” of hotdog eating contests and ruled the sport for the better part of two decades.
When they retired — Mom in 1997, Dad two years later — between them they had compiled an incredible record: 148 first place finishes, 64 Major victories, and an estimated prize money topping $2.3 million. As Mom often remarked, they were “living most people’s fantasy.” But unfortunately, that fantasy soured.
One day Dad, in search of who knows what, was rummaging through old boxes and trophies in the attic when he stumbled upon that picture. In it, young Mom was sitting at a long table; empty pie tins sat in front of her and she had a purplish substance smeared all over her face. Smiling and sitting next to her with his arm around her, was a short weasly-looking guy with the same substance on his face.
Furious, Dad stormed downstairs to the kitchen and thrust the picture into Mom’s face, demanding an explanation. That’s when the truth came out, about how she had lied to him about going to visit relatives one weekend so she could enter a pie eating contest with a guy named Sylvester Stillson (who I later found out was an enemy of Dad’s going back to high school).
“We’d only been dating a couple months then, Warren,” Mom said a little defensively. “I had just gotten into the whole eating thing and wanted to expand my horizons a little. Can’t you understand that?”
Dad grunted and stomped out of the kitchen.
“But, you might be happy to know,” Mom continued, following him down the hall, “I came in twelfth that day and that made me realize pies weren’t for me. And the next week we went on the tour, remember?”
Dad stopped in the doorway of his office. After hesitating for a second, he stepped inside and closed the door brusquely behind him.
Mom thought the whole thing would blow over, that Dad would eventually forgive her or just forget about the whole thing like he usually did with trivial matters. But this time things were different. For three days he wouldn’t speak to her; then he would only give her one or two-word responses to her questions. After another week of that, Mom got fed up and stopped talking to him completely. The house was like a library.
It was at this time that they received their applications for an upcoming contest. Although officially retired, every year they still entered the Senior Championship — lovingly referred to as the “Old Dog.” This year’s event was in Indianapolis but it was doubtful they’d be attending.
The applications remained untouched for weeks and it was when I noticed the impending deadline to return them, I had a plan to reconcile my parents. I knew when they received their welcome packets, complete with parking pass, head band, and t-shirt, their love of hotdog eating contests (and each other) would emerge again and they’d forget the whole silly thing.
After I sent the applications back, with no entry fees necessary (Mom and Dad were big enough celebrities), and the packets arrived, the reaction of my parents surprised me. At first they were incredulous, accusing the other of sending the applications in. When I confessed, their anger at me was instantly directed at each other. After some more arguing, they both loudly agreed they wouldn’t be going to the contest. But when Mom a few days later told me she was thinking about going after all, Dad, overhearing our conversation, exploded.
“That’s great, Linda, go ahead! While you’re at it, why don’t you call Sylvester Stillson! I’m sure he’d love to go with you!”
“Maybe I will!” Mom shouted. “He’s a better eater than you anyway!”
Even I was surprised at that outburst and I could tell Dad was devastated. For a moment it looked like Mom was going to apologize, but then she quickly turned and went upstairs. A moment later I heard their bedroom door slam shut.
Despite Mom, (or more likely in spite of her), Dad decided he would also attend the competition. They took separate flights to Indianapolis. Mom, not a great flier, had convinced me to come along with her. Dad left a day later.
When we got to the event — held on the back patio of a surprisingly posh hotel — I was surprised at what I saw. I had expected giant hotdog-shaped balloons or maybe the Oscar Meyer Wiener mobile, but it was modestly decorated and actually quite subdued. There was a small stage and three long tables parallel to each other about 10 feet apart.
Most of the contestants were Mom and Dad’s age or older. As Mom said her hellos, there were a few curious glances when people noticed she was without Dad.
When she took her place, a skinny man wearing a somewhat obvious toupee sat down next to her. Although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, Mom looked happy to see him and gave him a big hug. I didn’t know who the man was but thought he looked familiar.
That’s when I noticed Dad enter the patio. A few people greeted him and as he surveyed the scene, he scowled when he saw Mom and the stranger, who now had his arm around her. That’s when I realized who the man was: the guy from that picture, Sylvester Stillson. Apparently he wasn’t just doing pie eating contests anymore.
For a second it looked like Dad was going to do something, but after a moment of hesitation, he went and sat at the far table.
Before the contest began, an ancient man hunched over a walker shuffled out onto the stage. He was introduced as “hotdog eating innovator, Marty Gutman” and received a rather long ovation before hobbling back into the hotel.
With the hotdogs assembled and the starting pistol about to be shot, I looked at my parents. I had never been to one of these events and was only a toddler when Mom and Dad were still competing, so except for some pictures and a grainy videotape, I had never seen them in action.
Dad was famous for his intensity and even though he and Mom attended these senior events just for fun, I could see a spark in his eye as he stared at his fellow contestants.
Mom was just as famous for her concentration and even though Sylvester was draped all over her, she was just staring at the plate in front of her. When the pistol went off, she didn’t immediately grab a dog like the people around her, instead she took a deep breath and then started eating.
By that time, Dad had already downed two dogs and was halfway through a third. That’s when, across the center table and numerous gray heads, they made eye contact. Dad stopped chewing and glared at her. Mom, methodically working down her dog, glared back. After a brief moment of hesitation, she reached for her next dog. In an instant it was gone. Dad was stunned but immediately swallowed and grabbed another.
The other contestants no longer mattered; they were now just competing against each other. With a fierceness and intensity I had never before witnessed from my parents, they both began attacking the hotdogs. Mom had quickly caught up to Dad and was about to overtake him when he crammed two dogs into his mouth and swallowed them down. Mom was momentarily taken aback but quickly recovered.
Plate after plate was placed in front of them; they were eating machines. On one hand I was proud, but on the other I was also a little grossed out.
At one point Dad stuck his tongue out at Mom and I swore, for just an instant, a small smile appeared on her face. When a bit of bun flew from her mouth a little later, Dad snickered. When he grabbed five dogs and tried to cram them all into his mouth, Mom snorted, causing more food to fly, which in turn made Dad laugh.
Tied and with time winding down, they both stopped and smiled at each other. Dad dropped his dog and got up. Mom did likewise, brusquely removing Sylvester’s scrawny arm from her shoulder and joining Dad in the center of the patio. Without saying a word, they kissed and then embraced tightly. The somewhat confused audience and contestants started clapping. After a moment, I joined in the applause.
As we headed to the airport the next morning — all of us returning on the same flight — I was a little surprised when they told me they were done with competitive eating, that that contest would be their last.
And, except for the occasional baseball game or backyard barbecue, it was.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED