It was a mild morning in February, but the brisk ocean winds off Naval Station Norfolk chilled the air just enough to make the mile-long walk from the dock to the main gates unpleasant. That morning in 2004 was the last time I walked off the USS George Washington CVN-73. The colossal Nimitz-Class nuclear aircraft carrier was being prepped for yet another trip to the Persian Gulf, as were most of my shipmates. My time was up. It was time to go home.
I didn’t own a cell phone, but even if I had it wouldn’t have helped pass the time on the seven hour bus ride from Norfolk to Philadelphia as today’s devices can. Needless to say there was plenty of time for self-reflection as I methodically made my way back up the east coast. It had been a wild few years to say the least: from the first day of Basic Training at the Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois, to the surreal experience of heading to war with a largely faceless enemy as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, to the absolute living hell that was Operation Iraqi Freedom, where a dozen of my fellow sailors (all under the age of 21) were killed in action. A few signatures and it was all over just like that.
The sun had already set by the time the familiar Philadelphia skyline came into view. It wasn’t the exciting moment I thought it would be. My folks were all smiles when I finally walked through the front door. Naturally I was happy to see them, but it was an oddly uncomfortable homecoming. It’s a difficult feeling to describe. You think about returning to civilian life all the time while you’re serving, but once I got back I couldn’t help but feel like a coward. I joined the US Navy under no false pretenses. After making the choice to leave college in favor of the military after 9/11 I knew exactly where I’d be going and what I’d be doing. I was right on both fronts. I had asked and the US government was all too happy to oblige. Still, as my tour of duty was preparing to expire I made the choice not to reenlist. It wasn’t the right decision or the wrong one. It was just the one I made.
Once I was back home everything felt different. Of course, everything was exactly the same. I was the one that changed. Life in the military is largely focused around the question, what’s next? You never look too far ahead and you don’t dare look back. It’s just, what’s next? Once I got home the question had morphed into, what now? I must have asked that question to myself hundreds of times that first week. The more I thought about it the more disparaged I became. It wasn’t until the weekend that it hit me that Raw would be on the following Monday. I found my first, what’s next. It was something I could actually look forward to; something that made me happy to be home. I don’t remember a thing about that first episode back, not a single match or moment has managed to remain in my brain all these years later. But I still remember that feeling I got when the show’s opening theme song started to play as I sat in my old bedroom. I finally felt like I was home. Who knew a simple weekly episodic sports entertainment program could be so powerful?
With Raw’s 25th anniversary upon us I originally planned to write about some of the more memorable moments and matches from the show’s history that stood out to me as someone who has been watching all his life. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that Raw’s influence on my life goes far beyond the boundaries of entertaining television programming. Quite a bit has changed in my life over the last 25 years, but my Monday nights have remained the same.
In the fall of 1993 my family moved out of our small row home in Northeast Philadelphia to a much nicer single home that could better accommodate a family of five. I didn’t care about the nice backyard, the fact that I’d no longer have to share a bedroom with my younger brother or that we had air conditioning for the first time. All I cared about was the fact that we were getting cable television and I could finally watch Monday Night Raw. I’d seen most episodes since the show debuted in January of that year thanks to my grandfather, who dutifully taped all things WWF for me with his magic black box he was always talking about. But watching live was different. It was special. It was like getting to watch a mini pay-per view every single week, or so I thought. When you’re a ten-year old kid it’s the little things that make life enjoyable. And so started the tradition: Monday night was my special wrestling night.
For most of my childhood pro wrestling was a major point of contention (sadly one of many) between my father, who absolutely hated everything about the product, and I. At one point he went so far as to forbid me from watching it altogether, before realizing it was a step too far. Pro wrestling became the giant elephant in our living room. I was allowed to watch, but never when my father was in the room. Sometimes my weekly dose of Raw was limited to a single segment before I had to turn it off. It was a far from perfect arrangement, especially considering we only owned one television, but it was one that kept the peace. In a weird way it made the show even more special, I learned to cherish every minute I got to watch.
By the late 1990s my father and I slowly began patching our rocky relationship. One of the ways we did so was by watching Raw together during the Attitude Era. He learned to accept how important pro wrestling was in my life and made the conscious effort to get involved. He still hated everything about it, but we made it work. Watching him react to outlandish characters like The Godfather and Sexual Chocolate was hilarious to me. In turn watching me go crazy over the exploits of Steve Austin or Undertaker’s gothic heel turn was amusing to him. To this day I can remember telling him how silly he sounded for suggesting that Vince McMahon was going to be revealed as the Higher Power because as he put it, ‘who the hell else would it be?’ He has yet to let me live that one down. Something as simple as watching Raw together every week helped turn my relationship with my father around.
There are plenty of other Monday nights that remain important to me. Watching my first episode after my grandfather, who shared my passion for the sport of kings, passed away; both a painful and cathartic experience made all the more memorable by the fact that it was the night Seth Rollins broke up The Shield.
The time my soon-to-be wife convinced me that writing about pro wrestling was something I needed to be doing over the course of an episode. The first episode I watched with my young daughter, Reagan and watching her become a diehard New Day fan over the course of a few weeks. I could go on and on.
When I think about all these moments and many others like them it’s not hard to figure out why I still get that itch every Monday afternoon as the work day begins to wind down and the anticipation for that night’s episode starts to kick in. Sure, some nights that anticipation disappears by the end of the first segment. Sure, some nights it’s a chore to get through all three hours without feeling like I’ve wasted time that could have been better spent doing just about anything else. But those moments matter little to me in the long run. Monday Night Raw is my happy place. It will always be my happy place. It’s where I go to escape the grind of everyday life. It’s where I go keep in touch with that little kid still inside me. It’s where I go to celebrate my passion for pro wrestling every single week.
Monday Night Raw is as integrated into the fabric of my life as anything else. Over Christmas I was lucky enough to have been gifted two tickets to Raw the night after the Royal Rumble, an event I’ll be sharing with my fiancé. For her, it will be the first live wrestling event she’s ever attended. For me, it will be the first of many new memories made over the next 25 years of uncooked, uncut and uncensored sports entertainment.