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The Jimmy Snuka Story
By Jimmy Snuka, Jon Chattman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Jimmy Snuka and Jon Chattman
All rights reserved.
A Real-life Tarzan
"Jimmy was just always outside — a social animal. When we had firewalkers come through — they came to the University of Hawaii — Jimmy wanted to be with them and get on their program. All of a sudden, there was Jimmy walking on hot coals with the firewalkers. I was impressed. We always were. He was grander than life. That was his thing. He'd just step out and do things that were extraordinary to common folk."
— Louise Reiher, Jimmy's sister
Bula bula vinaka! That means "hello" in my native language of Fijian, and I've never forgotten my roots. I was born James Wiley Smith in the Fiji Islands, or Viti, as we call it, on May 18, 1943. I have deep roots in the Fiji Islands. My mother, Louisa Vitu Smith, was the youngest of 12 children. The father of my great-grandmother, "Adi from Bua" (meaning Fijian princess), was a signer of the Deed of Cession in 1876.
I was the result of a love affair between my mother and a man she met named Charles Wimbledon Benjamin Thomas, who had worked in Majesty-navy customs. I never knew this man as a child. He could not marry my mother, because he was already married and she was arranged to be married to someone else. Despite being four months pregnant with me, she married an engineer by the name of Bernard Reiher. He was contracted to work for the navy, so he was often away from home.
I was named after my mother's dad, Captain James Wiley Smith. Captain Smith and Bernie's father, Captain Adolph Reiher, did not get along with each other. I've heard the two of them were business rivals — blackbirders, which meant they fooled people into working for them as laborers. My grandfather actually transported slaves from Tasmania.
Since my mother was pregnant, Captain Reiher didn't want her to marry into the family, but he eventually agreed to it. I think I ended up paying the price for this. Everything about my early years was confusing. Every time I got used to something, it changed on me and threw me for a loop. My grandmother, Losana, took care of me. We all lived in a big house up in the hills of Suva. It was me, my mom, my stepfather, my grandmother, my uncles, and their families.
My younger brother, Henry Reiher, was born three years later, in 1946. Because Henry was his biological son, Bernie always treated him better than me. My mom took care of Henry a lot when he was young; I know my mom loved me, but I was with my grandmother a lot of the time. She gave me baths, dressed me, and let me sleep in her bed. Because of this, I thought for a while that my grandmother was actually my mother, and my mother was my aunt or something. I was too young to understand. It was not until my mother, stepbrother, stepdad, and I left for the Gilbert Islands when I was seven years old that I found out the truth. After learning my grandmother was staying in the Fiji Islands, I cried out because I didn't want to leave my mother. My real mom said to me, "I'm your mother." It blew my mind, brudda!
Next Stop: The Gilbert Islands
Bernie had to move away for work, so we went to the Gilbert Islands from Fiji with a plan to eventually settle in the Marshall Islands, where my stepfather's family was from. Since it took time for boats to reach us, my stepfather and mother knew we would be in the Gilberts for a while. Life got even more confusing while we waited on the dock the day we were scheduled to leave. I was playing around with Henry one day when all of a sudden, a man in uniform who worked for Her Majesty's Customs Department came up to me and said, "Hello, my son." I didn't realize at that moment that he was my real father. I just thought, Who is this big, tall man calling me "son"? When I was a teenager, I found out that this man was my real father. But I'll tell you more about that later, brudda.
When we moved to the Gilberts, we lived in a big hut that the military built for the men who were stationed there. Life there wasn't like it was in the United States, that's for sure. We didn't have electricity, for example, so we had to carry a lantern. My mother cooked on a wood-fired stove. We ate fresh food every day. I would help my mother by going to buy a loaf of bread in the morning at one of the little local stores. It was made fresh every day and smelled so good. I remember walking home with the bread and picking the edges apart and eating them. By the time I got to the house, I had eaten both ends of the loaf.
We got our milk from the can or drank coconut milk. We had a line of credit at the store that my stepdad would pay off at the end of the week. We also had our own chickens and pigs that we ate. It was my job to kill the chickens. I'd just swing them around by their necks and they would run around until they dropped. Then, I'd chop their heads off and boil them for soup. We ate the feet. We didn't waste a thing. I was a regular jungle man. We made spears out of the bones and used the feathers for fishing. Island people don't waste anything, brudda!
My mom worked very hard — she did so many chores and really helped us kids out by watching over us and keeping us in check. She and my stepdad slept in one room and the kids were all in the other. It couldn't have been easy taking care of all of us — especially me, since I was probably a pain in the ass. My mom did it all.
Tough Times in Ebi
Living in the islands presented unique challenges. If you want to go someplace in New York, for example, you just get in a cab or take a bus or even a train. But in the islands, brudda, getting around wasn't as easy. There is water everywhere, and it wasn't like you could just get up and go places. All the islands, like Fiji and the Marshall Islands, were made up of smaller islands within them. Sometimes it took years to get a boat to take us between the islands. That was the case in going from the Gilbert Islands to the Marshall Islands.
When we got to Ebi, we lived in a small house I built with my brother and stepfather. Like my natural ability to play sports, I was pretty skilled at putting things together with my hands. The Reihers were a very respected family there, so my stepfather was able to get land to build a home. We started out with a generator but eventually got electric power in the house. I remember we had this huge tank in the backyard for water, and the military would bring water to us each day when we ran out.
My mom and dad were close, even though he hit her around a bit. Henry and I would see them kiss every morning and night. But my stepfather grew more strict and more angry once we arrived in the Marshalls. He'd drink a lot and he'd beat up on us good — me especially. He would assign Henry and me chores each day, but I would lose track of time playing around and end up not doing them. My stepfather would beat me because I always skipped out on work. Each time he did, my mom would just sit and cry. She couldn't do anything about it. Anytime she spoke out, he'd hit her, too.
"I remember seeing my father take a 2x4 to both Henry and Jimmy. He was a strict man. All the people on the island said his own father was like that and that his grandfather was, too. If you didn't walk the line the way he wanted you to, you'd suffer the consequences."
— Louise Reiher
I remember trying to talk Henry into running away with me many times because I wanted to explore the islands and didn't want to get beat. Sometimes we tried to leave — he often followed me everywhere I went, but when we were found, I was always the one who got beat. One day Henry and I were hiding from my stepfather because we knew we were going to get a beating. I told Henry I would take him home, but I was going to go back out because I knew I was going to get a beating. Henry stayed with me and we hid inside a boat along the beach ... and then we felt water. My stepfather had found us and was throwing water on the boat to force us out. We were soaking wet when he brought us home. How far can you go on an island, brudda? When we got home, Henry and I got beat. I got the worst of it because my stepfather said I was a bad influence.
"He was the kind of guy who didn't like staying home. He got me in trouble a time or two. He was always into mischief. Being the younger brother, I picked up the slack when Jimmy wasn't around. Eventually I got tired of those beatings and just said, 'No, man, I ain't going' when Jimmy wanted to go out."
— Henry Reiher, Jimmy's brother
I was too much for my stepfather and mother to handle. When we moved to the Marshalls and my sisters Agnes, Louise, and Vicky were born, it was just too much for my mom and especially my stepfather, who had had enough of me.
My mom would take a ship back to the Fiji Islands to give birth and then spend a couple of months there to be with her family. She would take the babies back with her each time, so she had the three girls in Fiji. The first time she left for Fiji, Henry and I were put on a ship to Pohnpei for boarding school. She found out how to speak Gilberto and Marshallese in that time, while Henry and I learned to speak Ponapean. Henry and I used to speak in that language when we got back, just to irritate our parents. It really pissed Bernie off. My mom would laugh, and he didn't like it.
I will admit that I was a mischievous kid. I was at a Catholic boarding school, Christ the King, in Kolonia, Pohnpei, for three years because I was too much for my stepfather and mother to handle. They sent Henry with me, and I tried to take care of him. We were the new kids, and older kids would want to fight us. I tried to stay out of it, but it was hard. The school was on a plantation and the boys all worked the field. We would get up early to go to Mass, then have tea and bread for breakfast before going to class. After school, we would work in the field planting sweet potatoes, bananas, and more. We raised pigs, cows, and goats. Each night was the same. We would eat dinner (usually the chicken or pig that was raised there), and we would do our homework. We got to play a little on the weekends — I remember playing soccer and baseball. I also ran track there. I did that at the Marshalls, too. I was very fast, and back in the Marshall Islands, I'd always win contests. The prize was always candy, which I gave to my sister Vicky.
It was hard because Henry and I wouldn't see our family for two years. We only saw them in our third year during summer vacation. I remember spending Christmases at the school when all the other kids went home to see their families. It was sad. The place was so empty. We had no phones and no way to travel home.
I remember learning how to play the tuba in school, and that was cool. I played it in the marching band, while Henry played sax. I remember one day we were waiting for a boat — the band would play to welcome people off the boat — and Henry dropped his mouthpiece into the water. I dove into the water between the pier and the boat to get it. I was not afraid, but Henry was. Henry didn't like the water as much as I did. I remember trying to teach him how to dive, but he couldn't. Later, I'd surf Sunset Beach in Hawaii on the North Shore specifically because they had the biggest waves anywhere.
I'd rather be in the ocean than anywhere else, brah. I never liked school, so I acted out a lot. I was the ringleader who would convince my friends to go out late and surf. I was a bad boy. I got beat in school by the teachers just like I did at home, but I was smart. I might not have been book smart, but the Superfly always learns from his experiences. I would always pad my back with something, knowing full well they would hit me in the same spot on my back. You catch on when you're a rascal like I was.
We got beat a lot of times because of those fights I mentioned. There was a worker who would watch the boys fight and then would break it up after a while. Eventually, our parents brought us home. I stopped playing tuba — that's for sure. That was school property.
"The first boarding school we went to was next to a bell tower. It was a really dangerous building built by the Spaniards right after the SpanishAmerican War. It was the only thing left standing — everything else had been bombed or crumbled. The stairs that went up to the bells were gone, but there were wooden ladders in their place that you could climb up. Mostly older kids were assigned to ring it because it was such a big bell. Little guys like us would just literally hang from the rope and hardly move it."
— Henry Reiher
My parents sent us to another boarding school, Assumption, for three years or so in Majuro in the Marshall Islands — again not seeing much of my family. There was one building for the school, and the boys helped build a dormitory out of brick and mortar. They also built the girls dormitory and a convent for the nuns. While we were there, we figured out how to cook and how to wash and iron our own uniforms. The school was by the ocean, and we would all fish for food. I was used to that already. Some boys would take the net out and hold it as the other boys pounded on the water and chased the fish into the nets. The boys would carry big bags over their shoulders and fill it with fish for the month.
One day, I was surfing and saw a little girl being swallowed up by the waves. I dove in and dragged her out of the ocean. Her family invited me to their home for dinner. I remember thinking how nice it was to have a home-cooked meal. I had resented my family for sending me away, but I understood why they did it. I don't think of myself as a hero. I never have. This brudda just does what he does without thinking too much about it. Just like climbing that steel cage at Madison Square Garden, I just dove in the water to help that girl without giving it much thought. I love everybody, brudda. I didn't want to see that girl hurt.
Reading and Writing in English
It's hard for me to say this, but the years I spent at boarding school and at a church near my house were the only years I ever spent in a classroom. It was always a challenge for me to stay focused enough to learn. Some days they would take us outside and we would sit under a tree as the nuns read us stories. But I was never good at reading. If I was not good at something, I didn't want to do it. I'm good at math, but reading and writing and spelling were like poison to me.
When I left the Fiji Islands and moved to the Gilbert Islands, I only spoke the Fijian pidgin language. They spoke some English in the Gilbert Islands, so I had to learn by listening to it. That helped me communicate a little, but I never figured out to read or write in English. My mother tried to help me learn, but I was stubborn and wanted nothing of it. She probably got tired of me not wanting any part of it. She was a very strong-willed and highspirited person, but I guess I was just too much to handle.
I may not be able to read or write, but I can speak many languages. When I'm in Japan, I speak Japanese, for example. I learn by ear all the time. My whole life, brudda, I listened to the grown-ups and always asked questions. I still can't grasp the English language fully. That's why some of my promos might not have made 100 percent sense to you, but in my mind, I made sense. I still feel that way.
One of my most memorable sayings, "TV wonderland," actually came about by mistake. I was doing an on-camera promo and I wanted to say hello to everyone all over the world. I was thinking about how wonderful it was that I could talk to people from every land. It came out wrong though — I said I wanted to talk to all the people out there in "TV wonderland." People still dig when I say that.
"Jimmy had very broken English but he managed to make it through. I had to do an interview with him in early 1985 for WrestleMania I. Vince McMahon was there working with the talent, and we were having problems getting what we needed out of Jimmy. Eighteen takes and an hour and a half later, we got by. He had many problems early on in expressing himself, but the fans always got the message."
— Mean Gene Okerlund, WWE announcer and Hall of Famer
"In a business that is all about promos, it says a lot that Jimmy got as far as he did without being a great promo guy. He wasn't just a good worker — there are a million good workers — it was his athletic ability. With his promos, there was another side to him. The island thing made him different. People didn't know what to make of him. There was an element of danger with Jimmy, and if he flipped the switch, he was scary."
— Dave Meltzer, creator of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter
I don't prepare anything before I go on the microphone. The words just come to me then and there. I am not an educated guy — I don't always understand the big words, so I would just say whatever I wanted. I don't get nervous. I'm having fun. When the camera turns on, I turn on. I think that if fans take the time to listen to what I'm saying, they would understand me. The people that don't understand me are the people who are not listening. I might not use the right words all the time — my wife likes to talk about the time I called someone "constipated" instead of "complicated" — but I know it didn't matter because the passion was there.
Excerpted from Superfly by Jimmy Snuka, Jon Chattman. Copyright © 2012 Jimmy Snuka and Jon Chattman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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