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Former wrestler Pepper Martin has endured the 'shrapnel' and is ready to share his story

Former wrestler Pepper Martin has endured the 'shrapnel' and is ready to share his story
In his autobiography, “Shrapnel of the Soul and Redemption,” Glendale resident Pepper Martin recounts his time as a professional wrestler and, later, an actor working alongside Hollywood legends. (Courtesy of Pepper Martin)

There are many entry points into Pepper Martin's life. So many, in fact, that anyone with a couple of hours to spare could easily fill them hearing how Martin became a professional wrestler and traveled in a Canadian show with two little people, a strong man and a bear.

Or how he practically stumbled into acting in the 1960s, rubbing elbows with the likes of Dean Martin, John Ford and Lee Marvin after following a lead from friend and fellow-wrestler Harold Sakata, aka Odd Job from the James Bond movie "Goldfinger," and landed the role of Rocky the truck driver in the 1981 classic "Superman II."

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"I was the only man who ever beat up Superman and lived to brag about it," is a credential he's particularly fond of.

You could sit in the kitchen of Martin's Glendale home and sip tea as he told you about the time he fell in with dangerous mob bosses, who tried to persuade him to run a prophylactic company for them before wife Jordy stepped in and put the kibosh on the whole operation. Or how his right eye is a prosthesis lovingly crafted by the same oculist who made eyes for Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Falk.

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Yet, for the vast treasure trove of anecdotes Martin has at his avail, when the 79-year-old storyteller finally sat down with longtime friend and publicist Penny Lane and began contemplating where to begin a possible autobiography, the pair set off on a drastically different foot.

"When we were trying to figure out where to start, Penny said to me, 'Start where your mother was burned to death,'" Martin recalled in a recent interview. "That was the first major piece of shrapnel I would have in my life."

Glendale resident, former wrestler and actor Pepper Martin, right poses with celebrity friends Dean Martin and Sharon Tate in a photo dating from the late 1960s.
Glendale resident, former wrestler and actor Pepper Martin, right poses with celebrity friends Dean Martin and Sharon Tate in a photo dating from the late 1960s. (Courtesy of Pepper Martin)

The resultant work of Martin and Lane's years-long writing process is "Shrapnel of the Soul and Redemption," a 570-page book that attempts not only to compile the countless tales Martin has experienced, but to reconcile those facts with the brutal beginnings he experienced as a boy growing up in Ontario, Canada, after losing his mother and being subjected to the whims of his bootlegger father.

On Aug. 11 at 7 p.m., Martin and Lane will make an appearance at Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse in La Cañada Flintridge, where Martin will read selected excerpts from and sign copies of "Schrapnel," released by New York-based Page Publishing in May.

There, the co-authors are likely to explain their impetus for writing the book was not merely appeasing the throng of friends and acquaintances who'd forever urged Martin to capture his capers in print, but to convey how he turned that chaotic life into a fantasy world that allowed him to escape years of repressed pain and anger.

"The story is about a man who had a violent childhood, whose problems were never addressed and so he carried all those problems with him," Lane says of the story behind the story. "Everything starts with your childhood."

Martin was just 7 years old on May 24, 1944, when his parents went out for a night of dinner and dancing at the local Moose Hall. The festivities took place in a second-floor room that became a death trap when an arsonist set fire to the only stairwell.

His father wrapped his mother in drapes to protect her and was opening a window that provided access to a nearby tree when the panicked crowd rushed at him and accidentally pushed him out the window and into the tree.

The next day, Martin recalls his father sending him and older sister Eileen to an aunt's farm for a week. On the car ride back, he unceremoniously presented them with an article rehashing the gruesome details of that night and conveying the news of their mother's death.

"All I did was cry," Martin says with vivid recollection. "I'd just stand by the back door, a little boy waiting for his mommy."

Glendale resident, former wrestler and actor Pepper Martin, left, joins longtime friend and publicist Penny Lane. The pair teamed up to write “Shrapnel of the Soul and Redemption,” an autobiography that captures Martin’s life and struggle with painful childhood memories.
Glendale resident, former wrestler and actor Pepper Martin, left, joins longtime friend and publicist Penny Lane. The pair teamed up to write “Shrapnel of the Soul and Redemption,” an autobiography that captures Martin’s life and struggle with painful childhood memories. (Photo by Sara Cardine)

It would take him more than three decades and thousands of steps and missteps to realize the true impact of that day and its terrible aftermath. Perhaps living in his own hell, Martin's father retreated into a disreputable life, characterized by bootlegging, womanizing, molestation and violence. Martin and his sister couldn't wait to leave home.

Despite that tragedy, Martin met and married wife Jordy on July 21, 1956, and went on to have two daughters. His professional exploits made life colorful, but with so much built-up pain and anger trapped inside, his soul had become a sort of prison.

"I retreated into a fantasy world and I lived there until my 40s," he says. "I lived out on the edge, and living on the edge is exciting but you pay a price. I didn't think of it at the time, but as the years went on the anger started to build."

At the age of 41 or 42, mercy visited Martin in the form of one Jon Grutzmacher, a Pasadena clinical psychologist and ordained minister who would one day inform him, "A hand grenade has gone off in your life, and your heart is full of shrapnel." From that moment on, he saw the main aim of his life was to go back to the places that hurt and heal them once and for all.

Although that intense psychological process is at the heart of "Shrapnel of the Soul and Redemption," the narrative reads more like a traditional autobiography, chock-full of fun times and misdeeds committed with a full cast of vivid characters.

Lane says she hopes the book will help people see a bit of the man behind the mythology.

"When people read about a story like his, they go, 'That guy was like a big deal,'" the publicist says. "But they don't realize he had a wife and kids and family. This is a human being, from beginning to end."

Martin says he's hopeful audiences who pick up the yarn will be able to read between the lines.

"It's why I wrote the book, or a big reason for it," he says. "We all have shrapnel."

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Who: Former wrestler, actor Pepper Martin

What: "Shrapnel of the Soul and Redemption" book reading and signing

Where: Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop, 1010 Foothill Blvd, La Cañada Flintridge

When: Aug. 11 at 7 p.m.

More info: flintridgebooks.com

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Sara Cardine, sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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