Rants from the Hill: A romance in Reno, land of the second chance

The Ranter remembers being struck down by love for Tonya Harding, the fallen ice skater.


Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

David Fenimore. That is the good name of a good man who has been a good friend to me for a quarter century. In fact, it is so good a name that I call David Fenimore “David Fenimore” rather than “David” or “Fenimore.” David Fenimore. It just has a nice ring to it. David Fenimore is also a good name in the sense that David Fenimore comes from a good family, a highly respectable family of noble Philadelphians whose pedigree dates to the Fenimores whose name is familiar from the name of well-heeled nineteenth-century American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. David Fenimore was among my first friends when I moved to Reno more than twenty years ago. David Fenimore officiated my wedding ceremony on a bright day up in the Sierra sixteen years ago. David Fenimore has been among my closest colleagues at the university where I teach. David Fenimore even subjected me to his legendary hot tub ordination ceremony, making me a perfectly legal mail-order minister and giving me the formal title Mystical Philosopher of Absolute Reality. In my world he’s as good as it gets: David Fenimore.

David Fenimore, in formal garb.
Photo by Steve Davis.

Tonya Harding. Now that is not a good name. You will recall this diva of American figure skating, spectacle, and scandal, whose very public rise and fall charted a peculiarly American trajectory. Born in 1970 to an abusive mother and her fifth husband, Tonya, who grew up in a trailer, began skating at age three. She dropped out of high school to commit herself to what was by then a meteoric rise to fame. By 1991 she had recorded a number of firsts, including becoming the first woman to land the triple axel jump in international competition. 1991 was also the year she won the U.S. Championships, receiving the first 6.0 ever given to a single female figure skater for technical merit.

Tonya’s precipitous fall from grace began on January 6, 1994, when Nancy Kerrigan—Harding’s skating rival—was attacked by unknown assailants, who used a police baton to brutally whack her leg. Severely injured, Kerrigan withdrew from competition, and Harding won the national championship that year. However, it was soon suggested that Tonya was behind the attack, and a uniquely American media frenzy ensued. In January, 1994, Tonya appeared on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and her short program at the Olympics in Lillehammer in February was among the most-watched events in TV history. By March the jig was up. Harding accepted a plea bargain, three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and a whopping fine. She was stripped of all her medals and banned for life from professional figure skating.

Tonya would quickly rise again, although in a very different way. Within three months of being rung up, America’s former sweetheart appeared on a professional wrestling show as manager of the wrestling stable Los Gringos Locos. Before the year was out she and her then-husband had sold their home sex tape to Penthouse for $200,000 each, plus royalties. She would go on to a one-off with a crappy band called the Golden Blades, followed by a short, checkered career as a boxer, in which her most highly publicized bout was with Paula Jones—she of the pre-Monica Lewinsky Clinton sex scandals. Tonya had hit a new low among disgraced American celebrities. Tonya Harding. Not a good name.

Tonya Harding (right) with a fan in 1994.
Andrew Parodi/Wikimedia.

It now seems inevitable that the spectacle of humiliation that tawdry Tonya had become would involve Reno, my hometown. Reno. That is not a good name either. My town has long been associated with unseemly activities, from heavy drinking and unfettered gambling to quickie divorce and legalized prostitution. We have a bad reputation, and we’ve earned it. That said, Reno has always been the land of the second chance, the place where the down and out come for a last shot at redemption. As Jill Stern wrote back in 1957, Reno is “a symbol of failure to some, of release to others, of despair to the unloved, of the promised land to the domestically trapped.” “Could be, might be, maybe this time, maybe next time,” wrote Stern, who described Reno as “a symbol of the second chance and the chance after that which every man always believed awaited him.”

This Rant tells the story of how David Fenimore and Tonya Harding came together here in Reno, the land of the second chance.

Hoping for the juicy profits that were sure to follow a skating comeback for his disgraced client, Harding’s agent contacted every major and minor league hockey team in America to sell Tonya’s comeback performance as a halftime spectacle. Quite sensibly, no hockey franchise wanted to touch the deal. Except, of course, ours. The date was soon set. “Tonya II: The Comeback,” as the event was billed, would take place during a Reno Renegades hockey game on the evening of Saturday, February 22, 1997. The next morning the New York Daily News byline from Reno would open with these words: “Lake Tahoe? Too pristine. Las Vegas? Too wholesome. No, Reno was exactly the right place for Tonya Harding’s illustrious comeback last night. The town was hard, unpolished and a little too wild.” Yup, that’s us.

I don’t care a lick about either hockey or figure skating, but I do love American popular culture, and so I was among the first to buy tickets to see this one-of-a-kind event. At the time I was a newcomer to Reno, a young professor at the university here, and I knew very well that my new job required that I keep my nose clean. That said, I didn’t see how going to see the trailer trash comeback of the century could damage my professional reputation, so I planned a pre-Tonya party and invited the few friends I had, plus my girlfriend and my wife. (I should explain that the wife—now my wife of sixteen years—wasn’t yet my wife at the time, but just a friend, while the girlfriend was the woman I happened to be dating at the time.)

Unfortunately, David Fenimore did not want to join us for this spectacular event, which struck me as an unfortunate lapse in his usual good judgment.

On the Saturday night Tonya was to skate her way into my life, I made an impressive string of mistakes. For starters, inviting both my girlfriend and my wife wasn’t a great idea. But my second mistake was worse, and that was to suggest that we gather to begin celebrating Tonya at the ridiculously early hour of 3:30 p.m. By the time the evening hockey game rolled around, we were so awash in the effects of cheap bourbon that a cab was the only feasible way to get our sloppy crew to Tonyaville Junction. Once at the hockey arena our partying continued, with countless rounds of those giant, terrible beers that one sees only at sports arenas. Subsequent events would confirm the wisdom of the old adage “beer on whiskey, mighty risky.”

At last the magic moment arrived. The lights dimmed, the spotlight ignited center ice, and a sequined Tonya Harding stood in position, motionless as a sculpture, beautiful in that trashy kind of way that I find irresistible, ready to bravely skate her first routine since the scandal had brought her low. In a heartbeat the crowd of 4,000-plus went vintage Reno. There was a deafening roar of applause, spiked with plenty of shrill booing, and what the hecklers lacked in wit they made up for in volume. “Take your top off!” shouted a guy near us in the stands, who appeared to have come to the event with his grandmother. I observed to my friends how tragic it was that well-bred David Fenimore was not with us to enjoy this unique Reno spectacle.

As Tonya began her routine, which appeared to my untutored eyes to be utterly flawless, the whiskey and beer roiling in my noggin convinced me that this woman was truly amazing, that she richly deserved a second chance, that we Renoites should warmly embrace her and her long-odds comeback. What’s more, I decided in that moment that Tonya was far superior to both my girlfriend and my wife, and so, acting on pure impulse, I charged down the aisle of the metal bleachers toward the rink, where I ducked under a velvet rope and dodged a security barrier to reach the rink’s Plexiglas wall. Once there I spread my arms, raised them above my head, and began pounding my open palms on the glass wall, shouting at the top of my lungs, “Tonya, I love you! Honey, I’m here for you! Tonya, baby, I love you!”

I didn’t get out too many professions of love before I was seized by a pair of burly security guards, who dragged me away, even as I protested that it was criminal to separate me from my one true love. If my outburst had occurred in any town but Reno I would have spent the night in jail. At the very least, I should have been ejected from the arena. But this is Reno, the land of the second chance. The guys dragged me out into the hall and said calmly, “Buddy, go get yourself one of those big beers and enjoy the show. But don’t go down to the rink again or we’ll have to punch you in the face, ok?” This seemed to me pretty reasonable, so I gave them my word and was permitted to head back to the bleachers. By this time Tonya’s routine had concluded, and the crowd was going wild as she gracefully skated her victory laps, waving affectionately at us. Some people tossed red roses onto the ice, while others threw police batons. Tonya smiled. I smiled back, because I could tell that she was smiling at me.

Tonya Harding greets a crush of fans at the Portland Airport, after returning home from the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Andrew Parodi/Wikimedia.

Rejoining my friends, none of whom impressed me much anymore, I insisted that we wait however long it might take to meet Tonya and get her autograph. This meant standing in a snaking line of hundreds of people who were similarly smitten with the resurrection of America’s fallen angel. And that line of Tonya fans was absolutely mobbed by the press, as Tonya II: The Comeback had attracted media crews from around the country. While we stood patiently in line, one of my friends decided to have a little fun with me. He stepped up to a film crew, pointed at me, and said, loudly, “Do you people know that the guy with the long hair is a professor of cultural studies and he’s writing a book on Tonya Harding? He’s probably the world’s leading scholar of Tonya Harding Studies.”

Of course this was obvious horseshit—even the true part, about me being a professor, shouldn’t have struck anyone as credible—but that gave the media no pause whatsoever, and in seconds I was rushed by two film crews, a radio team, and four magazine and newspaper reporters. Suddenly the bright lights were on me, microphones were jammed toward my face, and I was asked to offer my scholarly opinion on the importance of Tonya’s Reno comeback.

I hadn’t yet sobered up, and so I thought I’d have a little fun of my own.

“You see,” I began, in a ponderous tone, “Tonya occupies a vital locus in a particular liminal zone in American culture. Despite the dystopic inflection of the marginalizing discourse that has relegated her to the subaltern, the fetishized and essentializing denigration of her performativity fails to acknowledge the polysemous deterritorialization that renders her cultural intervention not only legible, but profoundly redemptive.” I paused, just to see which of the reporters would call bullshit first. To my surprise, the media folks all nodded approvingly, as if they understood every word, though I noticed that a few were also squinting oddly, as if, rather than speaking, I had been slowly impaling their necks with an open safety pin. Weirder still, the newspaper and magazine reporters were actually writing, heads down and pens flying, though what they might have been writing I couldn’t begin to guess.

Since no one had the sense to stop me, I decided to go full naked emperor. “And that is why Tonya’s aesthetic decolonization of the historicized paradigm that has been mediated by heteronormativity empowers a polysemous praxis in which the signifier that is Tonya herself subverts the teleological verisimilitude whose elision by the oppressive agency of heteroglossic mediation has reinscribed the iconongraphic social construction of her identity—which, obviously, is a refracted, displaced, and projected reconfiguration of our collective identity.” I delivered this last part with so much conviction and sincerity that the approving nods intensified, and the pens flew even faster than before. I felt in that moment a great joy in knowing that I was sharing the limelight with Tonya—you know, legitimizing her performativity and all that sort of thing—and in that moment I thought that this might be the most rewarding lecture I’d ever delivered.

 “Even her radical alterity is intimately familiar to us,” I said, as I moved to conclude. “In other words, there’s a little bit of Tonya in every one of us, and [dramatic pause here] a little bit of every one of us in Tonya. All this is explained in detail in my forthcoming book, The Semiotics of Skating: The Fall and Rise of Tonya Harding. Any questions?”

I was having so much fun with this that I could imagine no question I couldn’t answer; after all, when people will believe anything you say, you can say anything you want. As it turned out, though, I was not ready for anything. In fact, I was utterly unprepared for the most obvious and at the same time most impossible question I could possibly have been asked. A woman reporter from the national television show Entertainment Tonight pushed a little closer to me, and asked, “What is your name?”

In that moment everyone huddled a little closer to me, the microphones were raised a bit closer to my face, and the scribbling reporters paused, pens in hand, waiting for my response. It was a terrible moment, an inconceivable moment, a moment in which I had not the slightest idea what I should do. I looked like a biker dude with my long hair down. I smelled like the results of an accident in which a loaded beer truck crashed into a distillery tank. I had narrowly avoided being arrested, I had publicly professed my love for Tonya, and now, for the pièce de résistance, I had shamelessly manipulated the local, regional, and national media. In that moment the magnitude of my mistake became painfully clear, curling over me in a slow-motion wave of terror and despair. I had just begun my career as a very much untested and untenured professor, and now, in that long, silent moment I saw my professional life flash before my eyes. Now it was I, rather than Tonya, who desperately needed a second chance.

I do not know how long that protracted pause lasted. A second? A minute? An epoch? The reporters waited, the crowd that had gathered around my spontaneous interview waited, even I waited, to see what might happen next. And then it happened. I did not think about doing it. I did not decide to do it. But I felt my lips begin to move, and I was shocked when I heard the words slip from my mouth.

“DAVID FENIMORE.” The pens all made a few more strokes.

Well, once it was said I couldn’t unsay it, so I just went ahead and got another giant beer. Eventually I made it to the front of the line, where I did finally get Tonya’s autograph. Tonya even signed the biceps of both my girlfriend and my wife, which looked super cool on both of them. But I had forgotten to mention to my girlfriend and my wife that I intended to ask Tonya to marry me, so I think all three of them were a little surprised when I popped the question. And although I didn’t come out of that night with the wife I intended to, I did, in time, come out of it with a wife. And though she can’t ice skate very well, I think it all worked out for the best. Even my girlfriend approves.

David Fenimore, still cheerful after loaning his name to the author.
Photo by Ashley Marshall.

As for David Fenimore, he had to field a lot of calls from the East Coast over those next few days. He’s still my friend, though I know I don’t deserve him. When I told him I might someday put this story in writing I also asked if he wanted me to change his name. “Naaw, go ahead,” he replied. “I’m not so attached to it ever since you started using it.”

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