Half -a- Freak

Lofty endeavors, such as divine mystical understanding, selfless service to mankind, or subtle life lessons of any kind are rarely if ever an attraction at the State Fair. The prevailing venue is considerably more mindless consisting of an assortment of rickety thrill-rides, rigged gambling, greasy foods, and lots and lots of hype.

The attendees or mob consists of an ambling blank faced hoard, devoid of any thought loftier than, “should I get me another one of them Elephant Ears?”

An army of vendors offer up a menu comprised of such artery clogging favorites as the oversized snow cone cup of limp, grease laden French fries soaked in vinegar, turkey drumsticks roasted to the point of turkey jerky, great pink plumes of cotton candy, amorphous wads of deep fried cheese like substance, garbage can lid sized Elephant Ears, and the all time staple favorite, corn dog or pronto pup, standard six-inch, or the preferred foot long size.

Vendors attempting to peddle bean sprouts, tofu, or steamed vegetables fail miserably and almost immediately.

The Midway being the heart of the Fair (or double heart, in the case of the two-hearted rooster) is where the vast majority of the crowd inevitably ends ups. Here fair goers pay handsomely for the opportunity to be dropped from great heights, slung around at high speeds, or jerked around in quasi-safe wino assembled contraptions until a state of nausea is attained. All this while listening to a badly distorted rendition of Billy Idol’s White Wedding.

Attractions such as the Meditation Pit, The Eco Walk, or the Spiritual Reading tent attract few visitors.

Another favorite, the gaming area is nothing short of absolutely fascinating and is a source of wonderment to Physics and Engineering professors. Here, common sense, any semblance of fair play, and even the law of gravity, are temporarily suspended, all for a chance to win a pocket comb or possibly, but highly unlikely, a life sized stuffed Panda.

The accompanying barkers exclaim loudly and incessantly how easy it is to toss a quarter on to a plate, pop a balloon with a dart, squirt a clown in the face with a water pistol, or pick off a floating rubber duck with a B-B gun, accomplishing any of the feats wins you a giant stuffed animal.

If truth in advertising laws applied, their patter would be required to sound something like this, "Hey you there ! Yeh you, with the obviously inept throwing arm, wanna loose your money fast? All you gotta do is toss your hard earned quarters on these slick, convex plates. Probability of pulling it off is approximately one in a hundred million.
We guarantee you’ll throw your money directly on the ground.

“By the way, the people you see strolling the Midway with giant stuffed pandas are all on the payroll”.

Missing at today’s Fair due to an annoying sense of social correctness is the once infamous Sideshow.

We no longer condone viewing Freaks openly and in public, Freak viewing now days is restricted to the family television. Oddities like the Alligator Boy, Tiny Lady, and Monkey Girl, have been replaced by the transsexual who was once a man who was then changed to a woman, who now wants to be a man again so he can enjoy a homosexual relationship with his own uncle, who was neutered in a horrible albeit questionable mowing mishap. It was easier comprehending the idea of a guy who was half reptile.

For me personally, the Sideshow was the holy grail of the State Fair, In part because I had been denied access to this presumed treasure of treasures.

In one of those seamy sideshow tents something happened that profoundly changed me forever.

As a youngster going to the Fair was a mandatory parental accompaniment event. For one thing the Fair wasn’t located in a spacious pasture like it is now, it was down town, and as a kid you didn’t go down town by yourself especially to the Fair. I’m not sure I even wanted to go to the Fair without mom and dad.

It was a bit scary , claustrophobically crowded, and sprinkled with an ample helping of garden variety weirdos. Mom and dad had added to the apprehension by warning us of pick-pockets, perverts, and the like. Let’s not forget the “child kid-napping gypsies”.

Also, I had the financial wherewithal of the average kid, which means I had squat for money, so if for no other reason, I needed to drag the folks along for bank.

As kids the only thing at the Fair worth seeing was the Midway and of course for me the inner sanctum of the Midway, the Sideshow. Unfortunately my parents had absolutely no time for the Sideshow, and only tolerated the Midway.
They were much more interested in things like the Lake County Orange Pavilion, John Deere Tractor display, and steam driven apple coring machine.
We always spent the agonizingly appropriate amount of time going through each boring pavilion, looking at peanut growers, endless agriculture displays and of course the apiarists with their bee stuff.

We were then forced to slowly wander through the Livestock Expos. Pigs, chickens, bulls and cows, rabbits, chickens and roosters, and finally goats. On occasion we would catch a live birth. That was OK ! Gross but pretty cool. My sister always put her hands over her eyes, and true to big brother form, I would pry them away from her eyes, forcing her to witness the carnage.

Dad was raised on a Kansas farm so I guess I understood his longing to re-experience his youth. Actually I thought the Livestock Expo was cool enough, it stunk with an intensity too hard to describe, a funk you can’t imagine.

I would tease my sister Linda, by pointing out the great steaming mounds of cow and pig crap. She would squawk loudly about how gross it was, and tattle to Mom that I was making her look at crap. It was our little routine. Leaving “Olfactory Hell”
we finally headed for the Midway.

My sister and I were like anxious race horses at the starting gate, we couldn’t wait to be scared half out of our wits and spun around until we puked.

Mom and Dad would offer up their obligatory words of caution, and suggest tame rides like the merry go round or baby Ferris wheel. Linda and I would beg to go on the Flaming Wheel of Sudden Death.
Eventually Mom and Dad would acquiesce and let us go on one of the bona-fide thrill rides. We would spin around at great speeds until we in fact puked and/or wet our pants. It was great fun !

Every year as we hit the Midway I would start my subtle campaign to see the Sideshow. It was an up hill battle, but I had a single-minded objective and would not be denied.
Part of the problem with the Sideshow was its proximity to the girlie shows, which by today’s standards is about as naughty as the Weekie Wachee Mermaid routine.
I would point out to Dad the educational aspect of the sideshow. I would explain to him that since I had never been to Europe, seeing the great giant rats of the French Sewers would be a once in a lifetime educational opportunity. He would readily dismiss the exhibit as a fraud and explain something about the rats actually being Louisiana Nutrias.
He had an explanation for it all, to him the Sideshow was a series of well orchestrated frauds. He used to say, “it’s all smoke and mirrors, don’t waste your money.”
I would even try to capitalize on his weakness for farm life by pointing out the two-headed cow, or the rooster with a double heart. Nothing seemed to get past his stoic refusals. Frustrated, I decided to try a sneak attack.

As kids we were well chaperoned, breaking out on a solo mission while at the fair was almost impossible, I say almost because over the years my desire to see the Sideshow had motivated me to figure out an escape route.

My parents didn’t care much for the Penny Arcade, I guess they had seen it all before, and admittedly it was noisy, stinky, crowded with youngsters, and to them, once again a waste of money.
We had over the years established a Penny Arcade routine. Mom and Dad would take us to the tent, go in for about five minutes presumably to check for unsavory elements, and then, tell us we had a remaining twenty five minutes in which to play the pinball machines, test our strength at the arm grip, view the old Buster Keaton stereoscopes, flatten a Lincoln penny in the metal press, etc .

This routine had offered up a chance for escape. I planned to swear my sister to secrecy, duck out the back of the Arcade and haul ass to the Sideshow. The distance was about two hundred yards, mired by slow moving crowds. I could make it in about four minutes leaving me plenty of time for a tour of the Sideshow.

I had the plan detailed in my mind, right down to the minute. I even knew exactly what I wanted to peruse once I was inside the tent. The seductively enticing Snake Lady was on the top of my list followed by the Alligator Man, and the Tiny Lady who lived in a bottle. I would hurry past the Sword Swallower and the Fire-Eater, and head straight for the Giant Rat, Two-Headed Cow, and Siamese Twins. I really wanted to see those Siamese Twins. I had fantasized about them for years, the details of which we will leave to the imagination.
If I had any precious time left, I could catch a glimpse of the less fantastic freaks such as the Fat lady, Bearded Woman, and Monkey Girl.

The day finally arrived, and as scheduled we approached the Penny Arcade. I had to remain poker faced or dad might suspect something. I couldn’t afford for him to say. “I’ve never seen you so excited about the Penny Arcade,” he might then follow me in to see what all the excitement was about. The plan would be foiled. The folks escorted us to the entrance of the arcade, peaked inside for a moment and then dutifully prepared to post guard outside.
I gave my sister a wink, hurried past the pinball machines and ducked out the back. I was free! I whipped around, focused a determined stare at the seductive Sideshow banners in the distance, and commenced to execute a broken field run any pro running back would have been proud of.
Owing to my sense of anticipation and intense will, I made it under the allotted four minutes. As I prepared to cough up my fifty cents and enter the tent I looked up in wonderment at the explicit banner depicting the freakish but tantalizing Snake Lady.
I thought to myself she was the most beautifully seductive creature I had ever laid eyes on, I couldn’t wait.

Mere seconds and a few steps were all that separated me from what I imagined to be the event of a lifetime.
I paid the barker, a tall skinny man sporting a top hat, and a freak in his own right, stepped through the tent flap, and was in.

Snake lady, Snake Lady, my eyes scanned feverishly.

Standing in a corner on an unpainted wooden platform was a pudgy middle aged woman holding a listless Boa Constrictor. She was wearing a one-piece bathing suit kind of like the one my mom wears when she works in the yard during the summer. Underneath the bathing suite she was wearing a badly tattered beige body suit, it made her look like she had saggy dingy brown skin, the opposite of what the body suit was intended for. Instead of being beautifully seductive as the banner had portrayed, she reminded me more of Mable Vaughn, the elderly principal of my elementary school, a fine and gracious woman, but not at all seductive. The Snake Lady was the first in a stream of disappointing sights.
The enticing artistically licensed banners outside no more resembled the people inside than my crude stick figure renderings resembled sexy Bond Girl Ursula Andress.

The Alligator Boy had some rare skin disease that granted made him look pretty weird, but an actual Alligator with a man’s head, that was stretching artistic license to the point of ridiculousness.

The Tiny Lady in a bottle was also a scam, smoke and mirrors just as dad had told me. She was a thirty-eight inch dwarf, nowhere near the six inch specimen I had expected, based again on the misleading banner outside. The bottle like contraption she lived in was big enough to house the family Collie.

My disappointment now mounting I turned toward the rest of the freaks.
The Two Headed Cow had been dead for decades, and for all I knew could have been a stuffed animal.
The Giant Parisian Sewer Rat was not very rat looking, I really didn’t know what a nutria was, but I was starting to think maybe dad knew what he was talking about.
The Siamese twins were authentic. They were joined at the head, and I guess they had to stay that way, evidently separating them meant only one would live. I started to imagine how very difficult their lives must be. As I viewed or rather gawked at them, a strange uneasiness began to wash over me.

We were taught as kids not to stare at people who were different. My parents explained that some people were dealt a bad hand in life and staring at them only made it worse.
Everywhere I looked there were pockets of people pointing and staring blank faced at the various freaks, the whole ordeal was starting to feel very sordid. My eyes scanned for something real and spectacular but were met with one disappointment after another.
The mundane Fire-Eater was now starting to catch my interest. There was a juggler, a guy in a dirty tuxedo doing pitiful magic tricks even I could figure out, and an overweight lady with a spotty beard -— big deal!

Looking at my watch, I had about six minutes remaining, just enough time to get back and sneak into the arcade undetected. Just as I was thinking what a disappointing hyped up bunch of crap the Sideshow had been, I stopped to take a final look at what was billed as the Half Lady, it was simply an unfortunate lady with no legs, a double amputee for my entertainment.

As I paused in front of her to gape, she looked up at me with eyes that seemed to have deep wisdom and understanding. I felt she looked past my blank gaze into my deeper consciousness, which really wasn’t much for my young age. Startled by her piercing stare, I felt compelled to say something.

Up until this moment I hadn’t actually communicated with any of the Freaks. I guess I regarded them as exhibits and didn’t think much of their humanity. Not knowing what to say, I blurted out naively, “what’s it like being a Freak?”
She leveled her piercing eyes at me and stated with precision and with a calm sense of real understanding, “don’t you know?” I gave her a puzzled look, turned away confused and headed for the exit.

Another great broken field run and I was back at the Arcade, no one the wiser, except my sister who’s kitchen duty responsibilities I assumed for the next month, under the guise of simply being a benevolent big brother. This gesture rang of payoff, and didn’t fool my parents, but they were none the wiser.

I wondered for weeks what that half a person was trying to tell me. I felt she had tried to convey much in those few words, “don’t you know?” I had only my young immature brain to figure out her puzzling comment, but It finally came to me after much pondering.
You see, the real Freak was me. I had betrayed my parent’s trust, probably risked a vigorous belt spanking, and a month’s worth of restrictions, and had let myself be completely duped by hype. I had risked an array of consequences just to gape at some folks who I shouldn’t have been staring at in the first place.
Who they were as human beings, their dreams, and aspirations, ultimately transcended their inconsequential physical abnormalities.

The real Freak was the blank faced young voyeur.

I got something out of that Sideshow experience, but it wasn’t what I had expected, I believe it was something more profound.

Half -a- Freak

Steve Sperry

Tampa, United States

  • Artist
    Notes

Artist's Description

Based on a True Story

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