Today, I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in a long
time. It was something I saw when I was four years old.
I was standing in the Sears store in Arlington,
Texas, when I heard a loud clip-clopping noise.
Turning, I saw coming towards me a legless woman walking on her hands. On her
hands she wore a pair of shiny red shoes, and as she moved,
the shoes smacked the floor with a clip-clop clip-clop.
I was astonished. Being a young child, I had not yet learned
it was impolite to stare at a disabled person. Nor did I understand the concept of disability, or realize there was anything wrong with the woman. I thought she was supposed to be that way. To me, it was simply wondrous that she walked on her hands. So I stared at her, smiling in delight.
As she passed, she flashed me an equally delighted smile, then
disappeared down an aisle, clip-clopping away.
Oh, the things you see as a child, and because you see them
with fresh eyes, they have such a magical quality and your reactions to these things are completely authentic and without the least inhibition.
I remember another incident. This one too involved a store,
and I was about the same age. My mother and I were walking in downtown Fort
Worth. We passed a department store window full of mannequins,
all of them posed in their usual positions, everything normal except for one
thing: they were all completely naked.
I burst out laughing at the sight, and laughed wildly, uncontrollably. My
laughter caught the eye of the woman in the window who was preparing to dress
the mannequins, causing her to laugh as well.
I do not remember if my mother laughed, but I do remember
her pulling me away from the window and telling me to tone it down.
Oh, the things you see, the things you see … and, of course,
not all of them are funny.
I was a little older. We were coming back from a family
vacation on the coast, traveling down a two-lane highway somewhere in Central
Texas. The traffic slowed to a crawl. There was an accident up
As we drew nearer, we saw what had happened. A car had hit a
horse-drawn wagon. You still saw the occasional wagon on rural roads in those
days, as there were still a few die-hard old farmers who either could not, or
would not, buy a truck. It was, of course, dangerous for wagons to share the road with cars, as
this accident demonstrated all too well.
The wagon was smashed and lying on its side, and lying nearby were two dead horses.
The owner of the wagon and horses—an old man in overalls—was
not hurt, but he appeared to be in shock. He stood there looking at his horses
with a blank, hopeless expression.
My eyes began to water, then the tears poured. Nothing upset
me so much in those days as the death of an animal, and here were two dead
A couple of years later, I saw another tragic highway scene.
I was riding with my father when we came on the scene of an accident. An
ambulance, a cop car, and several other cars were pulled over to the side of
My father pulled over and went to see what had happened,
while I waited in the car. After a few minutes, he came back and said a boy had
been killed trying to cross the road to the farmhouse where he lived. He had
gotten off the school bus, excited to see the family’s new TV set
(their first, I imagine) and had run straight into the path of a car.
As we drove past the accident scene, I saw the car that hit
the boy. Inside sat a woman behind the steering wheel, crying.
That image still comes back to me from time to time,
whenever I think of the sad burdens people carry in this life …
When I was eleven, I became old enough to explore the Midway
at the State Fair by myself—as long as I kept my eye on my watch and met my
parents on time in front of Big Tex.
After riding a number of rides, and losing money at the coin
toss, I came upon the freak show. I’d always wanted to see the freak show, but
my parents had always said no. But now, there was nothing to stop me. Now,
finally, I could see with my own eyes the Octopus Boy, the 1,000-Pound Woman,
the World’s Tallest Man, and all the others. Their painted images on the banners
seemed so fantastic I could hardly believe they were real, but the barker gave
his personal guarantee that they were indeed real, and anyone who doubted need only pay one
dollar to see for themselves.
I paid my dollar and went into the tent, where a large group
of people were listening to a man on a platform talk. And boy, could he talk.
He talked and talked, and talked, promising any moment to show us the most
amazing things we’d ever seen, or ever would see, in our lives. I was excited,
but also getting impatient.
Finally, he announced that he would now show us a Medical
Marvel, the likes of which had never been seen anywhere before, until now—a Freak
of Nature so stupendous, so shocking, so awe-inspiring, that we would regret it
for the rest of our lives if we did not see it. And it only cost a quarter.
I had exactly a quarter left, and felt a little cheated,
having already spent a dollar just to listen to this man talk. But I realized,
looking at my watch, that time was running out and if I did not spend my
quarter, I would never see any freaks.
So I paid my quarter and followed a crowd of people into
another partitioned area of the tent. There, on a small wooden platform, sat a
man on a folding chair next to something covered up with a sheet. The man
smoked a cigar and was cross-eyed. I hoped he wasn’t the promised Freak of
When the room was entirely full, the other man—the talking
man—came into the room and told us that what we were about to see was One-Hundred-Percent
Genuine and One-of-a-Kind: it was a two-headed baby.
He gave a signal to the
cigar-smoking man, who pulled away the sheet, revealing a giant jar of
formaldehyde with two dead babies floating inside.
“Siamese twins,” the man said. “As you can see, they
are no longer attached. This was due to an attempt to surgically separate
them—an attempt which they did not survive.”
The babies were white and withered, their eyes tight shut,
their bony little arms drawn up to their chins. I stared at them in horror for
a few minutes, getting my money’s worth, then left.
I was depressed the rest of the day, and though I returned
to the State Fair many times after that, never went back to the freak show.
The things you see, the things you see …
But I should not end on such a gruesome note, but rather, tell
of something else I saw as a boy. It, too, was in a tent, but had an altogether
different effect on me.
A tent revival came to town one summer day. My friend Joe
and I watched them set up the tent, thinking it might be a circus of some kind,
and were disappointed when a man told us what it was and urged us to attend—and
bring our parents. We left on our bicycles, with no intention of doing either.
But later that night, bored and with nothing else to do—and
hearing the music and shouting far off down the road—we grew curious. We
remembered the man had told us there would be faith healings—the lame
would walk, the blind would see, and so forth—a spectacle we realized we could
not miss. So, we hopped on our bikes and rode off down the road.
We were a little afraid to go inside, but it was an
adventure, and adventures are few and far between in a sleepy little town. So
not only did we enter the noisy tent, we even sat near the front to
get a good view when the healings started.
The preacher was stomping back and forth on the podium, face
red as a beet and screaming at the top of his lungs as he described the
torments of Hell: oceans of boiling water, agony beyond description, and all of
it lasting into Eternity. It was terrifying, which of course was his intent.
Above the podium was a bright light, around which a number
of moths were swirling. They also from time to time swirled near the preacher who kept opening his mouth wide to
holler, till finally—it was just a matter of time—one of the moths flew
straight into his mouth.
The sermon ground to a halt as he began coughing and sputtering.
Someone jumped onto the podium to slap him on the back. His eyes bulged as he
coughed and gagged, trying to bring up the moth, which no doubt was fluttering
around in his gullet, causing him considerable distress. A murmur of concern went
through the congregation, as not everyone knew what had happened. He might be
dying for all they knew. More concerned people poured onto the podium trying to
It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen. I knew I
shouldn’t laugh, and tried not to—but when I glanced at Joe and saw him
struggling not to laugh, it was all over. We both burst out laughing, and ran
out of the tent into the darkness and fell on our knees in the grass, laughing till we hurt. And later, when we got back on our bikes and started home, we had to
stop a few times to laugh some more.
Oh, the things you see …