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October country 1963, pt. 2 

An unsettled memoir of sorts

In Part 1, 13-year-old John Grooms, two years after his parents' divorce, is gripped by the 1963 World Series between his beloved Yankees and the Dodgers. The Yanks lose the first two games, and his anxiety ratchets up, but he can't watch the third game as he's agreed to attend the Cleveland County Fair with his father. As daylight dwindles, his dad heads to the fair's garishly lit "hoochie coochie show."

I walked the midway, mad at my father for dumping me in the middle of the fair, and eavesdropped on passing fairgoers' conversations as I walked, hoping to hear news of the Yankees and that day's Series game. I stopped at a tent with brightly lit, painted pictures of a huge bearded lady and something that was supposedly "Half Man, Half Snake!" The show was limited to those "16 years and older," but I paid my 50 cents and walked through the opened flap and into the tent like everybody else.

Inside, the tent was teeming with about a hundred people, mostly blue-collar couples and single men. And one 13-year-old boy. We stood around on the mix of hay, sawdust, food wrappers and peanut shells that covered the floor in front of a five-feet-tall wooden stage.

I moved closer, finally settling in about 10 feet from the stage. Finally the emcee, i.e., the same crew-cutted guy who'd been barker outside, walked onstage and began his patter. Welcome blahblah to the greatest collection of human oddities blahblah midway, and blahblahblah, I tuned him out until I realized he was now talking about "a little something extra for you."

"Half-man and half-woman, due to a mistake of nature. Some call 'em hermaphrodites, some call 'em cursed by the devil, but in truth just unfortunate souls. You can see him — or is it her? — right after this show. When it's over, just line up over here to your left, and it'll cost you a mere 25 extra cents apiece. Because of the sensitive subject, of course, our half-man and half-woman is for those 18 and over ..."

God Almighty, what is this guy talking about? Is it for real? I was stunned, never having heard of people who today are called intersex. My interest was piqued, no doubt, but I was also glad that I wasn't old enough to go. Suddenly I wondered whether dad's hoochie coochie show had anything like it — and that thought put me back in the outside world, the one where the Yankees had unbelievably lost the first two games of the Series. As soon as this is done, I thought, I'm just gonna ask strangers if they know anything about today's game.

After the half-man half-woman spiel, the emcee introduced the first "performer," the Rubber Man — a thin, tired-looking, empty-eyed, middle-aged man in shorts with extraordinarily loose skin. The highlight of his act what when he pulled bottom lip practically to his eyebrows. Later, after a couple more performers I can't remember, Elephant Girl was introduced. A tall, hollow-eyed African-American woman in a two-piece bathing suit, she smirk-smiled at the crowd, and talked about her thick, crusty skin — "as thick as an elephant's" — covering her body except for her face and lower arms. My jaw was probably down among the peanut shells as I gaped at the poor woman, who turned this way and that to better display her personal tragedy. Suddenly my emotions welled up into a wave of adolescent pity, and I turned to get out of the tent, but I was too wedged in by others to leave.

After a while, "the stars of our show," were introduced. "A happily married couple who've been all over the country," said the emcee, "here are Penguin Girl and Frog Man." A barrel-chested man with gaunt legs frog-hopped onstage, next to his waddling 3-feet-tall wife, who, as she eventually explained, was born with phocomelia — all four limbs and her fingers were fused, which made her arms and legs look like flippers. To my amazement, Penguin Girl — who was at least 50 — was totally comfortable onstage and took over the show, delivering a chatty, showbizzy patter about their respective conditions. A few minutes into her spiel, she said, "How about that World Series game today? Did you hear? The Dodgers won again — one to nothing — now they're up three games to none. I sure didn't expect that." My interest in the show vanished immediately, and I wanted to run out. I had to wait another few minutes till the program ended, and then I stumbled out in a daze and went looking for my father on the midway. I found him and we left, neither of us talking about the shows we'd attended, other than commiserating about the Yankees' loss. He drove me to mom's house and we parted in silence.

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