Saturday, July 25, 2020

Once upon a time by the ore docks...

Circus Geek,
found on Weird Old Photos on  Pinterest
 Written by Jim Heffernan, for the Duluth News Tribune, July 25, 2020

 I went to a ball field next to Duluth’s Wade Stadium the other evening, to watch a grandson play kid baseball, and encountered someone I hadn’t thought of in a long time, the Wild Man From Borneo.


The encounter was actually a memory of a time, many decades ago, when I realized that about where I was standing watching the ballgame was where the Wild Man From Borneo danced into my life.


I hadn’t been around Wade in a long time, but the stadium itself is now surrounded by open ball fields used by Little Leaguers and others. Some of these fields today occupy the area, not far from the ore docks, once used by traveling carnivals and tent circuses as they made their way around the country in summer.


On the memorable evening that I first encountered the Wild Man I was 16 years old, cruising around alone in my newly acquired maroon coupe with no particular destination in mind. Since a carnival was in town, I decided to check it out. There’s always some excitement at a traveling carnival.


I’ll say.


Wandering past the various “attractions,” I ran into a kid I knew from high school (I was about to enter my senior year) who was very excited, even agitated, like he’d seen something frightening. Of course I can’t remember his exact words, but I’ll try: “You ought to see this guy in there (he pointed to a tent). He bites off the head of live chickens.”


My, my. Being a youth of exemplary character (at least in church), I indicated that I had no particular interest in such antics (this was long before the Ozzie Osborne era, actually in the Ozzie and Harriet era), but my friend insisted. “I’ll pay your way if you’ll go in,” he said. And that’s an accurate quote.


Well now, I didn’t want to appear to be a chicken myself, so I agreed,


And that was where I encountered the Wild Man From Borneo (just off today’s third base line). I’m not sure that’s what he billed himself as. It seems like the description was popular at the time for anyone stepping way out of line and doing something wild and crazy. Anyway, that’s what I’ve always called him, not that he comes up all that often. Also, I cast no aspersions on the Indonesian island of Borneo and its people. There are wild men everywhere. Women too. Even at this carnival.


But onward. Inside the tent was a canvas ring, perhaps four feet high and 10-12 feet in diameter. We spectators stood around the ring in which a live chicken showed up, clucking around frantically as though it knew its fate. Chickens always act as though they know their fate, and they’re always right.


Enter the Wild Man From Borneo. He was bare save for a loin cloth (covering a swimming suit) and he danced around wildly, like any self-respecting Wild Man From Borneo might be expected to, I guess, although I wasn’t that familiar with any other Borneo wild men at that early age.


After demonstrating his wildness to the paying audience, he started chasing the clucking chicken wildly, as the chicken wildly tried to avoid him. It was all very wild.


But once again man conquered animal and the Wild Man grabbed it and — there’s no delicate way to put this — quickly bit off its head. What was left was a chicken with its head cut off and, of course, the Wild Man, who disappeared behind some curtains as we filed out onto the carnival grounds satisfied that we had been, well, I wouldn’t say entertained.


At least I hadn’t paid to get in.


I didn’t know the real meaning of the word “geek” at the time. Today, of course, the word is used to describe someone who seems “unfashionable or socially inept,” in the words of one of my dictionaries. Another derivation says a geek is “a performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts.” There, now we’re getting somewhere.


Another of my dictionaries says a geek is a person who “bites the heads off of chickens or snakes.” I believe that says it all about this Wild Man From Borneo who was biting the heads off of chickens in the shadow of the Duluth ore docks on a warm summer night in 1956. That’s for the record.


I was unfazed by the spectacle. I can’t explain why. Teenager I guess. It’s a time of life when nothing surprises you when it should. I’m pretty sure I didn’t mention it to my parents, though. When you are that age there are a lot of things you don’t mention to your parents. (And there are a lot of things they don’t mention to you.)


Well anyway, after comparing notes with the kid who paid my way in to see the geek (“Wow. Really crazy, huh? Yuck!”) I wandered on through the carnival alone for awhile. One attraction featured a stage in front of a tent where a bevy of undulating scantily clad female beauties lined up as a fast-talking male barker promoted the show they would perform inside the tent, presumably even more scantily clad. I’m not sure the word beauties applied to all of them. Some had aged a bit, I seem to recall.


Nobody paid my way to go into that one, so I moved on to watch people throw baseballs at bowling pins hoping to win beautiful prizes like pink Kewpie dolls or cute stuffed animals. I didn’t need either and decided to go home, it having gotten dark. Besides, things were shutting down.


As I walked toward the parking lot, I spotted a couple — man and woman — coming from behind the scenes somewhere. He was all decked out in a nice sport jacket and slacks, his arm being held by a female companion who looked a lot like one of the bevy of beauties I’d seen earlier on display, now in full mufti.


The nicely dressed guy? It was the Wild Man From Borneo.


Oh, I almost forgot: My grandson’s team won. I must admit that my mind wandered a bit during the game.



SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT — In a previous column on my affinity for classical music I quoted a line from the late rock ’n’ roll icon Little Richard’s hit “Long Tall Sally” incorrectly by writing “Long Tall Sally saw Uncle John and jumped back in the alley.” Astute readers have contacted me and informed that it was, in fact, Uncle John who jumped or ducked back in the alley after Aunt Mary saw him with Long Tall Sally. There is widespread disagreement, however, on the exact wording (see Google). I regret the error…but not as much as Uncle John must have.



Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A lesson in how not to be cool...

Little Richard
 Written by Jim Heffernan, for the Duluth News Tribune, July 11, 2020

A few weeks ago, the world of entertainment lost legendary rocker Little Richard, and this this week Charlie Daniels joined him in the great rock’n’roll beyond. Also the other day, Beatle Ringo Starr turned 80, an age with which I am intimately familiar.


Great balls of fire! The times they are a-changing.


I was not a fan of Little Richard or any of his contemporaries in the world of popular music. Oh, I bought Elvis when I was in high school. Who didn’t? Elvis and Richard and others — Jerry Lee Lewis, for example — arrived when I was a high school student and, looking back, it changed everything. But not me.


The reason is that right around then, after surviving “Marizy Doats and Dozy Doats and Liddle Lamzy Divey” as a child, I came to appreciate classical music more than anyone else I knew. I went through the motions of digging the pop music of the day, but my heart was in the classics even as I watched Buddy Holly and Co. in the Duluth Armory three days before they died in a plane crash. I have written about that so often even I’m sick of it.


I suppose my music appreciation proclivities are and were rooted in my childhood-teen-young adult home. My mother was an accomplished pianist with a classical background and also a church organist who could blast Bach from a two-manual instrument through the ranks of pipes in the Lutheran church where she played. It can get your attention.


So when we played records (now known as “vinyls”) at home it was classical music coming out of the phonograph (now known as CD player, rapidly being eclipsed by other advances in technology I can’t begin to understand). And when music was played on our grand piano at home, it would be the likes of Chopin and Schumann and only on special occasions “The Irish Washerwoman” accompanying my father who could do a passable Irish jig. Ah, the memories.


Cool, huh? Not very. In my teens I started making my way through the great dead Germans — Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and others with the Russians — Tchaikvosky, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich — not far behind, blah, blah, blah. I could go on but nobody cares. Almost nobody.


When the Beatles came along I was already in my 20s (around the same age as the Beatles themselves). I ignored them. Then there’s Duluth-born Bob Dylan. A local area kid just a bit younger than me becoming a worldwide phenomenon, but his art meant nothing to me. He’s an amazing poet and interesting personality I came to realize years after most people embraced his music. 


Why all this now? The other night I watched the movie “The Seven Year Itch” starring Marilyn Monroe and a now forgotten actor, Tom Ewell. He plays a bumbling husband left alone in his New York City apartment for a few weeks in the hot summer when his wife takes their son to camp. Marilyn plays an aspiring actress who lives upstairs and who inflames his imagination while being fiercely loyal to his wife.


In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, he imagines himself as an accomplished pianist sitting on the piano bench with Marilyn beside him while he plays — here comes the classical music — Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a gorgeous romantic piece. As he frantically plays, he turns to her and intones, “I’m going to take you into my arms, and I’m going to kiss you, very quickly, and very, very hard.” About then, she falls off the bench.


Great humor, and great music. Fed right into my appreciation of classical music. I’d always liked the Rachmaninov Second.


In those days — the ‘50s — it was common for teenage boys in cars to cruise along London Road in Duluth near the old Curling Club at night when roller skating there ended to see if any of the girls walking along the sidewalk would like a ride home. I know this sounds incredible today, but it was pretty common and innocent at the time. Teens meeting teens.


One such night in summer, a buddy with a convertible and I decided to cruise past the Curling Club to see if any girls might like a ride home. Just as we arrived, incredibly, the Rachmaninov second piano concerto came on the car radio.


I was thrilled. Who could resist this romantic music. Girls would flock to our convertible dying to meet us and, perhaps, get better acquainted. I imagined myself embracing one of them and saying, “I’m going to take you into my arms, and I’m going to kiss you, very quickly and very, very hard.”


Never happened, of course. Even a girl inclined to meet boys in that manner would be repulsed by such music emanating from the car. Not cool. Who are these squares? (In today’s parlance, squares have become nerds.)


It was, I must admit, a hard day’s night. Almost as bad as when Long Tall Sally saw Uncle John and jumped back in the alley. But not quite.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at