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.
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 email@example.com and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.