I can’t remember exactly when it was or how old I must have been but my mother took me to (I think) the state fair in (probably) Columbia, South Carolina when I was (let’s say) ten. If I’m wrong on any of these, it was either Columbia or Beaufort, either a state or county fair and I was either ten or somewhere in the twelve to fourteen range. Additionally, if I’m wrong it doesn’t matter much or at all. With all of that out of the way (this is a factual bit rather than a bit of fiction or it really wouldn’t matter), I will describe what might have been a pivotal incident in growing up less gullible than I might otherwise have been.
We wandered around the fair, wherever it was and however old I might have been. We might have gone on some fairly tame rides or into the “Fun House” (also known as “House of Mirrors”), perhaps a haunted house. By the way, and as a courtesy service to those who are unaware, these rides are neither in a house nor haunted (inhabited by the ghostly remnants of the previously living). On the other hand, you do get to ride in an uncomfortable cart that jerks back and forth, side-to-side as it makes its way along an electrified track past tableaux vivant that are meant to horrify but are usually just cheesy.
We arrived at the time-honored sideshow area of the fair, a place where P.T. Barnum and other impresarios before him once displayed genetic anomalies as a source of amusement for paying customers. Well, and social anomalies like naked women. This was a fairly tame sideshow area as both the year (the early-to-mid 1960s) and the location made truly tasteless sideshows a bit much for the population.
For some reason, my young eyes were drawn to a sign that said “The Cardiff Giant” and I was instantly intrigued. I can’t tell you why but the sign triggered something in my reptilian brain and said “ooo – a real-life giant! a huge person! I must see this person!”
Some of you know the tale of the Cardiff giant and know what I saw next but don’t whisper it to your friends and neighbors. Let this play out….
It didn’t take much work to get my mother to shell out for two tickets—I think they were a dollar each—and we went into this particular tent. A large, or rather long, plaster figure of a male human was supine in a wooden box just a little below the level of my eyes. The figure was not particularly well wrought, not entirely evocative of something that might have ever been alive, and not so huge, even by the dubious standards of fakery, to result in much other than disappointment from me. I had been duped and had caused good money to be spent for the duping! A dollar apiece was, to my young mind and to the times in which we lived, a good chunk of money. I think it may have been equal to my weekly allowance and might have been more that my parents allowed—I can’t remember.
I probably sounded a little comical in my petulance and disappointment. My mother undoubtedly knew that it was a hoax—a rather famous hoax originating in the mid-19th century—and played along as an object lesson for the young and credulous version of myself. But I was beyond disappointed, I was also pretty furious (in a well-behaved way, of course) and let the barker who had taken our money know that I felt cheated.
“That was fake!” I might have said. I certainly said something equally appropriate to the occasion and I said it a bit loudly too. I think all the response I got from the barker was a grunt of surprise that I was surprised but that annoyed me even further. In some way, it clouded a perfectly good day and cast a pall over me whenever I thought about it for some time afterward.
I never went in a sideshow again. I became less gullible. Eventually, although not immediately. Perhaps I even became somewhat less cruel. After all, a giant is nothing for anyone to ogle, living or dead, factual or concocted by hucksters. Neither is a hirsute woman or an elephant man, a human being dwarfed by genetics or a naked woman disrobing because economics have not been kind.
In a way, the sideshow was nothing more than a house of mirrors. Staring back from the box that contained this poor representation of a 19th-century hoax was an image of my own perverse, albeit immature, interest in oddities, a reflection of my own gullibility, a mirroring of an inner self to learn from and leave behind.
Many of us may have had similar experiences, although not always at the enticement of a sideshow sign or a barker’s call. Some of us learn from our experience. Some of us don’t. Some of us steer away from a cruel interest in “otherness,” some are always intrigued.
When you looked in a box containing a mirror, what stared back at you? Did you learn or did you laugh?
Featured Image: Rob and Stephanie Levy (Some rights reserved, 2008)