The Camaraderie of Folks on the Midway
THE evening television news told us the Bangor City police have been vigilant during the state fair, making sure the midway attractions stay consistent with the high standards of morality so long admired in the common people of Maine. The police seemed to suggest that midway fakers are a bunch of crooks.Not necessarily. As has been related here already in other contexts, a group of college students had their Stammtisch in the downtown restaurant of Athenian Louie and Thessalonian Harry. We would gather each evening and discuss classroom matters while we ate. One October evening while Topsham Fair was going on, a gentleman approached to ask if he might join us. He was black. You must understand this was over 60 years ago, when Maine knew the black man mostly as a Pullman porter and a steward on an Eastern steamship. This gentleman was neatly dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, his shoes polished, his manners genteel, and his smile gracious. Otherwise, he was huge. A mountain of a man. He sat down and became amiable company, offering some thoughts about the Jung refinement of the "will to live," which was then in classroom sequence with the psychology boys. He told us he was in town for Topsham Fair, and we might see him on the midway if we attended. The boys who went to the fair found him all right - he was "The Wild Man of Borneo." His theatrical costume was something else again. He wore a leopard skin loincloth, and his gracious smile was gone. In a stout cage, he snarled and growled and shook the bars of his cage. Freud and Jung aside, he seemed not to recognize any of us boys, although at supper that evening he said he'd seen us. The man was a consummate actor, as well as a scholar and a gentleman. He came each October for a number of years, and inspired the better of my two only poems:
Two Different People The wild man of Borneo And Henry David Thoreo.
He introduced us boys to several co-workers on the midway. The Kittredge Sisters were twins and beautiful. They did a mind-reading act, told fortunes, and located lost articles. They said they "did" the fairs as a vacation from their humdrum life of tutoring French, German, and Russian in Boston. Clarence was a "guess-your-weight" expert. He had an armchair that swung from a scale, and if he didn't guess your weight within five pounds you got a kewpie doll. He told us anybody can guess what people weigh if he has a chair and gets 10 pounds leeway. He said if we saw somebody with one of his kewpie dolls it didn't mean he had goofed - it just proved it pays to advertise. There was a man and his wife with a shooting gallery. Pay a dime, and you got three shots at articles up on a shelf. If you knocked something off, that was the prize. The gun was an air rifle, so called, and the bullet was a cork stopper that had an elusive trajectory. Annie Oakley couldn't have hit an elephant at six paces, but now and then a cork stopper twisted something off the shelf. Maine folks, considering themselves expert marksmen, had a lot of fun with the game. Nobody, I assure one and all, thought the police should bear down on any of these evil people. However, the "Reverend" Radcliffe Fernwald got hauled into court one year for wicked shenanigans. He did a fire-eating and one-man-band act and sold whetstones and instant solder. In the winter, after the fair season, he went on a Chatauqua circuit and adjusted his talents to a morality lecture on upright conduct and the good life, for which he became a "reverend." On this occasion, our resident trial justice and our esteemed town clerk were intrigued by Parson Fernwald's agility, and wagered money that they knew more about his business than he did. Alas. The judge brought charges, and the parson's only defense was that judges and town clerks who gamble may be in the wrong line of work. Besides, our populace sided with Mr. Fernwald and thought something was comical. Fernwald always said Louie and Harry served the best pork steak he knew about. So they did. And hot chicken sandwiches, too.