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Three score and ten or more

Monday, July 14, 2008


I have been writing a lot lately but have had trouble getting it to "post" stage. I have one thing almost finished that is really a comment on one of Saurkraut's posts, another that deals with the death of one of my students while he was under my supervision, and some "like" posts that are so close to me that I have trouble finishing them.

On TV last night, however, I saw something that tickled me. In whatever program it was there was some lovely young lady who was trying to explain that someone like her could possibly be a real geek. (in this case meaning computer nerd). Not long later there was a Best Buy commercial for their "Geek Squad" (meaning computer repair and installation typed.) This all called up a memory of what it meant in 1952 (and earlier) to be a geek.

I'm telling a tale out of school that I don't think any of my family knows about so,
family that reads my blog; prepare to be a little shocked. (Or you may have heard this elsewhere and just never let me know).

As background, a lot of the more exciting things that happened out in the boonies had to do with fairs, carnivals, circuses, etc. I actually had teen age fantasies about running away with the carnival or circus, but I really couldn't figure out what in the world I could do except put up tents, take down tents and stand out to take tickets. I had some theatre experience but couldn't figure out why anyone would want to cast me in Othello for a side show. You know how it is.

The big circus was always the Ringling Bros, Barnum and Baily circus, which sometimes performed in tents, and at least once performed at the local fair (really rodeo) grounds, and a variety of big and little carnivals that moved in an out of town. But the really big thing was the Eastern Idaho State Fair which was held annually in Blackfoot, a smallish town about twenty five miles from my metropolis of Pocatello. Members of my family, together or on our own, frequently attended the local things, but I only remember attending the Blackfoot fair three times.

Once, I think that I went with my parents or with some Aunts and Uncles when I was junior high age. A second time, about 1950 or 51, I went with some guys with whom I worked at the Union Pacific Shops (I vaguely think that some of them skipped out of work to go, though it was on one of my days off.) The third time was (I think) the summer after I graduated from high school. I actually had two or three different jobs that summer, but went to the Blackfoot fair between jobs. I had earned a fair amount of money, and I hooked up with a couple of the neighbor guys who invited me, and off I went to spend money, see the rodeo and bands, wander through the side shows, etc. After while we got separated and I found myself standing outside one of the side shows talking to one of the "carnies". I recognized him from a previous summer, when at one of the side shows the barker picked volunteers to stand up and read a pitch for the sideshow and whoever won(I don't remember how it was judged, but I could never resist a crowd) would get in free and win some kind of prize. The guy I was talking to had been one of the acts in the show, and after it was over, he kidded me about going full time, that I was a natural, and I bought him a coke. (He was a sword swallower).

For some reason, I recognized him, and he me and he kidded me about "running away with the carnival" and wondered if I was there to join. (laugh, laugh). I told him I was a Mormon, and planned to go on a mission in a couple of years and that would be enough carnival for me. After a little while he lead me back stage to look around, and he told me that if I was really interested, and didn't want to be a barker (which, he said, was unlikely because most of the front men owned the shows they were promoting) he would teach me to be a geek.

Now, at that time, the only person whom I had ever heard called a geek was a retarded boy who was in my elementary school classes some years before, and I stated that being a geek was not one of my ultimate ambitions. He got a little testy right then and stated that geeks were to side shows what "flyers" (trapeze artists) and animal trainers were to the circus. They were the kings around which shows were built.

At this point, he had my attention, because he obviously considered himself one of those, and he WAS a geek (he said). He then went into a history of geekhood which revealed that in earlier times geeks were not respected because they did things like kill chickens and drink their blood etc. but now they were the best. The primary activities were sword (and neon tube or a variety other straight long things) swallowers. The trick, he said was to learn to completely control the gag reflex. (If you gagged with a steel sword or a neon tube sticking down your throat to the point where your stomach opened into the small intestine, your career, not only as a geek, but as a living person was going to be short.) He then gave several free demonstrations that were really impressive (telling me that if I didn't buy a ticket and see the show he would hunt me down and insert some of those things he was using, into a completely different part of my anatomy.) He took me to his trailer and showed me a collection of live white mice which he used for shows, and, in my presence he took a mouse, petted it, caressed it and lifted it up an swallowed it. He then said some words to me, bent over a bit and spit the thing out into his hand, after which he wiped it off with some kind of disinfectant and it ran happily back into the cage. (Can you imagine a representative of PETA at that moment). He bragged that he could swallow bird shot, even some poisons in capsules and the spit them up before they could do harm.

I was beginning to get a bit edgy by that time, probably because he seemed to be getting friendlier than I really wanted to be, so I excused my self, but as we were walking out, he posed the thought that geeks were the healthiest people in the world. No geek could get an ulcer because he controlled his digestion and if something gave him heartburn he could spit it up without all the gagging that the rest of us go through. I left, and hunted up my friends, refusing his offer to introduce me to the front men both of the side show and the carnival, where he could arrange a job that I could do until I learned how to be a geek.

I did pay to go into the show, with all of the guys who took the trip except one who said he really wanted to ride the Octopus again before we left for home. The show was impressive. He actually swallowed a small snake of some kind in the show as well as doing some other stuff that I think I have managed to forget. I was quite a celebrity among guys in the neighborhood for knowing this guy (I had his business card, I kid you not, for awhile.)

I will say, that watching the Best Buy Geek Squad pile into their VW or whatever it is, always had new meaning to me. (As will it possibly have for you as well.)


At 12:16 PM, Blogger exMI said...

I knew that geeks were the guys that ate things at the old circuses. But I haven't met any. (Except on guy who was a water polo player who used to eat light bulbs to psych out his opponents.

At 10:48 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I've finally figured out why I can relate to you - South Africa was at least 10 or 20 years behind the rest of the world when I was growing up. We didn't get TV until 1973. So, like you, to me geek meant a freak not a 'puter nerd.

You said: "I hooked up with a couple of the neighbor guys..."

Talk about dated - I recently found out what "hooking up" means nowadays and I think I'll spare you the details.


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