I suffered a near death experience back when I was a teenager. Okay, I suffered a lot of near death experiences as a teenager usually by somehow enraging my parents, but in this case I didn’t bring it on myself. This time, I was an innocent bystander.
It happened, of all places, at the State Fair in the freak show tent.
I don’t know if they even still have freak shows these days, much less how they operate, but back in my teen years when I attended them there was no real “show” involved with a freak show. The posters outside the freak show tent promised three-armed people, lobster people, Jo Jo the Dog-Faced boy, ape men, girls with scales or half-a-girl who was missing everything from the navel down – you name it, but what you actually got once you paid the price of admission was a man sitting on a stool toward the center of the tent who shoved stuff up his nose. The stuff consisted primarily of screwdrivers of various lengths. To add a little drama to the “show” he would occasionally pound the screwdriver with a hammer.
“It’s no trick,” one of the guys once told me. “Anyone can stick a screwdriver up his nose. You just have to do it so much you lose your sneeze reflex.”
This guy also stuck pins through his bicep. He told me that wasn’t a trick, either. After a life-time of shooting up drugs, he killed all the nerves in his arms and didn’t feel anything anymore. Besides, he added, he re-used the same hole in his skin.
The only other live act in the freak show was a dog that was missing its front legs. I felt sorry for him until I realized he was the happiest dog on the planet. He was maniacally obsessed with fetching a tennis ball. All day, morning to night, people entered the tent and tossed him that ball. He hopped kangaroo-like after it, brought it back then waited, barely able to contain his excitement, for someone to toss it again. Dog paradise.
The rest of the freak show consisted of a dead things in jars.
The jars sat on shelves all throughout the tent. They were filled with a clear liquid, which I assume was formaldehyde. Bobbing around inside the jars were sad little genetic mistakes. There was two-headed animals: snakes, puppies, kittens. There was a five-legged calf and a six-legged piglet. It was a treasure trove of little tragedies. It was a little depressing. The truly surprising jar exhibit, though, was the two-headed human baby. I figured it had to be fake. It had to be a rubber doll of some type. Surely the government wouldn’t let you keep a dead human being in a jar.
Turns out, I was wrong.
While I was staring at it, a group of cub scouts barreled in, much to the consternation of the old woman who monitored the place. “Break anything and I’ll throw the lot of you out,” she warned them.
At least one Cub did not listen. I watched him pick up something from the floor, a rock I assume. He reared back and threw it. The rock struck the two-headed baby jar. There was a resounding Crack! Everyone in the tent turned toward the sound and watched in horrified amazement as the fluid inside the jar spilled out onto the floor. Next, an unearthly smell on the order of fifty parts nerve gas and fifty parts Satan’s armpit enveloped the tent and all its inhabitants.
The interior of the tent exploded into a bedlam of noise and activity. Women screamed. Men shouted things that no doubt introduced the younger freak show attendees to words and concepts well beyond their years. Mothers, in selfless acts of maternal sacrifice, clapped their hands across their children’s faces rather than their own. The quicker thinkers immediately dashed for the Exit. Others took a moment to gather themselves then staggered doggedly forward toward safety. Even the legless dog forgot his tennis ball and hopped the hell out of there.
Of course, I was pretty much standing at ground zero.
I clapped both hands over my nose and mouth. I was more than willing to suffocate myself to death rather than inhale a second draft of that unholy cloud. I followed the exiting crowd on shaky legs through the cloying waves of fetid air. When I reached the outside I gathered amongst my fellow victims, hands on knees, taking deep, cleansing breathes.
The old woman who ran the freak show bellowed something on the order of “Who broke that jar?”
The perpetrator was not ten feet from me, but I couldn’t bring myself to point him out. He was just a kid, after all. He just did what boys his age did. Maybe he was working on his ‘Destroy Property’ badge – what did I know? I didn’t want to subject him to whatever punishment the old woman planned to mete out.
Besides, I planned to murder him myself.
It turned out I didn’t have to. The scoutmaster had also witnessed the infraction and assured the survivors that the Cub Scouts would get to practice their knot tying skills once they got back to the den, because he intended to lynch the rock thrower.
The next year, I went back to the freak show and half-expected to see the “Bottled Cub Scout” exhibit, but there was none. I guess the rock thrower got off with a reprimand.