Blacksmith and strongman of the Mother Lode,
1902-1937, when he began a 20-year career
with Barnum, Bailey Circus, featured internationally
as the world's strongest and most tattooed man.
--Gravestone Inscription, Angels Camp
I dreamed in ink--clouds pinned against the endless belly of the sky, a
blot of orange weeping through its border-- and woke to cold, damp gauze
unraveling from my skin. In time, I started drawing odd looks on the
street, so what couldn't be hidden, I forced further into view. I
figured crowds would pony up to see me inked, like Omi and
Costentenus--that self-bred lot. Nights, after the forge was cooled,
tools hung, I tracked down Brooklyn Joe--a good man, clever with the
needle-- who darkened the canvas of my flesh with dragons and geishas,
redwoods on my calves and Christ-heads on my ribs. All told, Joe left me
looking like a tall Ming vase-- a frozen scene that you could live
inside for days. My ticket elsewhere, paid in flesh. Come look, come
Those tattoos formed the hopeful specters of my night, but morning pried
me from my ink-stained sheets to work. With criss-crossed tongs chirping
like a cardinal, I drew out horseshoes, sixteen-penny nails beside the
rictus of a forge yawning its ball of heat, lump coke glowing and
pulsing in that shallow gullet. Working both sledge and chisel, I had no
striker--preferred to work alone. Damp leather gloves, the ceaseless
ping of hammer and anvil--these are the things I can't forget even
now, not that I hear the whisper of regret. All that I made from broken
springs, discarded chain links rusted and thick as from the docks of
Sonderborg, are out there still, and I take comfort knowing that.
Somewhere, a horse presses its shod hooves into mud.
But curiosity's a fickle child, and inked men fell from high wonder
when the crowds thinned, wanting more: While Omi filed his teeth to
points and stretched his lobes, I forged a set of bull rings--four-inch,
heavy gauge-- and pierced my nipples with a drawn-out steel-grade rod,
then slid the rings into those burning tips of flesh. Starting small, I
wrapped a so-lb, anvil in chains, and hooking it to my chest, I lifted,
slow at first, the only sound the tick of blood against the floor.
Breath was the bitch to master--keep the good air in. I ground my molars
smooth and clenched my neck to wires. Practice makes perfect.
No, practice makes permanent. And this, I figured, was the tempered
ease of freaks-- that pearl of pain the curious rub themselves against.
I worked the Odditorium, then joined the Ringlings' sideshow--that
mobile hall of lesser gods and muses. We etched our way across the
country's sprawling back and passed the whiskey round until the jug
got dizzy. Chuffing east through Lincoln, we played hearts and stud as
rain dragged ragged lines across the windowpanes. Near Dallas, the
giantess pulled aces on my jacks ... (The towns changed faces, but the
people stayed the same.) By July of 1944, a permanence: breasts dangled
from my unseen muscle, Tiresias-like, and the loosed-up piercings swung
like cow-bells when I walked. With jagged bits of swarf still clinging
to my boot soles, I lifted for a drop-jawed crowd. You'd call it
art, if it were yours--this painting with a shifting frame.
In Hartford, I woke early to a reveille of smell--elephant shit, and
roughnecks boiling coffee, day-old stuff, squatting in the long light of
morning or pissing opposite the tracks that brought us there. Soon
vendors trundled in their franks and orangeade, the sunlight glinting
hard against their silver carts. Hours later came the folks who looked
to patch the war with the exotic, stuffing their faces with cotton
candy, and grinning like Cheshires, their little fists full of balloons.
There, several gawked as I prepared my act. One child screamed like a
steam-whistle, then hid in mama's skirts. I hooked the chain-linked
anvil to my breasts, then heaved, arms spread for balance like an umpire
Attraction curdled with disgust like yin and yang.
Frieda spoke politely from her leather stool, smart in a lace-trimmed
velvet dress. Some folks looked on as if her limblessness might lead
them to a sacred pity, but she looked back more mystified than those who
frowned. Pen pressed between her chin and shoulder, Frieda signed Best
on her portrait with a master's ease. (That girl could thread a
needle with just tongue and teeth.) Looking at my hands, those knuckles
fat as chestnuts, I thought of Frieda from my platform--but it's
here that memory goes dim. "The Stars and Stripes Forever"
kicked up from the bandstand--allegro, perfect, loud. Some must have
screamed; they always did. A minor hitch, I reasoned--but as the band
piled verse on added verse, disaster rose up through the hope of false
We gathered outside the Big Top: There, the sad-faced downs, frowning as
if always braced for tragedy, grew into humans as the paint drooled off
their faces. One woman dumbly clutched an infant, charred and blebbed,
hair weeping off in wet clumps as she stroked its head. A gust sent
flames unfurling east, the band still roaring when the canvas folded,
gentle as a swan's wing lowering on those below. Air heaved out
like a fevered sigh. "The Greatest Show on Earth," the marquee
read, untouched. And who would doubt the claim? It all seemed
choreographed, red curtains drawn on new illusions as we watched. Coke
bottles melted into miniature lakes and streams-- those bits of
brightness that my mind will never lift. The act forged into blackened
slag. We couldn't look away.