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Catfish Jack's Jar Of Toes: Part 6 of 8

August 23, 2017
BY CHUCK CLEGG - Columnist , Wetzel Chronicle

While Samuel sat next to me, he had dozed off while telling the story of Catfish Jack. Then, with a start, he awakened to look at me and began his story once again, as if he had not stopped...

"Well, near Cairo on the Mississippi, they found the traveling sideshow. It was a rag tagged band of performers that made their living traveling and entertaining the town's residents. Sometimes they stayed in a community for several days. And sometimes their stay was not long, when local residents took objection to their shows.

In each town, it was not uncommon for the show to make payments to the local sheriff. Once an agreement was worked out, the shows' performers had a few days before the sheriff set about running them off, to satisfy the refined people of the town. Sometimes the sheriff asked for a little more money, to allow them one more day to perform. It was just part of doing business for a sideshow along the river.

There were a couple acts in the show that created the biggest problems for the traveling band of performers. One was the magic show man. He ran a poker game on the side, after hours.

If locals won some money, it was not a problem. If they lost, they ran to the sheriff and complained that the sideshow people were stealing money from them. The magic man knew if he was greedy, and took the locals too quickly, they would cause him problems. He tried to be at least a little honest in his card dealings. One other group of performers, that drew controversy, were the side-show hoochie-coochie dancing girls. The men who watched wanted to make sure no one saw them, as they paid their ten cents to enter and see the girls. The painted canvas posters out front advertised them as harem dancing girls from the Far East. Truth was, most were women just trying to make a living, working a job. But the men's wives did not always see it that way. It was usually about the third night when a group of women, carrying protest signs, appeared in front of the show with a Bible-carrying preacher. They chanted and sang hymns, trying to shut down the show. The sheriff always said he had to see the show first, before making a decision. After watching at least twice, he gave into the town's fine ladies' request to close the show.

Jack and Crow fit right in with the performers of the sideshow carnival. Although they were a rag-tagged group from around the country, they were good people who just wanted to perform to earn a living. Jack and Crow decided to set their tent up next to the snake handler's show.

Crow knew snakes drew in those who wanted to be a little frightened by what they saw behind the canvas walls.

On a warm June evening, the first night of the show's performance in Cairo, Jack and Crow began their adventure with "The World's Greatest Sideshow."

As the evening sun touched the horizon, the sights and sounds of the show filled the air. A band could be heard as its musicians began playing lively carnival music. Every few notes, a sour sound came from the band, but no one seemed to notice. Smoke drifted from the burning torches that lit the sideshow's mid-way, filling the evening air, sometimes making it hard to breathe.

Out in front of the colorful canvas banners, carnival hawkers were proclaiming to those, who came to see the show, why they should come inside to see the mysteries behind the curtains.

It was a grand place with the sounds of music, and the smell of corn roasting on open fires. Crow peeked out, at the crowd, from inside their tent.

He was preparing himself to go out front and convince people they should come inside and see Jack and the Monster Catfish.

He turned to Jack as he was stepping through an opening in the canvas.

"Wish me luck Jack, and get ready! In fifteen minutes it will be time to tell the world about your adventure and show them your missing toes!"

With that, Crow stepped out to beckon the passing crowd, in hopes of convincing them - that for only one thin dime - they could see the Monster Catfish of the Ohio River. And hear how the man, who caught it, lost his toes in the effort. Jack listened from behind the canvas as Crow barked out the story. Crow had a natural knack for calling a sideshow crowd.

It was only a couple of minutes until the first person stepped inside the tent and took their place in front of the stage. Before long, the stream of people entering was a steady flow. Jack figured their show was new and different and had not been seen before along the river. People want to see something new and weird; he hoped he could sell his story.

Fifteen minutes later, Crow came inside and showed Jack the bag of money as he said, "Jack we made near thirteen dollars already. We's gonna' be rich by the end of the season." He patted Jack on the shoulder and said, "Now, it's your turn; go tell them of the Monster fish that ate your toes."

Jack nervously stepped onto the stage. He had gone over, in his mind, several times how he was going to begin. For a moment, his mind went blank, but then he saw the face of a young boy looking up at him from the front row. The boy smiled. Jack was now eager to begin his story. He always enjoyed telling his story to the kids around town. With the young boy watching him, Jack began.

"Ladies and gentleman, by only the providence of God, am I here today to tell you the true story of the Monster fish who nearly ate a man.

But, before I begin, I must remind you that I am not the first man to be taken into the near pits of Hades by a great fish. Nay, I bare witness to you, this very night, that long before my ordeal, Jonah was taken in by a great fish. A fish that held him within for three days and three nights.

"I can tell you that, while the great fish held me, I remembered the story my blessed mother had told me so long ago. And I remember how Jonah had prayed to be saved from the creature of the depths. I knew, in that moment, I was held inside the mouth of another great fish. I, too, must plead my case to the Lord, to save not only my soul, but my worthless life from his creature, hidden in the rusty bowels of the boiler where it lived."

Crow knew Jack was naturally playing his part in the story of Catfish Jack and the Monster Fish.

 
 
 

 

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