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

September 6, 2017
BY CHUCK CLEGG - Columnist , Wetzel Chronicle

As I sat there on my porch, listening to Sam Clemens story, I will admit it gave me a since of uneasiness. The thoughts of great monster fish below the river surface gave me pause. Samuel, sensing I was uneasy, said to me, "Well son, do you want me to go on with my story? It gets a little scary from this point on?" I knew that, no matter how scary it may be, I now had to know the truth.

Samuel began his story, once again telling me of that night in the sideshow tent with Jack and Crow. He explained that, as Jack showed the jar of toes, the crowd began to ask, "Did you ever capture those two monsters?" Jack carefully sat the toes on the table, so the lantern light still illuminated them as they floated freely inside. He then turned to the audience, as he said, "Did I catch them?" Then he walked to the large wooden box that sat near the back of the stage.

He carefully walked around it as Crow came up along the other side. They moved the ominous box closer to the front of the stage. The crowd, that had moved closer, now was moving back from the box, not knowing what was inside. Jack returned to the jar of toes, as he pointed at them, proclaiming loudly. "Ripped from my body were my toes! I knew that I was not goin' to let them fish have Jack Winkles as their supper for long!" He bent over, looking longingly at the jar of floating toes.

In a few moments he turned back to the audience. He slowly began to explain how, the very next day, he returned with his friend Crow to the very spot where the monsters lived. This time he prepared to catch the fish on a hand line, using large sunfish as bait. He knew the monsters could not resist a meal of struggling sunfish dropped into their lair.

Carefully they lowered the bait into the darkness. It did not take long until they felt a tug from the depths. They pulled with all their might. They knew they had hooked one of the monsters. It took nearly three hours to wear down the fish and pull him to the surface. But, finally, they saw the monstrous face of the fish rising to the surface. Quickly, they pull the creature in to the boat. They knew their work was not done, and they cast another bait into the darkness. But, it was not taken by the other catfish. He believed it had left the darkened place when its companion was pulled from the depths.

Jack went on to tell how he and Crow realized people may not believe their story. They knew they would need evidence of the great monster fish. He decided the best way to tell their story would be to have the fish preserved by a taxidermist. At that point Jack patted the top of the box. As he did he knew it felt almost hot to the touch. He looked at Crow and indicated for him to also touch its surface. Crow sensed the box was warmer than he had anticipated.

Jack knew it was time to move his story along and reveal the great fish to the crowd. "Well, we took our fish to a man who did taxidermy work. He had never seen such a fish before. But, after some convincing, he took on the project of preserving our fish. Well, that was a year ago, and you people here tonight will be the very first to see the Monster of the Sunken Boiler."

With that, Jack and Crow stepped to the sides of the box and quickly pulled opened the doors, revealing the monster inside. The crowd gasped in shock and horror at the sight of the yellow-eyed monster staring at them. Just inside were two very small kerosene lanterns that helped to illuminate the fish when the doors were open. Being so small Jack believed they would not produce too much heat, which could damage the wooden catfish.

Suddenly the fish seamed to burst spontaneously into flames. The heat from the fire caused the wooden fish to twist and arch inside the box. Someone in the audience screamed, "The Satan fish is alive and coming after us!" Screaming and panic ensued, as dozens of people tried to escape the tent at the same time.

Jack and Crow tried to kill the flames with their coats. But try, as they might, the flames engulfed the fish, then spread to the box, and then to their tent. Within five minutes, their show was gone in flames. All they had left was the smoldering remains of the box that once contained the monster fish.

Jack later learned that the formaldehyde, used to help preserved the cow hide, could become flammable as it dried. The fumes from the chemicals and the paint combined to create an explosive cloud within the box. When they opened the doors to show the audience, the sudden in-rush of oxygen was enough to be ignited by the small flames of the lanterns. In less than five minutes, one of the greatest sideshow acts ever came to a fiery end. Jack and Crow were glad no one was hurt in the incident.

It took all the money they had to pay for damages to the other tents, and book passage back up the river. They thought about creating another monster catfish; after all, they had told the crowd the other one got away. But in the end, they decided that maybe it was an omen, from the true monsters of the river, to leave well enough alone. Jack went back to telling his stories for drinks at the local bar. And Crow went to work for a traveling apothecary show.

As I sat in my chair, on the porch, in the evening's sun, Mary leaned out the door and ask, "Who are you talking with?" I told her, "Sam Clemens." She shook her head as she said to me, "You have to find something better to do with your time than listen to big stories from your imaginary friends." With that, she acted as if she smelled something. She then looked back at me and sternly asked, "Have you been smoking cigars?" I laughed as I told her it wasn't me, but Sam. She shook her head and mumbled something as she returned inside the house.

I hope you have enjoyed my summer story of Catfish Jack and Crow. It may be a story from my imagination, but at one time in our country's history, traveling sideshows were a part of summer. The shows provided entertainment for millions of people along the river. Sideshows and their oddities were a fascination long before televisions and hand-held devices. Today, some consider sideshow oddities to be politically incorrect to show to the public. I personally believe some television shows and hand held games are far worse than a lady with a beard, or a man the size of Tom Thumb. One other thing I forgot to tell you, Crow saved the jar of toes from the fire and took them on the road with the apothecary show. Who knows, maybe next year I'll tell you that summertime story, as we once again look back Through the Lens.

 
 
 

 

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