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Thursday, February 5, 2015

In odd we trust: Gibsonton, FL, home of the circus freaks

The first pangs of low-grade panic commence their calisthenics on the third day. It's a kind of gnawing on the stomach lining that's similar tot the fifth time you've vainly scoured your apartment for the car keys and are now seriously thinking it's time to dissect the dog.

Where could they have gone? They were right here before. How could they not be here?

I'm in Gibsonton, Fla., and I can't find the freaks.

If that makes no sense to you, consider that not finding freaks in Gibsonton is like not finding corn in Kansas. It's like being in the ocean and not finding fish.

If it wasn't so disturbingly ironic to even apply the term, it would be, well, freaky.

All the leering headlines profiling Gibsonton call it "Freaktown USA!" It's the land of the Lobster Boy, The World's Tallest Man, Monkey Girl, The World's Strangest Couple, The World's Fattest Man and, according to recent tragic headlines, the World's Flattest Woman.

And if profligate reporters can't find freaks in Gibsonton, they will have a difficult time justifying to tight-assed home-office bean counters The World's Biggest Expense Account.

Gibsonton is the fabled winter home of nearly every carnival and sideshow act in America that right now is setting up in a fairground or church parking lot near you. About 30 minutes south of Tampa, "Gibtown," as the carnies all call it, is where the lurid pages of the Weekly World News come shrieking to life. Or so I was told, a hopeful candle of a notion Alieta Klinger is quick to extinguish.

"Look, if you're here to do one of those exploitive stories about three-eyed men and two-headed cows, you're going to be very disappointed."

Klinger is a chairperson at the 30th annual International Independent Showman's Foundation, an industry trade showcasing the latest industry hardware. That means the scenic fairgrounds along the banks of the Alafia River are crowded with empty clusters of ticket booths, Ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls and enough snack shacks to give dyspeptic nightmares to a Third World's worth of fair patrons.

And Klinger's right. Not a freak in sight. Just well-off, mostly Caucasian men, carnival owners who look like they'd be more at home in a posh country club telling Hillary Clinton jokes than elbowing their way along a crowded midway that reeks of corndogs and carnies.

Ken Hayward retired from teaching in 1973 to run away with the carnival -- his own. He's been operating Wabash Valley Shows at the same Midwest fairs and festivals he's visited for nearly three decades. He's on the road just 21 weeks a year and has the quick smile of a man who loves what he does. Can he find me a freak?

"There are no freaks in carnivals anymore," he said. "The government put 'em all out of business. They made it easier for them to stay home and collect welfare checks than to go out and work for a living. I tell you, the government's outta control."

Hayward has a bumper sticker that says, "Rush is Right."

Still, there's gotta be freaks. I flee the fairgrounds and cruise the streets of Gibsonton, a great place to vacation if you're raising a mini-van full of morons. This is the part of Florida where the skies apparently once opened up and rained neat grids of shabby trailer homes for miles and miles. Retail-wise, everything's either a strip mall or a strip joint.

One beaten-up Chevy pickup truck at the Checker's drive-thru has a bumper sticker that says, "Third Generation Cracker Proud." Around here the only trash that gets recycled is white. Don't even think about Cheeze Whizzing on one of these crackers.

And because this is showman's convention week, all the old carnies are hosting yard sales, ones unlike any in the world. Ferris wheels, caterpillar choo-choo trains, water games, giant swing rides -- all sit for sale in garish glory outside nearly every trailer.

Listen carefully and you can hear the occasional bone-chilling roar of tigers, lions, bears and other circus animals. Gibtowners are still upset over the untimely demise of Teresa Caballero-Ramos, 52., who was killed by an area pet that got loose and gruesomely stomped her to death. It was Kenya the elephant. Yeah, when it comes to Gibtown, it really is a jungle out here.

Ten days later, 2 1/2-ton Kenya was mysteriously found dead in her pen. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department suspects foul play and is investigating.

The incident unleashes a thundering herd of dead elephant questions across the vast, sunny savannas of my brain: Where do they autopsy the great beast? Is the body in some giant refrigerator? How long before it starts to stink? And where on earth are they going to find that much barbecue sauce?"
I vow to find the animal, conduct my own sleuthing investigation, or at least sneak in for a picture of me standing atop the dead elephant like a tacky sort of Tarzan.

But my sadistic safari is cut short when a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department says a backhoe was employed and burial was next to where the colossus fell. Further disposal was left to busy ants, worms and critters who will no doubt be recounting this feast to disbelieving descendants for generations to come.

Judy Rock says there hasn't been this much of disharmonious uproar since Lobster Boy murdered his daughter's fiance.

"We don't even like to talk about that," she said with a shiver. "It was all so terrible."
Lobster Boy was freaky Grady Stiles Jr. He and his offspring were born with "ectrodactyly," a genetic condition that causes all their fingers and toes to fuse into two-digit claws that look spine-tinglingly similar to the pink-limbed crustaceans you see on license plates of people who drive cars registered in Maine.
Although hard-drinking meanie Grady was found guilty of murdering his daughter Kathy's boyfriend, no facility in the state could accommodate his condition -- no one thought of giving a seafood restaurant a shot? And favorable testimony from character witnesses, the Bearded Lady and the Fat Man, convinced the judge he was no longer a threat to society. He was given probation.

That's when things started getting weird. Stiles's much-abused wife ran off with a dwarf in 1992 and paid a hit man $1,500 to off Stiles. Lobster Boy was cooked.

Judy Rock was there for it all. She's the daughter of Al and Jeanie Tomaini. He was 8-foot-4 1/2; she was a 2-foot-6 torso often billed as being "two-and-a-half-feet . . . but no legs!" After the two met and fell in love while touring, Jeanie and Al became "The World's Strangest Married Couple." Rock has a bumper sticker that says, "If You Think I'm Strange, You Should Meet My Parents."

Al the Giant is a founding freak of Gibtown. He opened Giant's Camp here in the late 1940s. It was a place where all freaks and human oddities would be welcomed.

What was the kharmic quality about Gibsonton that led the gentle giant to believe this was the perfect place for freaks?

"The fishing's really good here," Rock said, "and dad liked to fish."
Soon, Gibtown was wall-to-wall freaks and honest critics could justifiably call the local government a real circus. Al was the fire chief; dwarf Col. Casper was chief of police. Rock remembers looking up at the dinner table and seeing a couple of giants, three or four midgets, Monkey Girl, Three-Legged Frank Lentini. Her daily grace must have included a prayer that someone would pass her the potatoes before 600-pound Fat Lady Dottie Blackhall got a hold of them.

"Gibtown was a great place to grow up," she said. "When I was in the sixth grade, I already knew how to eat fire and swallow butter knives."

Today Rock, 53, sits in a tiny, cluttered office under the watchful gaze of hundreds of celebrity eyes. They're all here -- Robert DeNiro, Judge Judy, Dan Quayle, Kevin Costner, Angela Lansbury, William Shatner and the biggest of them all, Regis! This child of the freaks today writes polite letters to celebrities requesting autographed pictures and most are willing to oblige. She still runs Giant's Camp, and has been featured in People for her offbeat tombstones she engraves with everything from marijuana leaves to Old Milwaukee beer trucks for the dearly departed.

She mourns, too, for the passing of the freak shows. Even carnivals these days have bent to political correctness like a nimble-limbed contortionist.

"Today's carnivals are all about grab joints for food and rides," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "The whole point is to feed 'em, make 'em throw up on the rides and then get 'em to eat again."
As far as finding any freaks, she, too, is discouraging.

"My dad died in 1962 and mom passed last year," she said. "One by one, the last generation of true freaks is passing away. And no new human oddities are being born. Medical science can correct some of the conditions that led to freaks in the past. That's good, I guess. But many more babies are simply aborted if the doctor says the baby's going to be deformed. That saddens me. My mom was what they called deformed. She had no legs. But she lived a wonderful, long life and touched many people. I'm very opposed to abortion."

She advises me to go see Melvin Burkhardt, The Human Blockhead, and I turn to go.
"Oh," she stops me, "I don't know if this will help or not, but before she died, my mom always said, "`Hey, let's go see the freaks.'"

Oh? Where'd you take her?

"I'd just drive her out to the mall. There's always plenty of weirdoes out there."
Melvin Burkhardt is a legend among sideshow performers and a highly sought interview among button-down journalists who've always dreamed of asking someone appropriate the question, "So, what's the longest piece of hardware you've ever pounded up your nose?"

Burkhardt is credited with inventing the modern Human Blockhead routine in the 1920s. He's a 93-year-old anatomical wonder who doesn't look a day over, oh, about 83. He's still capable of more stupid human tricks than a month's worth of Letterman reruns, and these days he has to pay if he wants to get into the Showman's Association to see old friends.

"The part of the carnival I represent is not welcome anymore," he said, with an ill-concealed edge of bitterness. "The freaks are all gone. A freak used to be allowed to grow up and maintain his or her individuality and make a nice living. Now, medical science can spurt growth in midgets, it can shrink giants and with DNA, soon we'll be able to grow 'em anyway you want."

Even true human blockheads are fading away, and that's a pity because Burkhardt's act still thrills as he prepares to drive a silver nail as big as a rail spike straight into his right nostril. He swings the hammer at the bulbous bullseye of his nose with plate-rattling vigor. Bang! Bang! Bang! The interview comes to a sloppy conclusion as I'm hypnotized by the sight of a man with two inches of a six-inch nail sticking straight out of his face.

Freakless and frustrated in Gibtown, I head to the Florida State Fair in Tampa to meet legendary sideshow impresario Ward Hall. His World of Wonders sits in a remote corner of the enormous fairgrounds and, symbolically, is faced off against a long, gray row of 12 port-o-johns. Hall's written a book called, "My Very Unusual Friends." On the cover is a smiling shot of him leaning between Siamese twins Ronnie and Donnie Galyon, who spent their entire lives staring directly at one another. Joined at the breastbone from birth in 1951, the two shared a common navel, internal organs and, yep, one penis.

And you thought you and your brother fought about whose turn it was to use the car.

Hall, 70, tells me about the old days: "Yeah, there was Three-Eyed Bill Dirks. He looked like he'd been split down the face with an axe. He'd been born with a deep indentation between his eyes that appeared as a third eye and his nose was divided with nostrils on each side of the depression. Lip was split, too. Great guy."

He tells me about Frog Boy, Sealo The Seal Man, the Ossified Lady, Mule-Faced Grace McDaniels and all the trouble that happened when Priscilla the Monkey Girl eloped with Emmit the Alligator Skinned Boy.
"Yeah, those were the good ol' days," he smiles at the wistful recollections of what used to be and will be no more.

His own freak show features a fire eater/human blockhead, a sword swallower, snakes, a friendly ticket-taker midget, and Fat Man Howard Huge, whose mom wanted him to be a lawyer. He's got some museum exhibits of famous freaks like Three-Eyed Dirks, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, but really, it's kind of lame. There's a guy selling kettle korn two tents down that looks heavier than Howard Huge.

Hall admits every time he goes to the mall he sees at least one man or woman who could have qualified for the Fat act. Meanwhile, natural born human oddities, the kind that used to flock to his sideshows to escape small town monotony, are disappearing.

"Back in the '50s, there used to be hundreds of true professional human oddities working the country. Today, there are none. And that's too bad, because there's a greater appetite for human oddities than ever before. People are fascinated, but the freaks are all gone."

The only true freaks I find after five fruitless days -- freaks who could still shock and amaze -- are probably Kathy Stiles, 31, and her 9-year-old home-schooled daughter, Misty. They are the clawed, scarred descendants of the infamous Lobster Boy.

Has she ever thought about touring again?
"I quit in '92 and I won't go back," she said. "We made some good money, but it was really hard, and the government made it easier to stay home and collect disability."

I'll be damned. Rush is right.

"People still stare when we go out because, I guess, we're the last true freaks. Everyone's tattooed and pierced, and we saw a kid at the mall with blue hair the other day, but they stare at us just for being the way we were born. People really need to get a grip."

Interesting bit of philosophy, not to mention choice of words, from someone with claws instead of fingers.
Back home I tell friends and family I've failed to find the freaks in Gibtown.

My tanned father-in-law, himself just returned from a long Florida vacation, says: "You should have come with us to Key West. Freaks everywhere."

Everywhere but Gibtown.
The freaks are dead. Long live the freaks.

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