O Hour, Charleston,SC

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coastal Fairs And Wrestling With Bears

    When I was in high school one of the things I always looked forward to every fall was the arrival of the Coastal Carolina Fair. Back in the 70's the fair was far different than today. Of course you had all the worn out overused rides,  fixed boardwalk games, and art expos. Fair food then consisted mainly of the mandatory corn and hot dogs, soyburgers  and elephant ears. People watching was the real game, as guys and girls walked the circle of the boardwalk over and over in that familiar mating dance of the over hormoned American teenager.
    The fair back then was also grittier and a little more hardcore. I read once as Pat Conroy described the fairgrounds off  Dorchester road having strippers dancing to drunken groups of men in tents as pickpockets worked the crowd. My fair while I don't remember the strippers was in places defiantly a descendant of Mr. Conroys.
For a buck you could buy a 24 oz beer, and because the drinking age was 18 no one ever carded you. For that same dollar you could get in to see the Vietnamese Drug Addict, a sad little guy in a wheelchair who would look up on you and curse you in two languages. Then there was the bear.
     The bear cage occupied a place of honor in the middle of the concourse. It was approx. 15' by 15', about 10' high surrounded on three sides by jail bars with woven chicken wire from ceiling to floor. The back wall adjoined a trailer where the bear was kept when not performing. Entrance was made by a single door on the side of the cage. The bear himself was a little over 8' tall and weighed in excess of 600 pounds. It had been trained to wrestle and knew about 15 moves, and had beaten  the famous Andre the Giant. The owners of the animal had put up $20,000.00 to anyone who could pin the beast.
      My senior season I injured and years later found out broke my right ankle on the last day of football practice. Though injured I couldn't  or wouldn't miss the fair, so taped under and over my shoe(thank you Donna Higganbotham)  I limped around the boardwalk. That night I was supposed to have had my shot in the limelight,,,,I was supposed to wrestle the bear.  I had spent the previous week bragging that I was going to pick up the 600 lb Kodiak, but now I looked on as others took my place. My friends taunted me for days not knowing how bad my injury actually was and I swore that I would fulfill my promise not just to them but to myself.  Next year......yeah Next year.
        It took a few years but when I was 20 I finally got the chance and as I waited for my turn  to step into the cage I tried to watch and learn from those who went before me. What I learned is something Louis and Clark , Mountain men and Daniel Boone knew,,  DON"T MESS WITH BEARS. Most of the guys before me went down and went down HARD. The bear between matches would wait by his trainer and drink 2 or 3 Miller Highlites while waiting for his next victim. Taking people in alphabetical
order and having the last name of Sweat the bear as you imagined was more than a little tipsy as the poor gentleman before me was about to find out.
        Ahead of me and into the cage entered a small (5'2 and 90lbs) oriental man. To this day I swear I don't think he had any Idea where he was or what was about to happen.  He walked into the cage waving vigorously to the crowd of a couple of hundred of onlookers smiling from ear to ear. Not paying attention to his surroundings he never noticed as the trainer moved the bear into position and raised him to a standing state,,,,towering 3ft and 500 lbs above the helpless contestant the bear moved in. In response to the crowd he turned at the last second, gave a high pitched squeal and visibly jumped a foot into the air in fear. Unable to escape the surprise attack the bear literally
flattened him, pinning him before he managed to wriggle free. As he gained his footing he launched a kung fu attack. Chopping and kicking at the bear he circled  his opponent until the bear stopped all forms of resistance in a single swipe of his massive paw. From then on it was a footrace as my brother in bear arms ran around and around the cage in shear terror  as the audience roared in laughter, trying his best to salvage any honor or dignity,,,,sadly it was all for naught. In a final act of asserting his dominance the master of the cage once again cornered and pinned his prey, this time there was no escape. Trapped against the chicken wire the bear had his way, Maybe it was all the beer or the great chase around the cage but like a bad drunk there was no way he could hold his liquor  any longer and puked all over the helpless mans lap, and then proceeded to re acquire his lunch. Licking the prostrate mans crotch in a frenzy for several minutes the stunned crowd broke out in another round of riotous laughter, the trainer  too was doubled over in the corner,  helpless as he shook uncontrollably  as another wave of laughter rolled over him. Finally wet, humiliated and smelling of bear barf he escaped, running out the door and disappearing through the crowd in a dead sprint, never to be seen again I assume. His ordeal was over,  mine was about to begin.
                             ::::::::  TO BE CONTINUED  ::::::::

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