Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane
Well, let me tell you about the strangest event in Lompoc's history. It happened on a Sunday—'cause people remember just getting out of church—sometime between the wars, when the most peculiar site rolled down Ocean Avenue. At the head of this strange romp was a carreta pulled by an elephant. Having never seen such a mighty pachyderm before, the children ran up in excitement while their mothers chased after to keep them from being crushed. In the carreta was a bandstand featuring a quartet of small people—if that's the inoffensive term—dressed like monks, playing old hillbilly music.
By itself, this would have been cause for news and bondfire stories. But more followed the elephant carreta: clowns in oversized cowboy boots armed with wooden cork guns, summersaulting women wearing sparkling leotards, and more carretas pulled by camels and hippos, covered in muslin posters advertising "Monterey Jack's Cabinet of Curiosities."
News of the circus spread through the valley quicker and faster than the autumn fires, and the next morning the entire town mustered to the Cabinet's campgrounds on the banks of the San Vernardo River.
Surrounding the denim big top, which housed the main show, were carnival games, wooden rollercoasters, and venders selling food from strange and exotic places such as Siam and Salinas.
Mayor Rudolf took a picture with the elephants, which he used in his posters for his reelection campaign—An Elephant Never Forgets... to Vote & Neither Should You! The mischievous Huyck boys chased a baby giraffe around the petting zoo until the oldest, Simon, keeled over in exhaustion. Mrs. Spanne, the schoolteacher, organized a cornhole tournament between the high schoolers and grown-ups to keep the fun light. Dr. O'Rourke lectured the Huyck boys for throwing hay into the mermaid buckets while their mother sat quietly on a bench in the poison garden reading her bible.
Around noon the clowns announced the beginning of the show and ushered folks into the big top. As people took their seats, the little monks played "California Humbug" on the organ. Inside, surrounding the bleachers were posters of the cabinet: The Little Monks of Santa Pequeña, Madame Mariposa the Fire Breathing Maiden, Sequoia Suzie the Sharpshooter of Shasta, Tuolumne the Indian, The Six-Foot Man Eating Chicken, and The Wild Man of Borneo.
It was clear to everyone, no one was prepared for so many people to come. A bearded woman asked small children sit on their parents' laps to make more room—still not enough seating. Mayor Rudolf recommended pews from the nearby Lutheran church be brought in to accommodate, and the cabinet people loaned out their trucks to bring them in. Once everyone was settled, a spotlight left the townsfolk in darkness, and Monterey Jack walked in as a patriotic tune played on a banjo.
He was far from a handsome man. His blue and gold suit, which was in desperate need of some sort of washing, was too small to wrap around his bulbous belly, and he hid whatever was left of his hair under a slouching stovepipe hat. But in true swindler's form, the ringmaster dispensed a sparkling confidence.
"Friends and fools, welcome to my cabinet of curiosity!" Monterey Jack held for applause that never came. "Our first curiosity was found roaming the alleys of the Barbary Coast. After months of trackin', I found him detained in the Presidio." A second spotlight focused on the curtain. Monterey Jack pirouetted and grabbed the edge of the curtain. "Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Six-Foot Man Eatin' Chicken!"
The stands bellowed with applause which was immediately silenced with confusion when a tall man in evening dress sat down and ate a chicken dinner. Mrs. Spanne covered her mouth to keep in a giggle. Mayor Rudolf crossed his arms in amusement. The Man Eating Chicken dabbed his lips with a handkerchief as hisses ballooned into roars of anger. The townsfolk threw artichokes and curses at him. A tomato exploded on The Man Eating Chicken's ear—his queue to jump behind the curtain and clean up.
"Folks, folks," yelled Monterey Jack before anyone could leave their seat. "Was a joke is all, somethin' to lighten the mood."
"We were promised things, sir!" yelled out Dr. O'Rourke. "And that is not what was promised." Folks seconded his outrage with claps and nods.
"And I understand that, but I know smart people when I see them, and I knew you'd all appreciate an innocent joke."
"You're the only joke I see," one of the Little Monks shouted from offstage. The townsfolk laughed, and Monterey Jack smiled.
"Now who's ready for a show?" he asked.
The townsfolk answered with cheer, and the cabinet swung open. Grizzlies balanced on balls. Acrobats flew in the dust. Tuolumne the Indian rode in on horseback and chased a Little Monk on a baby elephant. Sequoia Suzie shot a portrait of General Pershing into a block of cheese with a six shooter. Madame Mariposa spewed an inferno, roaring above the roars of the town. The wind snuck under the big top, and dust and smoke presented Monterey Jack in a twinkling haze.
"Havin' fun?" Monterey Jack asked. The townsfolk gave their approval. "Hey, folks. I don't think I believe y'all!"
The big top shook. There was chanting and stomping and hooting for the Wild Man of Borneo.
A bullwhip cracked and cut across their ears. Through the ringing, the townsfolk saw Monterey Jack emerge with an explorer's helmet and whip. The Little Monks played a haunting tune on the organ, which danced with the accompanying harmonies of a hurdy-gurdy.
Folks started murmuring to each other, spooked thinking the Cabinet would close with them stuck inside. The music grew to a crescendo. But just before their fear rose to a panic, Monterey Jack silenced them all with an ancient and commanding "Hush!" A thousand eyes focused on him in the windy silence.
"During The War, we chased a U-boat around the world." Light engulfed the stage as the elephants pulled in a cast-iron wagon. The hurdy-gurdy wept. Madame Mariposa and Sequoia Suzie cracked whips to lead the beasts to the stage. "For 44 days we stalked 'em from the freezing seas of the Kamchatka to the winding waters of the Nile." Monterey Jack stopped and looked out. "Then we lost them in fog off the coast of Borneo. Just as it lifted, we saw the U- Boat surfaced. But it was rusted, as if it were lost for centuries. I and a few men embarked to get a closer look, and we were surprised to see the hatch was open. We descended down the shoot and were horrified of the carnage within."
Monterey Jack approached the door of the iron wagon. "The natives got 'em and left behind a pile of bones." The elephants went tah-boo-loo and the wagon trembled with animalistic spasms. Everyone held their breath until it stopped. "We found one of them hiding in the torpedo hold." Monterey Jack opened the iron wagon and cold air rushed out. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "I present to you, the Wild Man of Borneo."
The Wild Man of Borneo summersaulted out and hunched over. His small lanky body was covered in thick lumps of tar and horsehair and sweat trailed down his face. But his appearance was not what made him wild. It was the look in his yellow eyes. They darted around with hunger and fear as he huffed and beat his chest.
"Oofty Goofty! Oofty Goofty!" he called out. The townsfolk gasped again.
The Wild Man bounded around flailing his arms yelling, "Oofty Goofty! Oofty Goofty!"
"Quiet you!" Monterey Jack cracked the bullwhip on The Wild Man's back. Mrs. Spanne jumped back and covered her mouth. The whip fell to the ground, and The Wild Man kept romping around unhurt.
"Oofty Goofty! Oofty Goofty!" The Wild Man jumped through the aisles, and the townsfolk shifted away from him. "Oofty Goofty! Oofty Goofty!"
Soon they all started to laugh. "Oofty Goofty!" they screamed out, mocking The Wild Man's call. "Oofty Goofty!" The Wild Man screamed back. Monterey Jack whipped him again.
"See folks?" Monterey Jack said, "He don't feel no pain!" He whipped him a few more times while the little monks went down the aisles to hand out wooden batons. Monterey Jack whistled to summon The Wild Man. "Here! Here now!" He cracked the bullwhip again.
The Wild Man hopped to his master, and the clowns restrained him as he panted. The townsfolk looked at The Wild Man and then at the batons. "Come on, ya'll," said Monterey Jack. "Give it a try."
Nobody said anything. Mrs. Spanne pushed the baton away and folded her hands lap in protest. Dr. O'Rourke stared at the peanut shells on the ground. Mayor Rudolf stood up.
Monterey Jack grinned and clapped. "That's the style y'all! That's the style!"
Heads turned and followed Mayor Rudolf as he walked to the stage. He looked at the huffing heathen and then at the baton. "It won't hurt him?" he asked Monterey Jack.
"Not one bit."
Mayor Rudolf paused and lifted the baton. He started with a soft nudge behind the neck. When the Wild Man did not react, he hit him on his arm. Not one bit. Then he lifted it further and hit him across the head. The Wild Man did not flinch.
One of the Huyck boys followed. Then a plump woman, another Huyck boy, then everyone else. Soon The Wild Man was surrounded with firsts and batons until the townsfolk were uncontrollable. The clowns restraining him let go in a panic, and The Wild Man sprinted to the other side of the stage. Everyone followed and sneered and yelled to get a turn. They cornered him, and people pushed one another out of the way. The Wild Man shoved past a woman who screamed. Her husband grabbed The Wild Man and knocked out one of his teeth. Blood dripping from his lip, The Wild Man made his way to the wagon. He tried closing the door, but the townsfolk overpowered him. The Wild Man clawed for the stage, and the crowd held him back. He got up, and the crowd swung for his feet.
"Folks! We got a whole show left!" yelled Monterey Jack, trying to take back control.
The crowd didn't listen. Screaming, whistling, trumpeting, hooting filled the big top. Mrs. Spanne bowed her head and clenched her hands together in prayer. A Huyck boy climbed onto stage. He pushed Monterey Jack aside, and with one swing cracked the baton across The Wild Man's back. The Wild Man fell to the ground.
Now nobody knows for certain, but The Wild Man was supposed to not feel pain—on account of all that wildness, of course. But there was something different about the way he got hit. Because as soon as that baton made contact with The Wild Man, he yawped like a foghorn and fell to the ground in pain. Some say it was Caleb Huyck, the strongest and biggest of the brothers, and that would make sense. But others said Caleb never got a lick in. Regardless of which Huyck it was, The Wild Man felt it.
"Git up!" they yelled.
The Wild Man was spread on the stage, his bruise-burnt back heaving up and down. Batons slammed on his head. Boots stomped and kicked. Dust rose into the air. Monterey Jack instructed the little monks to lead the elephants out for their safety while covering his mouth from the metallic stench of blood and sweat. The crowd twisted around The Wild Man. Blood pooled, and the denim walls fluttered.
The top blew off.
The top blew off, taking dust and hats up with it. According to one boy, the gust was so strong, Mrs. Huyck's skirt went up, and that was the day we all discovered she did not wear bloomers.
The top floated in the sky like a giant squid from Mars for some time until it fell on its side and rolled over the corn holes and food venders and lifted above the tree line. Stakes and ropes cut and flailed. The big top launched back into the sky, shrinking with every floating foot until there was nothing.
The newspaper said the hats of the men fell back to the ground just as the big top disappeared. But I doubt that happened.
The wind was gone and the dust settled, leaving grey light. Monterey Jack stopped twinkling. The Wild man coughed blood and bile. The townsfolk saw each other.
Mrs. Spanne stood up, and the townsfolk parted as she walked onto the stage. "Come on," she said with a stern gentleness. "Get up."
Monterey Jack waddled over, "Ma'am, there's really..."
"I think you've done quite enough," she said. Monterey Jack's head hung in surrender, and he backed off.
The Wild Man stood up, and Mrs. Spanne gave him one hand and clenched a cross around her neck with the other. She led him off the stage. The townsfolk watched The Wild Man limp away with the old schoolteacher past the carnival games and camel corrals to the San Vernardo. He stepped into the river and heaved in painful healing as the cold water penetrated and dissolved the tar and hair. It fell off and floated and caught onto rocks and twigs.
"What is your name, Sir?" Mrs. Spanne asked The Wild Man.
The Wild Man saw the oaks and bulrush sway in the breeze, and without turning around, the townsfolk still clenching their batons. His back raw, his arms pulsating, and the smell of rust and stale elephant dung lingering in him, he felt for the first time a naked, unobstructed sun blanketing him in warmth.
"Oofty Goofty," he said. "Oofty Goofty."