An Early Education

Posted on August 6th, 2011

by Eric Walton

"Gullibility and credulity are considered undesirable qualities in every department of human life -- except religion." -Christopher Hitchens, author and journalist (b. 1949) 

It is inconceivable that I could have reached the age of twelve without being lied to. I had, after all, not been raised in isolation from other human beings. And as I reflect on it now, it seems altogether implausible that I would not have recognized the perpetrators of at least some of these inevitable falsehoods for what they were and called them out on their lies. It seems implausible, that is, until I consider that as a child I was both extremely credulous and incredibly timid. I was, in the parlance of the midway, an “easy mark”. My childhood timidity, credulity, and tractability also made me an excellent target for religious inculcation, but I'll grind that ax another time.

The very first occasion on which I can recall another person telling me something that I knew to be utterly false and on which I marshaled the courage to confront the liar with the known facts, was, fittingly, on the midway.

The midway in question was at the Oklahoma State Fair, an annual gathering in Oklahoma City of corn-dog, funnel-cake, and cotton-candy vendors; trinket peddlers; mechanical-bull, thrill-ride, and sideshow operators; Alibi agents; lot lice; Flatties; townies; and, rubes like me who just couldn't wait to be separated from their hard-earned cash.
Only on a serious dare made by a good friend or when faced with the threat of starvation, should any sensible person who has reached the age of majority eat a funnel cake.
One of the many sideshow attractions on offer at the Oklahoma City fairgrounds in the summer of 1983 was A GIANT ALLIGATOR!!! MEASURING OVER TEN FEET IN LENGTH AND WEIGHING MORE THAN 800 POUNDS, THIS ENORMOUS AND TERRIFYING, MAN-EATING MONSTER WAS CAPTURED IN THE AMAZON AND IS ON DISPLAY NOW, ALIVE AND ON THE INSIDE!!!

Or words to that effect.

As anyone who has ever visited the midway knows, for attractions such as these, the bally often isn't delivered live, but is pre-recorded and played in a constant loop over a PA system that invariably sounds as if someone had simply placed a bull-horn in front of a gramophone.

The quality of the PA system notwithstanding, I was powerless to resist the hypnotic spiel that promised a rare glimpse of a powerful and prehistoric animal, the likes of which I had only seen on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I paid the price of admission to the attendant, a man in his mid-forties with the leathery skin and cynical demeanor that is either the product of or pre-condition for life on the midway, and ascended the platform to see THE RARE, EXOTIC, AND DANGEROUS CREATURE THAT COULD SWALLOW A GOAT ALIVE!!!

I will now tell you what you undoubtedly already know: the alligator was not real. It was a fake. And a shoddy one, at that. The only claim made regarding this attraction that was not completely false was the one regarding its length: it was, by my best reckoning, approximately twice as long as I was tall, making it indeed ten feet or thereabouts, but otherwise, every word used to describe what was obviously a cheap, plastic simulacrum of an alligator was unquestionably false. I suppose it can be granted that it was “enormous” and “on display”, as stated in the extravagant and misleading description, but it was nonetheless a gross and fraudulent mischaracterization of the attraction and I felt, for the first time, that I had been duped (which I had).

I then had the following exchange with The Man With The Leathery Skin:

Me: Um, sir, that's not a real alligator.
The Man With The Leathery Skin: Yes, it is.
Me: No, it isn't. It's fake. It's totally fake. It's not even moving. Not even its eyes are moving.
The Man With The Leathery Skin: Just cuz it ain't movin' don't mean it ain't real. Don't you sit still sometimes?
Me: Yes, but...
The Man With The Leathery Skin: Well then, there ya go!
Me: Some of the paint is even chipped off of it. Why would you ever need to paint a real alligator? Under what circumstances would you need to paint a real alligator?
The Man With The Leathery Skin: Listen, son: if that alligator was fake, I would have the Oklahoma City police department on my case like white on rice, but I don't see no police around here, do you?
Me: No, but..
The Man With The Leathery Skin: Well then, there ya go!

Or words to that effect.
A clean midway is a happy midway! (Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge, the folks at Blue Sky Amusements are upstanding business persons and have never claimed that a bogus alligator is a real one.)
I asked for a refund and was (it will come as no surprise) rebuffed. Never again would I see the two quarters that I had eagerly surrendered to The Man With The Leathery Skin only moments prior in exchange for the privilege of looking at a phoney alligator in a shallow pool of murky water. Oh, the injustice! But if attractions like these gave refunds to every man, woman, or child with enough sense to distinguish an ersatz alligator from a real one, it would make the sideshow a very poor business model indeed. I do not, however, regret the expenditure or the experience, as it marks my first exposure to several aspects of human nature that I have encountered numberless times since and against which I constantly arm myself -- the foremost of which being the willingness of some persons to stake their credibility on claims that they know to be both patently false and easily disproved. “How fascinating,” I thought.

And thus were the seeds of skepticism sown in my boyhood mind. It would take several years and much careful tending for those seeds to bear fruit, but bear fruit, they eventually did.

Perhaps it can be said that I owe something to The Man With The Leathery Skin, though certainly that something is not my gratitude. He had no intention other than to lure me and others like me into his ramshackle exhibit under false pretenses and take our money – to enrich himself (albeit slowly) by exploiting the gullibility of strangers. To say that I should be grateful for the man's fraudulence and conniving would be absurd; but as he was, in his own subversive way, instrumental in my early education, I suppose I do owe him something.

And as he doesn't deserve my thanks and already has my money, perhaps I could offer him something of even greater value: A RARE GLIMPSE OF THE ELUSIVE HIMALAYAN ALBINO TIGRESS!!! THIS AMAZING CREATURE HAS TO BE SEEN TO BE BELIEVED!!! WITH FUR THE COLOR OF PURE ALABASTER, THIS MAGNIFICENT AND FEROCIOUS ANIMAL IS A WONDER TO BEHOLD!!! STEP RIGHT UP, SIR, AND MARVEL AT NATURE'S MAJESTY...

Text and photos © Eric Walton, 2011

Further reading: Eyeing The Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist by Peter Fenton (Simon and Schuster, 2005)


Posted in Eric Walton, the midway, skepticism    Tagged with Christopher Hitchens, Blue Sky Amusements


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