Opptin' the Saltbays
by Lad Moore
His bed was the front car seat and mine the back. It was the summer I learned that skin color is transparent -- a window to be opened to allow in the breezes with their cotton candy smells. He became my friend. I miss him a lot.
He told me that being from Ferriday, Louisiana just naturally carried an expectation that one would make a life in music. But he said that being black and from Ferriday meant that one's musical career might be limited to a dark stage in a cheap bar in New Orleans. Ferriday's claim to fame was having produced the three piano-clawing cousins Mickey Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Jimmy Swaggert.
"With all that talent around Ferriday, folks thought there was something in the water," said Happy Jack Davis.
It was 1962. After a couple of years of a ho-hum Junior College life, I was at a crossroads about the rest of my education, and I was bored. My uncle owned one of the largest touring circuses in the U.S., and more on a whim than anything else, I joined the show for the summer--hoping for some adventure and a clearing of my head. Naturally I expected some royal treatment--the kind that comes with being "family."
The day drew near for me to join. My uncle sent me a route card that listed the show dates and towns the circus would be in. The only way to get there was to hitchhike, and after two days on the road, I caught up with them. The circus was scattered over about four acres of the Danville, Indiana Fairgrounds. The activity was frenzied if not chaotic, and I stopped to ask directions from a man unloading horses from a van. He told me that my uncle' s trailer was "the silver Aerodyne--the one parked under the only shade tree around." I thought I noted some sarcasm in his voice.
I turned the corner past the first row of trailers. There he stood, appearing much taller than I remembered. Uncle Jack shook my hand, but seemed distracted and a little surprised to see me. He didn't even ask anything about the family--he was barking instructions at two men who were unloading sides of meat from a refrigerated truck. I was thinking, steaks for dinner. "Horse meat--for the lions," my uncle said, and clamped his teeth down hard on an unlit cigar. "We're about to get real busy around here. Let me introduce you to somebody." He took off in long strides, moving quickly past the remaining travel trailers into a back lot filled with trucks and equipment. He stopped at a faded green Buick sedan. A black man was fixing a flat.
"Son," he said, "This man here is Happy Jack Davis, and this car is where you'll be bunking out. Davis is your bunkmate. Listen to him and he'll explain everything about the jobs you're going to be doing. I've got to run."
With that short explanation he shook my hand again. It felt strangely like good-bye. As he disappeared behind the side curtain of the big tent, I was suddenly left to figure out how I was going to squeeze into that seat piled with musical instruments and plastic bags of clothing. And how was I ever going to get comfortable with this strange black man--only two feet away from me in this old car?
I kicked the moon hubcap hard with the toe of my boot--I was more than a little miffed. My uncle had brushed me offlike he would a stranger. Surely there were better accommodations for a family member.
"That can all go in the trunk," said Davis, pointing to the pile of things in the back seat. "Don't worry about nothing. You'll have the whole seat, except for the hat shelf. That's where I have to keep my horns so they don't get dinged around."
I thought he was being a little light with what I considered to be a serious predicament. I sounded off my tone, a little testy: "Is my damn uncle always in this sort of a hurry?"
"He's the big man--lots rests on him. He's always moving--not much conversation--too much happening--you'll see soon enough." He was grinning as he formed those choppy sentences that told me so little. Already I was little wary of this man. He was probably just a pawn of my uncle's told to keep an eye on me or something.
Happy Jack was over six feet tall, slender, and had a moustache that looked a little crooked -- one side longer than the other. There were the telltale lips, pursed and distorted from years of horn playing. "Like the Satchmo," he would later tell me. He wore white bib overalls -- the kind that house painters wear -- with a pinstriped shirt underneath, and no collar. His oily and crumpled cap was weathered and worn -- I could barely make out LSU Tigers in letters that were fading, fading like the once-heralded Chinese Bandits of the 1958 LSU football glory year.
Happy Jack's teeth reminded me of little brown Appalachians stained so by the Mail Pouch tobacco that bulged from his center-bib pocket. His face was a study in hard times. Haggard, tired, but with eyes that twinkled in fun -- probably from having enjoyed most of the forbidden things in life. I had him figured for someone that had a lot to hide behind that smile. Happy Jack played trumpet and clarinet in Spanky Curl's Sideshow Band, a rube group with a total repertoire of a dozen songs, repeated verbatim every day for both the matinee and evening performances. The circus moved fifty to a hundred miles each morning, and there was no need to change the song list. Every day meant a new audience. Besides, the band was not the attraction. The billing went to the fire-eater, sword-swallower, and Miss Tanya's Performing Bengal Tiger.
Miss Tanya usually brought in the only serious applause. Hers was a good act--good enough for the big top. But she didn't want to play left or right of center ring, so she stayed outside in the sideshow tent where she had top billing. Greta, the 400-pound tiger, performed to her every command while Miss Tanya twisted to the clinking of a tambourine. In the background, the stage band raised and lowered its volume to match the movements of the cat, and the drummer crashed a cymbal each time that Greta completed a trick.
When the stage acts were over and the crowd had been brought into confidence, the gates swung open and the crowd shoved its way to the ticket booth to get inside and see the rest of the sideshow attractions.
Kong, the Headhunter from Borneo was actually a guy named Todd Protto, a dark-skinned Italian who drove the snow-cone truck. He wore a stick-on beard that looked like the dyed head of a mop.
Baby Jane Doe, the 600-Pound Woman probably weighed more like 325, but when she had on that black too-tight bikini, who could tell? Black, we know, is slimming. Anyway, I was glad she was fat. I recognized her as the woman that cooked our meals in the pie-car.
The Two-Headed Calf was actually just that. Two-headed. My uncle supposedly bought it from a farmer for $300. It was dead of course, housed in a glass tank filled with some kind of chemical to preserve it.
The show never varied. It was repeated day after day, town after town. At night, after the performances and the tear-down was complete, Happy Jack and I retreated to the Buick, where he sometimes played softly on his clarinet. "Snoozin' songs" he called them--nothing like the raucous trumpet blasts he played during his act. At first the bedtime music was annoying, but I soon accepted it as a welcome relief from the day's exhaustion. When he paused, the sounds of the crickets filled in and the smells that mingled of animals and cotton candy drifted through the open car windows. We fell asleep like that most nights.
Soon I began to feel more and more comfortable with him. Some nights he put the clarinet aside and we just talked. Happy Jack spoke of his past in south Louisiana--his years before the circus. In those days, river life was his true love. One night, in whispered tones as if someone might overhear, he told me he was running from the law. He never said what he was running from, and he squirmed in discomfort the one time I asked.
"Bad stuff. Stuff I ain't proud of," he said. I let it go at that.
During the day, before the sideshow matinee, we worked hand in hand on the circus props. Once the tent was in place, the seats, rigging, and all the props for the performers had to be installed and positioned in less than two hours.
Circus life is hard and furious work. At the end of the summer when I returned home, I recall my grandmother staring at my hands in disbelief.
"There are black holes in your hands! My stars, how could your Uncle Jack let that happen? I'm going to write him tonight." She would have really been upset had I told her how he ignored me the whole time I was there.
I was proud of those calluses. Moreover, I had grown accustomed to my home in the Buick, and my comradeship with Happy Jack. There was also something really honorable about not getting family favors. I felt a sense of real accomplishment.
Our conversations at night were unguarded and nothing got spared. I loved the stories about his life as a commercial fisherman in Louisiana. He said he fished the waters off the coast, "In the Delta Land where the Mississippi gives itself to the sea." He was married then, and sometimes he spoke of his wife Cassie.
"She was my child bride, the little girl in pigtails I waited for to grow up," he said, his voice quivering as he spoke. He told how his wife was killed during Hurricane Hazel -- the "Cane of the Century" that devastated parts of South Carolina.
"My Cassie was visiting her sick aunt in Garden City when Miss Hazel hit," he explained. "She was in a big old house that just went spinning away -- taking everything with it but one old bathtub. Once I seen a movie about a place called Oza house in that movie got picked up by a black wind too. The little girl Dorothy and her dog landed in a beautiful placea waving field of gold. I cried when I saw that piece of the movie. It's where Cassie is, I reckon."
Shrimping and crabbing must have been killing work for one man alone. Happy Jack told me he ran four boats, each outfitted to his purpose. He had one rigged for oysters, one for crab, and two platform-skiffs for shrimping with casting nets.
"Each day you gotta be ready to take what the Lord tells the bay to share," Happy Jack said. "A waterman's days is long. Up before daylight, running my oyster beds with the tide, and spending the rest of the day crabbing and shrimping. Then I faced late night deliveries of my catch. Sometimes I could smell the dew before I got to lay the frame down on my sweet cornhusk bed. Lots of days I wouldn't get no shrimp and only a half-bushel of crab," he said. "I didn't own no truck, only a wagon I towed behind my wore-out tractor. I hauled my catches about two miles to the seafood rows over to Stumpy Point. My buyer was named Miss Buddy. Miss Buddy always bought my catch and paid me fair dollar. She knew I did my culling proper and legal, no crabs under the size of my palm."
I asked him why he stayed with something so difficult, so unrewarding. He held up his index finger and gently waved it at me, as if his answer was a prophecy. "A man will always be opptin' for the saltbays--once his soul tastes them waters."
It was clear that the bay remained Happy Jack's second love after his wife Cassie. He said it gave him the solitude he cherished. But in the end, he had to flee the life he loved in the dead of night: "I been living sly ever since."
Good neighbors keep unlocked doors, and thus I shared with him the stories of my own past. Sometimes I felt like an orphan, having been shuffled among caring relatives while my father flew airplanes in Asia and my mother was off someplace getting to know her third husband. I told Happy Jack about my time in military school--when my father ran out of relatives to park me at. Military school was like serving a harsh sentence from an uncaring judge. It was an overly regimented and impersonal existence for a boy of only nine and I still list it as my darkest time. The school brochure said "Send us a boy--we'll send you a man." My first year there was as a third grader. Somehow there should've been more time for the boy part. I recall the happiest day of my life was when my father wrote to say we were heading overseas.
Happy Jack was fascinated about my travels. He wanted to know about every country, what it was like and what kind of food I ate. I told him about traveling with my father to distant lands, and the time I sailed around the world on a freighter. Happy Jack loved to hear about all the places the ship stopped: Manila, Saigon, Yokohama, Jakarta, Singapore--too many to remember.
He asked, "See any of them flesh eaters? Them pygmy cannibals with chicken-leg bones poked through their noses?" For clarity, he held one long index finger under his nostrils.
He grinned when I answered, "only in the movies."
"And what about them nasty little brown womenthe wigglin' ones with cattail-grass dresses and no bra-tops on?" he asked.
I laughed. "You need to see the movie Mutiny on the Bounty -- there's a bunch of those women in there. Or pick up a National Geographic Magazine and open it up to the centerfold." We snickered together about the images that came to mind.
I told Happy Jack about what I called the year of experimentation -- when I tried to reunite with my mother after my father's sudden death. I hadn't seen her in twelve years and the reunion flopped. I think we both worked hard at it, but in the end I got on a train and returned to my grandmother to finish high school.
Happy Jack said parts of my life reminded him of his own"lightnin'-bug catchin' and stick soldiers, them easy times of being a boy."
He said, "I had a bent bicycle rim and a crooked stick to push it with. I remember just a-wheelin' down them red-clay roads, the world smelling loud of sweet honeysuckle." He sat up and leaned over the seat, wiping his mouth with his sleeve like he was celebrating something good he just ate.
When the conversation waned we drifted off to sleep. Once Happy Jack told me that my stories "caused his head to dream good dreams." He added, "your words are like picture-post-cards from a wide-rovin' friend." The feeling was mutual.
A wet fog had just begun to lift on the Tuesday morning that Happy Jack Davis saved my life. The show was in its third week in Canada. A chill from Georgian Bay cooled my face as I lifted the heavy lengths of steel center-ring out of the prop truck. Just then, screams interrupted my work. I saw people running in my direction with poles and ropes. My first thought was the circus had a "Hey Rube" starting up, but I didn't see any townies.
It was worse than a simple brawl with town people. The latch bolts had snapped on the screw-gate that kept the hippopotamus tank sealed. The water flowed out like a breached dam and Otis, the two-ton hippo, was free. I felt the ground shake as the beast headed straight for me. It reminded me of standing on the edge of the rail platform when the 6:25 to Little Rock thundered through without stopping. I dropped the ring section, barely missing my toes, and ran in the direction of the Buick. I don't know why I headed for the car -- I couldn't have ever opened the door in time. Besides, a collision with Otis would have been a mismatch even for the Roadmaster.
I didn't dare look back, but I knew that Otis was gaining on me. I think I actually felt his hot breath and heard the heaving of his giant lungs. Suddenly Happy Jack came from nowhere, goose-stepping his way past me with his long strides. I guess his white painter's suit attracted the hippo and the thing veered away to chase him. They made a swing past the handlers and one of them got off a shot with a tranquilizer gun. Otis began to slow, like an uncoiling spring from a child's wind-up toy. The range of his circling tightened and he began to wear a rut in the dirt. Then he collapsed with a thud, raising a sizeable dust cloud.
It was over. It took the circus wrecker with six men on the front bumper as a counterweight to get Otis back into the tank, where he would sleep off the sedative.
I lay sprawled and heaving across some bales of elephant hay, still unable to catch my breath. Happy Jack came over and sat down, showcasing his saw-toothed grin between his own gasps for air.
"Man, it was nip and tuck with you and old Otis," he said. "When he nipped, you tucked!" Then he swatted me on the rump as I managed a smile. My lungs felt seared, and I had a sharp pain in my abdomen from running. But I was okay.
Just then my uncle came rushing by without so much as a how-are-you, crushing his cigar into that familiar "V" between his teeth. I heard him shouting in the distance. Somebody told me later that he got upset about the hippo being over-sedated.
Summer flew by and the circus turned south for home. The route card said we were going to Sault Ste. Marie. We would re-enter the U.S. in Michigan and eventually cross the five-mile Mackinac Bridge. I had heard so much about that famous bridge and looked forward to the crossing. I was driving that day, and my uncle had put a note on all the drivers' windshields. It said we were to move briskly -- not gape or sightsee, and not to stop anywhere on the bridge. His note contained an element of danger in its tone and I looked forward to whatever adventure it implied. Once we got on the bridge I was disappointed that the crossing went so slow. To make things worse, the tall bridge rails obscured much of the scenery.
We were a spectacle as we entered the U.S., and our long line of vehicles posed a special challenge for the customs agents. Their routines were strained by having to deal with the dozens of travel-trailers and the assortment of curious vehicles. I think they wanted to inspect them all, except for the trailer that advertised Pete the Python. It was quickly waved through.
The agents made us stop so they could spread out the circus caravan, allowing several private cars in between each circus truck. As each of our vehicles passed through, my uncle sorted through his armload of vaccination papers, registration documents, and bills of sale. He looked like somebody pleading a losing case at a tax audit.
As luck would have it, our Buick was one of the cars stopped. An agent with tinny cigarette-breath and steely eyes leaned down and looked inside.
"Both United States Citizens?" he asked.
"Yes sir," I answered.
"What birth cities in the US?" the agent asked.
"Marshall, Texas, and Ferriday, Louisiana," I said, pointing over to Happy Jack.
The guard stiffened. "Let that man tell me where he is from."
"Ferriday, Louisiana," Happy Jack said.
"Who is your State Governor?" the man asked, looking at a card he held in his hand with all the answers on it.
"Price Daniel?" I answered haltingly. I knew the answer but the man made me nervous.
Happy Jack stared straight at the floor and said nothing. I didn't know Louisiana's Governor's name either. The only one I could think of was Huey P. Long. I remember seeing Governor Long's name on a bridge somewhere.
Something seemed wrong. The agent continued his cold stare--looking straight at Happy Jack. He lifted up his hand and pointed to my left.
"Pull your car over to space twenty-two," he said.
Two agents searched the car with my uncle protesting the whole time. All our belongings were spread out and poked through. They even pulled off the car's hubcaps. They found nothing but smelly clothes in need of two cycles of washing.
Finally we were released to proceed and the agents turned their attention to the truck carrying the big top. They pulled it aside and were considering unwinding it--all 400 feet of canvas. It would've taken half a day.
I got behind the wheel again but Happy Jack wasn't in the car. I got out and looked for him along the row of vending machines and knocked on the door of the portable urinal. He was nowhere to be found.
My uncle walked over and grabbed my arm. "Drive on now," he said.
I said, "What about Happy Jack?"
"Drive! Now!" His face was twisted with a strange urgency as he barked the words at me a second time. He let his cigar drop to the ground. I drove away, with one eye fixed on the rear-view mirror. I watched for my friend until the bridge dissolved from sight.
That night in Indian River, Michigan, my uncle came over and tapped on the car door. I was lying there, but not asleep. He said he thought Happy Jack must have gotten scared and run.
"I figure he thought the customs agent might have been on to him or something. Those guys are only interested in contraband. That man had no real concern who Happy Jack might be, no more than he thought you might be Jack the Ripper."
Then my uncle said something that made me think of all our conversations in the car at night before we fell asleep.
"I never said anything about this, but Davis spent a good part of his life a hunted man. In all my time with him I never knew what that was about. I never asked and he never volunteered it, a man's past is off limits here. 'Circus-confidential,' you know. I always believed it must have been a violent crime of some kind to keep him on the run all these years."
I listened, but refused to accept that anything violent was involved in my friend's past. It just didn't fit with my image of such a kind and gentle man. It didn't matter. Whatever curiosity I still held about his past was overshadowed by the realization that Happy Jack was gone.
As my uncle stood up to leave, he slapped his knee with his hand--to add some finality to his words.
"Damn good man. I'm gonna miss the hell out of him. But don't stay up worryin' about him. He'll turn up someplace. Besides, we've got eighty miles to do tomorrow." He closed the car door firmly and started walking back toward the dimly lit trailer houses. Ten feet away he stopped and turned around.
"Oh... I heard Davis might have saved you from Otis. That true?"
"Yep," I answered. "It's true. He headed Otis off and outran us both."
"Hope you thanked him proper," my uncle said, as he disappeared back into the night. I noticed a red glow on his face as he turned around for a last look my way. He had finally lit that cigar.
Suddenly, my uncle's last words poured over my face like a hot caramel bath. No! I hadn't thanked Happy Jack! Not one word of thanks! He and I had only laughed about the hippo-- like it had been more play than danger. The man saved my life and I just laughed about it with him. Suddenly I felt ashamed.
For the next few nights I couldn't sleep. For once I felt no breeze, no smells of hay and cotton candy, and heard no clarinet whispering Shenandoah from the front seat. More than once, tears interrupted my quiet prayers for his safety.
After that night I thought about my friend often, and how he just vanished. But of all the places he might be, I'd bet my summer's wages I knew exactly where to look if I wanted to find him.
"A man will always be opptin' for the saltbays--once his soul tastes them waters."