The late author Ray Bradbury spoke of October as a separate country, an unsettling place where more than the seasons change, where the world tips off-kilter, the winds pick up, and sounds seem sharper. A country of kids' imaginations, dark carnivals, disquieting surprises, a place where the oddness of ordinary things becomes clearer. This is my own October Country story. It's all true to the best of my recollection.
In early October 1963, the main thing on my mind was the World Series between my team, the defending champion New York Yankees, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. I had practically forgotten that on the first Saturday of the month, my father and I were going to the Cleveland County Fair in Shelby, just 18 miles from my hometown. My parents had been divorced for two years, and the weekly visits to dad's house had dwindled to "now and then," in direct proportion to how far behind he was on child support payments. Bitching about the situation had practically become my parents' hobby, so you can see how the Yankees could provide some needed relief.
In the '63 Series' first game, in New York on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the great Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax struck out the first five Yankee batters he faced (which made him a super-villain in my 13-year-old mind). He went on to set a new record of 15 strikeouts in a Series game, a feat that included fanning my hero Mickey Mantle twice, as the Dodgers won 5-2. I was dumbstruck and remember walking around the rest of the day, agonizing about Mantle's two strikeouts.
The next day's game started with a quick 2-run Dodger lead, and ended with a 4-1 L.A. victory. I was distraught — no, lost — as only a young adolescent whose heroes reveal their feet of clay can be. The teams would take a day off and then re-gather Saturday in Los Angeles. I dreaded the game and yet knew I had to watch it. I mentioned it to mom, who replied, "Don't forget, you're going with your father to the fair Saturday." Oh no! Series games always took place in the afternoon then, and the Shelby fair trip meant I wouldn't see what I hoped would be a big Yankees comeback. Now I felt even more out of joint than after the Koufax debacle of the first game.
The weather was clear, sunny and cool when dad picked me up around noon Saturday. On the way to Shelby, I managed to work up some enthusiasm for the fair and pushed the World Series to the back of my mind. Dad let me know that he intended to go to the "hoochie coochie" show and that I was too young to see it.
The fairground, as always in October, was packed with people shuffling through the games of chance — throwing baseballs at lead-bottomed milk "bottles," shooting moving metal ducks for cheap teddy bears — or eating their choice of greasy foods, or screaming on the rides. A thousand scents competed for attention: cotton candy, oily generators, hay strewn underfoot on the midway, aftershave and loud colognes.
Dad and I tried a few bone-jarring rides, lost a few dimes on games, and we watched from above as a woman rode a motorcycle inside a vertical cylinder. But the Series game I was missing kept popping up in my head, while I could tell my father was bored and going through the motions. He kept checking his watch, trying to be casual about it, but it became obvious he was killing time until the "real" hoochie coochie show began just before dark. Finally, he said, "I'm gonna catch the show I was talking about, and I'll meet you right here in an hour." I watched him walk away and then wandered into a tent where one of the exhibits was a two-headed stillborn pig in a big jar. Something must have shaken the table the jar was on because for a few seconds, the freakish piglet looked alive; I practically ran out of the place. I wished later I had stayed put.
I walked toward the far end of the midway, looking for the hoochie coochie show tent, in case my father didn't show up at the allotted time; I found it and turned back, until I saw a tent with painted pictures of an enormous bearded woman and something that was supposedly "Half Man, Half Snake!" Wow, a for-real freak show. I couldn't believe my luck. The barker yelled at passersby about the "live human oddities" inside, while announcing that the show was for "16 and older only." I paid my 50 cents and walked right in like everybody else.
To be continued next issue.