We Sent Serpentina,

the Snake Lady, Back Home!


Bob and Mae's chimp show stayed with the carny two months, then left to play some fairs in the Midwest. We hated to see them leave.

Later that fall we played spots along the Atlantic Coast in the Carolinas. As usual, it was hurricane season. At the time, we were on the outskirts of Wilmington, North Carolina.

John Joe, an old vaudeville female impersonator who had been in the carny business for years and years, and had worked in Dad's ten-in-one as Serpentina, the snake lady, handling ten and fifteen foot pythons for three or four seasons, was on the lot with his big snakes in a single "O" grind show. We talked about the old days when I worked as the half boy and half girl. We had him over to our cook tent for supper a few times and it was like a homecoming.

Well, come Thursday, and a tropical storm hit early in the morning about daybreak. It wasn't called a hurricane but there were gusts of wind up to seventy miles an hour. We heard the Coast Guard's warning that the storm had spawned a twister or two the night before, so we double-staked the tent and rolled and secured the banners.

They said that it wasn't a hurricane, just a tropical storm but no one expected a tornado. But we sure did get one. It blew the Ferris wheel over onto the merry-go-round, blew the tents down and turned trailers and trucks over. There was nothing left standing but the office trailer and the flat rides.

Carnies were running around with blood running down their faces while some of the women and kids were crying.

The main force of the tornado hit and was gone in less than thirty seconds. Now, all that was left of it was a light drizzle of rain. By then it was daylight.

As I viewed the midway, it looked as though a giant bulldozer had went through it with its blade down. Everything was quiet for a few moments. Then I heard someone calling, "Help, help, help me! My God, someone please help me!"


The sound came from the direction of Joe's show (or used to be show), across the midway about fifty feet away. I took off in that direction. All that I could see of the snake show was a twisted banner line and the tent flat on the ground with one side pole sticking up.

As I walked toward the pole, I could hear the muffled cries, much louder at that time. One of the ride boys walked up to me and asked, "Did you hear that?" I said, "Yeah, it sounds like there is somebody under the tent."

We lost no time getting the tent off Joe. He was on his back with the side pole sticking through his belly into the grounds.

He looked up at us and said, "What the hell you guys gonna do, just stand there and look, with your hands in your pockets all day? Get this damn thing out of me, so I can get up! I'm tired of laying here on my friggin back!"

I didn't know if it was the right thing to do or not but I held him down while the ride boy pulled the tent pole out. In a moment or two, blood gushed out of the opening. I took off my "T" shirt and stuffed it in the wound to try and stop the flow of blood knowing that it wouldn't do any good. I then told the ride boy to run and get the Rescue Squad.

I sat on the ground and took Joe's head in my lap. As I looked down he looked up at me and said, "I guess that I'll miss the curtain call this time, Fats." Then he squeezed my hand and said, "Dry up those tears! Damn it, don't you know that old faggots never die, they just blow away! This is the first time in my life that I've had something stuck in me that I couldn't feel. Take care of my reps, they're yours now." He squeezed my hand again, then closed his eyes and went to sleep.

At the time, May was helping Jack's wife straighten out the things inside their trailer and about a dozen carnies helped to roll it back over onto its wheels. Luckily, it had no major damage.

Later in the day, they took Joe's remains to a local funeral parlor. May helped me search through his things to see if he had some relatives that we could contact. We found his brother's address by checking some old letters. There was also a telephone number.

I figured that because it was a five year old letter, the number was worthless but it was the only lead we had, so I called the number. Long distance told the man that answered what had happened and then we talked for at least fifteen minutes. Come to find out, the family had provided a beautiful plot for each of the family members! The only problem that remained was transporting his body up to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We solved the problem by passing the hat. Even carnies that had been wiped out by the storm, chipped in and we sent Serpentina, the Snake Lady, back home.

To be Continued



Posted here courtesy of Midway Publications - Copyright 1999 William T. Usher All rights reserved


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