EpigraphAn excerpt from the self published 1951 memoir “Bill Amsterdam Speaks”
Every life is a road.
Most people travel down the main roads. Broad expansive concrete and asphalt roads, built to handle the reckless masses, curbs and guardrails in place to save them from their own idiocy and incompetence. Others travel down, well, shit, I guess there is no other way to say it, “paths less traveled”. Artists and poets and freedom fighters bravely following dark and unguarded trails.
But others of us travel down roads even yet more dangerous and less guarded. Some of us travel down roads that it takes a certain kind of eye to see at all. Footpaths down ancient game trails, back roads that change with the traveler. Roads that lead us through forests of howling wolves and offer us no protection at all, but surrender an intimacy to the inner world that could never be comprehended from the high capacity spiritual freeways.
These roads are delicate, man. Very delicate. Each pilgrim alters the path. You could follow abreast of me, step by step, down these roads and arrive at a different destination.
Take my best friend, Geddes Furgeson, or, more famously, Ottoman Von Luitgard. He walked with me longer than anyone else ever has. He matched my steps, he sometimes strode ahead of me, but he ended up in a very different place. His road led him to ruin and misery and damnation. That’s regrettable, it really is, but how else could it be? If he had not followed his own path what would that say about him? He went where fate would take him, and accepted his destiny as the only one he had.
I first met Ottoman at the Golden Wheel Circus of Magic.
The Golden Wheel called itself a circus, but that wasn’t strictly true. A circus usually has a three ring tent, animals, clowns, and high wire acts. We had none of these. Too all appearances we were mostly what was referred to as a “freakshow”. We traveled the Midwest and the deep South year round, profiting from the average persons latent taste in voyeurism and secret desire for depravity.
The Golden Wheel consisted of one long midway of perhaps twenty tents on either side a makeshift lane. Each of the tents had a barker that would call out to the crowds, cajoling them into the terrors of the geek tent, or the titillation of the dancing girl tent, and so on. A small band of Indian pipe flautists played along side our Irish bagpipesman on a wooden platform, warbling out a strange and dreary transcontinental and surrealistic dirge.
We were stopped somewhere in East Texas, working a rural town mainly just to keep everyone busy while we traveled. I was walking though the newly erected midway, thinking about a sleight of hand trick I read about a few nights earlier when I saw the boy walking through the midway alone. He was a huge man-child, even then, and I believe he was no older than fifteen. He towered over everyone in the crowd. 6′ 5″ or better and his arms stretched the cotton fabric of the white shirt he wore under his clean overalls. He was massive in stature, but there was a very boyish look in his eyes as he wandered the midway eating a bag of peanuts.
I started following him down the midway, watching him. He was very perceptive. I can avoid detection most of the time, but I think he would have put me to the test had he not been so enthralled in the things around him. His eyes seemed to eat up his surroundings, snapping up everyone and everything. The local people seemed to interest him as much as the freak show tents. I watched him as he watched the reaction of a school teacher to the enticements of a barker for the alligator man. The boy laughed quietly into his peanuts when the woman told the barker that the Lord followed her, and she would never take him into a place like that. The people around him should have been unnerved by anyone, much less a giant, who stood beside them and watched their reactions with the quiet relish of a connoisseur. But they did not.
The townsfolk seemed to barely notice him at all. No one avoided him exactly. People accommodated him. Allowances were made without anyone knowing it. No one stared. No one pointed at the giant child. People exchanged friendly glances with him as if he were a pleasant local. And the boy was as unaware of this as they were. He was unaware that a man his size shouldn’t be able to move through a crowd without brushing against a single soul, because for him it had always been that way.
In a way, he looked like what he was, the son of a prosperous cattle rancher.
He also looked like he no more belonged to the world of ranching than a unicorn belongs in a mule corral.
The kid was beautiful. I have to say that, because it was true. You could see the magic of him. Simple magic, but very strong. Magic so simple and direct it shaped his body. Geddes could never hide his magic from anyone capable of seeing it, because it went through him all the way. It was so much a part of him he didn’t even consciously know it was there. It was just a part of him, like his heart or his lungs, always active, always alive, but speaking wholly in the subconscious.
I have never before or since felt such a strong combination of joy and jealousy and titillation in all my life. I knew this child was something special, and I knew we were destined to walk together.
Geddes, like so many young men, fell in love with the Bearded Lady.
Her name was Mirabella. She indeed had a long and silky beard, a beautiful beard really.
The beard sprang from her face and tied itself into a long ponytail that loved to nestle itself between her ample bosom. Aside from the beard she was also quite fat. Her clothes were silk and thin and there were always as little of them as the current notions of modesty would allow. Shocking, almost scandalous amounts of her skin were on display to the visitors of her tent. Luxurious folds and dimples that quivered, oh so slightly, whenever she moved her body.
Ah, but her skin was more beautiful than her beard. Her skin was the most perfect skin the world has ever seen. Imagine a full Mediterranean moon dappling through palmetto leaves onto a translucent pearl. Imagine virginal wool. Imagine untouched rice paper in an onyx box presented to an emperor. And so on. That was her skin and the sight of it had led many young men and women down a strange road that led to the twin castle gates of bliss and confusion.
As Geddes entered the tent she took notice of him.
“Oh, My,” she said “look at this one.” She was sitting on a large red velvet couch, fanning herself with an oriental fan. She was arranged in a low cut red silk dress, showing off for the crowds. Husbands and wives alike stared unabashedly. Unlike the other performers, she never grew tired of the attention she received.
The crowd jostled aside as Geddes moved forward.
“What’s your name son?” She asked.
“What happened to you?” She asked him from behind her fan.
“How’d you get so big? You look like you might be half horse.” She said, not acknowledging that she easily weighed as much as he did.
Geddes turned an interesting shade of bright red.
“Do you live around here son?” She asked.
“No ma’am. I used to live in Angle, but now I don’t live anywhere. Not anymore.” He said this good in a good natured way. Like he was commenting on what a nice day it was.
“Oh, Dear.” She said, playing with the fine hairs of her beard. “A young boy like you out by yourself. In a world like this? That wont do. Not at all. Will it, Bill?”
This is how easy these things are. How they seem to fall into place if you are open to them.
“He looks big enough to take care of himself.” I said. The kid turned around, surprised to notice me for the first time.
“No, he’s big but he’s still a baby. Look at him, Bill. We should take him on. Put those muscles to work.” She said.
“Mira, I’m sure he already has a mother. Besides, we don’t need anyone. We’re full up.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” She said looking me full in the eyes, “don’t we need a new strong man?”
“We already have one.”
“Yes. But he’s been so awfully sick. He might need someone to fill in.”
Geddes watched us without comment. He looked slightly amused.
“Tell, you what.” I said to Geddes, as if he had won me over with his pleading. “Come back tomorrow night. After we close. I will see what I can do.”
“Well, I wasn’t actually looking for—”
“Tomorrow. I can’t make any promises.” I said as I left the tent. It was time for my nightly performance and I left without looking back. There was no need. A young man on his own is incapable of saying no to most anything, but especially not to the circus.