Sunday, January 24, 2010

I Wrestled a Gorilla

These memories by the Rev. Dr. Homer Heater, Jr. are from Homer grew up in the 1940s on Riffle Run, on Orlando's Rural Route #2. Riffle Run flowed south into the Little Kanawha at about the same place that McCauley Run flows north into Oil Creek. The area that was Riffle Run is now part of Burnsville Lake recreational area.

by Homer Heater

Sundays varied from lazy boredom to slightly interesting. World War II had brought most of the country out of the depression, but, as with so many other things, the message had not gotten to us yet. Money continued to be a scarce item so we had to use our ingenuity to come up with ways to amuse ourselves.
This particular Sunday, we had gotten wind of something going on in Falls Mill, a small town on the River, near, what was to us, an impressive water falls. Just above the falls was a swimming hole complete with cable swing. I do not remember what we had heard, but something prompted us to walk the six miles to see what was going on.
Left: Homer Heater in the 1930s
Right: A gorilla

My brother, John, and I promised Mom we would attend Sunday school, wrapped our swimming trunks in a towel, and started down the dirt road. The E.U.B. Church was a white frame building sitting on Route 5 next to the same little Kanawah River. We sat through the Sunday school hour not a little anxious to be on our way.

Left: Looking east from the lookout at Falls Mill,

The Swimming Hole & A Show
A number of kids were already swimming when we got there. Some of them we knew from school, and we were soon enjoying ourselves. The swimming hole happened to be next to a level area used for a public gathering place. While we were swimming, a traveling country western show ­drove on the grounds and began to sell tickets for the afternoon performance. We argued, plausibly enough, that since we were in the area swimming long before the group arrived, we should not have to pay. Our argument was reinforced by the fact that we could not have paid the twenty-five cents anyway.

This postcard is from about the time young Homer took on the gorilla. People still talk about the country music concerts at Falls Mill. Many Grand Ole Opery perfomers performed there.

The Gorilla
That a treat! To be able to swim on a hot day and to enjoy the picking and singing of our favorite songs was enough, but what happened next was too much to believe. Two or three circus wagons were driven into the area, privacy fences were erected around them, and a man began to try to convince the crowd they should see the show. The country western program had concluded, so we all turned excitedly to this new attraction.

The huge posters advertised boxing and wrestling matches between two gorillas and any and all comers. In spite of the offer of one dollar per minute to wrestle with the gorilla, no one would volunteer. The hawker realized it was time to prove how harmless the gorilla was. He began to ask for two young boys to wrestle with the gorilla for a free ticket to the show. I whirled to look for my brother, but he had wandered off into the crowd. I grabbed another boy by the hand and convinced him to join me before others could get up the nerve and beat us to the opportunity.

I held my breath as the lady working with the hawker asked dubiously whether I might be too big. I was eleven and small even for that, but the gorilla had been trained to be gentle only with small fries. The hawker considered me to be small enough, and we entered the cage.

We soon discovered that the gorilla was not going to hurt us, and we began to push him around. We got him to the floor, and the hawker offered us fifty cents each if we could sit on his stomach. This proved to be an easy task, and we each walked out with a free ticket to the show and fifty cents cash.

Encouraged by the friendliness of the gorilla, a man volun­teered to join the fray. He was dressed with a football helmet and a pair of coveralls and ushered into the cage. The gorilla immedi­ately changed his tactics. He would hold to the top bars and swing into the man with both feet, knocking him across the cage.

When the show was over, I found my brother, and we started home. We stopped at the gas station and used part of our newly found wealth to buy a soft drink. If only John had been with me we would have had a dollar between us. It was otherwise a perfect day.
. . . . .

Note: Another diversion at Falls Mill's recreational area was baseball. Orlando's team played other local teams there. Also, several Orlando boys and men played for Falls Mill, including the Orlando postmaster and lanky first baseman Claud Mick and later John Allman, grandson of the B & O's telegrapher Gav Allman.

Claud Mick is the first player on the left in the back row.

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