By Ginger Smith Bate
Until Simon and I became parents, Father’s Day meant nothing to me. I bought my first Father’s Day card when my son was six months old. Since then we celebrate the day with a favorite meal, cards, and a couple of small gifts. I remind Julian the day before that he needs to do something.
My father, William Bradley Smith, died two months before I turned four. He died of pneumonia at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. We were spending the winter in Cary at my Great-aunt Roberta’s house. Winter was the off season for the traveling carnival where my parents worked. Carnivals are open when the weather is warm and people can be outside enjoying rides, eating cotton candy, winning prizes throwing baseballs at bottles, shooting plastic dunks, or tossing rings. And then more than now, paying to look at the freaks. My father was one of the freaks.
My father was an Alligator Man. He was born with a genetic disorder call ichthyosis. Much of his skin was rough and scaly. Most people with it do not live beyond infancy. There was nothing then that could cure his skin condition. He used creams and a product call Camphor Ice to keep it somewhat soft and pliable. It did not affect his face. He had a good face. If you put pictures of my face next to his face, you will see that he is definitely my father. He was loving, clever, and patient. He liked to play with me and carry or walk me around the carnival people during the day when there were no customers and proudly tell them that I was his daughter.
His mother died in 1913 and his father in 1915. He was seven when he and his brothers and sisters were sent to live with uncles and aunts. He went to Aunt Roberta in Cary. He went to school. He loved to read. But his life was difficult because he looked strange. He found a group of people who didn’t care about that. He joined a carnival when he was fifteen. He traveled the South and the Southwest with them. He worked at Coney Island. He worked with other carnivals. Some of them were with circuses. He made a living and had friends.
He met my mother after one of his carnivals played in Lenoir, NC. She met some carnival people who asked her to join them. She was eager to leave North Carolina, and the carnival, traveling life was an adventure. She became the lady who survives when swords and knives are plunged into a box. She met my father. They married in 1944 and their trailer was pulled with the others from town to town except in winters when they parked it in Aunt Roberta’s yard.
I was born in 1947. I remember the trailer. I remember coloring with my father, playing with him under the huge oak trees at Aunt Roberta’s, looking through boxes of things that had belonged to my grandmother, and being pushed by him in a cart in the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. I have a small chest of drawers about eight inches high with four drawers that belonged to Grandmother Rose and a china living room set that he said she kept on a table. My grandparents’ house is gone. Aunt Roberta’s house is gone. Hurricane Floyd took her oak trees. I have a book that my father gave me for my third birthday. He wrote “Love from Daddy” inside the cover.
William Bradley Smith died in January 1951. My mother and I were visiting one of her sisters. A man delivered a telegram from one of my uncles telling my mother he had died. I have a mental video of that. At his funeral, another uncle picked me up so that I could look into this coffin. To me, of course, he looked asleep. I remember that. I can close my eyes and see him. My mother took me to Blowing Rock, NC to live with her parents. She tried to keep working with the carnival, but then she went home, too.
My father is buried in Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh in the family plot that my grandfather bought in 1890. I have one picture of my grandfather and one of my grandmother. I have three pictures of my father. One my mother gave me. One I found online. And the third one, a friend saw on eBay and emailed me details. It’s on a post card. This kind of card was handed out on carnival midways and at Coney Island to entice people to go to the freak shows. To get the card, I bought the photo album it was in.
My mother did not talk about my father. I did not talk about my father until I was an adult. People who lived near my grandmother had met him, and being called “the freak’s kid” by some of their children, even when I was in high school, was painful. My mother wrote about him and their marriage when a therapist I was working with suggested that she might write about what she would not talk about.
About ten years ago, I started looking for him. Searching in the North Carolina Archives in Raleigh and on line have given me more than I thought possible. He is in Billboard Magazine before 1950. Syracuse University has a glass negative and a print of him. An interview with him is in a book in the UNC Chapel Hill library. He and his family are in the 1910 census. My friend Diane Dunkley sent me a copy of the census pages, and she discovered the eBay album. There were many pictures of him in my mother’s family picture albums, but either she or her mother threw them away. If you are interested or curious you can Google his name or Aloa the Alligator Boy. There is another man who has been confused with him and you might find him instead. My father is the handsome one.
Why do I not have Ichthyosis? Each parent must carry the recessive gene. Both of my grandparents did. North Carolina was and might still be the source of the people with the defect who filled freak shows. Also, it seems to skip generations. One of his sisters had ichthyosis. She was a carnival traveler, too. None of the others were affected.
Why did I write and submit this? Because in this terrible time of rampant, open prejudice, I want to tell my little story about skin prejudice. My experience is minuscule, but in a tiny, tiny speck of awareness, I know what it’s like to look or to be different, or to be the child of someone who does.
Thank you for this moving and important story about the human condition and the humanity beneath our skin. I Googled your father and was struck by the sentence, “Our condition is the direct result of our mother having been frightened by an alligator about six months prior to our birth.” No doubt the sideshow decided that that explanation was more enticing than explaining dominant and recessive genes!
John Zussman: The carnival didn’t decide on that explanation. That was my father’s comment. His humor. That was sideshow chatter. One of his cousins told me: “Believe about 10% of what he tells you.” Thank you for your reaction to the story and for Googling him.
This is an amazing story, Ginger, thank you so much for sharing it. I’m also curious about your comments above, which appear to be in response to a comment of John’s, however his comment is not visible.
John’s comment: “Our condition is the direct result of our mother having been frightened by an alligator about six months prior to our birth.” No doubt the sideshow decided that that explanation was more enticing than explaining dominant and recessive genes!
Based on descriptions of him from some elderly cousins 40 years ago, I think this was Dad’s own explanation. They told me his humor could be quite dark or ridiculous depending on the situation.
Thank you for sharing this story with our community. I agree, we do live in increasingly difficult times and I appreciate that you were willing to share your story of love and acceptance with us. Every week, some of us pour our hearts out. All are welcome here. No judgement, only tolerance.
Ginger, what an amazing man. You have given us a glimpse into a world so few of us see, it reads like fiction. Even though you don’t have many physical mementos of family you have rich memories. Thank you so much for sharing them.
Thank you for reading my story. I write fiction in stories and plays. This story is real., and much easier to write than when I was younger, easier than 20 years ago.