THE TIA JUANA WILDCATS
I’ve been reading about the opening of the Cherokee Festival this week – an event that is now primarily devoted to reflecting Cherokee culture and tradition. The exhibits will include everything from cooking and canning to split-oak baskets, pipestone carvings and pottery. The major emphasis is on authenticity and integrity.
Such events are to be commended, but I find myself remembering the “old” Cherokee Fair which had very little to do with culture and tradition. In my memory, it was a wild blend of carnival rides, sideshows and food. During the 50’s, teenagers in Jackson, Swain and Macon counties looked forward to the first week of October as a kind of “rites of passage” celebration. In the somewhat subdued tenor of the times, it was an exciting, slightly wicked event.
I remember that you could smell, see and hear the old fair a mile away. From downtown Cherokee to the fair ground site on #441, the air was heavy with the aroma of charred meat, fry bread, cotton candy and hot dogs. To a callow mountain boy from Rhodes Cove, the brightly lit midway shimmered like the Land of Oz. Carousel music, string bands, sideshow barkers and laughter – all blended into a siren call.
It was at the old Cherokee Fair that my Uncle Stoogie, home from the army, let me eat six hotdogs and ride the Ferris wheel until I threw up. Then, we played Bingo until Stoogie spent all of his furlough funds … but I won a little pink radio that set in my bedroom playing night-time programs like “Suspense,” Lux Radio Theatre and “The Squeaking Door”(Inner Sanctum) for many years.
Several years later, I attended the fair with a car full of my 9th grade buddies. Douglas, one of my classmates who had failed several grades, had driven us to Cherokee (he was the only one with a driver’s license). Douglas was to be our guide into a strange and undiscovered country – the realm of “The Tia Juana Wildcats.”
After the obligatory hotdogs, cotton candy and the ride of the big Ferris wheel, Douglas steered us through the crowds gathered in front of the sideshows. I remember the Geek (he ate live chickens), the Siamese Twins, and a two-headed baby in a jar – all of which stirred my morbid curiosity, but I was intent on seeing three dark-headed women from Mexico. I had heard my Uncle Albert talking about them.
Two of my friends didn’t make it past the ticket office, (under-aged!) but for whatever reason, Douglas, my best friend Charlie K and I made it. I had trouble seeing the stage because the tent was full of big men in overalls. However, after the show started, one of the girls (I think her name was Conchita) stopped the show and called attention to my plight. “The little guy in the back can’t see,” she said. So, the big men hoisted me up in the air and passed me down to the front row.
The Tia Juana Wildcats screamed, sang a song about a cockroach and climbed the tent poles. In a very short time, they were all naked as jaybirds. Conchita sang a song called “Besame Mucho” and I got tears in my eyes. Now and then, she leaned over the stage and patted me on the head. I was stunned. My ears were ringing and I was having heart palpitations. Certainly, in all of my trips to the Ritz Theatre on Saturday, I had never seen anything like this. What would Dale Evans think?
After the show was over, the Tia Juana Wildcats sold “personal souvenirs” to the audience. I was broke but Douglas bought one. It looked like a tiny, black watch spring and Douglas put it inside one of those little cellophane windows in his billfold. For the rest of the year, when my buddies and I were in our 9th grade study hall at Sylva High School, we would sometimes ask Douglas to pass around his billfold. When he complied, we would pass it reverently, from one trembling hand to another, much like some people handle ancient relics.
As much as I approve of the “new” Cherokee Festival, I doubt that they have an exhibit that would rival the one in Douglas’ billfold … that, and the calliope, the crisp cold air of coming winter, the smell of fry bread and the taste of an October-grilled hotdog.