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2551 words
SHJ Issue 18
Spring 2018

Big Bill and the Circus Bear

by Steve Davenport

Most of the stories about Big Bill, happy man, were true. In high school when he went out for football, a game he didn’t know like he knew baseball, the new boys were asked what position they wanted to try out for. The boy in front of Big Bill said tackle, so he said it too and that was that. The coach never moved him to fullback, another position he might have played since he would soon be the young man who ran the 100-yard dash and put the shot on the track team. I don’t think he lost a heavyweight wrestling match his senior year. When it came time for the state meet, he couldn’t afford to go. A boy he pinned quickly went and placed in the top three.

Big Bill was my dad. For years I believed a story that was true and sort of wasn’t. When his youngest brother played football for the same high school, we would go watch. There, atop my happy dad’s broad shoulders, I sat, my hands on his bald head, as men would call me Little Bill and tell stories. One was about that time my dad kicked the ball so far it disappeared. At points like that, stories that were beyond imagining, their words went to white noise up there above the images. To kick the ball into the end zone was impressive enough. To kick it over the cross bars and what might have been another fifty yards across the track, the grass, and the fence that separated the field from the road was Paul Bunyan material. But that was often the charge: how to grow up to become a man like Big Bill, Paul Bunyan, bigger than almost every man we met and gifted at any sport he tried. Decades later, I mentioned this story to him. He laughed and said that back in his day they often practiced on a shortened field, the school parking lot, and it wasn’t that hard to kick the ball the length of the lot and onto the gym roof.

He spent a year in the Navy in 1949-1950 and was asked to sign on for another year or two so he could sail the world with a ship of men as ambassador-athletes, boxing, playing basketball and baseball in ports around the free world. He said no. He had to get back to his home town in Illinois, to get a job and help support his mother, begin his life. His youngest brother would have been starting school around then, the same brother we watched play football in high school, the one who would later become an NCAA D-2 All-American wrestler at 190 pounds. In Boston, on his way home while playing tennis in a park, my dad was spotted by a college football coach who asked if he’d consider going to college and trying out for the team. When I asked which college it was, he said he didn’t remember and it didn’t matter. He said he had to get home to Hartford and go to work. He would soon become a union pipefitter at a Shell Oil Refinery, a job he got because they wanted him on their company softball and basketball teams. That Navy ship of good will? It docked in a Korean port and a war broke out. So much for the boxing gloves of peace.

That post-Navy story about him watching an AAU wrestling meet? The one where the Arkansas team lacked a heavyweight and he offered to take the spot? And won the match? That one? No one’s around anymore to verify it, but it hardly matters. I remember his youngest brother, the All-American who often served as my older brother since he was only eight years my senior, telling me that story. The memory’s probably true. These were the stories of my boyhood, the ones I took to be the hurdles I would have to cross as I ran toward manhood, the ones I would instead run around or stop just short of because they were too high, too many. They were also, all of them, in my head. My dad was always happy to see me run or wrestle, catch a pass or hit a ball, successfully or not. He would take up tennis again in his forties at public parks, big bellied and oddly costumed, sometimes in baggy swimming trunks, head band, wrestling shoes, and no shirt. Pretty soon you could find him seeking better competition and beating a 6′6″ D-1 high school tennis recruit a town over by slicing and dinking the ball here and there, reducing the court to a smaller space an older, overweight athlete could handle and playing a game a young man wouldn’t understand, the D-1 athlete or me.

A year after I graduated from a local college, Shell Oil talked my dad into becoming a company man, a boss, and transferred my family south to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There when I visited, he took me to public parks and good-naturedly and easily beat me in every set of tennis we played. One evening I watched him attend a billiards tournament for Shell Oil workers and bosses. Eight Ball was the game. Ten to twenty young men, many of them with their own pool sticks, milled about with game faces. Who won the tournament and took home a trophy almost too big for our console TV? The guy who played a game of pool once every few years. The big guy the young guys got tired of listening to chatter about shots he couldn’t make and then did. Mr. Bill. A young baseball player once asked Henry Aaron why Stan Musial, Aaron’s boyhood idol, was always happy. “You’d be happy too,” Aaron said, “if you hit .330 every year.” I don’t think my dad was happy because he was a gifted athlete, but I understood the Aaron quote and I think his happiness helped him compete.

Two stories that followed my father and collided one evening maybe a decade after he died, one about a bear and another about baseball, were not true, but truth for some folks is too much bother. It gets in the way of something more important. At one of those high school football games we attended with me on his shoulders, I heard a man down to my dad’s right say he saw him wrestle a bear in a circus. My dad didn’t seem happy to hear such a thing. He told the man the story wasn’t true. The man said he was there. He saw it. My dad denied it again. When the man left, my dad twirled me around so we could see each other and called me by the nickname he always used for me. “Charlie,” he said, “if I wrestled a bear in a circus, I would remember it.” There in the dissipating white noise, I was excited by the possibility and relieved by the admission. If anyone could have wrestled that bear, I felt, he could have, but now there was no reason I would ever have to.

The baseball story was never much of a story. My dad attended a try-out with the St. Louis Browns as a pitcher. He said he was told he had a hitch in his delivery that he surmised came from being a catcher in fast-pitch softball, a halt in his throwing motion from checking runners before tossing the ball back to the pitcher. So the scouts said no thanks and my dad went to the Navy or back to work. The details weren’t important to me at the time. It was further evidence that he left a long Paul Bunyan shadow. One evening I was with my friend Lois. We were visiting the home of a friend of hers because her friend’s husband, a retired police department photographer, had some items I would want to see, things he inherited from his father, who had been the manager of the tannery across the street from my birth home and my dad’s old neighborhood. My dad’s mother worked at that place, the International Shoe Company, the tannery my dad drove by every morning to get to his plant gate at Shell Oil a mile or so from our front door. I was told there might be evidence of my grandmother’s history in the photographer’s collection. There was, and even better I walked away with a tannery knife. Reduce my childhood to a single possession and it might be a scuffed baseball or a tannery knife. It was a beautiful evening made possible by a childhood friend who loved my family, especially Big Bill.

Out back of the house, I was introduced to a friend of the retired photographer, a retired police officer. He was a nice enough guy, quiet. In fact, we were both nice enough guys who didn’t have much to say to each other until he made the connection between my last name and the town the tannery sat in, which was his home town too. He asked me if I was related to Bill Davenport. I believe Lois said I was his son before I did. The man became animated about Big Bill, who was older than him and a hero to the young boys in town. He then told me about the summer when my dad was playing minor league baseball for the Browns and would stop at the town’s ball diamond when he was home. He didn’t have to do that, the man said, but he did. He was always happy to talk and give us tips and he was such a good man, your dad. I listened and then I said what I probably shouldn’t have said. “I’m a lucky guy to have had such a great dad,” I said. “One of the things that made him such a great dad for a young guy growing up in his shadow was that he corrected some of the stories that followed him. He told me he went to a camp and tried out for the Browns but was sent home because the hitch in his pitching motion was more than they wanted to mess with.” The retired policeman looked at me like I was asking him to return one of the best parts of his boyhood. “I’m telling you,” I said, “what he told me more than once.”

I then made my second mistake. As the nice man was processing my revisionist Big Bill history, I went to the story about the bear. I told him about life on my dad’s shoulders at the high school football games in nearby Wood River, the stories I’d hear up there in that protected, happy space. I then brought up the bear and what the man said about my dad wrestling it in the circus, about how important it seemed to the man, about how he would not be persuaded to give up the memory. I told the retired policeman about how my dad turned me around in the night air under the lights and said those words I would never forget. “Charlie, if I wrestled a bear in a circus, I would remember it.” And when I told him that story and delivered that killer line, I was in my element, on my game. I stroked that ball right out of the park. It disappeared like that football my dad kicked a couple hundred yards. Except that it landed in the two feet of dirt between me and the old cop. It sat there for a good five seconds. A cricket chirped whether it did or not. And the cop, the retired policeman, the nice guy who was happy to grow up in Big Bill’s shadow? His response? “I always thought he wrestled a bear in a circus.” I looked at my killer line dying there in the dirt the way the long home run off your bat hooks foul and bounces off the hood of a police car driving by. “I always heard he did, your dad.”

My dad died just before our oldest daughter, Sophie, turned one. About to be released from the hospital after a successful minor surgery, he was laughing and walking with a couple of nurses or hospital workers, a necessary procedure he was handling the way he handled almost everything, with joy. It was a winter day, January 14, 1999. He was sixty-eight years old. He’d had one or both knees replaced in recent years, but he could still sit in a chair with wheels in the middle of a racquetball court if he had to and beat my ass with either hand. Outside the sun was melting the thin ice, my mother was either coming to get him or was already there somewhere in the hospital but not in the hall where he was doing the necessary walking with the nurses or workers, and mid step Big Bill dropped dead. He dropped as he was dying or he died and then dropped. It was a stroke or a heart attack, another detail that doesn’t matter much. The one that does is that he died instantly while happy. The last time I saw him, he was carrying Sophie in a grave yard in my mother’s home town. It was October and the blurry photograph I have of them shows her riding high in his arms, on a shoulder up near the brim of the ball cap that’s riding as it usually did in his later years, high on his head.

And I still haven’t learned a thing. A few years ago Sophie and her high school volleyball teammates won the first set in a home match against conference rivals. The second set of the best-of-three match began with the other team serving the ball into the net. 1-0, us. Sophie then proceeded to rattle off twenty-four straight serves, not all of them aces, but all of them points for a straight-set victory. With that 25-0 set, she served herself into local legend because, as everyone said without knowing for sure, that must be a record. Grandpa would have been happy to see it. He would have been, but Big Bill was always happy. People will remind me of the night Sophie served twenty-five straight points, pitched a perfect game, and I usually correct them, apply the asterisk. She didn’t serve that first point, I say, but I get your point. Not long ago, Sophie herself mentioned it. The two of us were going somewhere in the car. When I said it was actually twenty-four straight, she said that’s not what people remember. And she’s right. Why can’t I, she asked, let them remember what they want to remember? Why don’t I, a writer, understand that? It’s a good question because I often tell stories that let the circus bears in.

Once upon a time, Big Bill wrestled that bear between innings while pitching minor league ball for the St. Louis Browns and everyone saw it. Half a century later he cheered his granddaughter on as she served twenty-five aces in a row. And everyone lived happily forever, and everyone, including me, number one fan of both, is still cheering.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury