Frog Circus

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Tucked into the back corner of a small city museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts sits the Frog Circus. It literally took my breath when my eyes landed on it, and not in an awed-and-inspired kind of way, more in an ‘oh-my-god-look-at-that-roadkill’ kind of way.

But I have to admit, it was pretty incredible.

Dozens of taxidermy-ed frogs were arranged in an elaborate circus style setup, in a big Amphibian Big Top, forever frozen in place like strange freaks of nature, somehow equally adorable and disturbing. Behind a glass partition in a setup the size of a large television set, the creatures performed in perpetuity, forever frozen there.

A crowd of frogs on bleachers, large parents and small children, were arranged in rows to cheer for the performers.

Awkwardly bent frogs swung on trapezes in the air, one pulling an American flag with him, one holding on to the feet of another.

A frog clutching a parasol walked a tightrope.

A frog with a stick tamed a fearsome large rodent creature, seemingly a weasel.

Frogs rode on the backs of turtles, and other frogs were pulled in carriages by teams of small mice.

An entire band of frogs playing instruments, trumpets and drums, sat off to the left, horns raised to frog lips.

The woman who worked the front desk of the gift shop seemed to cringe a little when she told us about the Frog Circus. When my sister and I learned the museum was closed to tours, we had asked if there was still anything to see in the area, and she grimaced as she mentioned the Frog Circus, a crowd favorite since it was made in the late 1920s. Apparently some man named Burlington Schurr (a super-villain name if I’ve ever heard one) made the exhibit back in 1927, one of many he curated to teach youth about animals and nature. ‘What could be more natural,’ he must have thought, ‘than dead frogs posed unnaturally.’

I pictured him staking out his local pond, killing frogs of all sizes, taking them home, and going through the process of stuffing and arranging and preserving each one. ‘A circus!’, he thought. ‘I’ll put them in a circus!’

No matter the strangeness of the display, I realized it’s been around a generation longer than my mother. Hordes of people have lined up to stare at it, to marvel, and laugh, and retch, and be curious. I stared at it for several minutes, that slightly horrified look plastered on my face. And then I stepped away, knowing instinctively the images of those frogs will┬ábe behind my eyelids when I try to sleep tonight. They won’t be moving, they’ll just be frozen there mid-act. And the thought of that makes me shudder, much as it will again tonight in sleep.

 

Carcass

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“Body parts are nice, so long as they are attached to the body. Fingernails, hairs, a human tooth. But detach it from the body, and suddenly it’s not that okay. Hair on the bathroom floor, fingernail clippings on the counter, a tooth on the table. Suddenly they aren’t so charming.”

I had to agree with my ex-wife Megan’s observation, though she meant it in jest. Nobody wants errant body parts laying around.

Her words came back to me as I stood outside the taxidermist shop in Coalville, Utah. I had needed to get out of town for a bit, clear my head, so I drove to an unfamiliar city and walked up and down the streets, watching the locals and reading the signs. After an hour in the creepy yet impressive local museum of the courthouse, where the right combination of motion-sensor lights and blank-faced manikins had created a strangely terrifying atmosphere, I had walked a bit and found myself in front of the taxidermist shop. Right there on the main street in town, right across from a burger joint, an apparent draw for the locals.

My thoughts immediately turned to my sister Sheri, the amateur ghost hunter, whose one and only true fear is dead and stuffed animals. Sheri and my other sister, Susan, take an annual trip to a ghost house, hotels known to be haunted. Neither of them gets truly scared, and they seem to enjoy the titillating sensations of being in locations that frighten others. They have gone to Salem, home of the Witch Trials, for Halloween; they have spent the night in the room where Lizzie Borden violently murdered her parents with an ax. And yet I have only seen Sheri truly frightened a few times.

I joined Sheri and Susan one weekend in Soda Springs, Idaho, a small town locally famous for its man-made geyser and mountain springs that taste like soda water. We had checked ourselves into an old wooden hotel with barely any air-conditioning. A particular room in the hotel was said to be haunted, with a ghost who might turn on your bathroom water or hover above your face as you woke up. Sheri was excited as she walked in until she discovered the decor of the hotel: dead animals. Mounted deer and elk heads, squirrels, bobcats, rabbits, raccoons, mice, pheasants. On the ground, on counters, hanging from the ceiling. A hunter’s paradise, and Sheri’s worst nightmare. I watched her face get ashen, her hands clutch her stomach, her feet step back toward the door. “Oh, hell no,” she muttered. We teased her enough to get her inside, checked in, and up the stairs to the room. Framing the hotel room door, three dead ducks, one above it and one on each side, their wings spread as if in flight. “I don’t care if that damn ghost pokes me in my sleep, but if it puts one of these ducks in bed with me, there will be hell to pay.”

Another time, visiting Sheri in Boston, we went to a local university museum and were surprised to see dozens of glass cases filled with these animals, but these had been stuffed decades ago. There were small tears in the fur, some of the marble eyes were loose and falling out. These immortal animals were decaying in their own way. Sheri couldn’t even enter the room.

At the taxidermist’s, I found myself momentarily frozen with fascination. A strange dread crept up in my insides, like the feeling I get when I stand on the edge of a ledge, knowing I’m safe yet nervous still the same. I don’t feel like this when I see dead animals, though I wouldn’t say I enjoy the experience. But this is a place where people bring their carcasses, their hunting trophies or roadkill, and they pay a man to take a lifeless animal, empty it of blood and guts, stuff it, and stitch it back together. He places a couple black eyes in place of the originals, mounts it in some sort of action pose, and the carcass gets placed somewhere for people to see and admire. And this is the place where it all happens. A man in this building has built his career turning dead animals into… art? And I’m sure he had to get some sort of certification for this.

And the money that must go into this business. Bottom scale, a man catches a trout and wants to keep it. He throws the dead fish in a bucket, brings it in to the shop, and spends 150 to have it stuffed and mounted. On the upper end of the scale, a man shoots a water buffalo in Africa on safari, he pays to have the creature stuffed and mounted, maybe 20 thousand, and then pays another 5 grand to have it shipped to his home. (I’m guessing at the numbers here). Who would ever want to work in this business? Images of Duck Dynasty suddenly run through my head.

I am not quite sure what happens to the spirit of an animal after it leaves the body, but the body left behind, it is organic waste. It rots. The skin shrinks over the bones, the bowels loosen, the blood runs free, it smells, it literally rots and decomposes, leaving only the bones behind. Who would make that their business?

I walk to the end of the shop and look down an alley. There is an open garage back there and I can see a few animal bodies in my peripheral vision. I’m not sure what they are. I turn, my dread intensifying. I’m contemplating why I am still standing here when I hear an electric whirr, something less like a chainsaw and more like a motorized knife, like one used to carve a turkey at Thanksgiving. My mouth goes dry as I think the taxidermist must be cutting some creature open right now.

And then it hits me. The smell of death itself. Whatever odors were inside that animal come washing down the alley and hit me right in the nose. I cock my head violently to the left, coughing loud and gagging. My hands clutch my stomach and I wrinkle my face up in revulsion, quickly rushing away from the shop and down the street a bit more. I find a small park there and step into the grass, doubled over with disgust as I try to clear the sound and the smell from my psyche. Had I really been contemplating the process of taxidermy?

That’s what I get for standing outside a taxidermy shop in smalltown Utah.

Why-oh-Wyoming

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“Now remember, just because he has a mustache, it doesn’t mean he’s 21. Make sure to card before selling alcohol. The risks are just too big.”

As the public service announcement ended and more country music came back on the radio, I looked across the vast stretching snow-swept plains that extended in every direction, rolling black and brown peaks in the distance, a few rocky outcroppings stretching into the sky. The sun was just coming up over the peaks and I could finally see the terrain, after a few hours of driving in the early morning darkness. Gusts of wind blew light drifts of snow across the road.

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I pulled into Rock Springs, Wyoming a brief time later, here for a work shift for a few days. As I stepped out of the car, the wind cascaded across me, biting and much colder than I had anticipated. January in Wyoming was a bitch, clearly.

I shivered and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck, nestling into my coat, and stepped into the nearby gas station, a local place with the god-awful name of the Loaf ‘n Jug, it’s sister station the Cum n’ Go right across the road. Yes, spelled just like that.

Half of the gas station/convenience store was devoted to the sale of liquor. I looked around, hearing more country twang from the loudspeakers, and saw several shelves full of booze. Hey, the locals needed something to keep them warm. Several dead animal heads hung on the walls over the shelves, deer and elk and a mountain goat or two. My eyes fell on one of the bottles of liquor, a cinnamon red of Fireball Whiskey, with a handwritten sign over it that said “Buy two bottles of Fireball, get a free fishing lure! Inquire at the desk!”

As I munched on my trail mix and sipped on my hot, and terrible, gas station coffee in the car, I realized I had thirty minutes before my shift began. I grabbed my phone and Googled Rock Springs, Wyoming, figuring I may as well learn about the city I was in.

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I read about how, in 1885, the Union Pacific Coal Department was able to hire Chinese workers at a lower wage than White workers, so they, of course, hired more Chinese. The White workers rioted in an explosion of racial tension, burned down 75 homes, and killed dozens of Chinese. I didn’t see a single report of a White person killed. I read how the local newspapers at the time had sympathized with the White man’s plight, and how 16 men had been arrested for the murders, but all were acquitted one month later, met by the cheers of their loved ones for their heroic actions. It was with a pit in my stomach that I thought of recent anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic content in the media, in the current presidential campaign, and I wonder, for the one millionth time in my life, if we have evolved as a species at all.

I read about local industries and businesses and politics, about forms of entertainment (shooting ranges and the rodeo), about the long history of the state. And before long, it’s time to step outside the car, back into the biting wind, and to prepare for another day of work, this time in a strange and faraway place.

Later, I check into my hotel, and the kindly front desk attendant informs me that I’m just in time for happy hour. I shrug. It’s a week night, and only 5 pm, “But the drinks are free!” she exclaims. “One hour only!”

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And so 30 minutes later, a grandmotherly bartender mixes me a rather strong Rum and Coke. I take a few sips and make eye contact with the severed moose head hanging on the wall in front of me.

“He’s a beauty, ain’t he?”

I look over and see a woman behind me that I hadn’t noticed before. She looks as though she just woke up, her hair disheveled and in her nightgown, a large pink muumuu that drowns her. She takes a large handful of Lays potato chips from a bag she is holding and somehow fits the entire handful of chips in her mouth, cramming them in and not missing a crumb. She has no teeth, so she makes large gumming noises as she munches down on them loudly.

“Um, the moose?” I look back at his marble eyes. “Yup, a real beauty.”

The woman finishes gumming her bite and takes a swallow of the pink alcoholic mixture from the cup in front of her. “I bet he’s been dead fifty years.”

I look at her as she takes another handful, and realize I have nothing to say except, “Yup.”

And this is my life right now, I think. Me and this woman and a moose head at 5 on a week night, drinking free alcohol in a hotel bar in frozen Wyoming.

I give myself a little mental toast and take another sip.