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There's no business like show business. -Irving Berlin
Chester Cranepool was a small, quiet, unassuming individual. How this insignificant specimen of humanity became a household word is the subject of this story.
As a small boy, Chester was reared by an over-protective spinster Aunt while his mother spent most of her time in a sanatorium succumbing to tuberculosis. His father had died when he was just a baby, and his Aunt Clara was the only real parent he had ever known.
Chester grew up in a small, concise community not far from Boston. His Aunt's house was a large, rambling, Victorian structure that fit her own large, rambling, Victorian personality to a tee. She was one of a large group of pompous, Puritanical old Boston biddies who gathered every day for tea and told lies about their ancestry. Except to berate, belittle and criticize Chester, Aunt Clara had very little time for him.
When Chester turned twelve, his mother died leaving him in the permanent care of Aunt Clara. She received a sizeable sum of insurance money and elected to send Chester to an all-boys school as an alternative to having him board with her any longer.
When September finally rolled around, Chester stood dry-eyed and tight-lipped on the roadside next to the large wrought iron gates that surrounded the compound which was to incarcerate him for the next four years. He looked up with mixed emotions at the sign that read, 'Devonshire School for Young Men' and thought to himself, as he walked beneath the prodigious portals toward the hallowed halls of regimented ivy, that he felt more like a condemned man than a "young" one. Resigned, he shuffled miserably through the crisp autumn air toward the administration building whereupon he had been instructed to find the headmaster, Dr. Chambers. As luck would have it, Chester found the proper building almost immediately and timidly entered. Receiving hand directions from a mute janitor, Chester found himself knocking shyly on a large oaken door marked A. C. Chambers, PhD.
"Enter," came the reply, fired in a clipped military fashion. Chester complied and managed to navigate his small, insignificant self into the awesome office.
As he stood, trying to control the spasmodic knocking of his knees, the headmaster boomed, "Your hat, Mister!" Chester grabbed at his head, sending his hat flying into space. He watched in horror as the cap landed squarely on top of headmaster Chamber's desk snapping the head off of an antique pink flamingo. The doctor eyed first the broken flamingo and then glared at Chester with the blood red eyes of a Gila monster.
"Mr. Cranepool, I presume?" snapped Chambers.
"Ye ... ye ... yes, sir," stammered Chester. In response, a dossier flipped open and Dr. Chambers began his examination with the standard indoctrination speech that had reached perfection during the past twenty years.
"We here at Devonshire are proud of our heritage. We are steeped in the fine tradition of our forbearers and we take great pride in the accomplishments of our school and its graduates. You will be expected to maintain our exemplary standards and conduct yourself accordingly. Mr. Hall, at the end of the corridor, will assign you a room and provide you with proper attire. Is that quite clear, Mr. Cranepool?"
Chester managed to stutter another, "Yes, sir" and turned to leave.
"Mister Cranepool!" Chester froze in mid-stride. The headmaster pointed disgustedly at the lump of material still residing on his desk. Chester meekly removed the offending head gear and made his exit as unobtrusively as possible.
In the first year at Devonshire, Chester managed to establish himself as an object of profound ineptness. It seemed as if everything he tried to do turned out not only wrong but humorous to everyone around him. Chester's roommate, Rodney Whittaker, was a striking contrast. Rod, as he was called by his troupe of admirers, was the epitome of success. He excelled not only in his studies, but also in sports. Being something of a practical joker, he invariably devised ingenious methods to expose poor Chester as a funny, fumbling fop.
One typical incident occurred in history class when Chester was seated at his desk taking an exam. He was so engrossed in the test that he failed to notice a steady stream of ants crawling from the confines of his desk into the folds of his cuffs where crumbs of bread had been carefully and cunningly placed. He began to scratch, surreptitiously at first, trying desperately not to be conspicuous, then with increasing fervor as the ants infiltrated his uniform. Finally with a scream he could no longer suppress, Chester leaped to his feet and began wildly discarding his ant-infested clothes from his socks to his bowtie.
At the spectacle of this preposterous sight, the entire class went into convulsions. Even the teacher was doubled over in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. This was the type of torment that Chester bore with a seemingly quiet, mild-mannered fortress of internal fortitude. But deep down in the furnace of his soul, the fires began to rage.
In the spring of Chester's junior year at Devonshire, an incident occurred that was to change the entire course of his life. It happened as yet another example of Cranepool incompetence. During one of his physical education classes, Chester was involved in a game of baseball. He was playing his usual position – the bench – when a high foul ball was hit in his general direction. Chester, his mind a million miles away, wasn't aware of the hard ball that descended towards him. Oblivious even to the shouts of "heads up!" that filled the air, Chester remained unperturbed. The hand-stitched sphere of rawhide landed squarely and with resounding force on top of Chester's head. The assembled members of the team were momentarily silenced as they waited to see how badly Cranepool was hurt. They couldn't believe their eyes when Chester remained sitting as if nothing had happened.
Rodney Whittaker was the first to regain his speech. "Cranepool, you OK?" he asked?
"Sure, Rod. Why not?" replied Chester.
"But didn't you feel that ball hit you?" he inquired incredulously.
"Ball? What ball, Rod?"
"Cranepool, you nitwit. Man, you sure got a hard head!" Little did anyone know that Rodney had just made the understatement of the century.
In his senior year, Chester Cranepool began to experiment. He was still the object of his classmates' ridicule, a position he accepted with a firm resolve. He had managed to obtain passing grades even though he spent many hours daydreaming. He had even read a book on the famous Houdini and how he had won acclaim far and wide as the world's greatest escape artist. Chester, continually ribbed and roasted by his classmates, sought refuge in the vision that some day he was going to be as notoriously well-known as Houdini. He remembered the day he had been beaned by the foul ball, and knew that for some strange reason, he hadn't felt it. He was going to find out why.
Chester Cranepool had a plan. He began by dropping various objects of differing sizes and weights on his head. On weekends, alone in his room, Chester would get down to the business of determining exactly how much weight and force he could endure. In the first nine months of experimentation even Chester couldn't believe his progress. He had worked his way up from billiard balls to bowling balls, to sledge hammers, to chunks of angle iron. His crowning blow, so to speak, came when he rigged a hoist and dropped one end of a railroad tie on his skull. Nothing – no ill effects whatsoever.
At class graduation, Chester walked across the stage to take his diploma from Dr. Chambers, he was filled with a new inner courage that allowed him to face the jeers of the student body with a secret, sarcastic smile of his own.
Chester left Devonshire and headed straight to New York City where he arranged an interview with Colonel Ben Fogarty, the President of the famous Fogarty Brothers' Circus. He walked into the Fifth Avenue office building dressed in his only suit, an ill-fitting seersucker that covered his short, squat body like a tent. He was only eighteen at the time, but the forces of nature had already conspired to give Chester the appearance of a paunchy, balding, middle-aged retail merchant. Colonel Fogarty's secretary eyed Chester suspiciously as she buzzed her boss on the intercom. "A Mr. Cranepool is here to see you, sir."
"Send him in," came the brisk reply. Chester walked into the massive office with the self-assurance of an insurance salesman. He couldn't help but notice the interior that was gaudily decorated with all manner of circus trivia. The Colonel sat behind a huge desk smoking an equally huge cigar. "What can I do for you, my good man?" boomed the Colonel.
Chester walked to Fogarty's desk, lifted up an Indian club that doubled as a paper weight, neatly flipped it six feet into the air and let it bounce squarely off the top of his head. The Colonel stared in amazement as Chester smiled and said, "Colonel Fogarty, sir, I can drop lead, iron, steel, anything at all onto my head and never feel a thing. I'd like a job with your circus."
With a mind honed to the infinite possibilities of such an act, the Colonel hired Chester on the spot and thus began one of the most amazing, successful, and captivating careers of all times.
Chester's rise to fame and fortune with the Fogarty Brothers' Circus was nothing short of fantastic. He started initially as a fill-in act between the lion tamers and the trapeze artists. He performed a comic juggling routine with most of the ivory balls and Indian clubs bouncing adroitly off his head. The audience loved him and it wasn't long before Chester captured his own prime slot on the show.
In the ensuing months, Chester completely reorganized his program and began to bill himself as "The World's Last Daredevil." He devised an act that would capture the attention and spellbind audiences from coast to coast. The Colonel approved the new number. He was set to go for the first time.
Chester appeared in the center of the ring dressed in robes of cold black satin that shimmered and shined under the white spotlight. The interior lights of the circus tent were dimmed, accentuating Chester in brilliant luminescence. As the drum began to roll, another spotlight concentrated on an object suspended twenty feet directly above Chester Cranepool's naked head.
The audience gasped at the deadly, ominous presence of a solid iron anvil ready to be dropped. Emotions were drawn to a feverous pitch as the kettle drum reached its crescendo. When the tension became unbearable, total silence engulfed the big top. In horrified fascination, the spellbound spectators watched as the five-hundred pound anvil fell twenty feet and crashed on Chester's cranium with unbelievable force. With the gallant poise of a gladiator, Chester stood his ground as the anvil bounced harmlessly off his head. The audience was on its feet. Wild deafening applause filled the air. Grown men reeled, women fainted by the score and kids of all ages screamed Chester's name. Almost overnight this reticent, mild- mannered young man became a national hero.
By the time he turned twenty-one, Chester was known the world over. He had performed for the crowned heads of Europe, the Kremlin and the Emperor of Japan. He was the subject of unbiased praise from virtually every corner of the earth. Chester had even become a full partner in Fogarty Brothers' Circus and his fame and generosity had made both himself and the Colonel multi-millionaires. Several books and one movie had been produced in testimony of this amazing individual and his phenomenal feats of daring.
One afternoon as Colonel Ben Fogarty and Chester sat in the executive suite of their office building overlooking the hustle and bustle of New York City, Chester dropped the bombshell. He calmly and quietly stated, "Colonel, I'm quitting. I can't take the stress and strain any longer. I'm going to retire."
The Colonel was flabbergasted. He stared in utter disbelief at the small young man before him. "But, but, Chester, you can't! You're a hero to millions of people. You've become a symbol of the might and power of our very nation. People are depending on you. You can't just quit. Think of the kids, Chester, the kids that you've influenced to overcome adversity and triumph in the face of defeat. You're more than a hero, you're a living legend!"
Chester slowly and sadly shook his famous head and replied, "I'm sorry, Colonel, but I just can't go on." Chester's voice cracked. He paused and lowered his head for a moment. "All right," Chester conceded. "One more. I'll do one more for the kids." The Colonel, with tears in his eyes, leaped from his seat and hugged him in a fatherly embrace.
The scene of Chester's final performance was to be Madison Square Garden. His virtuoso performance was billed worldwide as 'Chester's Last Stand.' Preparation for the extravaganza began immediately. The Garden was rented two weeks in advance so alterations could be completed. Advance reservations were already being sold for one thousand dollars per ringside seat. Standing room only was expected with customers coming from every part of the world. The New York City Police Department in cooperation with the National Guard was scheduled to handle the traffic conditions as well as the necessary security. The entire show was to be filmed live and telecast nationally on Sunday evening at eight o'clock. The film rights were granted at an undisclosed amount. The Fogarty Brothers had planned a special program featuring the world's best circus performers in addition to a host of movie and television celebrities appearing on behalf of Chester Cranepool.
On the eve of the big show, Chester and the Colonel were inside the Garden making a final inspection of the equipment. "Chester," said the Colonel. "This is going to be a momentous occasion. Every man, woman, and child in this country is going to be standing right along side you tomorrow night. You've become a God, Chester. How does it feel?"
Chester, apparently oblivious to the Colonel's question, pointed to a large, solid steel, hand-tooled, antique Yale safe sitting inconspicuously on the edge of the stage. "What museum did you find that in? How did you get it in here, anyway? That thing must weigh a ton!" exclaimed the Colonel.
Chester smiled. With a deep sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, the Colonel began to shake as he tried to formulate the unaskable question. "You ... you're not, you're NOT gonna drop that ... that thing on your head, Chester?? No, Chester, NO! My God, man, it'll kill ya! The Colonel was red with emotion. Chester Cranepool just smiled.
Hampered by a dull, drizzling rain, the New York Police Department and the Twenty-first Battalion of Reservists labored all day long in a battle to sort out the vast number of automobiles, busses, trains and pedestrians that flocked to Madison Square Garden. As show time drew near, the Garden was packed with a capacity crowd and the surrounding area cluttered with vehicles.
At precisely eight pm, the Greatest Show in modern times began. Millions of Americans were glued to their television sets. As the cameras whirled and panned, a roar of applause rose from the assembled multitude that could be heard as far away as the Bronx. When the cheers and claps finally subsided, Colonel Ben Fogarty stepped from behind the curtain to introduce the various guests and to provide commentary.
For an hour and a half, the masses were treated to a potpourri of spectacular performances by the world's greatest artists. As the final warm up act was completed, the audience had been whipped into a frenzy of expectation culminating with the sudden, unexpected appearance of their beloved Chester Cranepool. In anticipation of their reaction, Chester raised his hands and called for quiet. All eyes were focused center stage as Chester, in an historic moment, said simply, "For you, my friends, for you."
There was a sudden explosion and Chester disappeared as the Garden was thrown into total darkness. In a flash, he materialized again on his special platform outlined in the blazing brilliance of the spotlight.
Excerpted from Tales of the Lost Flamingo by Mike Griffin Copyright © 2011 by Mike Griffin. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 6, 2011
Just read an advanced copy of Mike Griffin's riotous new novel and simply couldn't put it down! 'Lost Flamingo' rolls out chunks of bazaar Americana like a Moroccan street vendor displaying his wares on an arabesque rug. I found this entire book a rare read well worth any ones time.