Over the last few days I have revisited my past more than normal, sorting through thousands of images in an attempt to put together a presentation to the â€œFloyd Naturallyâ€ series at the public library tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Public speaking is not among my sparse library of talents. Neither is reflection or dwelling on the past. Yet an attempt to do both is demanded in this case and the visit into the archives of my youth produces some remembrances and thoughts about what shapes our personalities.
Although I consider myself a Floyd Countian, I wasnâ€™t born here. Entry into this world came 58 years ago in Tampa, Florida, the first child of a young woman from Meadows of Dan and an ex-sailor from Florida. We settled in his home town of Gibsonton, a sleepy little Florida community on U.S. 41 south of Tampa.
My father died before I could know or remember him, killed in an industrial accident. So freaks of nature occupy my first memories of Gibsonton, or Gibtown as the locals called it. The carnies wintered there â€“ carnival workers off the road, living in tin-roof shacks or trailers, setting up their attractions to hone their skills in the off season. Many headlined the sideshows â€“ bearded ladies, sword swallowers, Siamese twins, midgets and those who had turned birth defects into ways to make a living. Al Tomani, the “Giant” (right) who stood 8 feet, 4-and-a-half inches tall, owned a fishing camp in Gibtown and served as the local fire chief. At the town post office, a chopped down counter was set aside to serve dwarfs.
I played with the carniesâ€™ children, my mother shopped alongside them at the grocery store and they greeted both of us warmly on the street. The carnies were kind, fun-loving people would drop everything to help a neighbor in trouble. When a hurricane blew the roof off our house, the carnies showed up first to help.
My childhood friends talked of places theyâ€™d been, people they met and cities far and near. Their stories kindled a youngsterâ€™s wanderlust, a desire to travel beyond the boundaries of life and imagination.
Living around the carnies also taught a very young man to never judge someone by their appearance. Tourists came to Gibtown to take pictures and point and gawk at the “freaks” But these anomalies of nature that scared youngsters in sideshows around the country were our neighbors, the parents of my friends. They taught me early on that fear springs from the unknown, bigotry out of ignorance and that knowledge can easily conquer both.
We left Gibtown when I was five, climbing onto a northbound train on a move to Floyd on what would be the first of many travels to new lands and encounters with new people. But no matter where Iâ€™ve lived over the past 53 years, it has always been a place where the carnival comes to town during the summer months. And whenver I can I drop what Iâ€™m doing and head for the midway to be among friends.