Saturday, January 2, 2016

George Singleton recalls time he wrestled a bear at a carnival in Sweet Water

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “High school days remembered: Lessons learned about cars, football, friends, bear wrestling” was originally published in the Aug. 2, 1990 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

I often think how times have changed since I was in high school. I see many things happen today that during those years would have been unheard of.

I remember when if you got to school in the morning and an automobile was in front of the school house, it meant one of two things. Either the county superintendent of education had driven down from Linden, the county seat, for a visit or someone from aways off had gotten lost and stopped to ask directions.

Today, we don’t have ample parking space for all the fancy and beautiful automobiles that the students drive to school.

I think that I might have mentioned this before, but during my senior year of high school, the football players were told that they couldn’t come to the annual football banquet unless each player brought a date.

Two friends and I hired an old man who had a 1937 Chevrolet to carry us and our dates, six people in all, to the banquet. No one enjoyed the trip to the banquet and return home but the old man who drove the car. He seemed to have had a wonderful time. He did all the talking; no one else could get a word in edgewise.

Largest ring size

When time came to order our class rings, I had the largest ring size in the whole graduating class. Therefore, my ring was the most expensive. I had worked the summer before as a deck hand on a tug boat that pushed barges up and down the Tombigbee River. I had saved my earnings to put me through my senior year in high school. I nearly fainted when I was informed that my class ring would cost me a whole $12.

It was during the early football season of my senior year that a carnival of a type came to the town of Sweet Water. Our football coach gave strict orders that no player was to go to the carnival. The rival game of the year was just a few days away, and no one had better be caught at the carnival. This order was final. The last thing that anyone wanted to do was to get coach Foster mad and upset. Hard times were ahead if this happened.

The carnival was to be in town on Friday and Saturday nights. Our first game with Linden, our great rival, was just a week away. Three other players and I just couldn’t see how we would be caught if we waited until Saturday night to attend the carnival. Since no one else on the team would be there to rat on us, we felt very safe as we strolled around the carnival grounds, seeing everything that was free. None of the four had any money, but that was just about to change.

Over in the corner of the carnival grounds was a small arena. Here a crowd gathered as a man challenged anyone from the crowd to come forth and wrestle a very large brown bear that sat silently beside him, secured by a leash around its neck.

“Anyone who can stay in the ring with this 540-pound brown bear for a period of five minutes will be paid the total sum of $5 cash money,” the man yelled. No one seemed to want the $5; there were no takers from the crowd.

Unaware of what was taking place, my loyal and good friends had decided that I would get in the ring with the large bear. Then, with the money that I had won, they would be able to enjoy all the rides and side shows, as long as my winnings lasted. So when the bear handler yelled out that there was a challenger in the crowd, I looked to see who it was. My friends were pointing at me.

I wanted to run, but I was surrounded. I couldn’t understand how this had happened. Everyone was clapping their hands and cheering. In a few short seconds I decided that if I survived this ordeal, I was going to murder my friends in cold blood for getting me into this mess.

The large crowd had moved back and formed a large circle. I found myself standing inside the circle as the bear handler removed the leash from the large bear’s collar. I knew that my time had come; no more would I play on the field of competition against our school rivals. If I was lucky, I might be able to watch from the sidelines in my wheelchair.

Flipped by the bear

I felt the bone-crushing pressure as the large brown animal caught me in a bear hug and lifted me from the ground. I managed to get my leg behind the bear’s leg; we both fell to the ground. I landed on top, but not for long. The large bear flipped me clear and as I landed hard on my back, the bear was on top of me. The handler made the bear get off me, but as I stood up, I was grabbed again, the air crushed from my lungs.

The five minutes, which seemed like hours, were finally over. I staggered to my feet. The handler came over and congratulated me and presented my friends with the winnings. I was so tired and sore I really didn’t care what happened to the money. All I needed was some rest, just a place to lie down and hurt.

My so-called friends said that they enjoyed the rides and side shows that my winnings paid for. I did, however, receive one soft drink for my misery. But the worst was yet to come.

As we were about to leave the carnival (after all, my winnings had been spent), standing before us was coach Foster. I found myself wishing I was facing the large bear again, instead of the man standing there with his hands on his hips. Something told me that life would never be the same for the four of us; it wasn’t.

After 200 extra pushups and 150 laps around the football field, we finally got back to normal practice. We had to pay coach Foster 20 extra pushups and 10 laps around the playing field each day until the above penalty was paid. He saw to it that every one was done; our debt was finally paid. He counted each and every one himself.

I did learn one lesson, however; bear wrestling can be tough on the body and awful hard on old clothes.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, moved to Monroe County in 1961 and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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