Authors: Sonora Carver
For Sale: Two acres on Burnside River, fifteen miles from Savannah. Five-room stucco cottage, modern conveniences, two-car garage, boathouse, private pier, six rowboats. Cash or terms.
Mother was addicted to ads. She read them with the avidity of a bird watcher watching a bird, and as a result made some marvelous purchases. Once it was a covey of fish bowls which she set about the house, not because we had a lot of goldfish, but because the bowls were on sale. Another time it was an office building which she converted into a boardinghouse. Very few people have bedded down in former chiropractic treatment rooms, but her boarders did. Another time she made cosmetics at home to sell to the neighbors. For quite a while after she read that ad we had pestles and mortars around with mysterious mixtures ground up in them and non-edible messes bubbling on the stove.
Mother was clever and could have been quite successful at almost anything if it hadn’t been that, once she got a project going, she completely lost interest. She had a mind like a dragonfly, restless and always on the move, and sometimes we moved too. During the years of my growing up it was difficult for me to count the number of houses we had lived in. She would see an ad for a house to rent and decide it had more closet space than ours. In a twinkling we’d find ourselves lugging our belongings halfway across town.
Sometimes, however, she moved without even telling us. One day we came home from school and there wasn’t a stick of furniture in the house. A man was sweeping up and told us we had moved, and he also told us where. When we got there we found Mother unpacking dishes. She said yes, we’d moved. So the shift to Savannah was no surprise to me, although I was visiting an aunt in Florida at the time and had had no idea that Mother was thinking of moving. But then, neither had she. Only when she read the want ad had the seizure hit her and she had been struck with the idea of buying the stucco cottage and making a lodge out of it for hunters. She planned to rent rooms to them and give them early-morning breakfast before they went out to hunt. She didn’t say any of this in the letter to me, though. She just wrote, “When you come back, don’t go to Bainbridge. We don’t live there any more.”
I was old enough then to have impeded her had I been home, but by the time I got to Savannah it was clearly too late. All the children were out splashing around in the river and everyone was happy. The boathouse proved to be nothing more than a shed, and the fleet of six boats had been whittled down to one buckled and spavined specimen. What was more, the house was so small she couldn’t possibly have rented any rooms. There were seven of us and only five rooms any way you counted them.
For my part, after my first trip to town—a five-mile walk to the trolley line, followed by a forty-minute ride—I made up my mind to rent a room in town and get myself a job. Until then the children had been too small for me to leave them, but they would all be in school that fall and I could get out and view the world, which I’d been straining to see ever since I was two years old.
I remember that time quite clearly because it was my running-away period. At least Mother called it “running away.” I knew perfectly well that I was coming back. Apparently she wasn’t so sure, because after a series of “runaways” she began to lock me in the back yard in order to keep me at home. I soon learned to climb the fence and take off. The situation finally became so critical, she adopted the suggestion of a friend. She put a flour sack over my head and tied it down with string.
The theory behind this was that I’d be so ashamed to be seen looking that way that I’d automatically stay home. However, she reckoned without the determination which came in so handy later. The first time she tried it she found me about an hour later two blocks away playing with some children who, apparently having satisfied themselves that there was a head under the sack, welcomed me into their games.
In all fairness to the plan it should be said that the child was not expected to suffocate. The sacks had been washed and were sleazy enough to be breathed through and seen through without difficulty.
From what has been said it should be apparent that, for all Mother’s whimsicalities, she was not entirely mistaken when she thought of me in connection with Dr. Carver’s ad. As a matter of fact, she had every good reason to believe I’d make an excellent performer. I
young (nineteen), I was attractive (people said so), and I liked to travel (even with sacks on my head). I did love horses (H.S. was still with us but had had a narrow escape) and I could swim and dive.
The night I went home after seeing the act I told Jac, my younger sister, who was living with me and going to school in Savannah, that I had changed my mind. “I want to learn to ride the diving horses,” I said. “I’m going to take the job.”
“Well, you’d better hurry,” she said. “They’re leaving tomorrow.”
There was a paper lying on the bedroom floor and she pointed to it. I picked it up and read a headline on an inside page.
“CARVER HIGH-DIVING HORSE ACT MOST SUCCESSFUL AT FAIR,” and beneath it, “Dr. Carver carved place in old West.”
It was a full-page write-up about him and his diving horses, intended to boost attendance at the fair. For me it served the purpose of introducing him to me more thoroughly than anything else could have.
According to the write-up, Dr. Carver had been part of the old West when the West was really wild. Back in the middle 1800s he had acted as scout for a regiment of cavalry stationed near the site of North Platte, Nebraska, although North Platte wasn’t yet there. Along with the scouting, he had hunted and trapped and was one of the first men to file papers for a homestead in Frontier County, Nebraska. He might have settled there, he was quoted as saying, had it not been that about that time the commercial demand for leather became so great that anybody who was a good rifleshot got busy killing buffalo. He had seen the time when the skinned carcasses lay so close to one another that a man could walk for miles without touching the ground, just stepping from one body to another. He said that now he regretted the waste of all that meat and the suffering it had caused the Indians by taking their main source of food, but that in those days he had been too young to feel any sense of shame. He was only in his late teens and busy getting rich. Also, he was becoming a deadly shot with a rifle; so deadly, in fact, that he could shoot out the eye of a buffalo while riding at full gallop. The Indians were so frightened of him that they gave him the name of “Evil Spirit.”
He was broad-shouldered, six foot four, and weighed 210 pounds. He had flaming red hair and a pair of long mustaches. In the manner of the plainsmen of that day he wore his hair shoulder-length, as did his friends Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, with whom he spent much of his time.
When the hide market finally became glutted he decided he wanted to try something else, and since the career of a professional man had a certain appeal for him, he decided to take up dentistry. In order to learn how to pull teeth he had to go to school, the closest one being in California. He decided to go there and persuaded Wild Bill Hickok to go with him, but at the last minute Wild Bill changed his mind because of a gold strike in North Dakota. He tried to sell Dr. Carver on the idea of going to North Dakota, and they ended by flipping a coin to see whether it would be California or North Dakota.
Dr. Carver won the toss, but Wild Bill still refused to go to California. “You’ll run into bad luck, Bill,” Dr. Carver argued, “if you buck the coin.” But Bill bucked it anyway, and the next thing Dr. Carver heard Wild Bill was dead. “Shot in the back by a yellow-bellied so-and-so by the name of McCall,” he said. “He should have listened to me.”
Dr. Carver went on and entered dental school in California but he didn’t stay long—just long enough to earn himself the “Doctor” tag which stayed with him the rest of his life. The tooth-pulling business lost its hold on him the day he went to a gun club and blasted all the targets in sight. He was such a good shot that word got around and one of the leading newspapers carried a story about him. The next thing he knew, some enterprising men had put up the money to launch him on a career that was to take him all over the globe and earn him the title of “Champion Rifleshot of the World.”
By special request he exhibited at Sandringham, England, on April 13,1879, before the Queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, and members of the royal household. Two days later he received a complimentary letter from the Prince of Wales, who was to become Edward the VII of England. The letter was accompanied by a gold pin set with diamonds known as the Prince of Wales Feathers, and he was the only American ever to receive it. Later on that same trip, thirty thousand soldiers cheered him when he exhibited his marksmanship before Sir Robert Peel of Aldershot
In Germany some weeks later, Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany titled him
der Shutzen Konig
(King of Marksmen) at an exhibition before an audience that included Bismarck, Baron von Moltke and his staff, and the Grand Duke Albert of Austria. During the course of this exhibition the Emperor pulled a crown piece from his pocket and told Dr. Carver that if he shot a hole through the coin while it was in the air he would be satisfied that there was no trickery involved in his amazing marksmanship.
“With your permission,” said Dr. Carver, “I will not only shoot a hole through it but I will put a bullet through Your Majesty’s head on the raised surface of the coin.” When he had made good his boast, Baron von Moltke threw his arms around him and said, “Oh for an army of such as you!” Later the Kaiser sent Dr. Carver a magnificent diamond ring, and when he came back to the United States two years later he had a chest full of jewels and medals and more glory than he could believe. He was quoted as saying that the only reason he came back then was because he got homesick for a piece of custard pie.
Not long afterward he ran into his old friend Buffalo Bill, and the two of them hit on the idea of putting together a company for the purpose of presenting melodramas about the old West. It was called “The Wild West-Cody and Carver’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition,” and they opened in Omaha in 1883. It was highly successful, but unfortunately the partnership didn’t last. Both men were so hot-tempered that the enterprise finally blew up in a quarrel that left them bitter enemies for life.
The following spring there were two Wild West shows in the country—“Cody’s Show” and “Carver’s Show”—and the rivalry between them was intense. They fought each other from one end of the country to the other, a favorite trick being to find out where the other had a show opening and get there first to skim off the town’s money.
In the end Buffalo Bill’s show lasted longer, but Dr. Carver had his innings, for in 1885 he attracted world-wide attention by undertaking a shooting exhibition that called for endurance as well as skill. He set out to achieve a record of ten thousand hits a day for six days running. He shot at what were called “glass balls,” balls made of resin, which shattered like glass when struck with a bullet. Sometimes in order to get in his ten thousand hits a day he would shoot on into the night by the light of flares. People everywhere were astonished by his supreme marksmanship as well as his amazing physical endurance. The guns became so hot from such rapid shooting that he had a barrel of water sitting nearby and an attendant whose job it was to dunk the guns to cool them off.
Before he gave up the Wild West show business entirely Dr. Carver decided to take his troupe to Europe. He said the real reason he went was that he heard Buffalo Bill was going and he had to go in order to spite him. After Europe he went to Australia for apparently the same reason, and it was while he was on this trip that he was launched on still another career.
The playwrights, after hearing him talk about his life on the plains, decided to write a play about him. They called it
and got Dr. Carver to play the lead. Later they wrote one called
which was even more successful and in which he also played the lead. He brought this play back to San Francisco and was soon thrilling American audiences with it from coast to coast.
It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before on a stage. It required a cast of hundreds—cowboys, pioneers, Indians, and a herd of horses which were brought onto the stage in wild action scenes. It was while he was appearing in
that he first happened on the idea of teaching horses to dive.
In the play there was a scene in which Dr. Carver rode a horse over a bridge. It was rigged so that when a stage hand pulled a lever the bridge fell out from under him. He always reached up and caught hold of an upright and hung on, while the horse plunged on down into a river of water which flowed through the middle of the stage. It didn’t hurt the horse, but it scared him so that he balked at crossing the bridge a second time. As a consequence Dr. Carver had to use a different horse every night.
This worked out all right until the night they ran out of horses. Dr. Carver suggested that they try an old faithful of his, Silver King. King had been across the bridge before, but Dr. Carver thought he might be willing to try it again, and he was. In fact, after the bridge had dropped out from under him and dumped him in the water, King trotted back up the embankment, ready for an encore. It was then that Dr. Carver hit on the idea of teaching horses to dive for entertainment purposes.
When the play finally closed he began training high-diving horses in earnest, and it was from this beginning that his present act had risen. It had been in existence ten years by the time I saw it, and thousands of people all over the United States had applauded “Carver’s High-Diving Horse Act and the Girl-in-Red.”
The write-up ended with the announcement that the fair was closing tomorrow night and that anybody who hadn’t seen the act should, because it was a spectacle not to be missed.
When I had finished reading I put the paper down. All I could hope was that Dr. Carver hadn’t already hired a girl to do the riding, because I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was that girl.