The Second Strongest Woman on Earth

by Tommy Zurhellen

I know the FBI is all about efficiency, so I will try not to waste any of your time. I meant what I told you on the telephone, every word, and I mean to set the record straight once and for all. So, please, make yourself comfortable.

How close should I be to this thing? I think the last time I spoke into a microphone, I was a little girl, seven or eight perhaps, in a carnival booth singing Tiptoe Through The Tulips onto a record for a quarter. But that was a long time ago. My tiptoeing days have been over for a long time. What do you think?

All right. My full name is Beverly Ann Romack. I will begin.

This is the official story of how I helped ruin the life of a man. I say official for two reasons: first, and I don’t care what you people say, I knew this man, and loved him, as well as anybody did. Second, this man was somebody pretty famous of course, and you boys at the FBI are going to want me to get it right. I realize that’s all people are going to care about as soon as they hear this story, like it always is when you mention someone famous. That’s a lot of pressure for one woman to bear, but I don’t want an ounce of your sympathy. I only want to make one thing clear: this is more than just a tabloid story from some aging matron who once knew a famous person. It’s much more than that: it’s a story about this famous person and me, the nutty girl he loved. It’s a story about a time when I could say I was pretty and an athlete and not have to pull pictures out of an album to prove it.

Aren’t people at my age supposed to start losing their memory? That’s one problem I dream of having. Once in a while I will find myself forgetting a telephone number or who sang a song on the radio, like everyone does, and I want to take it as some small sign that I will be able to forget. But my lover once said I have the memory of an elephant, and the body to match. And he was right, on both counts.

If I find myself thinking of love, I have to go back more than thirty years before I can smile over it. Nowadays, I’m simply sick of the word. I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to read about it. You, you’re young, it’s different for you. I turn sixty-six in three and a half weeks, so I need love like an acrobat needs an anchor tied to her tush. I mentioned that I was once just a nutty girl. Well, thirty years ago I was, but he loved me anyway. And that’s why this isn’t just some story about someone famous you can read at the supermarket, packaged pretty and sweet: this is an ugly story. This is a love story, in the absolute worst sense of the word.

I know you want me to get to the point, but I think that is the point. Now, most of this you think you know already. But what I’m about to tell you, well, you just aren’t going to believe.

* * *

On November 24, 1971, the day before Thanksgiving, a man in a black suit and sunglasses boarded Northwest flight 305 from Portland, Oregon to Sea-Tac. He bought his one-way ticket for twenty dollars under the name Dan Cooper. A few minutes after takeoff, he handed the stewardess, Flo Schaffner, a note on yellow legal paper. She thought he was hitting on her, so she smiled and put it in her pocket. This man said, “Miss, you’d better read that note. I’ve got a bomb.” And he opened his black suitcase, showing her two black cylinders and a motorcycle battery and a mess of wire.

This Dan Cooper, whom the police somehow misnamed D.B. Cooper in the days after it happened, then demanded two hundred thousand dollars and four parachutes when the plane landed in Seattle. The FBI gave him what he wanted, and with the thirty-six other passengers taken off the plane, Cooper ordered the flight crew to take him to Mexico, flying low, at no more than ten thousand feet, no more than two hundred miles per hour. Over southwest Washington State, in the middle of a storm, the rear stairs opened on the 727 and Cooper jumped out. It was seven below zero. He was never heard from again.

That’s the story everyone knows. You good people at the FBI guessed this man, who was never identified, had to be ex-military to know so much about planes and high jumps and things. Well, no offense to you, but those men in Washington were simpletons and they guessed wrong. The only thing they got right was when they guessed the bomb was a fake. That’s right, the two cylinders were actually lunchbox thermoses painted black with model paint. I know a lot of other things, too: I know the battery came from a motorcycle called a Husqvarna 650 that once held the world record for jumping oil barrels. I know why this Dan Cooper went through with such a crazy plan. And of course, I know his real name: you’d think the government would listen to the only woman who knows the real name of a man who is still number nineteen on their Most Wanted List, thirty years after the fact. Am I impressing you? How do I, Bev Romack, know all this, you ask? I know all this because for fourteen years his trailer was next to mine.

And now that I see I have your attention, I can begin.

* * *

I have never married. It’s easier to understand why when you realize who I am. Or who I was. If you lived anywhere in that great flatness of western America from Spokane down to the Grand Canyon between 1957 and 1971, and your parents took you when the circus came to town, it’s a good chance you’ve seen me, maybe even met me up close if I picked you out of the crowd and hoisted you on my shoulder for a slow tour around the big top. I’ve held up a lot of kids, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. For fourteen years I came on right after the clown car bit, along with the rest of the freaks, to distract the crowd while the rope gang set up the trapeze. We were a pretty tight group: the Bearded Lady, the Human Pretzel, the Fire Eater, the Sword Swallower, the Siamese Ping Pong Team, the Feral Wolf Boy, and me: The Great Zarkofsky, Strongest Woman on Earth.

I was the second Great Zarkofsky. I replaced the first, a woman named Aggie Santana, who was the Strongest Woman on Earth for Fairfield’s Great Western Circus from 1944 to 1957. She had been working on the tent gang, driving stakes into the ground at four in the morning and taking them out again by midnight, but after the circus’ regular strongman got drafted, along with all the other able-bodied men around, Aggie got the job. Old Mr. Fairfield had a lot more crazier ideas than having a woman strongman, believe me: this was the same man who saved electricity by promoting Bring Your Own Flashlight Night. He only looked at the dollar signs. After it was clear the idea would work Mr. Fairfield, bless his soul, always made a big to-do about his circus being the first to have a strongwoman, but the decision must have been easy: anyone could see Aggie was a woman built like a delivery truck, and she was probably the only one left on the payroll, woman or man, who could lift a horse off the ground.

The original Fairfield strongman had been billed as a Russian, a Cossack on horseback, so that pretty much meant Aggie was going to be a Russian, since new costumes cost money. But that didn’t last long: Aggie was lousy on horseback, and besides, everything changed with the fifties; you’re probably too young to remember any of it, but there was Senator McCarthy and the whole Red Scare. It only took one show with half the parents climbing out of the stands to take a poke at the–forgive my language–commie bitch for Mr. Fairfield to ditch the red star tights and fur hat and change her to a Polish contessa; with the same name, of course, since posters cost money, too.

Aggie Santana taught me everything I needed to know: how to rip a telephone book in half (dunk it half-way in salt water overnight, then let it completely dry out), how to bend steel bars (paint a lead bar black), even how to perform the Fairfield strongman’s signature trick, lifting a live horse off the ground. Lifting the horse off the ground isn’t the problem. Finding a horse that’s okay with you putting your shoulders under its gut and picking it up off the ground is the hard part. Usually Mr. Fairfield would find some old nag headed for the glue factory, skinny and ready to die, and then cover it up with a big blanket so it would look heftier. People looked at me like a goddess; I loved the spotlight, and I guess I always have craved that in one way or another.

Now, when you’re announced three times a week as the Strongest Woman on Earth, people are going to try to test you. It was bad enough that I was a woman, looking the way I did, but now I couldn’t walking across main street without being challenged to arm wrestle every yahoo in the county. That’s why the lot of us, the sideshow freaks, tended to stay close to the trailers when we set up in a new town. For me, keeping to myself wasn’t anything new, and I guess everyone there had the same problems growing up different. I will admit the sideshow folks didn’t always get the worst of it: when folks would find out Jack Freep was the High Dive Daredevil, it’d only be a matter of time before they wanted to toss him off the local water tower to see if he was for real.

I apologize. I realize you don’t want to hear too much about me. I’ll move on. But I have already mentioned the man you are waiting to hear about: Fearless Freep, the High Dive Daredevil.

* * *

By that fall of 1971, Fearless Freep had been the main attraction for the Fairfield Great Western Circus for nine straight years. He was instant publicity before we rolled into a town: Mr. Fairfield would hire a local pilot to drag a big circus banner around in the air. Then when that got people’s attention, Freep would just go ahead and jump out of the plane. Mr. Fairfield didn’t pay him extra for the stunt and Jack didn’t mind; he just wanted the opportunity to jump, sometimes parachuting into the middle of town, other times right on top of the local factory or mining operation or slaughterhouse to hand out a few free tickets. Sometimes the wind wasn’t on his side and he’d end up in a ditch or a pasture or on top of a traffic cop, but it didn’t matter: back then, in tiny towns like Castleford, Idaho, or Cozad, Nebraska, a man jumping out of the sky was the most memorable thing to happen for years. Some would pay the admission just to see his act.

Halfway through the show, right after the trapeze act, they would cut the lights and announce him: Ladies and Gentlemen, the moment you have all been waiting for. Never before has the feat you are about to witness been attempted by either man or beast. Focus your attention in the skies far above the center ring. And there would be Fearless Freep waving down to the crowd, dressed in his shiny blue outfit and cape, his face covered by a blue mask. Every night it’d be a little different: some times there would be a pool of water on the ground, and from the stands it looked no larger than a big glass of water. Other times they would invite the local Fire Department to stand out there and catch him with a giant blanket. His stand was more than a hundred and ten feet above the ground on the main pole, and that’s no lie, I measured it myself. We all did at one time or another.

In a few seconds, after a long drum roll, it would all be over. Fearless Freep would slowly lean forward over the open air, arms straight out to his sides, and he would fall, head first, silently and without emotion, until the crowd heard a thud or a splash, and then they started to cheer. Then he’d pop up, do a quick lap or two around the big top, and disappear when the clown music started up again. Jack was never a very big man; in fact he was average in almost any way you would look at him: height, weight, hair, eyes, chin, complexion. But up on center pole he looked like a hero; he was to me, anyway, a superhero hero who could fly. He was the first person to tell me I was beautiful, and he might be the only one. Jack was the best thing that ever happened to me; I wish I could say I was the same for him.

* * *

My mother, Mary Romack, died a few hours after I was born: I weighed twelve and a half pounds, and they say that’s what did it. I know that whenever my father looked at me, at my size, inside he wished I hadn’t been born. I grew fast. We ran the Romack Feed and Grain outside Sheridan, Wyoming: my father, my stepmother, and me. By the time I was eight, I was loading hay bales on and off a truck alongside my father. By the time I left high school I was making pocket money wrestling three boys to the ground at once. I went to a lot of movies alone. I had never been asked to a dance, I bought my clothes at the Big & Tall men’s shop, and the only time boys wanted to hold my hand was to arm wrestle. So, forgive me if I believed I was never slated for love.

In 1957, Fairfield’s Great Western Circus came through Sheridan in the early spring, and like every year since I was a girl, they contracted Romack F&G for feed and straw for all the animals. But that year my father was ill, so I drove the delivery down to Mr. Fairfield at the fairgrounds myself. He came over as I was unloading the truck. Before I left, he offered me job, as Aggie Santana’s successor. And since I didn’t have anything going for me in Sheridan besides twenty years of being an unpaid freak, I jumped at a chance at being a paid one.

I first saw Jack Freep outside his trailer, standing out in the dirt on a thin plywood board with his arms extended and a cigarette in his mouth. Jack smoked a lot, and the only time he didn’t have a pack of Raleighs on him was when he was performing under the big top. He would stand on the plywood for what seemed like hours, then step of it onto the ground below. He did this a few times before I finally came over. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Practicing my jump for tonight,” he said, puffing a little on his cigarette, arms still out. His eyes were closed.

“Shouldn’t you be jumping from something a little higher?”

“The first two inches,” he said, still puffing, “are all that matter.”

Everyone thought Jack was weird. All right, since it’s just you and me in the room, I’ll admit it: everyone was convinced he was a complete loony. Sometimes he’d talk like a philosopher or a preacher or someone, and other times he could curse up a storm. And when it’s the sideshow freaks are saying you are weird, well, I guess that makes it official. We were all weird, anyone could plainly see that, but inside we figured we were as normal as anyone who paid to come see us. Jack Freep looked normal on the outside, an average man, but inside he was weird, different. I clinged to that. That’s why people went to the circus in the first place, I guess: to see things they knew they’d never get a chance to see in their own lives, a fringe of humanity that might as well have been from Mongolia or Mars. I loved Jack because he was normal to me, and because he let me be normal. I guess that’s something only a freak or outcast could understand. We were both.

I could tell you a lot about Jack, about his history: where he grew up, what kind of grades he got in school, all of that. We were together for all of those fourteen years, and the road can be a lonely place. In the off-season we’d hang around a town we didn’t mind too much and spend the winter doing odd jobs and keeping warm. I could tell you everything about the man, but I won’t, for two reasons: first, I didn’t do right by this man when he was alive, and I figure I owe him his privacy now, thirty years after his death. Second, I fear none of this really matters to you, since to you it is only what led up to what happened during the fall of 1971.

* * *

Things had been turning bad for Jack by then: that year he turned forty, and suddenly his back started to give in after all those years of falling on purpose. The cough that for years had just been a cough had gotten worse, too, and still he wouldn’t give up cigarettes. The worst of it was, Mr. Fairfield had been trying for some time to get Fearless Freep to change up his act, make it more exciting. Mr. Fairfield’s favorite expression at the time, I recall, was “get with the times,” which made most of us laugh, since it was coming from a man who was convinced Sha Na Na was at Woodstock. Jack wasn’t laughing, however.

We were setting up in a sand lot outside Flagstaff when I found Jack standing on his board as usual, in front of his trailer; but this time, he had some kind of furry gorilla suit on. He had the gorilla head cradled in his arm.

He saw me coming. “Fairfield says my act has got to have a theme. A theme? I’ve been doing this jump for fifteen years. That’s what it is. That’s all it is, a jump. And now I have to do it dressed in a damn monkey suit.”

“What’s the theme?” I said.

“Fairfield got the bright idea: the last scene in King Kong. You’ve seen that one?”

“About a million times,” I said. “Kong gets shot in the neck and he falls off the Empire State Building. The policeman says something like, ‘I guess the airplanes got him’, and the explorer says, ‘no, twas beauty killed that beast.'”

“I feel ridiculous, Bev,” Freep said, fighting a cough. “And this suit will throw my jump off.”

“Don’t do it, then, Jack. Walk away.”

“And do what? I don’t do anything else. I jump. That’s what I do.” He drop-kicked the gorilla head; it rolled away in the dirt.

“Why not find another circus, where you can jump like you want?”

“Are there any left? I don’t come with a supercharged engine. I don’t burst into flames. I’m a dinosaur. We all are, you know.”

I said, “Do you remember the guy you replaced nine years ago, as the main act?”

Freep smiled. “Professor Perilous. The high-wire unicycle act.”

“And when’s the last time you saw one of those? Times change,” I said. I sounded more like Mr. Fairfield than I wanted to.

He stood still for a moment. “When I was nine, some kid dared me to dive off the Cahaba Bridge. I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve jumped off church steeples, moving trains, clipper ships, you name it. I don’t want to stop.”

I asked him why he jumped. Do you know what he told me? “For a few moments,” he said, smiling again, “I am the only man who can fly.” Standing there, I remember thinking, I have met a lot of people who are afraid of heights, afraid of flying. I had never met anyone who was afraid not to fly. Standing on the top rung of a ladder is hell for most people; for Jack, hell was having to step off it.

“Where else can a man jump for a living?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “You’re too old to be a paratrooper.”

“And I can’t dance.” I don’t know why, but we both laughed.

That night, the act went as bad as Freep had feared, probably worse. It was a mess. Mr. Fairfield found guys to beat on a couple of congas, and after they announced the act they brought in a dozen of the tent gang guys to shoot up at Freep with blanks, like he was an escaped monster. I could tell Jack didn’t care anymore; he just stood up there, like he was waiting for a bus or something, and there was a lit cigarette stuck in the mouth of the gorilla suit. Jack must have been right about the suit throwing off his balance, because he missed his jump, only by a couple feet, but when you’re trying to aim for water as wide as a wading pool from that high up, that’s big. He didn’t get out of the water, they had to go in and get him. He spent the night in the local hospital. No one visited him besides me. When he caught up with us on the road the next day he said he felt fine, and on the outside I could believe him. His cough even seemed to go away for a while. But on the inside, he had to be far from fine.

The next show, on September 1, 1971, was a Sunday doubleheader in Elko, Nevada, and without much notice or fanfare, Mr. Fairfield replaced him as the main attraction with some motorcycle daredevil, a young whelp that dressed up like an American flag and jumped over anything they put in front if him: junked cars, barrels, elephants, even people. Have you ever seen such a thing? Again, I told Jack it was a sign of the times: it reminded me of the story my mother used to read to me when I was a girl, about John Henry, the man who took on the modern machine to see who was better. But as I recall, John Henry actually won before he died of a broken heart. Freep still kept performing, but they put him at the end of the show, the mop-up slot we used to call it, when half the crowd was trying to find the exit anyway. His introduction dwindled to Ladies and Gentlemen, Fearless Freepand Mr. Fairfield told him to make do with a shorter jump off one of the side poles, which made things even worse, since now the death-defying dive didn’t look much more death-defying than a jump off the high dive at the YMCA pool. Instead of holding their hands over their mouth, some would snicker and laugh. Fearless Freep was devastated..

After that night in Elko, Jack knew he was finished. But still he hung on, because I told him to. I didn’t want him to leave me, and I knew that as soon as he stopped jumping, I would never see him again. Looking back, every time I convinced him to perform after that night in Elko, it was like I was grinding the gears of a truck until they wore down to the nub. I pushed him over the edge.

Late one night in November, I woke up in his trailer, alone. I heard a noise outside in the dark. I rushed outside just as he was revving up one of Mr. Fairfield’s pickups. A few of his bags were thrown in the back. I didn’t realize it then, but my lunch thermos must have been in there, too, because I never found it again. As he was about to pull away, he saw me and slowed to a stop.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I have to go, Bev,” he said, smiling. “You can wait here for me if you want.” That was the last thing he ever said to me. And with that, Jack Freep drove away into the night.

* * *

That’s the last time I saw him, my Jack. Two days later, when the story broke about this D.B. Cooper person, I knew right off it was really my Jack. It is the single most romantic thing I have ever heard in my life, and to think it happened to me. You know, I’ve lay awake every night for thirty years over it. A man so in love with a woman that he’s willing to jump out of airplane in the middle of a typhoon to prove it. That’s really the reason why people made songs, t-shirts, even a movie about him: they wanted what I had.

I didn’t stay long with the Fairfield circus long after that, perhaps a few weeks, a month. Mr. Fairfield folded the whole outfit the next year anyway; Jack was right, I guess, about us being obsolete, even in 1971. I stayed in the West for years, hoping somehow he would find his way back to me. I didn’t care about the money he stole, really, because I know he stole it for me, for us.

You can imagine I didn’t want to go to the authorities right away with my story: I’ve never been to prison, and I don’t think I ever want to. But I finally did get the gumption to telephone you people in Washington about what truly happened. Better late than never, that’s what they say. I figured you all could use a break, and to be honest so could I. It’s been so heavy on my heart.

You don’t look very impressed. Well, all I need are two words to convince you. Are you ready? All right.

Chicken soup.

Didn’t you hear what I just said? I’ll say it again. Chicken soup. Come now, you know exactly what I’m talking about: in some secret evidence vault you have my thermos, with or without the chicken soup I had in it, along with the motorcycle daredevil’s battery–he was pretty sore about the theft, as I recall–and everything else Jack Freep left on the plane before he jumped: a black tie, a tie clip, and half a pack of Raleigh cigarettes.

You look perplexed. I’ll say it to you again: chicken soup. Ha! I knew I stumped you. That blank look on your face gives you away. What more proof could anyone want? It’s simple. You people at the FBI said yourselves this Dan Cooper was of average height and build. Well, guess what, Jack Freep was average height and build. Not satisfied yet? How about this: Dan Cooper smoked Raleigh cigarettes; Jack smoked Raleigh cigarettes. The facts go on and on. Now, try and imagine the personal hell I have gone through with all of this, for thirty years.

Are we done already? I would think that you’d have some questions for me. I would think that you would a bit stay longer, seeing how serious this all is. I could have some dinner ready in no time. I’m not just some lonely old woman with a loose noodle, you know. Perhaps we can finish this on the telephone. All right. I will wait for your call.

You know, the last thing my Jack told me was to wait. Well, until I hear otherwise, that’s exactly what I am going to do.

Tommy Zurhellen‘s stories have appeared in Quarterly West, Carolina Quarterly, and The MacGuffin. Currently he teaches writing at the University of Alabama.