On Saturday mornings during the warm weather, Bobby’s escorted his mother Pearl to the bustling St. Thomas farmer’s market located on Manitoba street, which was closed to traffic those mornings. Ten year old Bobby would follow her around, red wagon in tow, while she loaded it with produce, cheese and meat. He loved the sights, smells and sounds. On mornings when Pearl couldn’t make the trip, he wandered over anyway, charging shoppers to haul purchases to their cars and houses; 5 cents for a short trip, 10 cents for 2 blocks and 25 cents for a long haul. Sometimes he got a tip.
On one of these solo ventures, he decided to take a breather and spend his hard earned cash on a 5 cent candy apple. Near the vendor’s stall, a crowd had gathered around a man who was dressed in leather attire. It was apparent that he was an Indian Chief, given the colourful floor length beaded and feathered head band which adorned his head. In one hand he spun a long, thick rope; around and around it went. Bobby squirmed though the crowd and stood in front to watch.
The Chief cracked the rope like a whip, spinning it into a loop as if about to lasso a steer. Mesmerized, Bobby stood with his mouth gaping open. Before he realized it, the loop over had been flung over him and tightened around his waist! Hand over hand, the Chief slowly pulled him nearer. Bobby was scared to death. All he could hear was the crowd laughing and hooting. He let out a silent “H-E-L-P M-E!!”, closed his eyes and shuffled toward the Chief.
In what seemed like an eternity, Bobby opened one eye, then the other, dust still swirling between his legs and all that rope. He blinked and spat as the Chief spun around in front of him; back to the audience. The Chief bent down to untie the rope and quietly asked
“What’s your name?”
The Chief continued to whisper, lips hardly moving, as he loosened the rope “Bobby, I’ll give you two bits to help me out for a couple of minutes. Just stay right here, keep your arms at your side and stand still”.
The Chief turned around to face the audience, which had grown substantially, exclaiming that he was about to show them how to “hog-tie a dowgie on the range”. Bobby glanced around to see where the doggie was. Next thing he knew, the Chief had thrown another loop through the air, strategically encircling Bobby’s head with it, then rolling it down his body like a slinky. Once it reached his ankles, The Chief flipped his hands over and over, creating what seemed to Bobby like a zillion more loops. Each one slid down the rope and piled on top of the previous loop until Bobby’s body was encased in rope, the very last loop landing just above his eye brows.
Bobby had been hog-tied from ankles to neck; he couldn’t flinch. The Chief stepped closer slipping the lose end of the rope on Bobby’s forehead as it dangled down between his eyes.
The Chief let out a blood curdling howl, then chanted, skipped and danced in circles around Bobby. After endless moments he stopped to take a bow. Bobby tried to take a bow too, but keeled over like a felled tree.
The audience went wild! The Chief held up his arms to quieten the crowd. After a considerable pause, he announced that he was going to demonstrate how to unravel the ‘lil dowgie.
“But first, ladies and gentlemen…”. Bobby was left standing like a jute wrapped mummy for what seemed like an eternity, while The Chief pitched his wonderful, secret remedy cure all for warts, gout, hair loss; you name it. When he finished his spiel, he stepped over to a small folding table to sell the 2-bit wonder cure.
People swarmed the table. Once in a while he would point at little Bobby and exclaim “We’re not done yet! DO NOT GO AWAY FOLKS!”
After he had sold as many bottles of wonder juice as possible, The Chief boomed, “STEP RIGHT THIS WAY FOLKS, IT’S TIME TO UNTIE THE LIL’ DOWGIE!” Stepping in front of Bobby, he loosened the forehead rope and held the end piece. He proceeded to step backwards, pulling the rope with each step. Bobby began to spin, slowly at first, then completely out of control. Realizing that his ankles were tightly lassoed, he started to panic, but The Chief grabbed him just in time, threw his arms in the air, and yelped “WAAAHOOOO!”
The crowd loved it! The Chief turned to the frightened little boy, bent down, loosened the ankle loop and quietly said “you can step out now”. One foot, then another; Bobby staggered a few steps anxious to be on his way. But, The Chief grabbed his overall straps at the back saying “Hang around kid, you did a good job!” Shoving him aside, he started his spiel again booming “ladies and gentlemen, I still have just a few bottles of elixir for those of you who did not have an opportunity to purchase one earlier. Step right this way!”
Eventually, the crowd dispersed. In spite of the nonsense, Bobby hung around because he wanted to collect his 2-bits. After what seemed like an eternity, the Chief stepped out from behind his sales table, clenching a bottle of joy juice in one hand, the other curled into a fist. As he pushed the bottle toward the young boy he said, “You say your name is Bobby, right? How would you like to take this home to your mother?” Bobby stared at the ground, stuck his hands in his pockets and kicked a stone. He gathered all his nerve and responded “Mister, you said 2-bits”. The Chief towered over the gutsy, small boy. Then, without saying a word, he grunted, poked his closed fist on Bobby’s shoulder and opened his fingers to reveal a 25 cent coin. As Bobby reached for it the Chief closed his fingers around the quarter saying “Will you be around here next Saturday?” Bobby looked up, raising his hands to his forehead to block the glaring sun which was hovering above the giant man, creating a strange, silhouetted, feathered creature. “Ya. Sure. Probably. I guess”.
The Chief lowered his fist and handed Bobby the quarter asking “Do you live around here?” “Not too far away. I haul groceries with my wagon… Auugghhh!” It suddenly hit him; during the excitement he’d forgotten about his wagon! “Where’s my wagon?” he cried. The Chief pointed to a nearby stall table and asked “is that it?” “Pheww! Yup, thank you!”. Bobby ran over to retrieve it, the Chief calling after him “See ya next Saturday kid. Come early and we’ll do it once in the morning and then again in the afternoon.”
That was Bob McNea’s first big break into show business.
For the next few weekends, Bobby wandered around the farmers market hauling groceries, stopping twice a day to assist The Chief, whose routine was pretty much the same over and over again. But one particular morning, he didn’t lasso and pull Bobby out of the crowd. Instead he asked for a volunteer. Bobby was puzzled. He raised his hand, jumped and yelled, but The Chief walked right past him. He stopped abruptly, swirled around, looked at Bobby and exclaimed “Ah ha! We have a volunteer! Step right over here.”
This time, the routine had changed. No rope. The Chief had a newspaper which he ripped and folded into shorter and shorter pieces, placing most strips in young Bobby’s hands, one in Bobby’s mouth and another folded another under his chin. The Chief circled around, bent down, tore off the piece sticking out from Bobby’s mouth, which prompted Bobby to spit out the wet piece. Then The Chief stuck another dry strip back into Bobby’s mouth, whispering through clenched teeth “do it again” as he sauntered away. Bobby did what he asked. The Chief circled back, tore off another strip, whispering “not this time”. He backed away, cracked the whip and proceeded to cut the remaining dry newspaper off Bobby’s face with the tip of the whip.
The audience howled. Bobby was stunned!
The Chief picked up another piece of folded newspaper, bent over Bobby and whispered “this time, bend over and stick it out between your legs. When I crack the whip, you jump around as though I’ve hit your bum.” He backed away, cracking his whip as Bobby followed his instructions. The crowd continued to laugh and clap. What an exciting new routine!
Bobby returned to work the act the following Saturday, but was disappointed to learn that The Chief had left, never to return.
After his big break into showbiz, life in the small town went on as usual. Bobby enclosed the top of his wagon with a wooden crate, which he had painted and drew signage on. He made a deal with the local newspaper distributor to sell Saturday papers on Talbot Street, hamming it up just the way The Chief had taught him in order to draw a “tip”.
Inspired by the summer gig at the farmer’s market, Bobbie’s routine mushroomed into live, paid bookings where the pre-teen performed slap stick comedy at birthday parties, picnics and other local events.
Bob McNea was determined to make a name for himself. He never looked back for the rest of his life.