Corn Days 1989 or “I Changed One Clown’s Life Forever”

Know of any children who are scared of clowns? How about clowns that are scared of children?

October 14, 1989. Main Street in Carmi, Illinois is busy with excitement. The 2nd weekend in October marks the conclusion of Carmi’s annual fall festival, Corn Days. Throughout the week, there are livestock showings, talent shows, musical performances, carnival rides, and Friday night two lucky high schoolers will be named the Corn King and Queen. Saturday is the most fun though. Saturday begins with games and activities specifically for kids. The carnies run the rides all day. The big show, the parade, is what everyone looks forward to. For me that means watching all of the area marching bands showcasing their routines in front of the grandstand, giggling at the Shriners in their goofy little cars, and catching candy from the many cars and floats that will be part of the lineup.

My day started off wonderfully. I threw a softball as fast as I could into a net while a policeman used a radar gun to measure the speed. Mine was nowhere near the fastest thrown so far that morning, but I was pretty impressed. Someone dressed up as Raphael, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, was there, and I had my picture made with him (or her). Next, I got to design my own button. I wrote my name on a piece of paper, and I watched with awe as the volunteer pressed it onto the metal backing. Do you know how incredibly awesome it is to have a button with your own name on it? At 5 years old, it is the bees knees.

The last children’s activity of the morning was a clown performance. I gathered in a semicircle with about 25 other children about my age to watch what was sure to be a fun show. I don’t remember many of the details of the show, except that there was juggling and a failed attempt at mounting a unicycle.
After the show, the clown walked around the bank parking lot we were in making balloon animals and doing the other generally goofy things that clowns do. I had met a girl my age at one of the activities earlier that morning. Her name was Rachel. She lived in Enfield, the town I had no idea that I would be moving to the following year. She was also in Kindergarten and was equally unimpressed by the clown’s lackluster performance. We decided that it would be fun to harass the clown while he was trying to make balloon creatures.

We displayed a level of tactical skill usually only found in highly trained soldiers and covert operatives. She distracted him from the front, while I sneaked up from behind. In one quick jump, I pulled his wig off his head. Before the shock had worn off, I had already begun running across the parking lot with the wig. I reached the bank nearby and threw the wig into the shrubs surrounding the premises. While he was reaching for his wig, Rachel to the opportunity to grab his recently askewed red nose, held in place by a thin elastic band. She pulled and broke the band and expertly tossed the nose onto the roof over the drive through lanes. Rachel would later go on to become an excellent softball pitcher.

As should be expected, the clown was not happy, despite his painted on smile. I didn’t know of it at the time, but his facial features resembled those of Pennywise, the evil clown in Stephen King’s movie It. Not having any other easily removable wardrobe items, Rachel and I kept only punching distance away from the clown as we taunted him and ridiculed him on how dumb he looked without his wig and nose. By the time, my mother arrived to pick me up, he was upset with tears.

I found out later that his name was James Bertram. He was about 25 at the time of the attack and had previously booked random gigs as a performing clown at parties in the area. He worked for a company that rented party supplies and inflatables, and he was filling the role of clown completely untrained and ill-equipped. The 1989 Corn Days festival was his last performance as a clown. My uncle Jerry, who knew his family well, said that he moved to Evansville, Indiana about 4 months later to be a DJ at college parties and high school proms.

Did Rachel and I push this young man past his breaking point? Or did we unshackle him from what couldn’t have been a very satisfying employment opportunity, allowing him to pursue his own ambitions? My brain says the latter. My heart says the former. My liver and spleen remain staunchly unaffiliated. All I know is that that single event, created a bond with my new friend Rachel which remains to this day. She makes children happy every day as a fourth grade teacher, without the need for makeup, unicycles or polyester wigs. It is my sincere hope that soon, I can say the same thing.