the wild side
Interview by SHARON BUSHELL
(Published: November 2, 2003)
That didn't last long, so another kid and I hitchhiked to Chicago, where I saw a sign that said, "Cole Brothers Circus coming to Chicago Stadium."
That sounded better than what I was doing, so I went over to Chicago Stadium and told them I'd work wherever they had an opening. They only had one job available, and that was to roll out the big wooden ball for the seal act. I said I'd take it.
From there I went to rigging and props and putting up the animal cages -- various things. When the circus finished in Chicago, I met a guy who said that the Ringling Brothers circus was opening in Madison Square Garden, so I hopped a bus and went to New York City.
I went to see the ring boss, Charlie White. I'll never forget him; he used to call me Junior. He hired me as a roustabout to help put up the tent. I went on to be a prop man, and I helped with all kinds of stuff. I also got into an advance advertising crew. We'd go two or three days ahead of the show. We'd put ads in various newspapers and radio stations to let people know the circus was coming to town.
Charlie White had quite a deal worked out. In the prop tent every day, they would have a floating craps game. They'd have a big blanket laid out, with kegs of beer on ice, and they'd have a dice game. What an education I was getting.
The circus, which was a community of about 400 people, had acts from all over the world: famous big-cat acts, trapeze artists, high-wire stars. Some made really good money, and a few made thousands of dollars a week because they were such well known performers. Wherever they played, they would draw huge crowds. It was a great life, the circus life.
I traveled with Ringling Brothers for two years, from New York to Baltimore to Florida and then across the country and up into Canada, traveling by train. Each winter the circus would return to their headquarters in Sarasota, Florida.
One winter I decided to go see my mom. I also visited a friend who had been getting my mail. I opened a suspicious-looking envelope and was greeted with the news that I had been drafted. What a life change that represented.
I went for my physical and they shipped me to Fort Ord, where I did 16 weeks of basic training. Ninety-eight percent of my company was then sent to Italy, and the other 2 percent of us went to Korea. The others hadn't even left Travis Air Force Base and there we were in Korea with rifles in our hands. It was the end of the war, but there were still a lot of skirmishes.
I did my two years, went back to the circus for a little while because they were in San Francisco, but the intrigue was gone and I was looking for something else to do.
My cousin and two of his friends had a band; they called themselves the Magic Tone Trio. They came to San Francisco and had no place to live, so they stayed at my apartment. I ended up kind of opening a booking and entertainment agency because I had to get these guys out of my house. And the only way I was going to do that was to go out and find them a job. So I got them jobs all around the Bay Area, along with other acts that I picked up.
My brother was living in Fairbanks at that time. He wrote me and told me to come up and visit. I visited my mom in Oregon, then flew from Portland to Fairbanks.
I got work right away at a grocery store, Food Land. One day I was looking in the newspaper and noticed there were no entertainment pages about what was going on around town. I called the publisher, Bill Snedden, and said as much. He said, "Why don't you come over and start one?"
I went to his office, and he said, "We're not going to pay you anything. You'll be working strictly on commission. But be my guest. We'll give you desk space." So I had my own little advertising business, and I started a column called Nite Life. It had write-ups about all the bars and nightclubs, almost all of which are gone now.
In those days, the bars were open 24 hours a day; it was a wide-open town, wild and woolly. There were lots of two-fisted drinkers, and wherever you went they had counter checks; all you had to do was fill in the amount. You could get a haircut and they'd have a check right there. A lot of them bounced all over town. The law was pretty open, and there was no such thing as picking someone up for DWI.
While I was in Fairbanks, I also organized rock 'n' roll dances in the Eagles Hall. In those days, I was called Flipping Fred. I used to appear on the radio with Wee Willy Wally, a disc jockey and an ex-mayor of Fairbanks. He was a great personality, and Willy Wally really was his name. Steve Agababa worked with him; everybody loved those guys. They had their own radio program.
One day I got a call from Ken Laughlin, the advertising manager of The Anchorage Times. He wanted me to come to Anchorage to see if maybe he and I could work out a deal, so I moved to Anchorage in '62. I leased a place called the Brief Encounter and brought in acts from different parts of the United States. So I had a couple of things I was doing.
I was in a bar one night and a guy said, "Hey, Fred, can you do me a favor? One of my clients is in jail. Can you go get him out, and I'll pay you tomorrow?"
That started me thinking of getting into the bond business. I contacted an underwriting company in Los Angeles, we worked out a deal and I've been writing bonds ever since. My slogan was, "Don't go to jail; let Fred go your bail." I've been in the bail bonds business for 38 years.
It's an interesting business. We get calls day and night, 24 hours a day. It can be anything, from something very small to something major.
Some of it is getting to be kind of historic. In the pipeline era, I used to go to Fairbanks as many as three times a day to get prostitutes out of jail. About that same time, in Anchorage, there used to be a lot of gambling. One night, the police hit three joints and I had to bail out 62 people. I started at 3 in the morning and finished my last bond at 11:30 the next morning.
Some people spend a lifetime and never go to jail. Some people can't spend two weeks without going to jail. About 60 percent of our customers are repeat clients. They come in, they get out, they come back in again. It's hard to see people make choices like that; I think most of them think they don't really have choices. People without jobs, people with a lot of time on their hands; if you combine that with the desire to have certain things, then you see people drift toward crime.
I also had my advertising business, and that did quite well. I used to put ads in the restaurants and bars. I got a call one day from Mama Jo Evans -- she owned the old Oasis Club on the Seward Highway. She said, "I've got a great international act coming up here. Her name is Miss Wiggles." So I did a story about her for the paper, and we hit it off right away. I drove out to see her the second night. Then we started having breakfast together, and pretty soon we couldn't be apart. We married in 1961.
I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world. Wiggles and I have been married for 43 years, and we continue to have a beautiful and loving life together. And I truly enjoy my work. It's interesting and rewarding. In this business, every night's a Saturday night.
People ask me, "When are you going to retire?" I say, "I'll retire when one of four things happen: if my health declines, if my income declines, if it's not fun anymore, and when they stop arresting people."
Sharon Bushell lives and writes in Homer. Her books, "We Alaskans" and "We Alaskans II," feature her stories about Alaska pioneers that have appeared in the Daily News. For more information, visit her Web site at www.wealaskans.com.
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