Growing up in sparsely populated Southeast Arkansas, I regularly travel the forty miles to Little Rock for “big city” entertainment. Museums, malls, movies and just the hustle of someplace bigger than Pine Bluff was always a strong draw.
While nobody in my family ever watched sports on television, occasionally we’d go watch the Arkansas Travelers minor league baseball team play at their home stadium, Ray Winder Field.
Ray Winder is now gone. Progress demanded that it be demolished for a parking lot. The scoreboard still stands, but the score that needs to be settled there likely won’t be reflected on the board. Just as a side note: The Travelers’ Dickey-Stephens Park is a fine new facility, comfortable and commodious. It just lacks both the soul and the history of the historic park it allegedly “replaced.”
On these hot Southern nights at Ray Winder you could sit in stiff wooden folding seats that were thickened by decades of repainting. There were big draft fans, inadequate restrooms and all the amenities of 1930. It could not have been more uncomfortably wonderful.
As anyone who’s ever been to a minor league baseball game can attest, the lure of pretty good ball playing will only fill the stands so full. As such, parks rely on a host of novelty acts, goofy giveaways and silly promotions to bridge the gap.
For me the most memorable of these acts was a performer billed as Captain Dynamite. Much like the famed aerialist, Carl Walenda of Flying Walendas, the Captain was eventually joined by members of his family.
Captain Dynamite’s act was a pretty simple one: Between the games of a double header, his minion would place a paperboard “coffin” near second base. The Captain, dressed in a shiny green jumpsuit festooned with yellow lightning bolts and a matching motorcycle helmet would emerge from the dugout like a gladiator entering the Colosseum.
The Captain, dressed in a shiny green jumpsuit festooned with yellow lightning bolts and a matching motorcycle helmet would emerge from the dugout like a gladiator entering the Colosseum.
He would take his repose in the aforementioned coffin and after a short count, detonate a thunderous explosion. I recall one instance where a twenty-foot fireball accompanied the rapport. The thick smoke cloud would clear and the Captain — now several feet from his starting position — would struggle himself upright, buttressed by the crowd’s excited approbations.
I’ve often wondered what it was that initiated this as a career choice. Did he survive some explosive accident and recognize the profit potential? Maybe he saw a similar act and figure he could do the same. Whatever the sequence of events, I would like to have been a fly on the wall that morning at the Dynamite household. I imagine him and Ms. Dynamite sitting at the kitchen table, sipping black coffee, “You know dear, I’ve been thinking…”
Whatever the inspiration, it was clearly a career. He performed at minor league ballgames, county fairs and shopping centers for decades. Of course, such a career path attracts a lot of attention. In 1979 and again in 1984 he caught the eye of federal authorities. In the 1984 encounter, he was charged with illegally storing 18 pounds of dynamite. The Captain rebuffed the intrusion. As he told a UPI reporter, “I don’t blow up anybody but myself.”
About a year later I met the Captain after a performance at Ray Winder. I was around twenty years old. He had to be in his seventies. The Captain had taken up a station near an exit to the malodorous men’s restroom, where he shook hands and autographed things.
It took a little while to get my turn. As I got closer, I noticed a little drop of blood sliding down his deeply tanned and craggy cheek. I stuck out my hand and said, “I really enjoyed your show.”
He squinted and replied, “Huh?”
I suppose all that blowing up takes a toll on one’s hearing. I repeated my compliment more loudly.
What came next, I’ll never forget. The Captain grabbed my hand and jerked me in very close, my nose almost against the bloody cheek.
In not a quiet tone, the old man said into my ear, “Well it doesn’t matter because we’re all going to hell anyway!”
He then gave me a little push backward and laughed manically.
A quarter century later I still don’t know what that meant, but I sure got my money’s worth.
Note: Portions of this post were adapted from previously published material.