The Amazing Preston
Near the end of summer 1953, the boy was tying up loose ends before going off to college. As the day for leaving home drew closer, he was getting his meager affairs in order.
Word spread though Cliffside that a man called Preston, a hypnotist, was coming to town, and would be putting on a show at the school. Moreover, he would, in advance, select a person to be the star of the show, and that star would be paid $50.
Now, the boy had worked many months in the mill and in the café where the take-home pay for a whole week was way less than $50. Someone would get more than a week's pay for his trouble.
More details emerged as to what being the “star” entailed. At about noon on show day, the subject would take his place on a bed in a store window in downtown Cliffside. There would be a radio nearby, tuned to Forest City's station WBBO. Preston, having traveled in advance to the station, would—speaking over the airwaves—hypnotize the subject lying on the bed in Cliffside.
The lucky subject would lie abed in deep and restful sleep all afternoon. All the while, passersby would quietly file by in respectful admiration for the comatose and courageous citizen behind the glass. And, Preston hoped, they would be induced to buy a ticket to the show.
Along about dusk, our hero, still in delicious slumber, would be transported on a stretcher in an ambulance to the school house. He would be rolled out on the stage, whereupon, to wild applause, he would be awakened by Preston. “When I count to three…”
That was the plan.
Auditions were held one afternoon in front of the Home Store. Only two applicants showed up; the boy was one of them. To prove his qualifications, he had to be hypnotized. “Your eyelids are getting heavy. You are about to fall into a deep sleep…” “Your eyelids are getting heavy. You are about to fall into a deep sleep…”The boy's eyelids were always heavy, he could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, especially in a classroom. He closed his eyes, trying with all his might to succumb to the narcotic droning of Preston. It was not happening. Well, if not now, the boy thought, surely it will when the time comes on show day. So he kept his eyes closed. “When I count to three…” The boy “woke up” and was soon announced the winner.
The store window was not one at Jackson's, as one might have expected, but in the former Sorgee's café below street level in the Memorial Building. The space had been vacant for several years, and was a dusty, gloomy old place. A bed, nicely made up, and a bedside table had been positioned about 10 feet back from the window. On the table was the radio.
At the appointed time the boy took his place on the bed, tuned the radio to WBBO and waited for Preston to begin. A crowd of 30 or 40 waited expectantly outside. There were several minutes of introduction to the stunt and then he began. “Your eyelids are getting heavy. You are about to fall into a deep sleep…”
It was not happening again! He tried with all his might to fall under the spell, to no avail. Preston, assuming it had worked, stopped his incantations, and WBBO resumed regular programming. So the boy lay there, wide awake, with eyes closed. With a long afternoon ahead, he decided he'd make the best of it and naturally fall asleep.
And then came the flies.
The walls and ceiling of the former café had a thick coating of grease from years of oily smoke drifting up from the Sorgee's stove tops, providing sustenance for thousands of big, fat, nasty flies. Soon many of them took time out from their greasy feast to explore and exploit every exposed orifice of the boy on the bed.
Naturally he couldn't shoo them away from his eyes and mouth as he normally would if he were awake, so he squirmed and rolled his head into the pillow to get some relief.
Then, several uncivil louts in the spectators' gallery outside began to tap on the window glass with coins and keys, and call out the boy's name, a practice many other lowlifes in the crowd would take up as the afternoon wore on. Why couldn't they let a boy pretend to be hypnotized in peace?
Finally the flies became too much. By now they were a swarm, eating him up.Finally the flies became too much. By now they were a swarm, eating him up. He sat up, visibly awake, swatting frantically at his face.
Perhaps Preston was still at the radio station, or, upon hearing that the boy was awake, he rushed back. In any case the boy was soon “re-hypnotized” and the buzzing, crawling, and tapping on the window continued through the remainder of that hellish afternoon.
Late in the day, A. C. McKinney, Cliffside's undertaker, rescued the boy from the flies. In the ambulance ride up North Main they passed the boy's house. Through squinted lids he glimpsed his dear mother watching from their yard, her brow furrowed with concern for her son.
At the schoolhouse the show had begun. Preston had been amusing the audience with some predictable hypnotic tricks, causing his subjects to bark like dogs and do other silly things. Then the boy's stretcher was rolled on the stage, upended for full effect, and Preston began his “When I count to three…” hocus pocus.
The boy blinked at the bright lights, smiled wanly at the crowd, took his $50 and left the school house as fast as he could. Along with a splitting headache that eventually went away, he had a sense of shame that didn't. He had committed fraud, had betrayed those who believed what they thought they saw. Except to his family and very few friends, he never told his secret. Until now.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of The Cliffside Chimes.