To hide the pain
when he talks about the most self-destructive time in his life, Wade Burck
pauses every now and then and laughs his North Dakota cowboy laugh.
Unflinching. Dry as drought. Rodeo circuit riders laugh like this when they're
telling you about flying off the back of a homicidal bull, hitting the arena
dirt wrong and watching leg bones that were hidden just seconds before by skin
and blue denim suddenly make their public debuts.
"I was a
crazy man," Burck says, laughing that laugh, sitting on a wooden circus
prop box as if it were a corral fence and gazing across the deserted arena
through 31-year-old hazel eyes that have seen their share of hard times. "I
was obsessed with the need to be Gunther Gebel-Williams. The blond circus god.
I literally tried to live another man's life. I was a legend in my own mind. I
just kind of lost it there for a while."
Burck is waiting
for the roustabouts to wheel in his eerie white tigers for their training
session in the center ring. He is wearing tight jeans and a dark-blue Western
shirt. He breathes deeply of Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus
air—equal parts elephant manure and rancid popcorn butter. He looks like a guy
who breaks horses for a living. Or sings about women who have hung him out to
dry in Texas. He does not look like a tiger trainer. Except for the scar.
The scar is
white. It zigzags across Burck's right jawbone. It is as if some small, frantic
animal went burrowing through there, trying desperately to evade something
larger and faster than itself, but finally ran out of room in the middle of
Burck sips his
coffee. A little of it leaks out of the right corner of his mouth and runs down
his chin. He doesn't notice until the drops hit his battered jeans.
part of my face is numb," he says evenly. "It's got no feeling in it at
all. That's why I smile crooked. Because this side of my face doesn't operate.
The nerves were destroyed. Sometimes, when I'm talking, I will drool out of
this side of my mouth. If I got punched there, I wouldn't feel it."
The nerves died
in 1980 when Burck was mauled while breaking up a fight between two of his
white tigers one afternoon outside Boston. The one named Frosty lunged at
Burck, wrapped its jaws around his face and dragged him over the backs of four
other tigers who were not pleased. "They started squatting and going to the
bathroom," Burck remembers. "They were thinking, 'Oh Lord, we're gonna
die. Wade is the head tiger. Frosty's killing Wade now, and then he's gonna
kill all of us. Oh, Lord.' "
Mike, threw him a stick through the cage mesh. Wade bashed Frosty over the
head. Frosty backed off, then came at him again, bit through his right
shoulder, punctured an artery and broke his collarbone. "Lord," Burck
remembers praying just like he imagined his tigers had been praying moments
before, "if I got to die, strike me dead now, 'cause it hurts so bad and I
don't want to suffer no more." His right arm was useless. His legs and his
left hand still worked, but he was in shock. "I was in sorry-ass
shape," Burck says. "And the tiger kept on coming."
Burck by the right shoulder again, dragged him to the rear of the cage and
began shaking him. Mike stuck a stick through the mesh into Frosty's mouth and
pried the tiger off his brother. Burck staggered to his feet. Frosty was
terrified. "In his mind," Burck says, "he was going, 'Why isn't the
head tiger dead? I've tried everything. I'm in big trouble now.' "
Bleeding and in
pain, Burck somehow managed to finish his act. Afterward, he was rushed to the
hospital, where they wired his broken jaw and wrapped bandages around his
torn-up head, right arm and chest. He did a show that night. "I looked like
a damn mummy" he says, laughing, making the scar on his right cheek