Today, a requiem for a beast. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
On November 26, 2002, 84-year-old Ray Wallace died of heart failure. Wallace had been a man of immense vigor, creativity, and good humor. Born in Missouri before WW-I, he grew up with the American West. He worked on the construction of California's Highway 1. He worked in logging and building remote roads.
He also got into the petting-zoo business. He stocked the one he built in Lewis County, Washington, with cougars, raccoons, deer, and bear cubs. His wife, to whom he was married for sixty-two years, survives him. She ran the hot-dog concession. If a family turned up looking poor, they got free food.
Throughout Ray's life ran a thread of practical jokery. Life was too large to be lived without relishing the humor in it, and, in 1958, he created the great granddaddy of practical jokes. He had a pair of wooden shoes carved from alder wood -- sixteen inches long and shaped like the feet of some large ambiguous mammal.
And so, one morning that summer, a construction worker from Wallace's company found the tracks of a huge, terrifying biped in the mud around his bulldozer. Naturally, the people who knew Wallace suspected his hand in this, but no matter. A match had landed in tinder.
Stories of the Himalayan Abominable Snowman were already being told. Now America had Bigfoot, and Ray Wallace just couldn't let it go. As he got in deeper, he could neither admit nor back off from his hoax. Finally, after he went off to that great theater in the sky, his family made a clean breast of it all.
Take the famous grainy 1967 "Patterson film" of a distant Bigfoot slipping off into the forest. That was Wallace's wife in a King Kong suit they'd put together. Wallace fabricated recordings of Bigfoot's voice and various still photos.
So where is Bigfoot now? He turns out to be alive and well. Websites still report sightings in almost every state. Those who believe shrug and point out that a few fakes will naturally occur along with legitimate evidence. Very telling is an online interview with primatologist Jane Goodall, done before Wallace's death. Asked if she believed in Bigfoot or Yeti, Goodall said she did. But she went on to say that she wanted to believe, and that she, too, was disturbed by the absence of physical remains.
The problem, of course, is that the major interest in an American Bigfoot has arisen after Wallace's hoax. The few scattered stories that precede the hoax generally blur into the rest of the pre-twentieth-century fascination with zoological marvels.
And Ray Wallace's ghost looks down at his earthly handiwork. He created an American legend that now dwarfs the geographically limited Loch Ness Monster. Bigfoot emerges, far from the Snowman's Himalayas, to warm America's hearts. So here's to you, Ray Wallace: Thanks for putting so much fun and excitement into our lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
The death of Ray Wallace, and his family's admission, was widely reported in various news media.
Here is one of the sites that promotes the existence of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch): http://www.bfro.net/
The beast is slain -- Long live the beast.