When Dick Hilburn was born in 1918, he wasn't breathing.
He had only one arm and the tiny stump of another. He had no legs, but only two toes.
As was common in the early 20th century, the doctor laid him to one side to die.
It was an accepted medical practice for children with severe birth defects. Allowing a deformed child to die was considered merciful.
But Mary Foreman refused to give up.
"She said his blood would not be on her hands," said William Butler, Hilburn's cousin.
A neighbor and sometime midwife, Foreman snatched the child up and massaged him until he began breathing.
It would not be the last time Dick Hilburn overcame impossible odds.
"Do anything he set his mind to"
After attending Bladenboro High School, Hilburn joined the carnival circuit, where he was became known as the "Half Man."
Bladenboro residents, however, remember him mainly as someone who could "do anything he set his mind to," said Sam Pait.
Hilburn taught himself to paint, do carpentry work, and he modified a car and a truck so he could drive.
He drew and sold comic books. He was a tattoo artist. He and his wife built a restaurant which is still in business today.
Hilburn taught Pait to paint signs, a trade for which Hilburn was famous in the Bladenboro area. He painted signs both for businesses and commercial trucks, sometimes climbing a stack of soft-drink crates to reach the job.
"He would pull himself up, then grab another crate, jump up and slide it on top of the stack," Butler said. "He didn't let his handicap stand in his way."
"More money than any other kids"
As a small child, Butler said, Hilburn was precocious, even with his handicap.
Butler said Hilburn wandered away once when he was three years old, crossing the road by the family farm to get to a neighbor's house.
Butler said Hilburn regularly drove nails between the floorboards of the family's home
As a young boy, Hilburn built a cart (similar to a modern skateboard) to get around Bladenboro.
In many ways, Butler said, Hilburn was like normal children.
"He loved the train station," Butler said. "A lot of kids used to go down to watch the trains come in. Sometimes travelers would give them money-Dick always had more money than any of the other kids."
A passenger on one train was so touched by Hilburn's disability and his personality that he had a three-wheeled cart especially built for the boy. The cart was powered by a handle Hilburn could pump with his one hand.
"Dick could go anywhere on that cart," Butler said. While sometime other children would push him to school, Hilburn preferred his own power.
Butler said Hilburn had an Eskimo Spitz named Jack who was his inseparable companion for years.
"We had the dog at first," Butler said, "but he was always barking, and my daddy didn't like that...Jack took up with Dick, and that was it."
Hilburn and the dog became the best of friends, and were rarely apart.
"You'd hardly ever saw Dick that you didn't see Jack," Butler said.
When Hilburn was 17 or 18, Butler said, Hilburn's brother Franklin took him to the N.C. State Fair for the first time.
"The next year," Butler said, "you had to pay to see him."
While sideshow freaks are considered cruel today, they were a standard of fairs, circuses and carnivals for centuries, according to carnival historians.
They were usually placed apart from main exhibit areas, and featured such shows as Siamese twins, midgets and dwarfs, and strongman exhibitions.
Until slavery was outlawed, slave owners regularly sold retarded or handicapped slave children to sideshows. White families also occasionally sold deformed children to sideshows until the practice was outlawed in the late 1800's.
Potential sideshow acts then became employees of the carnival or circus.
As carnivals began to move via railroads, recruiters regularly stopped in small towns where poor nutrition and accidents often left people with serious birth defects or with missing limbs.
Sometimes, however, the 'freak' sought out the 'carnies.'
Hilburn toured all over the southeast as the Half-Man. His wife Nora was living in Atlanta when he met her. They were married in the 1940's.
Nora Hilburn eventually ran the business side of the Half-Man show and acted as barker.
The barker generally stood on a small stage or podium outside the show's tent and described the act. Contrary to Hollywood, woman barkers were often preferred to male barkers, since many visitors to traveling circuses were men. It was thought that men were easier "catches" for an attractive young woman than a fast-talking man.
Hilburn built the traveling show where visitors could pay a nickel to see the "Half-Man" in the late 1940's. He also modified the truck that pulled the travelling show so it could be driven with one hand.
In addition to his wife, Hilburn met whom he would describe as his best friend in Atlanta while working a carnival.
Born in 1938, Carl Norwood was a dwarf, and didn't even stand as tall as Hilburn. The young African-American also had undeveloped arms and legs.
Norwood was well known for a number of gimmicks or tricks, including using his armpit to open a soft-drink bottle.
Photos of Hilburn and Norwood at the Bladenboro Historical Society show the two men standing side by side at the Hilburn home, and side by side on stage at a carnival in an unknown city.
Norwood's diminutive size and features earned him the nickname "Frog Boy," which is how he toured with Hilburn and Nora. He eventually moved to Bladenboro with the couple.
Records at the Bladenboro Historical Society do not indicate when Norwood died. Because news about blacks was often not included in newspapers until the 1970s, his obituary could not be located in the records of the Southeastern Times or the Bladen Journal.
Back at home
During the off-season, Butler said, Hilburn and Nora would come home to Bladenboro, where he painted signs and they ran their restaurant, Dick's Drive In.
The diner, located at the intersection of N.C 41 and N.C. 242, near downtown, is now the home of Ann's Seafood Restaurant. Shortly before his death, Hilburn and Nora had just completed a drive-up ice cream shop.
Hilburn painted company logos on trucks for several area companies. He also was a tattoo artist.
Sam Pait said Hilburn taught him how to paint signs for the Atlantic Oil Co., which eventually became Sampson-Bladen Oil Co.
"I don't know if he was too busy, or just didn't want to do that particular job," Pait said. "I'm sure he could have done it, but he taught me how. He was just a likeable fellow."
While they were apparently a loving couple, Nora and Hilburn had at least one argument that turned into a full-fledged fight.
Hilburn was arrested for destruction of private property in 1950, and while awaiting trial in Elizabethtown, escaped from a courthouse packed with law officers and spectators.
It is not known if he ever was brought to trial on the charges, but he and Nora would stay together for another 20 years.
"He was a character," Pait said. "I didn't know him that well, but everyone knew who he was, and he was a likeable fellow."
Hilburn is survived today by a sister, Mrs. Annie Hall.
He died June 22, 1971. Hilburn had already suffered one heart attack, and his health was failing. He was 53.
Hilburn's obituary in The Southeastern Times speculates that "his special decorating efforts of recent weeks" may have caused the heart attack, his second, that killed him. It is unclear if Hilburn was working on the town's Independence Day celebration, the new ice cream parlor, or another project.
"He was always doing something," Butler said. "a lot of people with handicaps like that might have given up, but not Dick Hilburn."