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- Story Listed as: True Life For Adults
- Theme: Drama Stories / Human Interest Stories
- Subject: Memory / Reminiscence
- Published: 12/31/2019
Growing up in North Texas during the 1940’s and ‘50’s, simply hearing that mind-spinning word, “Circus”, was magic of its own making. Everyone felt it; the excitement, the surprise and the promise of an impending visit by an alien world (at least to us) complete with strange and unusual animals and people that made the magic happen. That’s where I saw my first midget and my first dwarf. I loved it all!
I was ten years old when I first discovered that wonderful, strange world and it captured my imagination like nothing before. Seeing Tarzan in his jungle movies in the Saturday afternoon movies were entertaining, but this was different. This was the real thing, up close and personal. You could watch it, touch it, smell it, feel it, taste it and even store away the memory of it to enjoy over and over again, when boredom permeated your days and held you like a captive lion, pacing up and down, waiting for something to happen. As we sat in the classrooms of our various schools, bored to tears and mostly lost in daydreams; the announcement came blaring out through the loudspeakers in every room. “School would be closing early today, Friday, due to the Circus arriving at the railroad station at noon.” Of course, after that announcement our classes would be dismissed immediately, as none of the students could possibly concentrate on math or English after hearing that mind-capturing announcement. Our teachers would be foolish to even try.
For the next couple of hours, pandemonium ruled our socio-academic activities, for that’s when the planning began. First, we had to get permission to attend the parade that led from the train station through downtown to the proposed site of the main Big Top tent, as well as the small carnival area that surrounded it. The entire procession being musically preceded by a Circus calliope playing “Entry of The Gladiators,” the standard for Circus music. Our town police force would block off the streets for the parade of wagons and animals of all types that were herded along our brick streets, finally arriving at their designated set-up site across from the Bowie Jackrabbit football stadium. That grand procession boldly displayed a sampling of the wonders awaiting paying customers at show times that night and the following weekend. The ornate and brightly painted Circus wagons came first. The clowns and acrobats, jugglers, men walking on stilts, tumblers and the midgets throwing candy to the children, followed close behind. Fancy-prancing horses with ornate, feathered headgear were next; then came the camels following closely behind them. Next, were the actual performers, accompanied by a small brass band dressed in bright uniforms with tassels on their hats. Soon, the long-awaited caged animals were paraded past; the lions, tigers (if there were any), the monkeys and then the very popular elephants, adorned with elaborate Eastern trappings, their trainers riding just behind their heads and usually with a blonde beauty in tights sitting in the fold of an elephant’s trunk. The entire scenario was enough to make a farm-kid dizzy with wonder. There was occasionally an orangutan or Chimpanzee available for comic relief to interact with the big-nosed clowns with huge feet and exploding lapel flowers, while wearing outlandish clothes.
After watching the parade to the end, my next chore was to try and scrounge enough money to participate in every possible show and activity; play every “Game of chance,” skill and luck that the accompanying carnival offered. Even at my young age, I knew that most of the attempts to win a doll by throwing a wooden ring over a milk bottle or shooting one of their misaligned pellet rifles at moving wooden ducks, were purposely rigged to fail but that didn’t matter. It was all a new adventure, performed by people who looked and acted differently than what we were accustomed to and ensconced within a different world than the dull ones we knew so well. It was Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Pinocchio all rolled into one very memorable afternoon and evening. Is there someone, somewhere, who doesn’t love a Circus?
I’d offer to hire myself out for work, doing just about anything to gain entry into that strange world of “The Greatest Show On Earth,” or perhaps lesser the one setting up right before me in, “The Greatest Show In Bowie, Texas.” My first task of prospective jobs was in helping the Circus workers position and align their tents and booths. If they were generous and wise, they hired local kids to work for free tickets to some of the shows. They, in turn, would possibly bring their paying-customer parents to the performances with them. Ours was a small rural community, not exactly flush with discretionary funds and with limited opportunities to earn any. We were accustomed to taking whatever jobs that were offered to us, whenever and wherever they appeared. The same people who performed in the Circus acts were also the ones who set up the tents, booths and generally handled the grunt work. But there were always a few low-level jobs left over for local boys to earn their admission into the big Top. The trapeze performers were extremely cautious and insisted on setting up their own equipment. Very few outside workers even went near their rigging.
My various jobs mainly included helping the tent riggers drive stakes and pull ropes, cleaning up animal droppings, setting up booths, doing some painting and making basic repairs, stringing and installing the large pictorial banners which formed a high, continuous wall around the carnival portion of the show that graphically displayed different scenes of wild animals and the show’s main attractions, while also advertising the fun house and the boat-ride through the African jungle in the carnival area, etc. I also carried a lot of water and feed for the animals; mainly fringe-work, but I was not only happy with my job, I looked forward to doing it. Feeding the animals was not a chore for me. The animals seemed glad to see me coming and I was occasionally allowed to touch one of them.
Without those jobs, my experiences with the Circus would not have been the same, at least to that degree. What they didn’t realize was that I would have worked for nothing. Everyone I met there was friendly and helpful in every way. The lady who operated the Ferris Wheel in the carnival offered me free rides without having to use my free tickets. During short breaks, I watched and listened to the banter between the performers, which was surprisingly similar to the banter at our local blacksmith shop; one of my usual haunts. I imagined that as many times as they set-up and tore down, that the process became boring and routine. The only change was the audience.
From my very first hour with the Circus, I worked like a demon in handling my assigned tasks. No one in my family had money to squander on frivolous activities such as this, so I supplemented my meager savings with pay from those extra jobs. They were sometimes difficult but also interesting and educational. After completing the setup process, I extended my money-making activities by distributing leaflets advertising that the Circus was indeed in town; as if there was anyone within 50 miles who didn’t already know it. I enjoyed positioning myself on the platform leading to the Ferris Wheel, collecting tickets from paying customers as they climbed aboard their rocking gondolas. It seemed to me that most of the Circus performers and Carneys, with whom I spoke, enjoyed showing off their “Circus” world to a brand new kid fresh off of the farm. When it came time to actually attend the festivities, I can vividly remember the secure feeling of walking the ten blocks from home and having a fist full of free tickets in the pocket of my overhalls which allowed me to sample just about any ride available, even my favorite, the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Simply being present within that intoxicating atmosphere, helped to immerse my imagination solidly within its unique world of fantasy and make-believe; all for a measly twenty-five cents. Where else but the Circus can you experience such wonders? It didn’t matter that the popcorn was stale or the soft drinks too flat or the ten-cent games might be rigged, and even though my older brother had tried to ruin my enjoyment by exposing the entire experience as a rip-off. Everyone knew that Wild Bill Hickok’s gun battle with the bloodthirsty Indians, attacking the stagecoach, was fake but none of that mattered. The Circus was there to be felt and enjoyed, regardless. Back then, I hadn’t realized the enormous difference between the two separate entities which encompassed the overall title of “Circus.” I discovered that the Circus unit was performance-oriented and different from the accompanying “Carnival” that traveled with it, whose philosophy was to take as much of your money as possible by deception and slight of hand, if necessary. I knew that the prizes offered for the next budding Babe Ruth to knock down the stacked milk bottles with a baseball, cost less than the admission price. No one cared. Certainly, I didn’t.
The Circus was made up of relatively highly skilled, professional acrobats and entertainers, whose techniques and skills sometimes baffled but always pleased their audiences. Of course, the degree of their skills varied greatly with the smaller, traveling versions of the Circus, but even so, they were always welcomed and respected. Whatever expertise was lacking in the performances, was made up for by the audience using their ample imaginations. In any Circus, the audience is actually part of the show itself, because of our anticipation and reactions to it. We supply the energy, the willing acceptance to suspend disbelief and with the motivation needed to make it all work in a pleasurable manner. Any performer will tell you that their best performances come from appreciative audiences. We willingly went along in pretending to be scared when an unruly lion refused to obey his master, becoming increasingly belligerent and seemingly dangerous. Then, when the lion tamer is forced to leave the cage-arena just before being attacked, you could hear an audible sigh of relief from the audience.
While helping to set up, I had systematically plotted the layout and location of different events in my mind and more importantly, in what order or priority I wanted to spend my time, money and free tickets in visiting. I carefully worked out the necessary sequence of just where to start and would eventually end up, in order to take maximum advantage of my free admission. I would visit the small Carnival outside of the Big Top during the afternoon and then go inside for the wonderful Circus acts in the evening. Because I had been fairly visible during setup, no one questioned my presence in wandering around outside the Big Top, to get closer looks at the strange animals to which I had previously tended. I got to talk with a few of the Midgets and Dwarves in my wanderings, along with the bearded woman.
We had no such people in our town. What wonderful, diverse and talented performers who practiced their professions in fulfilling their lifetime desires in being associated with the Circus, and were proud of it. All of this brought me back to the characters in “The Wizard of Oz.” I hadn’t yet discovered that doing that type of work was one of the few ways the “Little People,” as they liked to be called, could earn a living. What child did not, at some point, want to run away and join the Circus? Today, of course, there is no meaningful concept of the archaic term, “Circus”, remaining, because they don’t exist anymore, except in the aging minds of us old people who will keep those vivid images and fragrant smells fresh in our memories and hearts forever.
I spent several hours strolling around the booths, attempting to win a nice depression glass bowl for my mom, if only I could pitch a nickel into one of the many glass prizes situated in a center table a few feet away. I used one of my free tickets to slam the spring-pad at the base of an apparatus, sending a kind of metal puck soaring to the top of a sliding scale, ringing a bell at the top, indicating that I was indeed strong and mighty. Then, there were the booths for patrons to throw darts at half-filled balloons tacked to the wall, for prizes. Or for a dime, you could randomly select a yellow duck floating in a small pond, with a corresponding number painted on its belly which identified what prize you had won. Of course, there was the ubiquitous fortune teller, with her cloudy and mysterious crystal ball and the freak show tent with the half woman, half reptile.
It was all in fun and done in the spirit of fakery and accepted self-delusion. Even so, almost everyone left with a personal experience or story to tell of their exploits at the Circus. None of it was real, but very few cared. It afforded teenagers an opportunity to stroll around with their best girl and perhaps show off just a bit. It is amazing how addictive games of chance can be, with only the slightest possibility for winning… anything. Customers often spent their last nickel at some of those games. But then again, that’s what a carnival was for. The entire concept was the same as pitching a quarter into a small fountain or wishing-well and willingly accepting that no prize was even being offered. It was fun to make that impossible wish that offered some indication that hope was still alive.
In the “Carney” world, many of them had acquired bad reputations for attempting to sell alcohol and other illicit items and services to customers, or in running blatantly crooked games of chance, or having engaged in other immoral or unlawful activities. But the legitimate Circuses refused to associate themselves with such behavior. That errant element was singled out as being the cause for ruining the entire delicate image of what the Circus had become, especially to children. Some years later, Halloween was also ruined in a similar fashion. The Circus was always welcomed within our community, but the newer batch of Carneys had to be closely scrutinized.
The Ring-Master would step into the spotlight, boldly announcing the next stupendous act, while using loud and exaggerated jargon. The animal trainers fired real guns (but with blanks) and popped their whips to control the animals acts. Barnum and Bailey and The Ringling Brothers had made the Circus famous over a hundred years before by dubbing it “The Greatest Show on Earth” and it truly was all of that and more, especially to the gaping-mouthed children who willingly believed every word uttered by that master of ceremonies, with his high, leather boots and 19th-century waistcoat. It was the all-encompassing Big-Top tent, with streaming banners waving from the tops of the tent poles and the smell of fresh-cut wood shavings emanating from the sawdust floors; the salty popcorn, the sweet smelling cotton candy and greasy hamburgers, the purchase of which my parents forbade me to indulge in but knew I would anyway. I rapidly abandoned my hum-drum world and embraced one comprised of midget acrobats, wild animals, high flyers and buckets full of confetti magic. The imagery of those elements conjured scenes of pure fantasy and pleasure in my fertile mind. It was Walt Disney on steroids and the Circus came alive in glorious color and live 3-D.
Dominating the performance area, the clowns, the scantily clad young ladies, and Capuchin monkeys mounted on the backs of snow-white horses, as the horses made their way around inside one of the three rings at a gallop. There was always a different act performing in each ring and operating simultaneously; the center ring, always reserved for the high flying trapeze acts. The audience was kept in awe and on-edge as the trapeze artists defied gravity, tumbling and flying from one trapeze to the other. If you used your imagination and weren’t too particular, you might see the top professional artists of Barnum and Bailey fame making those leaps.
Of course, there were times when I simply couldn’t scrape up the cash or earn free tickets in gaining entrance to the main tent, although larceny and ingenuity came together to solve my problem. I would find a vulnerable spot under the flap of a side panel (I knew where they were) of the Big Top tent and crawl under, coming out beneath the bleachers. I knew that was cheating but it wasn’t difficult to justify my morally wrong actions.
Once the show started, I couldn’t get enough of what was happening right before my naive eyes. I continually walked up and down in front of the seating area, gawking at the horses and elephant acts, as they followed one another around and around one of the three rings. Then, six elephants were herded into a ring and bowed to the audience. They were then made to stand only on their hind legs and partially climb on the backs of the elephant in front of them, in a piggy-back formation. Next, they would rapidly turn in circles, holding their trunks high in the air while trumpeting through their massive noses. Some of those maneuvers had to have been hurtful and cruel, but the audience loved it.
The trapeze acts seemed to me to be less than professional, but my only comparison was what I had seen in the movies. Regardless, they were entertaining as well as brave and we knew that it was all part of the show and that they were doing their best to satisfy an audience always craving more. Then, four men riding camels entered the arena at a full gallop. After dismounting and while one man faced all four camels, he sang a simple song, pointing at each successive camel in unison, causing that animal to complete the last note of each stanza of the song with a loud, “GAWP.”
Of course, one of the favorite segments of the show was the clown act. Several of them ran around exploding make-shift dynamite in each other’s baggy pants and bashing each other on the head with foam baseball bats. A very small car was driven into one of the rings when no fewer than a dozen of them systematically exited and continued to tumble, bumping into each other and creating havoc. No one could figure out how so many of them could cram themselves into such a small vehicle not much larger than a comic car you might see outside the Piggly Wiggly for a toddler to ride.
The show ended with the fearful act of the lion-tamer cracking his whip and forcing six African lions onto small platforms and forcing them to jump through fiery hoops, while all were snarling at the mean old lion tamer’s attempt to imitate Frank Buck of “Bring ‘em Back Alive” fame of the 1930’s. But, I had to admit that it was scary stuff and I wanted no part of that profession. For several days after that, I used an old jumping rope to try and make it crack like the lion tamer’s whip, but alas, the magic had disappeared with the carnival.
Spending all day without food, while working in the hot sun, I was ready for some home-made biscuits and gravy so I soon found myself walking home in the dark. The sights, sounds, smells and visions of the day were still very much with me and would surely be there for years to come.
You can’t really describe a Circus as being good or bad, they’re like dogs - there simply aren’t any bad ones. A Circus is a good thing. I miss them as much as I miss home-made ice cream, Flash Gordon, Halloween, Johnny Mack Brown, playing catch with my dad, Drive-in movies, comic books, B-B guns, old radio shows, John Wayne, catching fireflies in a jar and reading the exploits of Tom and Huck while curled up on my couch with a Baloney (sic) sandwich and an RC Cola. Where have those wonderful things gone? Why would we ever give them up? But to completely enjoy them, you had to truly believe in the magic that transformed those things into memories. Back then, just uttering the word, “Circus” around any child under twelve years old, you could watch their eyes light up and a big smile magically appear on their face. What do big brothers know, anyway? They don’t believe in anything fun. Tom and Huck and me; we believe! We’ve been pals for over seventy years now. We all need our fantasies… our memories and know for certain that if things aren’t right at home, we could always run away and join the Circus… right after dinner.
I had no trouble sleeping that night. Perhaps it took a little longer, as I relived my wonderful Circus experiences over and over again. Where else can you listen to the air-pipe music coming from the Circus Calliope and watch real elephants dance.