I missed my chance to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. It’s probably not P. T.’s fault. I had 146 years to make one of their shows. The renowned circus closed its doors for good a couple of weeks ago.
Dwindling attendance and high cost of upkeep was given as the cause. It actually makes sense. I’m sure they’ve got Circus Apps you can download today that are almost as real as actually being there. And you can imagine the “upkeep” you’d have to pay a guy to step into a cage of raging lions! And how would you like to foot the daily grocery bill for twenty elephants?
I came close to the big top twice. Once, when I went to the Park Theatre and saw Charleston Heston in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” I was hooked immediately and forever. The ends and outs of the of the circus world captured my heart. Plus, seeing the real Emmet Kelly in his clown’s suit was worth the price of admission.
My second brush with the circus crowd unfolded over in a vacant lot off Locust Avenue. Buddy Wiggleton came to the house to get me, “You’ve got to see this!” We rode our bikes the mile or so to the field. The big top was already up and men were working feverously erecting secondary tents. My eyes were big as saucers. You’ve got to be kidding me—a real circus in our little town!
“They drove an elephant right past the City Café. They had a real lion in a cage. Guys were juggling butcher knives on the sidewalk. One of the clowns shook my hand.” Ricky Gene Stafford was talking so fast he interrupted my looking. “It was a regular parade!”
I squinted toward the gathering crowd. Ricky Gene couldn’t be right. There was no way an elephant was walking around lose in McKenzie. Butcher knives in front of the Western Auto.….I don’t think so! But there was no denying the big tent out in the middle of the field or all the brightly decorated trailers lining the perimeter or the myriad of workers storming over the place like ants at a Labor Day Picnic.
It might not have been Ringling Brothers but it was enough of a circus to have three-fourths of our town out in the hot sun watching roustabouts drive giant pegs in the ground. They must’a strung ten miles of ropes, wires, lights and riggings. We applauded when one of the outlying tents went up. A buzz vibrated through the crowd when a man on stilts hung a few of the higher fixtures.
And they hadn’t even sung the National Anthem yet!
Fortunately, we didn’t need fancy apps, smart TVs, talking cars and built in ipads to be entertained back in those days. We did have Instagram—validated by the growing multitude now overflowing Locust to see a circus rising up out of the grass.
I wasn’t close to “front row, center” two days later when my anticipation turned into reality. But I was in the house! Those elephants were gigantic up close and personal. And the lady with the long stick could make them dance, walk in a circle, rear up on each other and sit on command. Listen, that beat skipping rocks across Everett’s Lake all to heck and back!
Two lions roared and moved on command. Buddy was a little disappointed that neither attacked the trainer. We thought the big one might when he balked at jumping through the burning ring….but a couple of cracks from the whip and Mr. Lion went through the flames like a wet gazelle in a fire retardant suit.
The high wire act was truly death defying. As was the flying trapeze entourage. They didn’t just juggle those knives……one mad guy threw them dangerously close to some girl who didn’t have the good sense to run away. And no less than twenty-seven clowns piled out of that tiny police car. It was an evening that still shines in my heart. And I will smell that cotton candy, popcorn and sawdust mixture forever.
I accosted the ringmaster with the Abraham Lincoln hat the minute the show ended. I wanted a job with his circus! He pondered only for a brief second when I told him I was in the third grade, “We are only allowed to take people from the fourth grade up. Come back next year.”
Me and Buddy tied a rope across the big ditch down behind George Sexton’s house the next morning and went to work practicing our high wire act. We dressed up like clowns. We threw kitchen knives at Charlotte Melton. We painted Duke a golden yellow and glued some whiskers around his mouth. But we never could get that dog to jump through a burning hoop!
If the Ringling Bros. and/or Barnum and Bailey ever called, we aimed to be ready.