Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Circus Days

Many moons ago, my family lived at the edge of a small town in Wisconsin. I was nine and my brother was six. We spent most of our time climbing trees and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.

One morning, we discovered that a circus had arrived in town and was setting up operations in a nearby open field. As we approached the activity, the foreman waved us over and asked us if we’d like to join the circus. Since we were just a couple of young country bumpkins who didn’t know any better, we accepted the offer.

The whole place was buzzing with activity. The first order of business was to erect the big top. My brother and I were assigned to carry tent stakes and place them near the end of extended ropes. They were quite heavy for a couple of youngsters like us. My little brother struggled quite a bit but he was a real trooper. It took a half dozen workers, a team of horses and two elephants to get the big top up.

Next, we helped with some of the smaller tents. During the whole operation, everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and worked feverishly until it was completed. Then we all went over to the mess tent and sat down for a meal. The foreman made sure that my brother and I were well fed.

After lunch, the activity slowed to a relaxed pace. Jugglers were off practicing. The elephants and horses were being fed and groomed. Concessions were being prepared. One poor sap spent a considerable amount of time following the path of large animals with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. It looked like the worse job on the lot.

The foreman told us we could take it easy for a while and checked the rigging in the big top. My brother went off to watch the acrobat’s practice. I think he had his eye on the one called the Amazing Cassandra who took quite a liking to him at lunch. The most amazing thing about her was how she managed to fit into her tights.

I found my own distraction in a cage parked near the sideshow. Inside was Kongo the Gorilla. According to the billing, Kongo was a terrifying beast that had killed many men before his capture.

Somehow Kongo didn’t look too terrifying to me but since we didn’t have too many gorillas roaming central Wisconsin I could’ve been wrong. As a gorilla, he was basically a hairy couch potato. He sat peacefully in his cage, munching on apple peelings, appearing to be quite contented to gawk at the gawkers. I had spent much of the day dodging elephant dung and horse apples, but Kongo was in a class by himself when it came to foul odor.

I felt sorry for Kongo, and the elephants and horses. Kongo was confined to a small rancid cage, elephants were periodically chained and horses were whipped. As I grew into adulthood with an awareness of the innocence of animals, I would learn that whips and chains belong in the bedroom, not in the circus.

A short time later, our mother showed up, looking for her two lost sons who had failed to come home for lunch. The foreman quickly smoothed things over with her and gave us free tickets to the evening show.

Later that evening, my brother and I were sitting in the front row during the main event. The clowns had a routine where they threw water on each other, then chased each other around the ring with buckets in their hands to do it again. As the clowns approached my brother and me, they tossed their buckets of water in our direction. Naturally, the buckets were filled with confetti but we weren’t in on the gag and expected to get soaked. The whole place broke into laughter. Like it or not, my brother and I were part of the show.

The next day, the field was barren once again. The circus had moved on. My brother and I went back to climbing trees and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. One thing for sure, neither of us had any plans to join a circus. It’s hard work, everything stinks and the pay is lousy.

My brother eventually stopped climbing trees and figured it out. He’s now an endodontist (root channel specialist) in Denver.

I don’t climb trees anymore either, but I’m still occasionally trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Almost certainly it will not include following large animals with a wheelbarrow and a shovel.

Quote for the Day – "Every country gets the circus it deserves. Spain gets the bullfights. Italy gets the Catholic Church. America gets Hollywood." Erika Jong

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and lots of trees to climb. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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