Father loved circuses so we seldom missed one. If we stayed home it was because the parade was so elaborate we had had all that we could assimilate. Father had an ideal office for parade gaping. He may not have had it in mind when he signed the lease but he soon learned its value. Practically every parade passed under the side window and then could be optically followed around the square from the front.
Flaming posters, pasted on barns and fences weeks ahead, proclaimed the date of the circus’ arrival and when the eventful day dawned, our breakfasts were gobbled for fear we wouldn’t get our Sunday shoes buttoned in time for the parade due to start at 10:30. An hour and a half before that time we children would initiate a barrage of nagging.
“We’ll be late Mama, can’t we go ahead?”
we would tease.
“You’ll have a long time to wait. Parades are always late,”
She would parry. If we persisted (and usually we did), she finally yielded to our urgings and we would set out.
Father’s office was over a soft-drink parlor with an open front. The proprietor served lemonade, milkshakes and soda-water, the parent of ice cream sodas. He also supplied the public with ice-cream, candy and cigars. We children would, from an upper window, watch the country bumpkins standing about sipping drinks with their girls.
The glasses (today paper cups) were slipped into metal frames with handles. Sometimes an unsophisticated young girl, in an effort to be ultra-polite, would empty the remains of her drink, and the glass would drop out of the holder. Then her rustic escort would be obliged to stand the cost of her social error. We loved that and laughed smugly at such ignorance. When the band finally heralded the approach of the procession, Father or Lilly held the tails of Mary’s and my petticoats as we leaned out the window to catch the first sight of the gold-covered wagons, the plumed horses, and the red-lipped queens of the arena rocking in their springless seats on top of the creaking vehicles.
Father’s windows were not much higher than the paraders who waved wearily at us as we gazed in wonder at the gaudy tinsel. If a few of the animal wagons were closed, we children imagined that that was done in the interest of safety to avert a scene with an enraged animal. The horses stirred my breast with admiration but I was afraid of the clowns.
As soon as the calliope had sirened past the office, we would scramble home to grab a bite before driving to the show grounds where a mushroom city had shot up overnight. Mary and I knew all the sensational tales about the pick-pockets who circulated in the circus crowds, and the house burglars who waited till the key was turned in the lock before entering to collect the family valuables. Indeed, in our household, the belief was firmly established, that Mother usually stayed at home to guard the house, for we had no valuables and hired girls were more eager than their mistresses to survey the wonders of the circus. Father always saw to it that he had the exact change ready for the tickets, believing that he might be short-changed. All in all, circus day showered excitement and tensions on us all.
The performance opened at 1:30 but Father made an educational tour first and we had a semi-compulsory lesson in zoology. Father just naturally improved his mind on all occasions. Apparently his thirst for information had never been satisfied. He talked with the keeper of the elephant and carried me so close to them that I could feel a breeze stirred by the elephant’s trunk as he whisked the hay into his mouth. I can still feel the shiver that made me draw away, but Father was collecting data first hand, on the habits of all animals and these in particular, and there was no hurrying him. He had a one-track mind at such times.
Following the animal course, we were invited to view congenital errors in human form: Jo-Jo the dogfaced boy, the bearded and fat ladies, and the men with elastic skin. The whiskered woman practically unseated my last meal and every time I looked at her I thought maybe I might have a beard. She seemed unable to account for hers. No other lady in our family had ever had a beard. That gave me a double shudder and I coaxed Father away from his morbid fascinations as I put my hand to my chin to see if I could feel an incipient sprout.
The men who stretched their skins made my eyes bulge, and when they told Father that anyone can do it with a little practice, I was determined to try it on myself. I did too, many times, up in our spare bedroom before the mirror, but either my fingers didn’t grab correctly or I needed to chew more rubber gum, for my flesh stuck to my bones like wall-paper.
Father nearly always outstayed his time in the sideshow, asking questions, and each year I voted for fewer freaks. In a way, I think that was a disappointment to Father for he admired people who overcame obstacles, when the impediment was a beard, the wrong kind of face, or an empty wallet.
There was one man in particular whose handicap was a decided limitation. He had been born without arms. Father was delighted with both his spirit and achievement for he had learned to write very well with his toes. He wore half-socks, not the usual kind but like women’s mitts. They covered his feet up to his toes, leaving them free for his calligraphic stunt. He sold photographs of himself and autographed them.
Father reached down and drew me up to the platform in order that I might make a personal inspection of the gentlemen’s phalanges.
“Look at that, Una, how would you like to learn to write with your toes?” he asked, enthusiasm lighting his face.
“I wouldn’t like it,” I replied positively and he put me down while he and the male exhibit exchanged ideas. His thrift finally fell before his admiration and he said,
“We’ll have one of those photographs if you will autograph it for us.”
The man was delighted and I watched fasincated as he took the pen between his toes and wrote in a clear script on the photograph, ‘Chas. Towne.’ Father thanked him and handed the picture to me. I didn’t want to touch it so he said:
“I’ll carry it for you,” and quietly slipped it in his pocket.
About that time my stomach was making high dives to reach my mouth. The smells of the animal tent, and the stale food odors, added to the discomfort. The sideshow was not a salutary preparation for anything as far as I was concerned. Physical abnormalities reminded me of my first day of school. I distinctly disapproved of God’s distributing arms, legs and whiskers indiscriminately. I thought He ought to exercise more care and not slap in extra parts where they were not needed and then omit them where they were needed so that a poor man had to write to his little children with his toes. I wondered how Father would look writing that way, and shuddered at the thought.
The circus itself, with three active rings, was chaos to my one-ring mind. Father usually chose seats so near the works that we could smell the horses, and the flying dirt from their shoes fell in our laps. He loved it but I didn’t. As he cavorted about, plumed and groomed, with feather-footed ladies, reversing and leaping on their flanks, I stared with a tension that cramped my eyes and clamped a fierce grip on Father’s arm. Our nearness to the ring also made it possible for the clowns to direct their wise-cracks at us and fired their misdirected firecrackers within scaring distance. As a matter of fact, circuses were stiff doses for me, though I wouldn’t have missed one for a million dollars.
My greatest thrills were tied up with the tangle of trapezes at the top of the big tent. (Skinning-the-cat had done that.) They riveted my attention. Everything else paled before them. When the man on the flying trapeze swung out toward his lady, gave a high sign and clucked a signal for her to leap and catch his hands, I nearly fell between the seats. When they finally achieved a reunion, my main-spring practically had to be rewound.
I couldn’t have lasted through the concert even if Father had been willing to pay the extra fee. As the man selling the concert tickets stepped over and on us, Father assured us that there was nothing in the concert, excepting the robbing of a stage-coach, that we had not already seen, and he didn’t think I’d like the shooting or the Indians. He was right.
We eliminated the sideshows for a time and only on one occasion was I really eager to return. That was when Father took me to view the charms of a living mermaid. I was older, in the reading stage, and I had loved the sad classic of Undine, the beautiful water-sprite, who by marrying a mortal and bearing a child might receive a soul. The picture on the poster portrayed a pink-fleshed, streamlined Lorelei, finished off in a fetching manner with a sea-green tail like an airplane tip. The effect was too tantalizing to pass by.
“There is no such sea creature, dear,”
Father tried to convince me, but the lie was such a whopper that I felt sure he must have been mistaken. So I was taken in, literally and figuratively.
I fully expected to see a lovely sea-maiden sporting in a blue pool of water – an Undine of my mind made concrete. Father stayed close beside me. He knew I was in for a shock. We looked about the tent and he espied a small glass case over in the corner of the enclosure.
“Well, dear, there’s your mermaid.”
He couldn’t keep from smiling as he pointed toward the carcass of a dried herring six inches long, hanging from a hook. I swallowed hard. It was a terrific blow and I stood for a few minutes to reduce the seductive siren of the poster to the abbreviated herring. It was too much for even my expansive imagination and I practically never recovered from the effects of that charlatanry.
The days following the circus were usually punctuated with falls and small injuries resulting from ceremonial tryouts of the stunts we had seen expertly done. We skinned the cat with embellishing bows fore and aft, glorified our undies by cutting holes in them, and added sashes to cheer our raiment in imitation of the queens of the arena. We even tried tightrope walking on our elastic clothesline, copying the blonde ladies we had seen parasol their way over slack wires. The result was similar to Jack and Jill’s - a period of being done up in vinegar and brown paper from which we emerged healthy and happy.