Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Springtime makes me think of the circus and remember the many shows I saw as a child.
So many details are fuzzy. How did we get there? Did we eat Cracker Jacks? Was it March or April? Did we wear coats or was the weather nice? Were there crowds?
Maybe somewhere there are old photos of us going to the circus. I don’t think there are any of us at the circus, because I’m not sure my grandparents owned a camera. And my grandparents were the ones who took us.
Who is “us”?
I know Kevin and I went, but I can’t remember if any of the other boys ever went.
So many details are fuzzy, and others are crystal clear.
I remember the flashlights. Every circus, the first thing we’d get along with our program was a plastic flashlight on a plastic string. Sometimes they were blue. Sometimes green. They were shaped like an oversized cigarette lighter with a little plastic flip top that turned them on and off.
I can prove this, because I still have three or four in a box today.
At certain points during the show, everyone would flip them open and swing them around and around on the string in the darkened theater.
Was it called a theater? It was Madison Square Garden, so I guess technically it was an arena.
You would swing them around faster and faster, careful not to clonk someone next to you on the head, and the whole arena would light up with dancing circles.
I suppose that was the kid’s version of holding up a lighter at a concert.
It was one of my favorite parts.
I remember the clowns. Clowns seem to terrify a lot of people but I loved them. I loved the colors and the slapstick, the juggling and the cartwheels. I loved watching a gaggle of them climb out of a tiny car that couldn’t have held more than two of them. It was magic in a big red nose.
I remember this giant metal ball that the motorcycle stunt artists would drive around and around in, defying gravity and death as they whizzed past each other without bursting into flame. It was buzzingly loud and the air smelled of exhaust but you were holding your breath anyway hoping they would make it around one more time without colliding.
They always did.
I remember the trapeze artists, doing gravity defying things high up above everyone’s head. Strong men in sleek costumes catching beautiful ladies in bright colors. You gasped because you were sure they’d miss, but then you cheered because you knew they wouldn’t.
I remember the lion tamers and tiger wranglers.
But mostly I remember the elephants.
One dictionary definition of magic says:
having the power to make impossible things happen
The elephants were impossible things.
Enormous. Graceful. Ears flopping, tails swishing, always smiling.
The Ringling Bros circus closed in 2017, in part because of the the decades-long controversy over the treatment of these incredible beings.
Losing an icon of my childhood was saddening. Thinking that the part of it that brought me the most joy was also the most damaging to one of my favorite animals was worse.
But it did inspire my lifelong fascination with and love of elephants. They’re pretty remarkable. They demonstrate compassion and self-awareness, they cuddle their babies and grieve their dead, and they’ve been shown to recognize human gestures and tones of voice.
They also made an impressive parade around the arena, one elephant holding another’s tail in its trunk. I wanted to be the woman wearing a sparkly costume and riding around in an elephant’s curved trunk like a swing.
I’m both sad that they won’t impress another child like they did me, but also glad that these intelligent, emotionally complex animals won’t be in chains anymore.
It’s such a conundrum.
I’ve been to other circuses. The Big Apple Circus was mostly performers, clowns and trapeze artists and jugglers. It was fine. There were no elephants. I never remember a single performer missing or falling during the Ringling circus, but a trapeze artist fell to the net at the Big Apple circus. Maybe I would have appreciated the latter more if I hadn’t already been imprinted with the shiny, sparking, oversized, thrilling spectacle that was Ringling.
Two last things I’ll mention before tucking these memories away again.
Thing one. As much as I may have imagined myself riding an elephant, when I had an opportunity to get up close and personal with the circus act, I was too terrified to do it. My grandfather had… persuaded, let’s say… one of the ushers to choose my brother and I to go down into the ring during an audience participation act.
It may have been a ride in a clown car as part of the procession, I can’t remember. I think Kevin may have gone. I could ask him, but it will be more fun for him to correct me later. But I stuck steadfastly to my seat, refusing the treat. I could not fathom being in a ring in front of all those people, all those people looking at me specifically, twirling their flashlights while I was illuminated beneath them.
Nope. Couldn’t do it.
Poor grandpa, he had tried really hard to get us that spot.
Thing two. My grandmother always bought us a souvenir. And one year I got it into my head that I wanted an elephant. Not the real thing of course. I was spoiled but not completely ridiculous.
The problem is that nobody had anything resembling an elephant in any way.
We walked around the entirety of Madison Square Garden, going from vendor to vendor, looking for this elusive elephant souvenir. Even I was willing to admit defeat, but not grandma.
Grandma was determined that if an elephant I wanted, an elephant I should have.
We left the arena and started walking up and down the streets outside, to every hawker and hanger-on we could find, until at long last we found someone selling a stuffed elephant.
I probably don’t have to tell you that I have this stuffed elephant until today. It’s tucked in a box along with all the other memories I’ve collected and treasured over the years, ready for me to pull them out and smile over them again whenever I feel like it. The real elephants may be mercifully retired, but the ones in my imagination are as enormous and smiling as ever.
Photo: sadly, as most of my best memories are still in boxes in the attic in Brigantine, I could not retrieve the stuffed elephant, or the flashlights, or any other memorabilia. I do, however, have a single bookmark with an elephant charm, so it will have to do.