Circus

 

(This 1026th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 21, 2010.)

 

Channel 17 has had my full attention Wednesday evenings for the past several weeks. My eyes have been glued to the set watching the program "Circus". After all, those are my people for I spent my youth as a circus employee.

Well, not quite. That is a bit of a stretch, but I was a bona fide circus employee for one day.

That was such an important day in my life that I am surprised that I don't include it in my vita. First job: roustabout for Barnum and Bailey.

I was nine years old.

Children today don't have the wonderful opportunity that we had in the 1930s. At dawn on the day the circus came to town, teenagers would gather at the fields where the tents were to be set up. They sought employment. Each circus worker would select one or two strong youngsters to assist with tasks like pulling the heavy lines tug-of-war style to hoist the big top. Their workday: five hours. Their pay: a ticket.

It was the best job in town.

I was too young to expect to be hired. However, despite the fact that my dad remained nearby waiting for me, my hopes were high as I accompanied my older brother Vernon, a high school athlete, to the circus grounds at 5:00 a.m. on that May morning.

     Vern was among the first selected to work and I was left behind, but I watched him point back to me. His boss huddled with a colleague and the second man called me over. I galloped ahead, proudly waving to my father that I had a job.

My leader introduced himself as "Coast-to-Coast Charlie" and I never heard anyone call him anything but that. Everyone knew and greeted him, always using that four word mouthful.

That morning I was assigned two tasks. The first was the most interesting. Coast-to-Coast Charlie set me to keep outsiders from the animal tent. "We insiders have work to do," he explained before he drifted off, I assume to spend the next two hours doing something more useful.

So I guarded — proudly refusing entry to at most a half dozen people over that time. I was in fact quite surprised when people backed off when I told them, "Sorry, no admission yet."

But mostly I gawked, thunderstruck at this opportunity to spend time especially so near to the lions and tigers. I recall the elephant keeper warning me to watch out when his elephants drank, as they loved to squirt water on any nearby boys and girls. And I watched spellbound as painters with big brooms whitewashed their main attraction, the "great white" elephant.

When my boss returned, I reluctantly gave up my post and together we set up the canvas walls connecting the animal tent to the big top. The routine was straightforward: I carried heavy eight-foot wooden poles to push up the tent sections. Coast-to-Coast Charlie stood by and occasionally commended my work.

The morning having sped by, I was dismissed and told to return in the evening to be admitted to the show. Delighted, I raced off to find my brother.

Vern appeared with a ticket in his hand. "Where's yours?" he asked. And that was the theme for the remainder of the day. He and my parents were certain that I had been hoodwinked.

But evening finally arrived and my brother and I set off for the circus grounds, Vern with his ticket, I to find my sometime boss.

"Back there," was the direction we kept receiving from circus employees, but finally we found him. Coast-to-coast Charlie was seated at a campfire with his cronies. When we appeared, he hopped up immediately and led the way to the big top. There he raised the edge of the canvas and under we three went. We continued to the front of the stands where he had Vern and me sit on straw a yard away from one of the performance rings. They were the best seats in the house.

I used to ask for Coast-to-Coast Charlie each year when Barnum and Bailey came to town. Now I just remember him and my many other colleagues as I watch this TV program.

As I said, those are indeed my people.-- Gerry Rising