April 24, 2010 9:56:00 PM
Recent TV ads informed me that Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus was performing in Tupelo. I remembered the last time I went to a local circus, when our children were small. I vowed I''d never, never, no never, go again.
It was midsummer, under the Big Top, and we thought we''d perish from the heat. We could hardly wait to get home and plunge into the little backyard pool we had. We may even have jumped in with our clothes on; I know there were times we did that, but it was usually after playing tennis. Obviously I don''t tolerate heat very well. Coliseum performances must be comfortably different.
A child''s eyes
I was different, too, back in my childhood; and circuses were the most exciting things I could imagine. I don''t remember any after I moved to Columbus, but in West Point and Greenwood, where both pairs of grandparents lived, they were a big deal. Coincidentally, in both towns my grandparents lived on the circus parade route from somewhere downtown to the big lots or parks where the tents had been erected. I could stand on the curb and watch the brightly-painted wagons, the trick horses, cavorting clowns, and monstrous caparisoned elephants swinging their amazing trunks and marching with tree-trunk feet almost within reach!
My memory probably exaggerates some of this for me, because that was when I, like many other children, longed to be in the circus. I wanted to be a trapeze flyer. I outgrew the ambition, but the luster remained many years. Did Columbus have circus parades? Does anyone remember?
Circuses also had side shows which, in retrospect, seem terribly cruel. They exploited freaks for money: the bearded lady, the "world''s fattest man," "Siamese" twins, two-headed creatures, etc. I could only look at the ads in horror. Those were the days of the Great Depression, and you have to think how hard times must have been for people to have to make their money in such a way. Or maybe it was an easy life, considering.
For the summers I spent in Greenwood, my grandfather and uncle would buy me a Shetland pony. They would sell it in the fall when I went back to Washington, where we lived for five years. One of these was blind in one eye, but had been a circus trick pony, who would "roll over and play dead," count accurately to certain numbers by pawing the ground, and do a few other little tricks.
That year, when I went back to Washington, my uncle wrote me that a circus parade had come by, and Billy, the pony, had broken loose from where he was tethered and joined the parade. The circus offered to buy him, so of course they "just had to sell him, since he so obviously wanted to go." For years I believed that story. Part of me still does.
Many people say that Shetland ponies are mean, because so many have been mistreated by boisterous children. I can honestly say the ones I had on three consecutive summers were sweet and gentle. When I fell off, which was often, they would stand, perfectly immobile until I was safely on my feet again.
I had never been taught to ride properly, just got up in a western saddle or sometimes bareback and galloped around, often following my grandfather on his big bay mare, named Betty, for me.
Times have changed since then, and so have circuses. I guess traffic is such that, even when we have circuses, we don''t have parades.
I think modern circuses might be a lot more comfortable now, too. Many arenas are climate controlled. Some circuses, like Cirque de Soleil, perform in theaters. Nostalgia overwhelms me. Maybe sometime, if I have another opportunity, I''ll go to another circus. Of course, it won''t be the same. I expect it will be better.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.
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