It was a sad day, last month, when Ringling Brothers announced that they were going out of business. What is life without the circus? The feeling of impending doom started last year when they said they were retiring the elephants. I have really had some mixed feelings about that. To me, the elephants are the circus. Sure, they’ve got the trapeze acts, the lion tamers, and the clowns, but what of it? It’s those giant-sized, majestic creatures with the wise old eyes that set the tone for everything else.
On the other hand, elephants shouldn’t have to live that kind of life. Most of the day they were chained to a stake in the ground and bored to death. They were only free long enough to go out and perform those demeaning little tricks. Not a good life for such a marvelous creature.
I know, that I shouldn’t discuss serious stuff. Well, here’s a remedy for that. As you may have guessed, I have a circus story.
The circus and the carnivals used to stop in Augusta, Kansas, our little town of 5,000 people. In the south end of town, there was a big lot behind the homes on the west side of the 500 block of Oak Street. It was a nice, level piece of property, bounded on the north by the Frisco Railroad tracks and on the south by the White Eagle Refinery. That was a good location but one year they changed the venue, y to get more space. I was probably between the ages of 14 and 16. That would put it between 1950 and 1952. Up in the north end of town there was a pasture that probably was within the city limits. It was bounded by Kelly Road on the south and Washington Lane on the west. I think the northern boundary was even with the entrance to Garvin Park. The circus people set up their tents and equipment up at the north end of the property.
If I remember correctly, the circus arrived via the Santa Fe Railroad. I believe it was the next day that they had a parade down State Street. For some reason, I was watching from a spot front of Schneider Brothers Grain and Feed Store as the elephants strolled past. The circus had put out a call for some boys to show up that first morning and clean up after the elephants. It’s a monumental job but someone must do it and I would have been honored. On that specified morning, we headed for the pasture and the super duper pooper scooper job. I think Gary
Casner was my partner in this adventure. Unfortunately, we got there too late and the jobs had been filled. Such is life.
That evening, we went back to the circus to see the show. We got there early and split up to look around. There was a side-show set up on the west side of the big top and there were posters advertising the usual attractions like the Bearded Lady and the Tatooed Man, and of course, the Exotic Dancer. There was a stage in front of the entrance to the tent and it was surrounded, about three deep, by men and high school boys. I had arrived during the time segment of the Exotic Dancer and she was on stage smiling and posing as the barker extolled her wares. According to the barker, once you paid your money and got inside the tent, you were going to see some spicy stuff. I wouldn’t be able to find out because the posted sign said, “No One Under the Age Of 18 Allowed Inside”. That was okay for it turned out that I saw an amusing show anyhow.
I knew most of the guys in the crowd. There were a couple of high school classmates, a couple of dads of classmates, businessmen from down town, and men that worked at the refinery. I was surprised to see one man that seemed to be hanging back a step or two behind the rest of the crowd. I knew this man well. He was a businessman that I saw whenever I went to town. He was a sharp dresser, always in a white shirt, tie, sport coat, and slacks. He was a talker, too, and always had a word for every man, woman, or kid he came across. That’s why I was surprised to see him standing by himself. There was no one to talk to.
I was watching this guy out of the corner of my eye when suddenly, I found out what was going on. His sport coat was unbuttoned and he would reach across with his left hand and pull the coat back, exposing the camera he had hanging around his neck! It was a small, flat camera, looking much like the digital cameras we have today. Once the camera was in the clear, he would reach up with his right hand and snap a picture and then let the coat fall closed. Whenever the woman would change her position or her pose, he would snap another picture. This went on throughout the barker’s spiel and the guy was so intent on what he was doing, he didn’t know I was watching. Thinking about it now, I don’t remember seeing him wind the camera to advance the film. I must not have been paying attention. I don’t believe we had the technology or the miniature batteries to support automatic film advancing.
I don’t know what the guy’s motivation was. Maybe he was in training to become a spy. Or, maybe he was taking pictures for an up-coming coffee table book about exotic dancers. Maybe he was just a pervert. All I know, is that I got a good chuckle from his covert performance.
June 30, 2017