Once Upon a Circus by Laura Alexander

Every summer there was a flurry of excitement when we started seeing Circus Vargas posters around town. We watched with great anticipation for the circus trucks to pull into town. On the day their trucks rolled into the Korvett’s parking lot all of the neighborhood kids could be seen running or riding their bikes through the neighborhood streets down to the break in the fence. 

The excitement would hit a fever pitch as the last truck came to a stop near the grassy field at the end of the lot.    

As soon as the trucks had been parked the workers would jump out and the organized chaos would begin. The first thing to go up was the big top. Circus Vargas has one of the biggest big top tents in circus history – 90,000 square feet of fabric, 500 stakes and 4 miles of rope. It was under the big top where the magic would happen, where the circus would begin with a dramatic introduction by the ringmaster and a parade followed by the circus acts themselves – beautiful women on ropes, skilled trapeze artists, animal trainers, circus clowns. They would have it all and we could hardly contain our excitement.   

Watching the big top go up was the most thrilling of all. It would take thirty men and four elephants seven hours to set up the tent. The men would guide the elephants over to the trucks where ropes attached to the poles would be hooked up to their harnesses. Working together the massive beasts would drag the poles to the grassy field where the big top would go up,  neighborhood kids cheering them on. The rest of the crew dragged the miles and miles of canvas that would be the main tent out of the trucks and lay it out on the field. Hours later, with the poles and the canvas in position the elephants were once again put to work and the tent would finally start to rise. As we watched we would fall silent. The elephants would pull and strain working side by side and in unison bringing the poles upright and thus raising the big top. As it rose into place everyone, kids and workers alike, clapped and cheered. The Circus was here!!  

The circus workers were a motley bunch, dirty clothes because of the dirty work they did, unshaven and unkempt. But they were kind and friendly, they taught us how to feed and groom the ponies and seemed to enjoy our company. Our parents admonishments to us to not disturb them while they did their work fell on deaf ears. 

For we knew from experience that all of these workers had free tickets to the circus that they could share and we tried to impress on them that we were deserving of those tickets. And so we readily agreed to work with them carrying the feed, brushing the ponies, scooping up the poop. They watched and laughed and cheered us on.  A radio played music as they sat in their lawn chairs enjoying a smoke. Sometime before the first show they would slip us the free tickets and we would run home with the tickets tight in our fists. We would beg some spending money from our parents for peanuts and soda and that evening head out for the show. During the week, even after the workers had run out of free tickets we would stop by in the afternoons to help with the grooming and feeding.

One year around the second day of the circus something changed. Our parents forbade us to go back to the circus grounds to help. We begged and pleaded as we were still trying to work toward the coveted free tickets but they insisted we stay away. 

I was devastated. How would I get my free ticket? I knew it was the only way I would get in to see the circus. I snuck out of the house and took my purple Schwinn and headed over to the parking lot. When I approached the men caring for the ponies, offering my help, instead of the usual laughter and frivolity they looked down sadly, shook their heads and sent me on my way. “Sorry hon, we can’t have you hanging around anymore.  Go home then.” They turned away from me knowing that one of their own had ruined it for all of us, workers and kids alike.  

In hushed tones I heard the parents talking – young teen, molest, pedophile – I was too young to know what those words meant but what I did know was that something I didn’t quite understand had taken away one of my greatest summer joys. From then on the annual arrival of the circus was no longer as exciting. The anticipation of the show itself dulled. Looking back I realize that it wasn’t the circus itself  but instead the camaraderie with the circus workers that we loved, earning our tickets through hard work and being what we thought was an integral part of bringing the circus to life. And along with that young teen’s innocence this is what was lost that summer of 1968. 

Laura started her writing career at the age of 65. She writes personal essays based on her own upbringing, her 41 years as a nurse and the four sons she and her husband raised in San Rafael, California. You can see more of her writing at allthingsrosie.com.