Monday, March 15, 2010

Joel Hannah: Circus Kirk

Joel’s mother, Mary Jacobs, has written about the time her son brought an entire circus home to dinner (you can see her movie “Feeding a Circus” on YouTube). The following is the first installment of Joel’s own memoir, written in 1992, about his two summers as a rigger with Circus Kirk. He later went on to college and a master’s degree, worked as an electrical engineer with the Digital Corporation for nine years, taught math and science at Winooski Middle School for five years, and math and physics at Mount Abraham High in Bristol for eleven years. The illustrations are by Tex (our resident cartoonist happens to love old cars). Mary says the '64 Plymouth looks an awful lot like the one Joel used to drive.

It was the kind of hot summer day where the sweat just pours out of you, and I had just spent the morning pitching bales into a hayloft. Sitting in the parking lot of the local bowling alley, quenching my thirst with a cold beer, I watched the work in progress in the field across the street. “I hear they’re looking for help,” my buddy laughed. “Maybe we should sign up.” He was joking, but I felt a surge of adrenaline, straightening my spine and quickening my thinking.

Parking my dented and abused ’64 Plymouth at the edge of the ball field, I walked slowly towards a beehive of activity in which people and animals were moving in every direction, busily preparing for something very unfamiliar to me. I stood in awe at the entrance of the main tent as three men took turns at pounding a stake into the ground. This was one of the skills that I would take home with me afterwards—the round swing of a sledge hammer, a feat few woodchoppers know. (Besides splitting wood, it comes in handy at the Tunbridge Fair every year, where I can easily ring the bell every time, and pay a dollar for a ten-cent cigar.)

Keeping an eye on the work in progress, I looked around for someone to talk to.

There is a time in everyone’s life when they are restless, yearning for something to fill a void, looking for a sign, an opportunity, to change the course of their present condition. Fifteen years ago I had found that opportunity which would release my pent-up frustration from the day-in, day-out complacency of the past 12 years of school.

Everyone has heard the story about the boy who ran away with the circus, and many may have fantasized of doing it themselves, but few have had the chance or will to follow through. Not that I planned on joining a traveling circus and sideshow; it just kind of happened. I showed up at the site one day and the rest is what follows. (click below to continue reading)

Circus Kirk was a small crew of 50, touring the northeast on one-night stands, attempting to dazzle the local residents with animals, acrobats, fire eaters, and snake women. The uniqueness of our show was being completely comprised of college students. Not only the performers, but the support crew as well, from the cook (which I’ll get into later), to the advance booking agents. This organizational miracle was the brainstorm of a man known as “Doc” Boas from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who had committed his life to this show and ended up going broke more than once.
Doc made his ambitions a family matter. His son was the ring master, an arrogant fat man, who in my opinion had the worst act in the show. His three daughters also assisted. Two were trapeze artists, swinging across the tent to the ohs and ahs of the audience. One injured her back after falling and was left selling popcorn, a humiliating end to her years of effort. The youngest of the three (I would guess ten or eleven) performed the dog act, where a dozen yapping fleabitten critters would spin people’s heads by jumping, climbing, and running in a blur of organized confusion.

The rest of the performers as well as the band were from well-known colleges from around the country—places that I had never heard of, not having traveled further than my neighboring state. Like the University of Illinois, which the French horn player stated had seven thousand students. I didn’t believe him at first. There were only half that many people in the whole town of Randolph.

All positions were originally filled from applications submitted from college students. However, some people wouldn’t show up or would drop out during the summer tour. That’s how I got on board. Having nothing to do while waiting in anticipation of my attendance at a vocational-technical college in the fall was getting a little boring. And hanging around town was also getting dangerous. The way things were going, getting killed in a car crash, ending up in jail, or becoming a derelict were becoming increasingly real possibilities. I more than once found myself in a situation that I would later regret.

Approaching a short muscular individual wearing only shorts and work boots who seemed to be in charge, I asked nervously, “You’re looking for help?” He paused long enough to look me over, and replied simply, “Follow me.” We took off out the back of the tent, stepping over props and dodging other workers. An older man was sorting tickets in a camper trailer at the far side of the lot. “We’ve got a replacement for Mike,” the foreman said. “Wadaya think?”

Being looked over again, I looked back dumfounded; apparently, interviewing skills were not necessary to obtain this position. “Be here at five tomorrow morning,” he told me, as I began to wonder what I was getting into. Five in the morning!, I thought. I never got up before seven or eight. Even my stepdad, who drove to work across the state, didn’t get up until five-thirty. Expressing my reluctance to his suggestion I was interrupted by the foreman: “He can meet us in Keene on Saturday. Tomorrow’s an off day, anyway.” Keene? New Hampshire? That was over a two-hour drive, but what the heck, it at least gave me a chance for a few short good-byes.

The next day I packed a trunk and a duffel bag, and headed towards Keene, New Hampshire, with one of my friends. He unsuccessfully tried to talk me out of it the entire way there. (
Later this week: The life of a rigger)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When do I get to read the rest of the story? I love it !!!
Jean Bates