Monday, March 22, 2010

Joel Hannah: The Life of a Rigger

Joel Hannah was a newly minted graduate of Randolph Union High School when he came home one hot June day in 1976 and told his mother that he'd joined the circus. Here is part two of Joel's memoir about his time with Circus Kirk. (Click here for part one.) The illustration below is by Tex. Joel's mother, Mary Jacobs, would like you to know that Joel went on to get a master's degree in education; no doubt this story encouraged later generations of middle- and high-school kids to be ready for the summer day when opportunity knocks.


Rigging is a job usually associated with large sailing vessels, working with hundreds of feet of hemp rope and tons of canvas. This is also true in the circus, except we transformed them every day into a 150-by-50-foot circus tent. The day did indeed start at 5 a.m., with the sound of a night stick rapping on the metal side of the tractor trailer in which me and nineteen other men were stacked in bunks. Hot nights usually found us sleeping outside in various locations to avoid the heat and stench of the confined sleeping area. Luckily, I was assigned a bunk near the door. "Come on, let's go—up and at 'em" was the reveille call as we swore back, pulling on our jeans and T-shirts.

The first order of business was to stumble over to the kitchen wagon to partake in a cup of heated leftover coffee the consistency of mud. A minor revolt of sorts occurred when one morning the coffee actually had a green tint, resulting in fresher brew, for a while. Washing up was equally painful, being accomplished at the water truck under a cold water faucet. If we were lucky, we would be close enough to a school or other facility where we could take advantage of the showers. This did not always turn out to be the luxury we expected, however, as one day we were all pumped up for a nice hot shower at a local school when screams from the locker room revealed that, being summer, there was no need for having the hot water turned on. (To continue reading, click on "Read more," below.)

Route cards were read to determine the day's destination as people climbed into an assortment of vehicles. I drove the "stake driver," a medium size meandering truck loaded with metal and wooden stakes and a pile driver mounted on the back. Each truck was also assigned a "shotgun" rider whose job it was to keep the driver awake. The shotgun was usually asleep within ten minutes after leaving the lot. Travel distance varied from a few miles to several hours' drive. Longer trips were saved for off days, which came much too seldom. One stretch of one-night stands lasted eighteen days without a break, after which everyone was justifiably exhausted and treated to a day of swimming at a nearby pond.

As soon as the trucks arrived at the new lot, they were unloaded and the material laid out for setup, which took place after breakfast. Groans would rise from the early arrivals when someone would shout "Canvas wagon!" or "Pole truck!"—meaning that they had to get up and get to work.

Cereal and eggs were eaten under another small tent after standing in line to have "Cookie" slap them on your plate from the inside of his kitchen. This scene always reminded me of images of Western cooks and their covered wagons, dispensing the same old chow every day to a bunch of hungry and unappreciative workers. There was even a move toward vegetarianism by a few crew members who ate homemade yogurt served out of plastic milk jugs. I tried this for a while but was accused of "just doing it to avoid the usual garbage." They were right. After a couple of weeks it was back to eating hamburg goulash with the rest of the crowd.

On the occasions when we were playing in someone's hometown we would usually be invited to their parents' house for a cookout. This was truly a treat, not just as a break from circus food, but the need to sit in a soft chair and watch TV while actually being inside a house was sometimes overwhelming. During my second summer tour I invited us all over to my poor mother's when the circus played in Randolph. fifty dirty and hungry circus people descended on her small residence to relish its comforts. Food was devoured, haircuts given, and a good time had by all. One girl, the snake lady, kept a close proximity to one of my brothers. Finally, she expressed that it had been a long time since she had smelled aftershave. We later gave on of the better performances of the season.

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