Vagneur: Going to the big top
It was a big deal back then — the circus was coming to Denver. I ended up staying with some of my mom’s Denver cousins for the weekend just so I could see the circus. In the following years, for whatever reason, those Denver relatives thought I was underprivileged or something, living in Woody Creek or Aspen (as the two were interchangeable in those days), and from time-to-time I spent short pockets of time in Denver, going to plays, museums, the zoo and anything else they thought might be educational.
I was a grade-schooler who didn’t quite appreciate it all, and upon reflection, consider it an early lesson in tolerance. About the most fun I had was going to the dog track one time with one of the single cousins and a friend of his, who placed my bets for me and slipped me a taste of beer now and then.
But back to the circus. The day before my appearance at the big show, a young boy about my age (which was 6 or 7), had been kidnapped from the crowded venue, just disappeared from the whole damned thing and the worst kind of foul play was suspected. Not realizing the effects of their words, the entire affair was discussed in front of me, who felt, around these highly educated, childless relatives, to be sort of a vestigial appendage, noticeable but not necessary, whose sole mission was to enjoy the circus.
The next morning, along with the sun, the morning paper arrived, detailing how the young lad had been kidnapped and assumed abused, his dead body ineffectively hidden on the circus grounds behind some animal pens. Either his parents had lost sight of him for an instant and he was gone, or he got separated from the group he was with. And I had to go to the circus?
We sometimes think the fears of children are exaggerated, that they just don’t understand the world yet, and we try to assuage their fears with nonsensical (to them) common sense. “Lightning never strikes twice in the same place,” or “Murder is so rare, especially at a circus, it could never happen again.”
Sure, and you’re not stuck 200 miles from home without your mother or father for support, and these relatives who mean well but don’t understand are taking you to the scene of the crime? Refusing to go was not an option, and with dread in my very soul, we took our seats in a long row inside the Denver Coliseum.
Death was no stranger to me; I’d watched animals die on the ranch and saw the light disappear from their eyes, the tension in their muscles go away forever. Possibly that was it — I understood the finality, maybe better than the adults I traveled with, and I didn’t want it to happen to any kid, especially me, and they hadn’t caught the perpetrator yet.
It’s hard to describe the stultifying fear I felt as circus act after circus act entered one or another of the three rings. It was undoubtedly a spectacular show, but I had other things on my mind. I’d forget about it for a while, and then the preoccupation with potential disaster would creep back into my thoughts. It was a long afternoon.
With some sort of coping syndrome at work over the years, I apparently managed to bury that memory as deeply as possible. All this recent conversation about the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus giving it up for good obviously stirred up the recollections of that weekend, and as I relive them, I can feel my pulse quicken and my breath getting a little shorter, my throat a little tighter.
It might be safe to say I never really had much desire to run away and join the circus, although my daughter and I went to one many years ago, setup on the backroad between Carbondale and Glenwood. If it counts for anything, we took an elephant ride, which we both remember with a smile, but somehow I don’t think we were impressed with the rest of it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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