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The Circus as School

By now everyone knows that tomorrow, Wednesday, 26 October, the Rotary Club of Demopolis is bringing the Carson and Barnes Circus to town for two shows.

Now, this is no fly-by-night outfit.

They have five rings, countless animals, entertaining clowns, and acts which will rivet us to our seats and bring gasps of enjoyment to our children.

This circus is one of the last vestiges of the old circus world which began in Europe and flourished in America.

It brings to each community that element of escapism which allows each of us to just plain enjoy the show.

And there is not one among us who does not love the excitement and the romance of the circus.

How may of us remember the 1959 Victor Mature movie, “The Big Circus,” which depicted the life under the big top?

Remember all those problems Mature’s character, Hank Whirling, had as the circus owner?

Not only did he have to mollycoddle the stars, he had folks trying to sabotage the circus.

It was business.

It was life!

Reflect on just how the circus has infected us in all we do – from “the daring young man on the flying trapeze” to the cadre of clowns, to the elephants, to the parade through town drumming up business.

All of it has had its magic, its mystery, and its majesty.

Because every kid who has ever been to one of the great circuses dreams about running away and joining up with the characters who inhabit the midway, and perhaps one day may perform in the center ring!

I can remember when I was in the sixth grade.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was coming to town.

My buddy and comrade in circus intrigue, John Chance, now the Chair of the Anthropology Department at Arizona State University, and I decided we would cut school and go watch them put up the tents.

It was with great trepidation we ditched school.

John’s father was a prominent lawyer in town and running for mayor at the time, and my father was superintendent of schools!

Had we been caught for any reason it was curtains for our circus adventure!

Undaunted, we took the chance.

And in that day I learned more about cooperation, camaraderie, personal responsibility, and team

work than I had learned up to that point in my life.

These people, maligned as they were by the general public for their personal lives, truly depended upon each other’s skill and expertise.

While they checked and re-checked their work, each of them knew the absolute importance of their individual jobs.

And if one of them were to slack assigned duties, the entire circus could be jeopardized.

On top of that, they seemed to relish what they were doing and with whom they were doing it.

John and I were in constant awe.

Somehow, we managed to work our way to the animal tent where all the lions, tigers, elephants, zebras, and the usual host of other exotic animals and beasts were kept.

Their trainers were very conscientious, as well they should have been, for to make a mistake in the ring with their act with a tent full of witnesses would have been the ultimate act of failure, or so John and I thought.

As we cruised through the tent, not knowing that it was really “off limits” to the general public, let alone to two sixth grade adventure boys,

we got caught by some gruff, but somehow wise caretaker of the animal tent.

His name was Casey something.

After scolding us for being out of school and for invading private property, Casey asked us what we thought we were doing in “his” tent with “his” animals.

I proudly announced that I was there to join the circus and was willing to be his assistant, if he just would not tell my father that he caught me skipping school.

Casey then went into a quiet tirade about how important school was – that he had only gotten through the eighth grade and how we needed to stay in school.

I guess he saw our terrified, yet pouting faces, so he said he would make a deal with us.

If we promised to stay in school, he would get us passes to the big show that night, but we had to be part of his “crew” in setting up the cages for the lion and tiger act – in the center ring!!

WOW!

It did not take us very long to confirm the deal.

And that night, John Chance and Artie Ogden, those two sixth grade marauders, were part of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus!

We carried out the sections of the iron cage and did not make a single mistake in assisting Casey and his crew put up those cages.

The crew was efficient, thorough, dedicated, coordinated, and just plain fun.

They knew each others’ moves.

They appreciated each others’ talents.

They complemented each others’ styles.

And they put up solid cages for the lion tamers to complete their acts in safety and security.

It was the best “school” I ever attended, and I think I learned more about the practical applications of team work that day than I had up to that point in my life.

So today, whenever a circus comes to town, I always try to get there early to watch them set up.

It takes me way back to my days with the circus!

Oh, our fathers did find out about our adventure.

Far too many of our friends’ parents saw us with Casey’s crew that night.

But for every day of my having been grounded I reflected on the lessons I learned at my circus school – and I smile even to this day!

See you under the big top tomorrow!

Dr. Arthur G. Ogden is the Demopolis Campus Director of Alabama Southern Community College.

All his degrees are in philosophy.

He can be reached at aogden@ascc.edu.