Goodbye to the clowns

My granddaughter Phoebe and I say goodbye to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

My 2-year-old granddaughter, Phoebe, sat on my lap and for a couple hours, smiled, clapped, stared, wiggled and ate goldfish. Every couple of minutes my wife, Christina, who sat next to us, would cut her eyes over to Phoebe and just grin and watch with wonder. She didn’t need to say a word to express how she felt that day or how precious the shared time with this child was for both of us.

We reveled in the moment surrounded by moms and dads and their kids and not once was heard a single word of admonition or rancor. The adults I think – for at least a few moments – must had forgotten that they were grownups, and whether they realized it or not, were transported back to a place from a long time ago – a place perhaps long forgotten and a time that was simple, carefree, and safe.

If ever there was a time machine I am sure we were in it and moving at past the speed of imagination.

There was not a cell phone in sight. No one was texting. All eyes were forward, not down. Smiles plastered so many faces, young and old. The moment – the moments were infectious and Fitzerald’s definition of well written fiction – a “willing suspension of disbelief” – was front and center playing out on stage right before our eyes.

It was a bittersweet moment for me, and always will be until the end. And in this case, there was plenty of that to go around – both for everyone in the audience as well as for the performers on stage.

For years and years Christina and I would buy a large block of tickets – sometimes a hundred tickets or more – and we would take our friends, the moms, dads, and all the kids, and travel in one great big group down to the show under “the big top.” We would go early, and kids would be able to go mingle with the performers on the same center stages that a short time later would be filled with magic and animals, and flying performers and music and wonder.

The smell, the electric excitement that seemed to permeate the air, the barkers, bright colors, grins, squeals, and hungry mouths devouring that food – the popcorn, cold colored snow cones, and of course the cloud-in-cones cotton candy, each child’s wonder, every adults memories – all before the show had even begun.

But it always began well before it started and always will.

“Isn’t it rich?

Are we a pair?

Me here, at last, on the ground

You in mid-air”

The memories of George Harvey – my neighbor when I was growing up on the river in Florida – always return. His family were orange growers in central Florida back in the ‘20s, and I still order bags of wonderful Florida navels from his grandchildren who still run the family business and send them to my sisters and a few lifelong friends for Christmas. George would round up what seemed like dozens of children – “river rats” – and pile us all into a van and take us to see the greatest show on earth which was held at the fairgrounds in West Cocoa. I still remember almost all of them. Some are dead now. Some have moved and left my radar. Some are still close.

George would take out a roll of bills and give each one of us $10. Then he would take out a huge cigar, light it, and together all of us would visit booth after booth, and the air would fill with laughter and fun until it was time for the show to start. Then we’d go inside.

And George, just FYI, it’s you that all our friends who came with Christina and I all the years can thank. I hope you have been pleased.

With her little fists full of goldfish and her mind racing, Phoebe Leigh asked question after question and made comments about each act as they performed in the center ring. Then, abruptly, she became completely silent and still, as mute and silent as a frozen lake in the wild or wild flowers growing on the side of a mountain, miles from humanity.

One by one, the big cats left the train of cages lined up to the raised curtain of wire that circled the center stage. Out they came to the call of the balding man who owned the space, and he called each one out by name.

“Come Sonya, come Gretchen, come, come, come – until 13 magnificent tigers had entered the ring and colored the imagination of all the humans in the great tent with orangeness, black, albino white, swishing tails and growls, and nervous jerks of their great heads and feigned obedience as they paraded for us all.

And I was sad as I watched the clowns and the trapeze performers and the tiger tamer, and the acrobats and the tight rope walkers, and the dancers and the guys who rolled out the stages and broke them down. I couldn’t imagine how they felt when they had been told that after 143 years that their beloved circus – the greatest show on earth – Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus would be closing for good in May. No more circus. Ever.

Then as I watched their show I began to realize that they were not giving up or giving in. Their trapeze flew higher than ever. Their songs filled the air with heart. They marched, they swung, their animals performed with amazing grace. Their smiles and their effort to say goodbye the right way – with pride, dignity, but above all, to not disappoint us – the ones whose memories and childhoods and imaginations are forever tied to their show – stole the night and honored their legacy and filled our hearts.

“I thought that you’d want what I want

Sorry, my dear

But where are the clowns?

There ought to be clowns

Quick send in the clowns”

They ought to be here.

Ray is the Publisher Emeritus for Appen Media and the Herald newspapers.

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