Hours of Dirt and Moments of Glamour.

One last chance to catch the crowd before it leaves for the night. Photograph: Marshall News Messenger.
One last chance to catch the crowd before it leaves for the night. Photograph: Marshall News Messenger.

I have always loved the circus. And a long time ago, more years than I care to remember, I spent a week on the road with the Carson & Barnes circus as it toured the small towns of Texas. These are my recollections. Part Six, the final episode.


The crowd, all stuck up with popcorn, cotton candy, candied apples, and fiddle faddles, slowly files off the midway.

The elephants will be tearing down the big tent before they reach the parking lot.

And Harry Nelson, microphone in hand, sweating as profusely as a tent evangelist with hell only a scripture away, is making one last pitch for one last dollar before the last of Georgetown turns its back on him.

“We have freaks and wonders,” he barks. His voice is booming. “You’ll meet the strange, the odd, the truly incredible.”

Harry’s on a roll now.

The cold is all around him.

He is heating up.

52a033337369c.preview-300“Come see the monkey girl with long, black hair, knuckles that drag the ground, four rows of teeth,” he says.

Monkey girl?

I look up at him.

“You don’t have a monkey girl,” I say.

He grins down at me.

Harry places his hand over the microphone and says quietly, “This is my last shot at them. I got to get them in anyway I can.”


“So we can all eat tomorrow,” he says.

Pat White, the celebrated female trainer of lions and tigers, has shed her spangles, baubles, and sequins, traded them for jeans and a faded flannel shirt.

She’s the star.

She glitters.

But she’s no longer coaxing a Bengal Tiger to walk a pole or leap through a burning hoop.

She has thrust her pretty little blonde head between the sharp teeth of a lion for the last time tonight.

The applause has died and faded away.

She hears it in her sleep.

But, at the moment, she is scraping dung from the bottoms of the cages.

Pat smiles. “I spend a heckuva lot more time doing this than showboating inside the tent,” she says. “What I have each day is seventeen hours of dirt and one hour of glamour, and that includes putting on my makeup.”

The lions pay her no attention. They are too busy gnawing and clawing large bloody chunks of raw meat.

It’s good to have their bellies full when you have a habit of sticking your pretty little blonde head between their teeth.

A chilled November wind bites into the night.

Elephant Bob shivers. “Next year,” he says, “I’m either gonna bring a dog or a fat lady to sleep with.”

Cold hurts.

Elephant Bob is tired of hurting.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “they don’t allow dogs.”

Tonight, he and his herd of cohorts are glad to be sleeping inside the pachyderm truck. The body heat from the elephants themselves will keep them warm.

It’s great to be an elephant goof in winter.

It’s hell in July.

From his trailer, Bob Bowman has watched the madmen make their last passes, pitches, winks, whistles, and stabs at romance for the evening.

Some get lucky.

Some get turned down.

But you can’t win if you don’t play.

The code of the madmen is a simple one: When you’re a stranger and you’re talking to a pretty girl, you can be any damn thing you want to be because you’ll be a hundred miles away before she ever finds out any differently, if she ever finds out at all.

Bowman kneels down to pray the same prayer he places before God every night of his life: Please, Lord, let us have all forty-seven truck drivers back in the morning.

“It’s not an easy life,” Bobby Gibbs says. “It’s hard, the nights are short, the days are long, and those with any sense at all wouldn’t get into it. But if they didn’t, they’d be missing the greatest life there is.”

It’s a place where young men grow old in a hurry, and old men forever feel young.

The circus is an illusion.

And they are trapped inside of it.

Gibbs guesses that they’re all like this one guy who found a job in the circus, and it was his chore to take care of the animals. After a while, he became down and depressed, and he went to see a physician.

“What do you do in the circus?” the doctor asked.

“In the morning,” the man said, “I scrape the dung out of the rhino’s cage. Then I scrape the dung out of the lion’s cage. Then I unload thirty-six head of horses and scrape the dung out of the trucks. Then all afternoon, I walk along behind the elephants, sweeping up dung and pushing it into a pile.”

“Well, that’s what’s wrong with you,” the doctor told him. “The job’s got you down. You ought to quit.”

“What!” screamed the man. “And give up show business?”

It’s tough to walk away from the spotlight even when it never reaches down to touch your shoulders.

The madmen live in the dark.

They don’t mind.

A lot of love is found, lost, and thrown away in the dark.

In the dark, loves comes without a name.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    There are two lives to be led in the circus. One is when the spotlight is on. That’s show time. The other is during the day before crowds arrive and after dark when the crowds have gone. The lives are very different.

  • Bert Carson

    I believe we all have a circus calling us. If we’re lucky we at least visit it when it comes to town. If we are favored by God, we go with forever, shovel the dung, sleep with the elephants, and have an hour a day to sparkle, and love it 24/7 forever.
    Tom Cutter’s (Round the Bend – Nevil Shute) circus was the air show. When he found it, he followed it for days, lost his job, kept following it, and was finally allow to join it. Here’s what he said about it: “Sir Alan told dad I was a smart boy but if I came I’d have to be laid off in the winter. Dad said he thought it was best for me to do what I was keen on, and we’d take our chance about the winter.
    Thinking back over my life, I know of two or three times when I’ve been just perfectly, radiantly happy. That was one of them.”

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Tom Cutter speaks for all of us, but most don’t have the guts to do what Tom Cutter did. Looking back, we wish we did.

  • Christina Carson

    “The circus is an illusion.” Life is an illusion too. So my thought is pick the best illusion you can and hang with it. A beautiful piece of writing, Caleb. The circus owned you for a while and that’s the only way I know to write life’s truth.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I would have run away and joined the circus, but I was afraid of heights.

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