On the road with madmen and god.


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 One.


They were madmen, knee deep in dung and mud, inmates running the asylum that kept them and fed them and drove them crazy long before it ever drove them away.

The hard cases had stayed to the bitter end, bitching and complaining and ready to whip anybody who had the audacity to bitch and complain about god, who had gone off to town and left them in an open field, kneed deep in dung and mud and elephant sweat.

They all knew the word, the unwritten commandment, the golden rule of the road: “When god speaks, you do not argue. Whoever writes checks is god.”

God was in downtown Yoakum, Texas, looking for apiece of pie and coffee. D. R. Miller, the owner, producer, and impresario of the Carson & Barnes Circus, glances at the menu, but he can’t keep his mind off the big, six-door black limousine Caddy that’s parked just outside the little café.

“The owner’s got to be a millionaire,” Bobby Gibbs, the animal superintendent, tells him.”

“He sure don’t own a circus,” Miller snaps.

Gibbs smiles up at the waitress from behind his thick black beard. “That’s a helluva car out there,” he says.

“Stands out like a747, don’t it,” she replies, popping her chewing gum and straightening the wrinkles in her stockings.

She has the legs.

She doesn’t need the wrinkles.

“Who owns it?” Gibbs asks.

“The funeral director.”

Gibbs raises an eyebrow, nods, and orders coffee, turning to stare at the big bulletin board beside the cash register. Tacked upon it fare the latest up-to-date headlines and gossip of a November Sunday in Yoakum: the announcement of a holiday turkey shoot, a dollar a gun; two acres of real estate, cash only; an ad for a baby sitter, Christians only need to apply; and three neatly clipped obituaries from the Yoakum Herald-Times, circulation 3,740.

Gibbs leans over to D. R. Miller. “It ain’t good,” he says.

“What isn’t?”

“Three of Yoakum’s finest citizens have bit the dust.”


“We gotta compete with all three funerals this afternoon.”

D. R. Miller shrugs “That’s the problem with having a circus,” he says. “When our business dies, you can’t bury it. You just gotta move it on to another town. At least those poor bastards will have a prayer this afternoon.”

He pauses and fsrowns.

“We don’t one,” he says.

D. R. Miller sighs and waits for the gum-chewing waitress to pour his coffee. A crowd would be nice, he figures. But what he really needs is more horses.

“You’ve already got one liberty horse act,’ Gibb reminds him.

“Yeah, but I got five rings,” Millers says

And he will keep them filled, by gawd, or D. R. Miller will quit the road, and D. R. Miller won’t quit as long as there is one road left and he has a map of it.

He writes checks.

He is god.

And the madmen are his disciples, the ones who never heard anything at all about cleanliness being next to godliness.

They merely jockey trucks.

Hammer stakes.

Shovel dung.

Wade mud.

Leak snuff.

Suck sweating beer cans.

Throw hay to the elephants and raw meat to the lions.

Sleep on the ground when it’s warm and with someone when they’re lucky, sometimes fall in love, and sometimes even remember her name.

They don’t ask for much, and that’s about all they get.

They work all day and most of the night, don’t make much money, but then don’t find many places to spend it, which is one good thing about picking up girls after the last show when everything is closed except the sleeper in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler when trucks won’t be running until daylight.

The madmen aren’t concerned about tomorrow and aren’t sure of where they’ve been or if they’ll ever return.

They’re simply anxious to get home so they can leave again.

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  • Don Newbury

    Paints a great picture of wonderlust, and what happens over coffee in small town America.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      And it happens every morning – whether the circus is in town or not.

  • Don Newbury

    And WANDERLUST, too!

  • Caleb Pirtle

    The traveling circus is one of the last traces of life as it used to be in small town America. Everybody still wants to see the elephant.

  • jack43

    They began setting up the circus in the main hall of the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore while I was ensconced on a second floor balcony with the other recent law graduates taking the bar exam. I watched them until lunch and left without completing it. Somehow I had decided that I was the biggest clown for investing three years of my life earning a degree that I didn’t want. I decided that like Washington Irving, I had too much imagination to be an attorney. So, I joined the Army and went to war.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jack, there is a lot of similarity in joining the army and joining the circus. Clowns got shot at in the circus, too.

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