Sights and wonders like you’ve never seen before.
January 18, 2014
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 Four.
For years, Jack Moore had a traveling motion picture show, nailing down a tent and screening old jungle movies in little rural communities that had no movie houses of their own. When the crowd began to get restless, Jack would attack his wrestling bear and leave them all standing and screaming and begging for more.
D. R. Miller knew a showman when he saw one, and Jack Moore – with or without his wrestling bear – was a showman.
In 1954, Miller gave his protégé an elephant, some trucks, a bigger tent, and sent him out the road as the Tex Carson Wild Animal Circus, building the show around an old man with long white flowing hair and beard, billing him as the last scout of Buffalo Bill, even though the old man had never shot a buffalo and had probably never seen one.
Ultimately, D. R. Miller and Jack Moore united their shows under the name of Carson & Barnes.
There was no Carson.
There was no Barnes.
The name stuck.
Miller remains as the biggest fan the traveling circus has ever had. He does not misses a performance unless he’s out doing what he likes to do best: buy more animals or find more freaks if the freaks still exist, and he sometimes has difficulty trying to figure out which is which, the freaks or the audience.
D. R. Miller is almost always on the grounds, taking tickets, loading hay, feeding horses, parking cars, and shoveling whatever it is that elephants leave behind when they walk off and are gone.
His eyes are on the crowd, but his heart is in their pocketbooks.
D. R. Miller says he has to earn twelve thousand dollars a day just to break even. He has to pay off his two hundred and thirty-five people, feed them all at the cook house and buy a half ton of grain and a hundred bales of hay between sun up and sundown. On many days, his gasoline bill runs more than five thousand dollars.
But nobody tells D. R. Miller what to do.
After Jack Moore died, he has had it all to himself – the trials, the tribulations, and the triumphs – and that’s the way he likes it.
As one friend explains: “D. R. only has two partners – his left hand and his right hand.”
Carson & Barnes pulls out of the mud in Yoakum, bogs down for the night in Lockhart, then moves on to Georgetown, settling down on a gentle, grassy slope beside the San Gabriel River.
The roustabouts, the madmen, cluster around the pie car, warming their hands and bellies with coffee, waiting for that god-awful whistle that will drag them out again to the huge tent. They have been up since five o’clock, ever since Walter Chapman came storming through the grounds blowing that danged truck horn the way he blows it every morning of the world. He sounds like Gabriel come to raise the dead.
In the cookhouse, Faye Reynolds is teaching school for the children whose families are part of the circus. Her classes are fully accredited with the blessing of the Hugo, Oklahoma, Independent School District.
“The kids are pretty advanced,” Ted Bowman tells me. “You study about a town in a geography lesson, and most of them have already been there. They’ve learned to read by looking at road maps and road signs. And it’s rare to find a five-year-old who can’t make change for a twenty-dollar bill.”
Obert is down wading in the icy waters of the San Gabriel as Johnny Walker Junior, the chief elephant trainer, and Bobby Gibbs watch them from atop the bank.
Obert suddenly turns and races past the dam, heading toward the far shore.
Walker is on is feet.
“Obert,’” he yells. “Come here, Obert, goddamit.”
Bobby Gibbs grins. “All elephants have the same last name,” he says. “It’s goddamit.”
Obert stops and lazily sloshes his way back toward his trainer. He doesn’t look sheepish, but then he doesn’t look defiant either.
“Is there ever a danger of him running away? “ I ask.
“Hell,” Walker says, “Obert weights damn near five tons. He can run off anytime he wants to.”
Walker is twenty-five and has been working with elephants since he was five years old. “In those days,” he recalls, “I was billed as the world’s youngest elephant trainer. Now, twenty years later, I still am.”
The sun is down and only the neon lights up the darkness, shooting stars that have already been shot down. Carson & Barnes played to one audience in the early afternoon and is awaiting the second crowd of the day.
It’s on the way, filtering slowly across the midway.
Harry Nelson, dressed in a brown suit and an open-collared tuxedo shirt, strides boldly out onto the small sideshow stage, microphone in hand. It’s forty minutes before showtime. It’s time to go to work.
“You are all here to be entertained,” he barks loudly “and this is where the entertainment begins. At the old-fashioned circus sideshow. We’ve got freaks and wonders. You’ve heard about them. You’ve read about them. Now it’s time to meet them – alive and in person.
“See the human volcano drink burning gas. He sticks a burning torch down his throat like a lollipop. He sets his tongue on fire. He blows a ball of fire out of his mouth as big as a bale of cotton.
“The Indian rubber girl bends and twists and contorts her body like a giant pretzel. You think it’ll break. By all rights, it should. It never does.
“The elephant skin boy lays on a bed of nails. He climbs a ladder of razor-sharp knives. He dances on broken glass.
“And we have a young man from London who was recently crowned as the sword swallowing champion of the world.”
Harry Nelson surveys the crowd that has gathered at his feet: the daddies, the daughters on their shoulders, the overalls, the gimme caps, the tight jeans, the tattoos, the snuff dippers, the tobacco chewers, the farmers, the Rotarians, and the grannies with their stockings rolled down.
And he tells them as only a real friend would tell them: “Now the normal price of a ticket is a dollar and seventy-five cents for adults and a dollar for children. But tonight, let’s forget about the adult price, and everybody will be admitted on a child-sized ticket. And let me tell you about the kids. If you can pick them up and carry them in, you don’t have to pay for them”
The crowd shuffles its feet and waits for an awful, awkward minute to see if anybody is going to be first, hoping that somebody will be first, and there he is, he’s buying a ticket, and they follow him at last into the hay-strewn inner sanctum of the side show tent to see what they’ve never seen before and may never see again and would curse themselves in the morning if they stayed outside in the mud.