Advertising in any proximity that the locals gather is a strategy many businesses utilize. A sense of community dedication associated with civic groups is created with these gestures. Hand painted paper signs with the names and ads of local merchants hanging in the big top is one way of making extra money around the traveling circus. Becoming the banner salesman on the Royal Bros Circus season of one day stands in 1973 was an enterprise that required my sister’s participation to fit into our routine. Our custom was already up early each morning. Paula would wake me and crawl into the cab of the pickup to resume her sleep while I drove to the next town. When we arrived at the next town, I would jump out of the truck downtown with my steno pad and begin to visit the merchants in all the stores. Paula would then drive the pickup truck with camper pulling the calliope trailer to the edge of the show grounds where the big top was being set up. There she would recruit the canvas boss to drive the rig into position on the lot near the back door of the tent.
At the beginning of the season, John Frazier gave me a spiel to use and sent me downtown to do my best. I simply found the decision maker in each store and rattled off my memorized pitch, wrote down the particulars of each sign and announcement and collected eighteen dollars for each one. Downtown, my role took me in and out of each store and business to give the spiel for buying a banner ad that would hang in the big top. The accompanying announcement would give merchants presence during the afternoon and evening presentation of the circus. I was learning presentation skills and also how to get around the employee in charge of intercepting disruptions. I learned to not disclose my purpose until I got to talk to the boss. As the circus banner salesman in a new town every morning, I had the opportunity to meet an endless stream of interesting people.
In Perth, at a candy store, I entered an old-time glass store front through a heavy wooden door that triggered a bell that rang each time it was opened.
After listening to my memorized spiel, the elderly woman who otherwise beamed in response to my presence responded with “I’m not going to buy one of your banners.”
After asking me about my role with the circus, I was then invited to listen as she told me about herself and sat down at the piano. Prior to World War I she had been a piano player for the silent films shown in the local theater. Emotion, drama, excitement, danger and elation were communicated through the flavor of the music created by a live piano player in these theatres. As she played, I heard these examples of how music enhanced this genre of entertainment. My mind was transported to a time when this was state of the art. During the war, she became a bus driver for the war effort and when the war was over, talkies had arrived on the scene. She had to pursue another vocation. This was just one of the many encounters with interesting people that imprinted my heart.
While I was in town selling banners, Paula had one duty during set up, and that was to take two pullies with long loops of rope and snap them into the lace lines of the big top while it was going up. This facilitated hanging the paper signs later, and was a duty that forced her out of her shell to interact with the crew during set up.
When I got back to the lot with all the orders, I had to scramble to get the rig backed into the tent and the drums set up. Paula got busy painting signs on large pieces of white paper with a shoe polish applicator and hung in the big top before the show.
Paula never did become an enthusiastic showman, partly due to her reclusive nature and partly because I had become a hot-headed teenager who had never learned to be gracious as we attempted to get all these tasks done together on a daily basis. Perhaps I was following the example of our father’s strict perfectionist manner of wanting everything done just right, and that added to the already frustrating situation of her being in the turbulent outdoor entertainment business. All I could see was the perfect way it could be done.
Our comfort was at the mercy of the weather and plagued with egoic whims, moods influenced by situation and selfish ambitions of others, which was more of what we had found on the playground of our youth, yet on a grander, rawer scale. The rigors of one day stands, relentless demands from me and the multitude of twists that occurred in this turbulent lifestyle began to wear on her. Something in my sister had been hurt. She could not show enthusiasm. She remained frustrated and became referred to as poor Paula amongst my trooper friends.
One morning after having a successful series of banner sales, I returned to the lot to begin with the process of setting up and getting ready for the show, but I could not find the rig on the lot anywhere. I asked the canvas boss if he knew anything, and he sent me to see the elephant man.
When I asked Dick, he said, “The rig is over there” and pointed north of the lot.
So I began to walk.
About a mile from the lot, I found my sister completely frustrated, sitting on the ground. The truck was stuck up to the axels in someone’s front yard. Apparently while driving the rig from where she dropped me off downtown and heading for the lot, she missed the entrance. Thinking she could just go around the block, Paula continued down the road and instead found it went straight for miles with no place to turn around. Exasperated, she pulled up someone’s driveway and attempted to make a big loop in their front yard. But the lawn was soft, and the truck sank up to the axels.
When I got there, I was not the loving, supportive brother she needed at that low point in her life. I became a hot head and screamed and yelled at her. I had to hike back to the lot and recruit the help of the elephant to pull the rig out of that situation. As I look back at my behavior that day, I realize that my response did more to damage my sister, who already had the tendency to shut down and withdraw. That event caused her to retreat even further into the security of isolation. If I had it all to do over again, I would have become comforting, compassionate and lovingly explained to her that we all make mistakes. The damage of that event set the tone for the rest of our lives. My sister never saw an admirable trait in me from that point on. When I did see her years later, warmth and regard was gone.
Holding a grudge seems to be a sin of our father, who had his front teeth knocked out on a family water ski excursion by his brother (interestingly, who became a dentist). Making amends or entering the procedure of forgiveness, as taught by Jesus, was not exampled in our family in spite of our father being a minister. Resentment that persists can become depression.
After an otherwise busy and fun summer season across picturesque Ontario, we had much to relish and savor from our adventure but a contemptuous not knowing for both of us, forced self-reliance to the front and we grew apart. My sister and I survived a turbulent childhood not knowing safety. We were exposed to a vast spectrum of behavior coming from others. We began to prefer a smaller circle of influence. At the end of that season on the circus in Canada, we trucked back to the Quad cities where, after dropping her off, she began her next semester of college. That was her only experience on a circus.
I headed east to pursue a fall tour on another show. I joined a small circus with a five-week season in Michigan that performed in school gymnasiums. At the end of that tour, I ventured to Indiana, gathered up the new crop of pony babies at the Palomino farm, picked up the liberty harness commissioned at Shipshewana and headed for Michigan.
At Hayes farm, I unloaded the weanling babies and gathered up the yearlings. One colt had died.
Hayes told me the story of Lewis Bros Circus, a show owned locally that thrived during the thirties and forties that wintered east of Jackson on Fox Road. He had gone out there in the past to snoop around but the owner of the farm wasn’t keen about visitors. Fortunately, the farm had changed hands again and Hayes made friends with the new owner. He saw the left-over equipment that had sat for several decades but not before many of the rotting wagons had been burned.
Since he was friendly with the current owner of the farm, during one of my visits to Clarklake, he suggested we drive up there and look around. We went to Fox Road in his green station wagon. Behind the large white home in a rural part of the county, a sunken driveway lead past a row of tall trees up to the back where two large barns stood. Inside the first one was a low ceiling and a labyrinth of aisles and stalls, obviously where the animals for the show lived during the winter.
The other barn was a massive, high ceiling structure with sheet metal on the floor where the elephant was housed. Up on the second floor, a large room was where the wardrobe, canvas repair and other preparations took place.
As Hayes and I explored the barn we saw an inverted elephant tub being used as a coal hopper and recognized other pieces of equipment strewn around. The owner told us to take what we wanted. I found a complete set of liberty horse harness and an elephant bracelet.
Part of the challenge of living on the road involved an inability to collect things. My choice to keep something usually meant that another belonging would have to be discarded, but this find was too good to pass up.
After some additional artistic projects Hayes had accumulated for me to complete, I headed for Oklahoma with four yearlings to begin the creation of my new palomino liberty act. I was about to begin the experience that would positively imprint my life in many amazing ways.
This business I had selected in an effort to make an improvement came filled with extremes; from encouraging friends that became a positive influence for my life, to crooks with agendas that inflict selfish devastation. Instead of receiving wisdom from the lessons learned on the road, my response was more of what I had established as a child. I sought on my own to utilize self-reliance and independence for surviving in this turbulent society. The ponies would teach me something vastly different.