My Kingdom for an Elephant
Jimmy Silverlake had created an efficient moving under canvas circus for season 1974, and the arrangement of canvas tents and the rolling components on the lot were quite pretty to look at. The image of this tented city on a grassy field conjured up awe, curiosity and intrigue. Yet one element was missing. How could this be a circus without an elephant?
In the spring, Jimmy heard about an opportunity to buy an elephant from Tony Diano, a rogue that couldn’t be let off her chain. The deal came with an old rusty trailer and an antique tractor to pull it but Jimmy had room for the elephant in his animal semi. Soon the elephant was transported to Michigan, tethered and out on display. The rig that came with her was then empty. Bert Pettus was contacted and he became our elephant man.
Having this large empty trailer on the show gave me the ability to pick up the remainder of my ponies from Hayes farm and get them used to traveling on the show. This meant I was tending to eleven ponies.
Sunshiny afternoons with my ponies on their picket line proved to be a magnet for the little girls that lived in each neighborhood. I had a bucket full of brushes that I would place near the picket line and the girls would find them and figure it out. Get a brush and groom a pony. The palominos loved the gentle attention and I had the livestock curried by show time.
Later in the summer, Bert Pettus and his wife Marie had their daughter and her family visit between performing on shrine dates. Jack and Sandy Fulbright had two children, two appaloosa high school horses and a six-pony liberty act. For the brief times they visited, we had a tremendous population of ponies on that little circus. They were happy to show me how they tended to and performed with their ponies. This accelerated my understanding of this specialty.
As the season progressed, so did the proficiency of my pony act. But the show didn’t fare well. It is never good when the circus catches up to the agent. The rhythm of one day stands became erratic, with gaps during the week when the show would lay dead for a day at first, and then with alarming frequency. The tour ran out of route late-summer in the Upper Peninsula, due to the lack of advance personnel. On the last school grounds, where the circus played its final engagement, all the investors that had helped Jimmy launch this show arrived to divide up the assets. I had lent him some money too, but due to the hierarchy was last in line for anything.
Sitting dead on that final lot, the group bounced ideas back and forth for dissolution. They figured out what each one was going to get. Then they had an idea.
“Let Dave have the elephant,” I overheard.
That statement prompted a flood of concerns. The surprise prompted my imagination to dream several survival scenarios. My mind entered a cycle of thinking trying to figure out, like the rest, how, when and where I was going to manage travel from this place. Sitting on the lot with no way of my own to haul eleven ponies and an elephant, I wondered how I was going to proceed. These thoughts occupied my mind the entire night. I was relieved the next day, when they announced other plans had been made for the pachyderm. But this brief episode does qualify me as having the ability to claim being an elephant owner for a day.
Billy Griffin invited several of us to regroup at his family home in Princeton, Indiana. Jimmy let me use the old dilapidated bull semi to get the livestock to southern Indiana while Audrey from the cookhouse drove my pickup and camper. I had to do something to get equipped to tour with my ponies. I needed a truck. Billy helped me find a truck through the dealers he knew in the area. We found an International Loadstar in Poseyville with an eighteen-foot box that would serve me quite well to carry the ponies.
Once this rig was secure, I began the process of getting it equipped as my pony truck. I rigged up a ramp that hinged down from the side door and fashioned mangers inside for the comfort of the ponies. The truck also needed a trailer hitch welded on the back for the calliope. I could sleep on the bunk in the trailer for now and have plenty of housing for the three ponies, hay and equipment in the truck body.
While we camped in Princeton at Billy’s mother’s home, everyone was making changes. A clown from the show who made the trip with us lived in an old dodge van and wanted to buy my pickup with the camper. He drove his old van like a daredevil clown would, often screeching to a stop from a tight turn that gave him a thrill. The living quarters inside would be a big improvement for him but he would have to learn how to be careful while driving this top-heavy vehicle.
One at a time the kinkers left for other digs. The clown found another show to perform on and headed that direction. Audrey planned going with Billy to south Texas. I learned about an upcoming job, a several weeks tour of one-night stands through Michigan on a circus that performed indoors in school gymnasiums.
I could leave seven ponies on a pasture nearby for six weeks and pick them up when my tour was over and head for Hugo. We all said our goodbyes and the headed different directions.
At the end of this whirlwind preparation session, enroute to the school house circus tour, I took frail Teddy to Hayes house in Clarklake where he lived the remaining weeks of his life in his backyard. I often think that celestial beings come to us disguised with hoofs. Knowing and believing this is proof enough that I was visited by an angel. Teddy blessed many children while on the circus during his brief life.
Everything that I knew to do to be ready was done. I thanked my friend Hayes and started the trek towards Detroit. Nothing would adequately prepare me for what I would discover when I made it to the next circus.