Season Two of the Circus

Season Two of the Circus

The plan for the second season was to spend another summer in Michigan, and then pursue a route that would take us to Texas where we would winter in the sunshine of the Rio Grande Valley. The season opening meant that I changed roles, morphing from fabricator and decorator into assuming the set-up and tear down of the side show on the one day stand routine that brought circus entertainment to small towns. During the Fisher Bros Circus season of 1972, I was moving a 30’x60’ tent, had eighteen animals on foot, eighteen animals in cages with two men working for me. Soon a hippopotamus would be among the component of animals.        

The second season also introduced twin bandstand trucks to flank the back door of the big top. Marie Loter was on organ and myself as drummer and announcer.

Another attraction was added to the concessions for the second season of Fisher Bros Circus.  Jim Kernan brought his small Wienie Wagon concession stand. Jim’s presence offered candy apples and hot dogs to the audience in the seats. Each afternoon Jim would sing in a pleasant baritone while he made the candy apples.

Jackie also showed up from the rodeo scene with her tight and bright metallic looking western wardrobe. She presented a whip cracking act and commanded a lot of favorable attention. Jackie was a good-looking lady and her traveling companion was a large white dog.

During the first season, our show had no water wagon.  Raymond Duke was the show’s agent who always booked the show on a lot with a water access. One of the new pieces of equipment in season two was a water tanker. In order for my camper/bandstand pickup to qualify for paid fuel on the show, I was recruited to pull the water wagon. The wagon was made from a pickup truck frame with an elongated square tank resembling a box. Towing the water wagon required that I stop prior to coming onto the lot to fill it each morning. I quickly learned how to divine water from unfamiliar towns and counties.  

I discovered that getting water for the circus would get bogged down in red tape if I sought permission. I figured out how to speed things up. During the week, all churches were mostly vacant. To find a church with a hose bib on the outside of the building provided fast and easy access to water. Weekends, when church was busy, I would look for a school to get water in the same manner. But filling up a several hundred-gallon tank with a water hose took time. So to not hang around looking suspicious while the water filled the tank, I began to take early morning walks once the tap had been turned on. This allowed me to enjoy exploring the new town while not arousing suspicion that water stealing was going on. On the walks I discovered old remnants of feed mills, thriving downtowns and lunch counters in the local drug stores. Neighborhoods provided an endless variety of visual wonder for me to observe. I found I could enjoy olfactory stimulation while the water tank was filling.

Circus entertainment in the early seventies still had influences that lingered from the day of horse and carriage. Famous jungle explorers had brought exotic animals to the forefront of the imagination of every child. The exploration of the world brought many live attractions for touring entertainment productions.

Northern Ohio contained the winter quarters and farm of exotic animal showman Tony Diano. The opportunity to purchase his hippopotamus included a large animal cage semi-truck that sported a large water pool and a platform for the feeding and comfort of Ava the hippo. She was named after a popular movie star of that era.

Ava the hippo needed a change of water in her pool daily. I received more cherry pie with the support duties of Ava. Every morning the swampy water had to be dumped on the edge of the lot to lighten the load before the jump to the next town. Once at the next lot, I began the erection of the side show tent and one of my men scooped the hippo cage clean. Then, I took the hippo semi downtown to the fire department and asked them to hose down the hippo and fill the tank. This task was always met with enthusiasm and drew a local crowd. When the tank was full, the heavy rig was carefully driven back to the lot and positioned adjacent to the side show for the paying patrons. 

 Animal presentations with various creatures accomplishing all manner of feats were part of traditional circus performances during the golden era and they were appreciated because the general population still had horse sense, due to their connection with horses.  People revered and cherished the special gifts of a trainer who coaxed his animals to accomplish amazing feats.  I developed a passionate interest observing the unique skills of the trainer of circus animals while drumming for these acts during the show. Discussions between shows and particularly at the cookhouse with trainers reflected this.

Billie Grubb was our cook. She was plump, short and her perpetual smile accompanied plain cotton clothes. She had a sprout of short grey hair. Her country accent radiated from the kitchen in a converted white school bus with red lettering and scrollwork down the sides. A small tent with portable tables was set up beside this galley each day. Breakfast was a challenge sometimes, depending on the lay of the land. The largest and flattest area on the lot was primarily used for the big top and seats, and the show cookhouse tent was sometimes set up on a hill. Because of this, the dining tables were often slightly tilted, creating a challenge when eating pancakes. Instead of pouring syrup onto the stack and having it run off the side of the paper plate, we learned how to first cut a square hole in the middle of the pancake stack and pour the syrup into the hole.

A peek at my future occurred while standing in line at the cookhouse. Billie always graced us with encouraging conversation. She noticed my interest in trained animal presentations. As I inched toward the kitchen window, I heard an innocent enough observation about my interest with performing livestock.

“Hey Drummer Boy, you ought to have a pony act of your own” suggested Billie the cook as she dished up my meal.

The others on the show observed my fascination with Liberty Horses. The harmony between the trainer and a group of horses performing At Liberty, or without any tethers or restraints of any type. This is traditionally regarded as being the most elite of the circus performing arts.  From the bandstand, I observed these liberty routines at every show and in the backlot, interacted with the same animals as I helped the trainer with his chores.

“My husband could train them for you,” Billie continued as I left her proximity with my meal and sought a seat.

Our cook was from Hugo, Oklahoma. She was the wife of Bob Grubb, an old-time cowboy and horse trainer. Together they had a liberty horse acts and other performing horses in many shows over the years. She suggested that I might want to meet her husband Bob someday and see if he could help me train an act of my own. This invitation prompted a new flood of ideas.

What do I know about love

What do I know about love?

How do I begin to describe the longest lasting love affair of my whole life? And how do I reveal the surprising sequence of events that brought about an unlikely segue for this concept to finally happen and impact my life? And how do I tell the story of how the depth of that love influenced my life? I guess I shall start at the beginning.

My search began as a teen but I wouldn’t find true love for years. I had relational frustrations at home and was too shy to talk to girls. Thank goodness I joined the circus. I was set upon a golden path. What an improvement.

Although I started painting festive decorations on the equipment and playing the drums in the circus band, I fell right into tending for the animals. I found a place where I fit. Relationships with animals weren’t so complicated as with the people in my life. I found a plain honesty that worked. I was admired by these simple beings by providing food and water, protection and affection and they loved me back.

While drumming, I became fascinated with what I saw the animals do in the show every day. I saw how the trainers used psychology to enroll the animal to provide the desired response. This symbiosis of performing together was truly an art form. I saw love, regard and mutual respect in action. I was amazed. I still am when I see a group of beautiful performing horses prancing through a precision drill that validates hours of practice, patience and mutual regard.

I began to learn from the animal trainers. After receiving their encouragement, I started a six-pony liberty act of my own. My first teacher was an old cowboy/circus horse trainer who was kind. I watched the lengthy process he used with my ponies. He was patient, soothing and encouraging. He occasionally scolded yet quickly returned to kindness. He was gentle and humane to the animals and they loved him. Progress took place as the result of consistent repetition.

The animals understood his simple honesty. There was no room for the interpersonal chaos that takes place in society. I found the segue to understanding love while training this bunch of ponies into a circus liberty act back in the seventies. I learned my first priority was to not startle them but to be gentle as I introduce them to new things.

Learning circus horsemanship became my passion. I remain fascinated with what it takes to make horses as skillful as they possibly can for the sake of amazing an audience. I appreciate all of the traditional performing art forms of the circus. My devotion took me to the doorsteps of many accomplished horse and animal training masters across this country. Everywhere I went the message was the same; be kind, ask often and praise generously. My demeanor of kindness was established by then. I credit the circus with my foundation of love and regard that began years ago. I applied what I learned in the creative way of an artist; to develop and choreograph a sequence of developed skills in an interesting way to entertain an audience.

I experienced love at first sight while pursuing this passion over three decades ago. I saw a pony-sized jet-black baby mule with an animated trot and a pretty head. Soon Betty was mine. I have had Betty since she was a baby. I began the lengthy process of gentle encouragement and discovered her to be a willing animal. Then, as she began to grasp what I was trying to teach her and I patted her on the neck; she melted; oh, I get a pat on the neck? This wonderful animals’ personality and willing temperament combined with mine and validated all I had learned during my first decade of training animals; we enroll the desired response from our charge with love.

Another plus was that Betty joined me at the beginning of my sobriety. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. Betty has never been exposed to any harsh or tragic treatment such as would influence a sour attitude. The recovery process required I look at the history of my moral behavior and make apropos changes. Finding out what was at my core prepared my proactive response for my life ahead. I became intentional about living a life based on integrity and noble behavior.

As a freshly sober man, I was introduced to a design for living built on honest morals, consistent, productive and kind behavior – exactly what I learned from my circus horsemanship mentors. In my pure state of awareness, not altered by alcohol, situations with prestigious horsemanship masters materialized. Opportunities for further growth in the relational realm opened up to me.

I acquired a young Saddlebred horse. My awareness and abilities expanded while working with supervision with my new horse and this wonderful mule. Relational challenges took place. I had a place to grow.

Betty was bright, willing and a quick study. But being bright, she was just as quick to realize she could cheat. I had to be on my toes with her all the time because I didn’t dare allow her to learn anything but good work ethics.

Good ole Betty. Can you imagine what was going through her mind? She started her life with this tall, creative guy who had dreams of grandeur and began to coax her to do all kinds of behavior. Betty especially enjoyed her reward; a simple pet on the neck, a soothing word or a carrot. She recognized love. I discovered a wonderful animal who responded to what I discovered was my love.

Betty responded to my kindness with kindness. She learned to run around a ring and responded to my soothing voice. She caught on quick with our lessons as I encouraged her. She learned how to take a bow, pull a towel off her back, turn head-to-tail in a 360-degree circle, lift her front feet to mount a pedestal or the ring curb among many other things. Soon Betty learned all aspects of the liberty training from my repertoire learned from when I had my pony act – plus all the tricks of the ménage horse. She learned to do much more than any of my other performing horses.

My ambition to create an act that showcased all my training skills in a comedy format filled my imagination. The format of an animal seemingly outwitting the trainer is irresistible to most children. The theme of a prospector and his mule companion seemed to fit. I put together a specific sequence for all these tasks. She proved to be an incredible student. I named our act “Gol’Dust and the Old Cuss.” I had ideas and patter for our skit and would teach her things to support my demeanor as a grumpy old guy.

At this time my career as a motorhome artist was taking off like a rocket. Mule and horse training became my hobby for the off-time. As the years went by, just to stay in the game, I booked an occasional tour on a circus. A five to eight-week engagement made sense as a destination for my ambition. During these performing tours, Betty and Souveran willingly went into hockey arenas, convention centers and armory gymnasiums. We performed in front of grandstands, on theater stages and in auditoriums. We continued to make progress although Betty had to stay flexible, not staying in any stable situation (sic) for long. In our years together, we three grew. While I trained them to do even more, credible mentors influenced my ability with my animals. We experienced connection. We had bonded.

We spent each winter in Florida. We practiced before and after my winter season serving RVers. When I was busy as a motorhome artist, she enjoyed leisure time at a boarding farm nearby. Her abilities grew. Our combination of stagecraft became a developed act. We performed together until the bug to perform went away.

She spent the summers in Michigan at a farm with other horses. She was a big hit with kids. One of the first times I saw a little hand offer her a carrot, I noticed her lips carefully feeling around for little fingers before she took a bite. In that instant, I knew I had a really nice animal.

Over the years she learned to let a kid ride on her back, pull a cart, run barrels at the rodeo and go from room to room at an old folks’ home. Betty accepted each new situation and willingly met others along the way.

I am not of the current mainstream opinion that animals are abused in the company of the circus, as is being perpetrated by a powerful movement in this country – and that the socially engineered masses are buying. My experience working alongside men and women of the circus has been the discovery of capable, sensitive people who love their animals and want only the best for them. From them I learned functional discipline and reverence for others while becoming an animal trainer. The process of living with and guiding another member of the circus family through these art forms, both animal and human, keeps these healthy relational qualities alive.

These qualities seem to be watered down between many people in this era of expanding worldwide insanity. At one time children were taught simple honesty and to respect authority. Now they are being brainwashed into a blind conclusion with no foundation in truth. I fear another agenda is behind those lies.

Bettys willingness and regard for others inspired my growth through recovery and vice versa. I had a home by this time and entered into contemporary life as part of the community. I became inspired to contribute to society using wholesome moral behavior and to be relationally functional. I am inspired to write, speak up and demonstrate with my behavior – living in love.

Betty became a lawn ornament, happy to spend leisure with her companion of two decades: Souveran the horse. When his condition deteriorated and the time came to put him down, Betty was heartbroken. She grieved for her big friend for weeks. My painting career resumed covering the country during the summer as a motorcycle artist. Betty moved next door where another horse would have a companion. She outlived him too.

As she entered into her thirties, my pretty jet-black mule developed tinges of gray that hinted at her age. I was busy. I was gone all summer. The relentless Florida humidity, heat and fungus took a toll. Her feet softened and wore away. When I was home, I attempted to sterilize and restore her feet. She began the era of moving stiff and showing her age. I became aware of my responsibility. I called my animal loving friends and admitted what was going on and the responsibility I had become present to. They provided comfort along with stern advice.

Brenda, a family friend with Arabians and Whippets told me, “look into her eyes and ask her to tell you when it is time.”

Kathy my long-time riding instructor said, “You don’t have to go through this alone, I will come and spend the day with you.”

Anne, my friend of performing high school horse fame announced, “I’d rather put them down too early than too late.”

They knew part of having animals involved going through the emotional spectrum – from incredible joy to immense grief. Having their advice and these affirmations kept my responsibility at the forefront. With my season looming, I knew what I had to do. I called my Vet Sally. She would meet me on Thursday.

I called my sponsor and revealed all that was going on. I told him what Kathy said about spending the day with me.

He said, “you are going to let her come and be with you, aren’t you?”

I hadn’t thought it necessary. He pointed out that this is how we bless others, by sharing our time with them. When I allow her to provide me with comfort at my time of need, she gets to be a blessing. We set a date. I had a Tesla to stripe the day Kathy arrived.

The next morning, Kathy and I met Betty prior to Sally arriving. Betty was happy to get petted and eat our carrots. I was emotional at the brink of losing this wonderful animal. She had been my companion for thirty-two years. Betty taught me a lot. We had been through much together.

We three stood in the shade of a grandfather oak at the edge of the pasture. Sally arrived. She gently introduced us to the procedure as Betty trusted us. My fingers made affectionate shapes in the fur of her neck while Sally talked. Soon the time to begin arrived.

Sally took the first needle and inserted it into her neck. Soon we saw droop come to her lip and attitude. Betty moved to lay down. Allowing for the change in posture, Sally, Kathy and I provided her our love and a source of comfort. I stayed where she could see me, attentive as I could. This wonderful animal trusted me as the moisture welled up in my eyes.

Sally introduced the other needle. I guided Betty’s head to the ground as she drifted off to sleep. Sally was in no hurry. She felt her neck, noticed an involuntary inhale and then an exhale. Then she took her stethoscope to listen for any heartbeat. She calmly announced that it was over.

All our love combined for this outcome. Now it was over. Sally remained cordial as she put her things away and headed out. I had a plan of rigging up a skid to get Betty to where my neighbor Gary had a hole dug in my yard with his excavator.

Joe Read showed up with his tractor with a pallet on the rear forks. We rolled Betty onto the pallet. I walked alongside and held one ear so her head wouldn’t drag as Joe drove over to my yard. Kathy held one hind leg.

In my side yard, Joe coaxed the tractor over next to the hole. A quick roll off and Betty landed at the bottom. Kathy and I retreated to our unfinished coffee on the porch. Gary filled the hole with dirt and smoothed it off. The event was over. An hour had passed. I began to wonder about all that I had learned from Betty.

Betty taught me volumes. In an effort to honor what I found with her; I have a new aspiration; to live in love. I wondered how can I live a life of being in love all the time?

There are proven formulas for creating happiness. I had been given a unique combination of principles from my horsemanship mentors, the process of recovery from alcoholism and a jet-black mule named Betty. The most obvious is to stay calm, be encouraging and give praise frequently.

There are also things to avoid; typical mistakes people make. Recalling a blunder from the past indicates an inability to forgive – whether real or imagined. Often times we are focused on the behavior others produce. We must be careful as this qualifies as self-righteousness and a diversion. Being on the lookout for distractions that keep us stuck is prudent. Finding beauty, something to admire and being quick to approve is key to the formula that restores trust, regard and qualities that bring us into harmony.

There is a song that plays throughout the kingdom – from the smallest subatomic particles to the vastness of the galaxy filled universe; the still small voice. In order to have access to this song we must monitor what we allow in our minds. We must let go of prejudices, forgive all violations humans have produced and become fully present to this moment. Any lingering thought, resentment or fantasy interferes with my ability to notice. For this moment is the only place we can be in relationship with the qualities that add up to love.

I must become completely empty. When I become completely still and become the observer; remarkable things happen. I become like a child – completely uninhibited by beliefs, pre-conceived notions or prejudice. My imagination is not tainted. I am free to play, find and appreciate what is in the moment. I use all of my imagination. I am completely free. Through clarity I access the song of love first demonstrated to me by Betty the mule. In gratitude for this long-eared miracle, I live in love for the rest of my life.