The Bonanza

The long, lonely two-lane road finally yielded its prize. White board fences flanked the lane. A small airport also served as golf cart central next to the guard shack at the entrance. Past that small complex, I found a festive atmosphere with a beehive of activity in a dude ranch setting. I found a saloon, rodeo, marina, hotel and campgrounds with swimming pools galore. 

Hayrides behind tractors took wagons full of people through the luxury RV haven under great oak hammocks with manicured flowerbeds. Sparkling bass boats roared off in search of big fish. People gathered at the stables to go on a trail ride through the themed complex and out to the edge of the tropical wilderness. Golf carts meandered over the 18-hole golf course. Motor homes rolled in and rolled out, all the result of the hoopla that attracted the camping crowd to this luxury resort.

I adopted a new pattern of behavior. I drove my decorated 76 VW bus in search of yet another masterpiece to paint. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a lone brokenhearted yet determined artist, in the midst of high-energy opulence.

I landed in this wonderful scene the year before as the result of an invitation from a motorhome owner who sought a mural for his coach. I had no idea what I would find. Upon arrival, I found opportunities galore to ply my trade. I made plans to return.

Again, a frenzy of activity began once I landed at this luxury resort. Word got around that an artist had arrived. One by one, I met interesting and friendly people from all over the country and learned to fit in as the artist in residence, a concept I had not explored before.

I have a background as a sign lettering man. Now my days were filled with lettering names on motorhomes. I also painted small dog portraits on entry doors and prepared large surfaces on RV’s for airbrush artwork and finish paint. My specialty became airbrushed murals with depictions of patriotism and other custom themes to reveal the personality and elevate the status of the owners along with gold leaf emblems and monograms that serve to distinguish the motorhome. I caught on quick with this demographic and focused all my attention and energy on doing my best. 

I was introduced to the RV culture while mending from a broken heart. Only a few months had lapsed since, what I refer to as, my first true love relationship had ended. I was devastated and remain to this day mystified as to why it was over. What I needed at this time in my life was a distraction. To stay busy at River Ranch met that need nicely.

I recall a thought I had that first day. After I parked my rig on a camp-site, I paused to look around at the beauty around me. I perused the comfortable features of this wonderful place and the coup that had occurred. A thought came to mind: “Gail would love this place.’ The thought just prompted more sadness for the loss that seemed to be my constant companion.

Slowly the luxurious surroundings and the abundance eased my pain. My portable housing was the tiny but comfortable living quarters in the front of my gooseneck horse trailer. A one-ton truck pulled the trailer here with the VW bus hooked on behind. Success was simple. Basically, all I had to do to find work was to get up in the morning and step out the door. Once outside, someone saw me and asked me to paint something.

As the weeks went by, completed images of wolves in the snow, tigers in the jungle and eagles flying in a colorful sky dotted the campground and provided proof that an artist was here.

         Being visible was valuable. I frequented all the places where people congregated. A small congregation had started in a makeshift chapel area. I fit right in. This dude ranch was truly a people person place and I was becoming a people person.

Volkswagen vans, through the years, had provided not only housing and transportation but also an area in which to organize my paints and supplies. The Volkswagen’s interior housed a drawing table on which I made patterns.  Underneath this surface was ample storage for paints and brushes and a small air compressor.  Add a couple of stepladders and a work plank and I had everything needed to put an airbrushed mural on the back of a motorhome. It all packed inside this van. With one exception.

High quality clear-coat was the final step of the process for an airbrushed mural on the back of a motorhome. The spray equipment necessary to clearcoat large areas required more volume of air than the small compressor in the van could handle. The final protective finish involved using the larger air compressor mounted on my truck. 

Typically, the procedure for creating a mural on a motorhome went like this; I arrived on the campsite in the van with two ladders and a plank. I set up the ladders and placed the plank between them to stand on. Then I began the prep work. The prep work consisted of cleaning, sanding and application of masking paper. Next came the artwork. I laid-out the artwork with a stabilo pencil and when satisfied, I used the airbrush to lay in the lines using pink lacquer. When all the lines of my design were intact, I erased the stabilo marks with a damp towel. Then I started the paint process. I painted in the background first. Features in the foreground were last. These processes were also a form of entertainment. Many times, I looked around from these tasks and found a semi-circle of people sitting in folding chairs watching me.

When the airbrushed depiction was complete and met the approval of my clients, the time came to spray on the protective clear coat. I moved the van out of the way, retrieved the truck, plugged the compressor in, rolled out the air hose and mixed the clear. After my trusty spray gun was loaded, I climbed up on the plank with my face-mask on and started to spray.  This usually drew a crowd. 

The audience loved watching this step take place right before their eyes. Contrast occurred. The magical transformation from the dull into the shiny finish coat proved spectacular. Three coats of clear urethane made the back of the coach look shiny and wet.  Many times, with the last bit of paint applied, I turned and saw the crowd that had gathered. I acknowledged them by raising my spray gun as if to toast them and received applause. Then I made the cowboy-like gesture of blowing the smoke from the end of the gun just fired to get a laugh.

It was after one of these sessions that I met Gene. Gene became one of my best friends. He was among the others overcome by curiosity and joined the crowd to watch another RV get a mural. I rolled up the hoses and put the spray equipment away and was about to drive the truck back to its parking spot but it wouldn’t start. Incidentally, at River Ranch, the second-best way to draw a crowd was to pop open the hood on a vehicle.  With the hood up, the next thing I knew, I had a semicircle of onlookers who all suggested what could be the culprit of why it wouldn’t start. 

I checked all the obvious things and some of their suggested culprits to no avail.  The truck still wouldn’t start. The frustration of not knowing mixed with a feeling of helplessness that replaced the remnants of pride for a job well done.

My predicament was clear. I was not going to be able to get the vehicle out of this luxurious part of the campground and back into its parking spot.

Finally, a man turned to me and asked in a stern manner, “well, …what are you going to do?!” 

I turned to him and replied in front of the entire group, “I’m going to go paint an eagle!” which got a laugh.

I turned and walked away.  I found out later Gene was in the crowd. Later he confided to me how much that episode impressed him.

As we became friends, Gene became helpful with advice on conducting myself in this, foreign to me, environment.  His days were filled with caring for his 1948 Navion airplane and the other vehicles he loved. He made it a point, along with lots of the other residents of River Ranch, to regularly see what the artist was up to today.  The friendly curiosity and affirmations from my fellow residents made me feel like I fit right in.

Gene was the first of my growing circle of friends to have found River Ranch. He had tipped off his life-long buddy Art about this paradise in the tropics. They enjoyed the hayrides, the large groups of aircraft that met for a ‘Fly-In’ and the endless stream of motorhome traffic that came for the ballyhoo.

“Hurry, hurry, rodeo every Saturday night” was part of the message along with, “make sure to dance to the cowboy band blaring out country music all weekend long.”

Gene had a friend named Art. They were both from upstate New York. They had mixed with and made friends with people from all over who were impressed with the charm of this luxury destination. The source of all the hoopla was Outdoor Resorts, a corporation selling individual campsites to the visitors. They gave away free nights of camping and hosted rallies of all kinds to get people here.

Big motorhome rallies came here too. Mid-winter, the airport shut down to make room for the Family Motor Coach Association Rally. Three thousand motorhomes came to the Ranch for four days. That represented a huge boost of exposure for me.

The Blue Bird folks had a rally here too but not on that large of a scale. Many sites were reserved for their luxury coaches. Because of my presence established with this demographic, I became quite busy.

One couple from the Adirondacks wanted an airbrushed mural of a Labrador retriever with a duck in his mouth on the back of their coach. As I started and enjoyed the crowd of affluent admirers who gathered around to watch, I received requests to come look at other coaches. My client realized a coup. Before I was complete with his wild life depiction, he commissioned two more. That kept me from serving his friends. His ego got a big boost and he stayed the focus of the gathering.

One couple from Ohio wanted a special image of a baby snow seal laying on the ice with the northern lights overhead to compliment to pastel colors in their coach stripe graphics. Brenda handed me a magazine called Wildlife Art where she found the striking image.  Inside I found page after page of images I could use as reference for other projects.

The weeks of production passed quickly that winter and many spectacular works of art on numbers of motorhomes were completed. I took photos and began to make portfolios.

The first of April meant a mass exodus of RVs from Florida going north. The season was over. I retrieved my livestock and headed back to Sarasota to resume my other passion.

Interesting Contrast

Perhaps the short-lived International Circus Festival and Parade was doomed to failure from the get-go. The event only occurred three times. The premise behind this event was for everyone to work together to benefit the industry. The populace of this industry is full of runaway egos that have individual agendas. But with no supervision – such as exists on an organized touring show – the rig parking, animal arrangements and consideration for specific thrill act equipment and logistics for everything else became a haphazard free-for-all with little regard for the original premise to benefit the whole. Without the ability to let go of individual agendas, internal struggle eroded what little adhesive there was to bind the altruistic concept. Our industry was also threatened by entertainment alternatives. The next day, a massive exodus took place as many performers’ rigs headed out to other destinations. I had a gig too.

I had discovered a market for hand painted airbrush murals and lettering work on motor homes at a luxury dude ranch turned RV resort in the middle of the state. That gig kept me busy for three months until the first of April. Yes, John Herriott said I could work with him again once my gig was over. He also added that it may be brief in the spring because his season started then.

With the festivities in my rearview mirror, I made my way to a completely different world. I found an excellent place to make a living as the resident artist for the next nine winter seasons. My entire entourage headed east. After I dropped off the livestock at a boarding facility nearby, I made my way to begin a significant chapter of my life.

The Awards Ceremony

The indoor coliseum at the fairgrounds had been converted into a banquet facility to host hundreds of circus personalities who participated in or attended the event.

Prior to the event, many couples and groups dressed to the t’s in gowns and tuxedos. When the doors opened, they made their way inside and found a place to sit at the many round tables with formal place settings. Once everyone was seated, the wait-staff served dinner.

Imitating the many famous televised awards ceremonies, this one was no different. Once the ceremony portion of this event began, legions of speakers and attractive personalities made their way up to the podium to share anecdotes about circus history and to announce the winners of each category, followed by those performers who added their rhetoric between spurts of applause.

I was seated with Tino Wallenda and his family. I had mentally prepared a brief statement for when my time came at the microphone. The owner of the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros Circus, John Pugh, who I had worked for two decades ago, was part of the duo that arrived on stage to announce the winner of the category Domestic Animal Acts.

John was short. He had to stretch to speak into the microphone. When he announced my name as the winner of the category, I rose from my seat with the Wallendas and made my way up to the stage.

As I climbed the stairs, John tried to be funny and suggest that I stop before I got to the top where I would dwarf him. His lovely assistant placed my award – a handsome medal on a neck ribbon like Olympic winners get – over my bowed head. John gave me a handshake. Then I made it up to the top of the platform. I had a brief statement prepared in my head.

“I want to thank my heavenly Father,” I began, “who made all this possible.”

“And for this wonderful horse that I have been blessed with.” 

             I let that sink in for a moment and then added, “and John Herriott for all his encouragement and the patient help given me.”

While I made my way back to my table, I received congratulatory gestures from many people who applauded as I went past.

             My heart acknowledged a tremendous truth as I savored all that happened to get me to this place. Although life contains tragic challenges, when I move into harmony with an unseen influence and allow that power to work in my life, amazing things happen.

The International Circus Festival

The culmination of the holidays found me at the fairgrounds in Sarasota preparing for Circus Competition. During the five performances that took place that week, every participant competed in one of several categories; aerial acts, juggling and acrobatic troupes, exotic performing animals, domestic animals, balancing acts, clowns, musicians and ringmasters. Every facet of the sawdust entertainment realm from all nations were represented.

By this time, I had a confident horse with a good work ethic. I learned on the tour earlier that year, wherever I aimed this horse, he willingly went, and when we got there, he was ready to go to work.

A year ago, I brought him here to get him used to the sights, smells and sounds. This time we were ready with an animated rehearsed routine. The rings in the mega circus tent were on grass, better footing than hockey floors. We were able to trot and canter freely. I had an admirable posture in the saddle, thanks to Vi and a spontaneous brassy attitude for whatever vicissitude should occur, thanks to Chuck. With John’s help, my routine was polished, and in front of all the critics in this business, I aspired to shine.

New red wardrobe had been created using the claw hammer tail tuxedo style jacket with strategic rhinestones sewed on for accents. When the time was right, I mounted my glistening steed. The pre-arranged musical score was provided to the brass circus band. I waited behind the backdoor curtain for my announcement before our entrance.

Finally, the preceding act reached its conclusion. The applause settled down.

After a brief pause came the booming voice “Keeping alive the timeless circus tradition of performing horses, please welcome the American Saddlebred dancing high school horse ‘Souveran’, trained and presented by Dave Knoderer.”

The curtain was thrown open. My horse became immediately animated and we floated at a trot into the ring. Our routine was accompanied by the captivating chords from the theme song of Star Wars, translated by the bevy of brass in the bandstand. A volte in either direction preceded the flawless side pass through the lateral center of the ring.

I knew that every one of the Herrmann girls of Lipizzaner horse show fame were watching and became extra light with my aids to facilitate a seamless transition from the forward to the lateral movement. At the conclusion of the trot work that opened our routine and established that we had a handle of this aspect of horsemanship, we halted at the center of the ring. I sat straight. I knew the horse knew what was next. All I had to do was signal with a muscle tension in my groin and he began to lean back. He lifted his leg as he did and came to rest on one knee. As he did so, I struck the style pose and the audience provided thunderous applause.

The most important part of this movement is the hold. Many rookie horsemen are satisfied with simply getting the pose but the horse learns to do it and bound right back up. The movement has three parts; going into the pose, holding the pose, and coming up from the pose. Knowing horse trainers were in the audience, I made sure to hold the bow for an extended amount of time just to show off the fact that we had a handle on this thing.

Next in the routine was the three-step where the horse moved forward and, at every third stride, a foreleg was elevated and extended in an exaggerated motion. Special care was necessary to not interrupt the forward momentum with too much of the aid that asked for the leg extension. Finesse is what facilitates a good three-step. The movement continued all around the ring. After one revolution, we dissected the ring from back to front and reversed direction. In this other direction we began to march, or do a leg extension every stride, all around the ring.

Special care was needed to prompt, in careful rhythm, the forward walk with a leg extension every stride. During the march I radiated a confident air and remained in contact with the crowd. The march then assumed a track through the center and toward the front of the ring where we faced the grandstand. While up against the ring curb, our proximity seemed to promote the question in the mind of the audience, what’s next?  We began the double-backwards three-step, which is three backward strides and a double foreleg extension which was repeated regularly as we backed through the ring.

In the rear of the round exhibition venue the horse was already sensitized to go in reverse. I provided an invisible cue from my seat and signaled him to glue his front feet to the ground. I then coaxed him into the camel stretch or circus bow where his front feet were out front and his chest was inches off the ground. Again, timing was what allowed the public to notice his magnificence. As he held this pose like a living statue, we provided a picture of the classically trained horse and rider.

From this pose came the exciting conclusion. Beginning with the trot, the goal was an elevated leg extension at every stride. This was called the high trot and was a difficult movement that took years to do consistently. Because our training was still underway, I just asked for three strides. I got the conditions right and began to ask. For whatever reason, the response from him would either be quick or his understanding of what I asked went unnoticed. So, I asked again. When I got a few strides in a row, I discontinued asking and rewarded him with some verbal thanks for being a good boy. I had learned this from Evy Karoli in German years ago; “yo brae.”

To utilize the accumulated compulsion, a transition to canter was next. The gait traversed and went into a figure eight with a change of leads at the center of the ring. We concluded the act by cantering up to the front center to halt. We took a bow and saluted the crowd. Then, while the announcer re-introduced our names, we backed through the ring and bowed again in front of the backdoor curtain.

The act was well received, but I didn’t know just how well until later in the day. Back in my street clothes with the horse and mule bedded down. Philip Anthony rushed up to me.

“Dave, Dave!”

“You won!” he blurted out, “you’d better make plans to be at the black-tie awards banquet tomorrow night.”

Herriott Christmas

My role as circus man took me to tropical climates each winter. Warm weather and palm trees made the holiday experience feel different. Without blood family to share this festive time with, the notion of Christmas became watered down since I was on my own. I gave carrots to the livestock on this special day but the magical notion of the Christmas of my youth was over.

In the midst of preparing for my season and taking care of my livestock, I enjoyed being with and observing a special family as they prepared for the holiday. The Herriott family grew up in the active lifestyle of the circus and, like many circus families, worked and lived together in this close-knit situation. They made strong connections and built respect for one another while dedicated to specific traditions passed down from generation to generation, all of which insured they would succeed together and that the show would go on.

The regard freely exchanged in the Herriott home reflected their dedication and connection to each other and all animals. As a guest on their farm, a warm welcome was extended to me. I was invited to feast with them on special dishes prepared in abundance, join in the fun, and get to know all members of the family.

Christmas morning was another sunshiny day with ideal temperatures. Though the chores went on as usual, our customary routine was interrupted by the festive morning ritual to which I was privy. As the driveway filled with the cars and trucks of family members, warm greetings were exchanged and they gathered in the living room. In the middle of the family room was a table made from an old circus wooden spoke sunburst wagon wheel with a round piece of glass on top.

Although the gift giving didn’t involve me, in the midst of the packed living room, I witnessed the expression of joy that occurred as each gift was given and was opened. This prompted squeals of delight and feelings of elation. I enjoyed this glimpse into the life of this loving family and seeing them all behave like little children. 

Soon, torn wrapping paper, ribbons and stacks of unneeded boxes littered the room. Individual attentions paired up or individuals became immersed with objects at hand. Later in the morning a meal was in order.

My favorite part of this unique Christmas experience occurred after the gifts had been exchanged, and everyone had a belly full of good food. One at a time, the daughters began to beg Johnny to “open the trunk.”

Previously unnoticed, an old trunk had a reverent location in the family room. It had been used until then as a coffee table. I had no idea what was inside but guessing from the expression on their faces, the girls all knew. They kept up their vigil. They relentlessly begged their dad to open it. 

After some careful timing and using show biz suspense, John paused to make sure his decision to comply was visible to everyone. Drawn into the anticipation, I, too, became ready for whatever was in that trunk.

                As John unlatched the lid, the daughters drew in close. I too had an opportunity to peer over them and see what was inside. Like a chest filled with treasure, the entire trunk was filled with old 8×10 black and white photographs of circus performers and circus scenes from long ago. The old photos, collected for generations, were the one-time standard of publicity in the circus industry since the advent of photography. Through countless contacts with hundreds of their peers this accumulation of incredible photographs became possible.

As Johnny reached inside and selected one of the old contact prints, the image sparked reminiscence and prompted a story from the archives of his memory. As the accounts unfolded, the bright reflection of glee in the eyes of the members of his family, who hung onto his every word, created in me another reason to be grateful to be included here.

We savored his anecdotes about distant relatives, performers from other famous circus families and the fantastic feats of aerialists, animal trainers, musicians, athletes, clowns and other showmen. His tales involved funny anecdotes that could only occur on a circus, or situations that evolved into gossip about so-and-so, crazy behavior, tragedy, historic moments and the amazing things that animals do. John also told us about humorous situations that occurred during the routine of performing on a daily basis on an old tent show, and the stories about the pranks these dedicated people often pulled on each other.

                The afternoon slipped by all too quickly. Our attention remained filled with story after story until evening finally arrived. With great reluctance, the collective resigned to our regular duties.

As I recall the indelible sight of children gathered around this master story teller and the privilege to witness this unique and intimate peek into the life of one of America’s favorite circus families, the experience easily remains one of my all-time favorite and happiest Christmas holidays of all.

Whether you are alone this year or surrounded by the abundance of those you love, may you enjoy this special time of year and be blessed with the happiest holiday season and most special Christmas of all.

John Herriott

As I headed south toward John’s ranch, I reviewed the plan for the year ahead; maintain rigorous practice with both animal acts prior to the circus festival, compete for the first time in front of the leaders of this industry, and when complete, spend the entire winter season of January, February and March at River Ranch, the luxury RV Resort. After the winter season, I resume practice with the animals to prepare for a five-week circus tour in Canada in the spring. When the tour was complete, return to Michigan where the horse and mule spend the summer on a farm while I paint for the Elliott Amusement company. I would also attend the Blue Bird rallies I had been invited to.

I drove day and night into progressively warmer weather. My thoughts reviewed the immense privilege of working with an admirable series of animal trainers; Bob Grubb, Evy Karoly, Vi Hopkins and Chuck Grant. Now, I get to work with one of the circus greats, John Herriott.

John was born into a traveling circus family, the son of Milt Herriott, an all-around animal trainer. Milt taught his son how to train and handle elephants, horses, camels, llamas, zebras, mules, ponies and other exotic critters. John’s specialty became multiple-horse liberty acts. The Herriott’s performed on both railroad and overland touring shows such as Cole Bros. Circus, Barnes and Caruthers Olympia Circus, the Circus World Museum, Hoxie Brothers Circus, Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus and a few more. The Herriott’s became renowned in circusdom.  John became effective in the circus ring presenting liberty horse acts and elephants along with other exotic lead stock. His marriage to a tall blonde from Sharon, Pennsylvania produced four daughters.

Years ago, as a teenage drummer on my first big top show, I sat in the cookhouse tent and listened to the fantastic tales that abounded. I heard one story about a family on the Hoxie Bros. Circus. They produced a beautiful display for the show that included every member of the family on a horse. All six members of the Herriott family presented talented circus horses and their display filled all three rings. They wore exquisite wardrobe and performed in unison. The concept of a family that worked in harmony with each other was foreign to me because I came from a dysfunctional family. Although I never worked on the same show with the Herriott family, years later I became acquainted with all of them at an assortment of wintertime functions in Sarasota, where many circus folks live during the off season.

The long, slow trip south allowed plenty of time to review this fascinating livelihood I had found. I came from a contemporary urban culture. As an enthusiastic teenager, I found a completely different society on the circus. Rich with tradition, I was eager to learn and assimilate all I could. My curiosity, dedication and regard opened doors into this interesting way to live one’s life. Certain unwritten rules of the circus actually interfered with being completely accepted into their society. I would always be regarded as an outsider. Regardless, I became attracted to the specialties of the highest regarded of the performers; the riders of the high school horses.

Weary of the long drive and eager to get there, late at night, the last fifty miles took me through the foggy, ghost-like, dimly lit, palm tree-lined interstate highway that threaded past Tampa. The muggy weather was in contrast to the blustery winter weather experienced at the start of this trip. A glowing luminescence on the horizon hinted at the coming dawn as I moved closer to my destination. In the early morning light, my rig found its way down familiar two-lane roads.

Upon arrival at the Herriott home the livestock was unloaded after I pulled down their long driveway. The horse and mule were happy to get out of the trailer. They had stood inside for three days. They couldn’t contain their enthusiasm as I led them through a gate to enjoy freedom and the green grass of the pasture. They kicked up their heels and frolicked at first but soon found the distraction of nourishing green grass.

I arrived at John’s home the first of December. I had plenty of time to receive coaching and rehearse the acts prior to the circus festival.

One morning, the year before, Mary Ruth asked me to go on a trip with her to ride a horse. She was considering a big saddlebred as a gift for her husband. When we got to the farm and found him banging his foot against the stall door, I had some concerns about the horse. Although I rode the horse and did just fine, Mary Ruth didn’t ask me what I thought. She made the decision to get that horse. A year had passed.

 By now, John had trained his big horse to do an admirable march and passage. Our daily routine became working and training our horses together. We both prepared for the International Circus Festival competition which would commence shortly after the holidays.

The result of our intense training would be that these animals would work well.

Standard procedure for living with circus animals is: the animals come first. First on the agenda, while they were out on pasture, was to rig up two tie-stalls underneath the lean-to on the outside of John’s barn. John took me to the building supply salvage yard. I bought three sheets of used plywood – gray from the weather – and three fence posts. At one end of the lean-to, in an assigned area, I planted the posts in the ground and secured the plywood between the barn wall and the posts. I now had two tie-stalls. Rings were also installed to hang water, feed buckets and hay bags. I parked the trailer in the lineup of other equipment, hooked up my water and lights, settled into my living quarters and got some rest. Later in the day, the livestock were introduced to their new stalls, fed, and bedded down.

The activities began on the Herriott ranch early every morning. John had an eight-horse liberty act in training, a big Clydesdale and a little pony that did a big and little act, Henry, the miniature donkey and the big saddlebred he named American Jubilee.

Soon, my daily routine harmonized with all the activity at the ranch. This let me maximize on the opportunity to learn as I watched all the training taking place. When my turn came to use the ring, I rehearsed my acts in the round pen, the same size as a circus ring.  I choreographed my horses’ movements into a sequence that would become the routine I use at the circus festival. I also ran Betty the mule through her routine.

             After the morning feed and muck-out detail and the training sessions were complete, we had fun. John and I both had a saddlebred horse to ride. We saddled up our handsome sorrels and rode them up and down the driveway. We asked our horses for various movements and gave them exercise in the warm Florida sunshine.

When it came to the march, his horse A. J. had an amazing reach I envied. We worked on achieving finesse with our cues and encouraged each other with our progress.

The routine with Betty the mule became a comedy act with me acting like an old prospector. This act was an expanded January act, a routine that appeared as if the animal was outsmarting the trainer with a liberty routine combined. I had been composing patter to support the premise of my mule appearing to defy all my requests. I kept having ideas for more comedy to include and in this environment with John, opportunities for additional inspiration were rich.

One day I asked John, “how would a guy go about putting a hind-leg walk on that little mule?”

John thought for a moment and replied, “I think I would check her down good and tight. Then slap her on the side of the neck and see what happens.”

When I did exactly as he suggested, my mule stood on her hindlegs as upright as a candlestick.

Now that Betty had the idea, I began to develop her hind-leg walk.

As John’s season loomed, he had an idea that would benefit me. He referred me to the idea of meeting Dorita Konyot, a local retired performer and horse trainer whose family brought Dressage to this country. He knew I would receive the advanced riding instruction I sought from her.

The weeks passed. Each day was productive. The bond between us grew. I was able to share tidbits accumulated from experiences with trainers in Michigan and John shared aspects he learned from his father. We enjoyed mutual improvement with our high school horses and our time together.

With each day, a heightened anticipation grew among his family members due to the upcoming holidays. His daughters, now mature circus performers, had husbands and kids of their own. They came from all over to visit to John and Mary Ruth. Soon his family activities included decor and treat preparation as the ladies transformed their home into a fantasyland of holiday happiness and joy.

My dad loved Christmas. Growing up in Ohio, I was familiar with the standard holiday tradition of colored lights on the house, a layer of white snow outside, carolers singing on the front doorstep, special cookies, hot chocolate and the excitement of Santa bringing gifts. The family Christmas morning of my youth was a magical time with plenty of gifts and excitement, now just a memory. In adulthood, Christmas became just another day. Here at the Herriott household I was about to experience a special holiday.

Fort Valley

Once I knew approximately when I would pass through southern Georgia, I called my friend Robert and announced my estimated arrival. Over the phone, he gave me directions into Fort Valley.

He said, “turn right at the five-point light, go three blocks, and pull into the parking lot at Piggly Wiggly.” 

I thought, ‘He must be kidding me. There is no such thing as a Piggly Wiggly.’

After the trek through the mountains and across the rolling terrain of Georgia, I found the exit off the expressway and headed for my rendezvous with Robert. When I turned at the light and went a few blocks, imagine my surprise when I saw a store with the name emblazoned across the front: Piggly Wiggly.

I met Robert years ago at Shiloh, the commune in the Ozarks my parents had found. When I visited between circus seasons, Robert and I became friends. At the time, I had no idea of his background. After the respite as a youth that led him to that spiritual community, he returned to assume his role with the family business. I was to learn the truth about his story and his family. His grandfather started the Blue Bird school bus company years ago.

 “Let me show you around,” he beamed as he motioned for me to get into his truck.

As we left the parking lot, Robert took me on a personal tour of the entire complex. I saw acres and acres of yellow school busses that filled vast parking lots behind the huge manufacturing facility next to town. After circling the vast complex, he drove up to the main entrance. He took me inside. He then explained that he was being groomed for management by running one of the three companies that made up this huge conglomerate; Cardinal manufacturing.

I walked with him through the long hallways flanked by offices to the large room where the entire staff and workforce were gathered for the special pre-Thanksgiving program. I listened to a plethora of announcements, a call for workers to submit suggestions based on their observations for ways that the company can save money, and the list of various award winners. The conclusion of the program was a vocal rendition of several gospel and holiday songs sung by the company Chaplin.

Robert also took me to the other large part of this company – the Wanderlodge specialty manufacturing plant, where the epitome of luxury motorhomes was built. At that time, the only luxury motorhomes made were either Wanderlodge or special conversions using a bus chassis by either Prevost or Silver Eagle.

The Wanderlodge plant employed interior decorator personnel along with cabinet builders, infrastructure wirers, plumbers, lighting and sound system specialists along with exterior and interior finishers for every state-of-the-art component imaginable and a crew who handled elaborate paint jobs.

This part of the company also had a complimentary campground called the Bird’s Nest for the customers who owned these luxury vehicles. Their customers could camp free while they waited for service, or to simply break up the jump through the state.

Robert invited me to create literature specific to the services I provide for this customer group and place a portfolio of my work in the customer waiting lounge. I was also invited to attend the Wanderlodge rallies that occur throughout the year in various places, especially the main rally that took place here every October called the Rally in the Valley.

As my orientation with this huge company concluded, I became filled with gratitude for this happenstance meeting with Robert years ago. Complimented to receive such an immense boost, this led into what became perhaps the most significant chapter of my life.

In the fall of each year, the Blue Bird Wanderlodge rally in Georgia became the perfect place for me to break up the jump from Michigan to Florida. Every time I came, I found an abundance of painting opportunities for the affluent who gather here. I discovered a busy time before, during and after the rally. I spent the entire month of October here in Fort Valley and this became an established part of my annual route. 

In the coming months, I accumulated photographs of the painted works accomplished on motorhomes during the winter and began to assemble a portfolio. I returned in the spring and placed this portfolio in the Bird’s Nest and while there painted several inscriptions for waiting coach owners. I had developed rally savvy earlier that winter after I landed at River Ranch.

After this introduction to Peach County, the time came to go to Sarasota. I would continue horse and mule training through the holidays in preparation for the circus festival. Then I began my three-month stint as resident artist at River Ranch. I thanked my friend Robert and resumed my trek to Florida. The opportunity to work with John Herriott awaited. In spite of the lingering grief from the heart break of the loss of the woman I loved, great things had just begun.    

A New Era

The vehicle I used to pull this entourage was a Ford one-ton truck with a 400 horse-power engine, underpowered for what I was doing. My years on the road provided many lessons in efficiency, self-reliance and flexibility. In addition to the horse trailer with the living quarters in the front, all the accouterments for performing in remote locations on the circus were loaded inside. The horse and mule rode in the back, and I had a ton of hay on the roof. A VW bus with all my painting gear was hooked on the back. This rig was clearly overloaded. I became ultra-cautious because of this and adopted the pattern of going slow everywhere I went.

The trip had barely begun and at a fuel stop, after filling up and heading out, I heard the metallic “cling” of metal breaking again, and the rig ceased all forward momentum. Fortunately, I was still in the parking lot. After crawling underneath to see what had happened, I had no choice. I had to fix it. The torque needed to get this mass moving had broken the weak link in the drive train, the yoke on the output shaft of the transmission. I learned the year before to carry a spare yoke with me. But this time I discovered the U-joint had also broken.  After unhooking the VW bus, I went in search of the part needed. Upon return, I laid on my back and used nimble fingers and the right wrenches. I succeeded with replacing the broken pieces with new ones.

Soon I resumed the trip. The experience made me ultra-sensitive about applying too much torque, now that I knew where the weak link in the drive-train existed. Each state gradually moved beneath my wheels revealing warmer weather.

While crossing the Appalachian Mountains, now void of foliage, everything frozen in the rig began to thaw. With each mile, my attention began to focus on the goals I hoped to accomplish upon arrival in Florida.

While motoring down the highway, I reviewed the experiences of the previous winter. The first stop last year was the Sarasota fairgrounds where the International Circus Festival and Parade took place. That event imitated the Grammy or Emmy award spectacles of other entertainment genres. At this festival, circus performers came from all over to compete in one of five performances judged by a panel of peers. The festival culminated with a black-tie awards presentation banquet with plenty of announcements, trophies, complimentary speeches and applause. A street parade filled the final day.

The best benefit of the circus festival last year was the opportunity to have a conversation with John Herriott, whom I had known about for years. I had visited him at his home north of town in the past to watch him train Liberty Horse Acts. At the festival, I asked him for some help. He agreed.

John understood and appreciated that I could only fit lengthy training sessions between opportunities for making money as an artist. I would work with him prior to the festival. After that I had a three-month opportunity to decorate RVs that winter. As each mile went past, my enthusiasm for what lay ahead mixed with the grief of the recent heartbreak.

Gold Leaf on Glass

Dale was the owner of two restaurant/bars called The Hunt Club in both Jackson and Hillsdale. He wanted gold leaf signs on the large glass windows at each store, plus a gold leaf name on the glass at his office connected to his airplane hangar at the airport.

For centuries, gold lettering and ornamentation on a glass window was utilized by upper echelon businesses and was considered the epitome of the sign makers craft. Dale commissioned me to accomplish three gold leaf window jobs.

The explanation of why gold sticks successfully to glass remains a mystery. The technique used for centuries utilized heated water with a single gelatin capsule dissolved into it. This mixture was flooded over clean glass and while wet, special handling occurred to lay the leaf against the wet glass. The first part of the procedure was to completely cover the area to receive the sign work with many 3-3/8-inch squares of gold leaf. The window then sported a quilt-like pattern of overlapped gold squares.  As the water evaporated, the gold was sucked tightly onto the surface of the glass and a mirror-like effect resulted.

To prevent the delicate metal from wearing off, the gold was backed up with paint only on areas where the gold remained for the design. This part of the process involved delicate brush work. The lettering and ornamental designs were all painted backwards on the inside of the glass and acted as a protective layer over the gold. The excess gold was removed later with another delicate process involving a mild abrasive.

Achieving the level of proficiency with this particular technique of the sign makers craft elevated my standing in the community. My goal had been to become the best. With these three jobs – what became my final three jobs as sign man in Jackson – I had achieved my goal, albeit with a broken heart, having been rejected by Gail once again. With these jobs complete, I made the remaining preparations to go to Florida. At the stable, I loaded the livestock, hooked the VW bus on the back of the rig, and headed south. There was no sense waiting.

The snow had begun to fall. Every hundred miles provided an improvement in the weather. I had a busy time ahead of me.

I didn’t know it at the time but God had a different plan for my life. Even before I arrived in Florida, I discovered a segue that would rocket me into the next chapter of my life.

Hurricane

Hurricane showed up at the local AA club. I noticed constant sadness in his demeanor. I zeroed in on him and resumed the questioning begun during our trip to Florida.

“Are you happy with the quality of your sobriety?” I queried.

“And do you want to get well?”

“I guess so,” he looked at me with sullen eyes, “I hadn’t even thought of that.”

“The next level is available to you,” I assured him, “the purpose of the step work is to heal broken-heartedness and provide freedom from being stuck.”

I could only suspect that grief for his late wife, and an inability to let go of that obsession was part of his problem. I had no way of knowing the depth of his despair and what drove his perception. We are all a mix of what we discover, what we decide and how we see. He was not alone. He was part of the group. I wanted him to see he wasn’t the only one with challenges. Things at our home were insane. Gail had enough of my self-centered productivity. I was always going and going with yet another idea.  She felt left out and finally had had enough.

Gail insisted I move out. Hurricane had a room in his house for me. This mostly became a place to store my stuff. I had lots of opportunities for paint work, festivals to attend, and my horse trailer to use as housing. I simply got busy and pursued projects I could accomplish on location.

A few weeks later, Gail and I patched things up.  Each time we reunited, we experienced an incredible emotional condition not unlike a honeymoon and we rode the crest of our immense love for each other once again.

In the afterglow that followed, Hurricane knew I would return to his house for my stuff. On the day I drove over to his house, I found a note on the door; ‘don’t come in, call the police.’

I did just that. After making the call, I returned to Gail’s house. Later, I received a report that the police had gone inside to discover that Hurricane had shot himself in his bed. He had all his affairs in order including instructions for all the members of his family, and for me to come and get my stuff.

Not knowing the extent of his mental condition but being well aware of his lack of healing by working the twelve steps sent me a big message. I got the edict loud and clear. Unchecked, even while sober, this disease has the power to kill. Without recovery from a hopeless state of mind, the end is the same whether the alcoholic is drinking or not.

His example became a motivating prompt for me, as the lingering residue of the turbulent relational discord with Gail and myself needed to be processed. We entered into our attempt. With the help of my sponsor Ralph and his wife, Gail and I began our effort to enter into the process of healing and understanding what was going on by working one-on-one with these lovely people. Hopefully we could rise above whatever it was that kept us in this cycle of on-again off-again.

Back in Jackson, a local sound system store wanted me to decorate the large delivery truck they acquired with flashy sign work. This gave me an opportunity to develop a technique of blending colors that went through the entire spectrum for a central rainbow sound track design. Also portrayed were several logos and speaker depictions. I worked on this project, outdoors in the warm autumn months in Gail’s driveway.

One lumber company in Jackson had a custom woodworking shop out back. I made friends with the fellow who worked there and discovered we could collaborate on special projects.

A lawyer wanted a three-sided pedestal sign with elements from the architecture of the elegant home he converted into office space. Recreating some of the features, I designed a wooden project that we constructed at the lumber yard. I carved incised letters for gilding with gold leaf and finished all the woodwork in Gail’s basement.

The deadline for completion loomed. The finished pieces of the project were almost ready for me to load up and go on location to install. When I returned from a quick errand, I found Gail’s car locked and parked up against the lift garage door preventing my opening it. I went up into the kitchen and saw two empty coffee cups on the counter but no Gail. Not knowing what to do and having a deadline to meet, I took a chain and my truck and pulled her car back far enough to open the door.  I then loaded the pieces that would soon be another great sign in town.

When she returned and found me loading the components to the sign, she hit the roof. She had an issue with me and wanted me to slow down enough so she could talk to me about it.

She had provided me with housing for two years and had yet to receive any compensation. Not knowing how to initiate a conversation about what would be appropriate, the attempt to force the issue only promoted division and more frustration for both of us.

Among the responsibilities of being a home owner were projects that she needed help with. Her house needed a coat of paint. This was a specialty I knew nothing about. Now that I was getting a hint about what would be appropriate for me to do, I entered into getting this done for her. I purchased extension ladders needed to reach the second story and ladder jacks to support a work plank. I figured these would also come in handy in my role as sign man around town.

I did have a guy available to do grunt work as needed. With this newly acquired equipment, my workman had the ability to go to work. I set up the ladders and plank in front of her house and sent him up to scrape the loose paint off the eaves, two stories up.

An area of the side of the house over the garage had clap-board siding. I used the mentality of a sign painter.  I realized making lateral strokes with a wide brush would take forever.  I found out about a thick-nap roller. Using lots of paint, I rolled on a heavy coat and covered this stair stepped surface rapidly.

Regardless of the progress, Gail was not impressed with any of my efforts. As my industry continued, I felt unappreciated. This project commanded time and was not my area of expertise.

She finally called a professional house painter to complete the easternmost side which also was covered with clapboard. When I saw how the pro did it, I realized removing every tid-bit of loose paint and making sure that every square foot of the surface received a thick coat of paint was not priority. He had a pressure spray system, thinned paint and a wide brush, he put on a questionable coat of paint but the entire end of the house was complete in one day.

My mom and dad enjoyed traveling in their Transvan camper van with their little dog Choco. Gail and I visited them in Arkansas earlier that summer. They were proud of my accomplishments and liked Gail and wanted to visit us in Jackson. They arrived to see us when tension was at its peak. My dad inspected the paint job I put on the house and commended me for the healthy coat of paint. But while there they did not receive an audience with the human being I loved.

Tension was thick at Gail’s home. The fall of the year was upon us and the logical thing for me to do was to once again load up the livestock and head for Florida. An opportunity waited for me to work with John Herriott prior to the circus festival and this time I would compete.  I also planned to pursue opportunities for sign and mural work at the luxury RV resort I discovered the previous winter.  I had work in Jackson to finish first.

I saw Duane Zwick and his wife Mae Jean at breakfast one morning. They had exciting news. They had driven their Wanderlodge to Georgia, to the place where it was manufactured. During the annual rally, an old friend saw the mural I painted and noticed my name in the corner.

Robert Luce, whom I had met at Shiloh years ago, said to them, “next time you see Dave, tell him to stop by and see me”