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The Time Was Then

White’s Field, 1927 — Somebody must have been over to Willits last night, because the news spread: the circus is coming and they have an elephant in a van. I myself got to town as fast as I could. I go to town every day. Every noon I lock the farm gate and drive to town to eat lunch. There’s nobody but me at the house and I like the hot meal. I read the paper and eat lunch and drive back out to the farm. But today, though, I’m going in early, I’ll get some tea and toast with marmalade and watch for the arrival, the circus is coming to town.

Well it was a disappointment right out of the box. First of all they snuck in the back way and got to White’s field before any of us could think. Suddenly, from all over town, cars and trucks and school busses started up and headed out of town, all over to the White place. People sped in from all over and they filled out the back and parked on the old corn stalks.

The circus was humble enough: two trucks, four old station wagons. The large one could sleep at least six and a dog. And there were dogs. Probably trained ones, but dogs never the less, all little rat terriers, about 6 of them, and they flew about everywhere, digging holes immediately trying to catch gophers napping. I saw this was a good trick right off, and I thought maybe these guys are more than meets the eye. Maybe I won’t rush to judgment yet.

There is a guy who looks after the elephant, the elephant’s buddy, his good pal, an East Indian it seems. I found his look to be a bit discombobulating. Many rings and doodads, and a tattoo that stuck out from the top of his shirt. A sort of ridiculous man I thought. He ordered everybody to get back all the time even as we pressed forward, as is the wont of a “field side” gang. We can press forward with authority if we want to. And every last soul, standing in this cornfield, on this particular afternoon wanted the elephant parade to begin, so we pressed forward. Get back, the elephant man yells.

He is standing beside a small tin covered truck, more like a bread van, double back doors. We all start backing up, those up front step back and there is a general stepping back happening, all very ritual, old dances, done usually around funerals and award ceremonies. Finally there is room to breathe at the field.

Whites was literally a field, old corn stalks were crushed over by the local traffic today. Suddenly from inside the tin truck; the elephant made a roar. Everybody did the Yahoo Back Dance double time, about eighty people moved as one, a Japanese deal, sort of. A step back, an elegant duck walk then straightened to upright toes, in unison, together as one, we were capable of greatness, and the elephant got us off on the right foot.

The van itself was ordinary enough. No great lurid picture, no bad taste, in fact the circus seemed rather circumspect: there was nothing promising nostrums that would grow hair on a billiard ball, or cure the lovelorn from loving too much. These performers encamped in an orderly manner, non frenzy. Some mingled; all were dressed as city people are, meaning well dressed and if they were sleeping in the station wagons, they were sober and honest folks capable of putting on a circus that could not only electrify but edify. And they had an elephant.

One Comment

  1. Alice Chouteau March 25, 2016

    Thanks Bill!
    Your story revived a curious memory from my early years, when a carnival came to Springfield, Oregon. This was an exciting event, as we has no tv, only the occassional matinee at the small movie house in town. What stands out in my mind, from my four year old’s recollection, was an amazing race, of chimps driving little cars, racing around a small tracke at what seemed like high speed to me. I wanted to join them! But the thing is, I cannot be certain that really happened, or was some thing from a dream, or seen in one of those black and white newsreels.
    Alice Chouteau

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