Under the Big Top: My Season With the Circus - Part 1

Part 1

Under the Big Top.

A Season with the Circus.

Bruce Feiler.

For my brother, my other eye.

The circus is a jealous wench. Indeed, that is an understatement. She is a ravening bag who sucks your vitality as a vampire drinks blood-who kills the brightest stars in her crown and who will allow no private life to those who serve her; wrecking their homes, ruining their bodies, and destroying the happiness of their loved ones by her insatiable demands. She is all of these things, and yet, I love her as I love nothing else on earth.


Winter Quarters.


A Toe in the Ring.

"Before we start I want you all to know there's always a chance we might end up with a dead elephant..."

Dr. Darryl Heard's voice was stern and deep, softened only by a faint Australian brogue that gave his already blunt warning an eerie, other-worldly air.

"Whenever you take an animal this large, this old," he continued, "and put her under general anesthesia, there's a forty percent chance that she won't wake up again. We may have to roll her out of here."

"You can't use local anesthesia?" E. Douglas Holwadel stepped forward into the doctor's face, removed a rapidly disappearing cigarette from his lips, and ran his empty hand across his receding gray hairline. As co-owner of Sue, a forty-two-year-old, 5,500-pound, "pet.i.te" Asian elephant valued at around $75,000, he alone was allowed to smoke in the operating barn. Though it was not yet 8:30 in the morning, he was already nearing the end of his first pack.

"Not with an operation of this magnitude," Dr. Heard replied. "She might go berserk and crush us all. We have to put her to sleep entirely."

"And you've done this before?"

"A dozen times. Just last weekend I went up to Albany, Georgia, to remove a tusk from an African male. We had him up twenty minutes after the operation was done. I just want you to be aware of the dangers. We can always stop the operation if you're not comfortable-"

"No," said Doug. "We're here. Let's do it."

"In that case," said the doctor, "I need your signature."

Doug dropped his cigarette onto the floor and retrieved a fountain pen from the well-starched pocket of one of his two dozen Brooks Brothers shirts. A little over four hours earlier, Doug and I had left circus winter quarters in a dark, driving rainstorm not uncommon for late January in central Florida. The previous day, after our introductory meeting, Doug had invited me to accompany him during this emergency operation to remove an ingrown toenail from Sue's right front leg. Never having seen an elephant under anesthesia, I agreed.

It was well before dawn when we set out. The outside thermometer in his maroon Cadillac with EDH plates said 39 degrees. We followed behind newly painted "Truck No. 60, Elephant Department," kitchen white with stylized red letters that read: "Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus-World's Largest Under the Big Top." Leaving DeLand, home of the circus and undisputed fern capital of the world, we pa.s.sed through DeLeon Springs ("They don't have a decent bar," Doug mentioned, "so everyone drives to Barberville"), across the St. Johns River, which runs from Orlando to Jacksonville ("Do you know why the St. Johns is the only river in Florida to run upstream?" he asked. "Because Georgia sucks." He laughed especially hard, knowing Georgia was my home state), until we arrived at the crack of dawn at the William N. Inman and Clara Strickland Inman Food Animal Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"Could you stop that drilling and sawing," Doug called out to some nearby construction workers after he had signed the papers. "It'll spook the h.e.l.l out of Sue."

Finally, at a little past 8:30, with the arrangements for the operation complete, Captain Fred Logan waddled alongside the high-tech operating barn and began escorting Sue up the walkway with a bull hook, a short cane with a stubby hook on the end. He paused slightly to let a Vietnamese potbellied pig wobble across the path. A seventy-year-old Canadian who had literally run away to join the circus when he was a boy, Fred had been the chief elephant trainer with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus for over two decades, but in all that time he had never had to put an elephant under total anesthesia.

Once inside, Fred led Sue to the center of a hay bed about the size of an average mall parking s.p.a.ce.

"Be sure she lies down on her left side," called Dr. Heard. "It's the only way we'll be able to get to her right front leg and have total access to her toenail."

"Don't worry," Fred said gruffly. "That's the only way she'll go." Circus elephants, he explained later, are trained to lie only on their left side. It's one of only eight or so commands the average elephant can comprehend.

Once Sue was standing in her place; Fred tied a thick yellow rope to each of her left feet and tossed them under her body. As soon as she felt the ropes Sue started to squirm.

"Back, Sue. Back!" Fred barked.

Sue stepped backward and began to grumble.

"Front, Sue. Front."

She stepped forward and started to shake.

"Steady, steady.... Thata girl."

With the patient temporarily calm, Dr. Heard snapped into action. He tossed the ends of the two ropes over Sue's back and ordered four of his white-coated a.s.sistants to stand behind the protective railing and prepare to pull her over if necessary. When everyone arrived in position, he gave the signal to advance.

"Down, Sue. Down!" commanded Fred, but Sue did not obey.

"Sue, down!" he shouted.

Sue slowly leaned down on her back legs, disobeying his command to lie down on her side. Fred ordered her to stand up again, which she did with an unfriendly growl.

"Back, Sue. Back!" he continued. "Front, Sue. Front! Down."

The process was repeated several times, but each time Sue kneeled down instead of lying on her side. "Let's try a little psychology," Fred said. He asked one of the a.s.sistants to retrieve a kitchen broom, which he used to brush Sue's back in an effort to bribe her down. It didn't work. Dr. Heard then changed the plan, announcing that he would inject the patient with a dosage of morphine 80,000 times the potency normally given to humans. He rested one hand on Sue's forehead, pulled back her rubbery flipperlike ear, and gave her an injection with a syringe.

The elephant shook angrily even before the injection was completed. She began to swing her head in disgust.

"Down, Sue. Down!" Fred pleaded, but she ignored him and grumbled loudly.

"Hold on to the ropes!" Dr. Heard shouted. "Don't let her fall to her right or we'll have to abandon the operation."

Four men pulled the ropes taut. Doug turned his eyes away. Fred shouted more frequently.

"Down, Sue. Down. Steady!" His voice took on an imploring tone, but at that point it no longer mattered. Sue could no longer hear him. She knelt down on her back feet as she had done twice before, but instead of leaning down on her front knees, this time her entire body went suddenly limp like a deflating hot-air balloon.

"Now, now!" called Dr. Heard. "Pull her toward the left." The four a.s.sistants slowly tugged the 5,500-pound Sue until she collapsed droopily on her left side. The ropes had worked perfectly. Sue's inflamed foot was exposed. The operation could proceed.

With the patient now in place a swarm of thirty veterinarians dressed in blue jeans and white jackets emerged from behind the protective railing and gathered around the body. One team focused on Sue's right foot-sliding it out from its bent position, resting it atop a hay bale, and brushing off the mud and debris that had collected around her potatosized nails. Another group rolled out a $10,000 a.s.sortment of gadgets, monitors, and computerized gizmos that would monitor Sue's vital functions. A third group climbed atop her back to attach some nodes to the frayed edges of her ears.

Resting on the ground, Sue's head seemed remarkably inert. Her ears, while smaller than those of an African elephant, were still large and fragile, beginning thick and rubbery close to her head but deteriorating like a giant aging leaf into a tattered, lacy fringe. Her one exposed eye, the size of a billiard ball with a rich amber hue, was closed, but a steady stream of tears seeped out from beneath the lid into the grooves of her skin, dry and corrugated like a baked riverbed. Her mouth was puckered, the inside a startling baby pink in contrast to the somber millstone gray of her skin.

Sue's mouth quickly became the center of attention as Dr. Heard led a group of doctors in trying to insert a respirator into her lungs. At this point the team encountered its first problem of the day, as Sue had instinctively clenched her jaws together when she collapsed under the influence of the morphine. In an attempt to open a pa.s.sageway for the respirator, one group of doctors tied a rope around her lower jaw and another held her trunk. On the count of three, the two groups pulled and Dr. Heard slid his fingers between Sue's teeth and tried to pry open a narrow s.p.a.ce.

He failed, and with the teams still clinging to the ropes, Dr. Heard peeled off his medical coat, rolled up his sleeves, and stuck his arm deep into Sue's throat in another attempt to find a pa.s.sageway large enough to slide the tusk-sized respirator tube into her lungs. "We should have brought a baseball bat," he cursed, his face straining under the pressure of her throat muscles. After several minutes he withdrew his arm. It was dripping with saliva and nicked from Sue's teeth. "It's going to be difficult. Hand me the tube."

As he poked into her throat again, though this time with the tube in tow, Dr. Heard found it even harder to penetrate past Sue's mouth. Finally he withdrew the tube and dropped his head onto the back of his hand in frustration. Several tense seconds pa.s.sed, until Dr. Heard snapped to attention with renewed vigor and shouted something to one of his students in mangled veterinary code. The student dropped her notebook, darted around the corner past a series of signs that said: RE-PRODUCTION BOVINE OBSTETRICS, MEMBER FLORIDA CATTLEMAN'S a.s.sOCIATION, and WE WISH YOU A SUCCESSFUL DAIRY YEAR, and returned momentarily with that tried-and-true solution to pachyderm penetration: a tube of K-Y jelly. Dr. Heard smeared the jelly over the stiff plastic tube and, moving slowly, pushing hard, and constantly peering at his watch, eventually pushed the tube past Sue's mouth and inserted it into her lungs. With the tube in place he withdrew his arm and rapidly attached the tube to the respirator. At 9:10 the compressor was turned on, the doctors stood back, and Sue's stomach heaved greatly at first and then settled into a steady breathing rate, her belly expanding noticeably with each gasp from the machine.

As soon as the respirator was functioning properly, Dr. Heard turned to another problem. When Sue was pulled to the ground with the ropes, her head had accidentally landed against a concrete barrier. The doctors were worried that the weight of her head might burst her eyeball. They decided they needed to lift her head to relieve the pressure. If the patient had been a dog, or even a horse, the veterinary team could have accomplished this task with relative ease. But Sue was an elephant and her head alone weighed around 800 pounds. The solution to this unique gravitational problem: a forklift. One of the doctors went scurrying out of the barn and soon returned driving a bright yellow Caterpillar forklift directly into the operating room. Several ropes were tied around the tines of the forklift and then wrapped around Sue's head. As several people steadied the head, and several more held the ropes, the mechanical fork was slowly lifted into the air and several gymnasium mats were slid underneath Sue's head. With her head now swaddled in a bed of tumbling mats, the students in the gallery started to applaud, the prep team resumed its scrubbing, and Dr. Heard finally turned his attention to Sue's ingrown toenail.

With Sue now completely out of their hands, the circus team could not bear to watch. Fred, feeling helpless, had retreated to the corner. Doug, overcome, had handed me his camera and driven off to Hardee's to buy a cup of coffee. I, meanwhile, was mesmerized: transfixed by the allure of this elephant and, in truth, still slightly dumbfounded by the unlikely series of events that had brought me to her side.

I first caught the dream when I was twelve. I was attending summer camp in the mountains of Maine when my counselor took me outside with a handful of oranges and taught me how to juggle. For hours that morning I chased decomposing oranges down a hill; for years afterward I stoked fantasies of tightropes and teeterboards; and a decade and a half later I could still feel those oranges as I set out in pursuit of one whimsical fragment of the American dream by running away and joining a circus.

The dream had developed slowly. After years of practicing juggling as a teenager, I dipped gradually into the world of street performing and harlequinism. First I learned pantomime and whiteface makeup from a teacher in my hometown. Next I developed a short routine combining pantomime, juggling, and corn-pone humor, which I enthusiastically performed at birthday parties, street festivals, and any gathering in my parents' living room-despite the irrevocable damage done to more than one prized family heirloom. In short, I was a teenage pantomime prodigy, all the more easy since I was the only teenage pantomime most people in South Georgia had ever seen.

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, this infatuation with performing led me to the brink of clowning. Like many teenagers fascinated by the circus, I even considered applying to "Clown College," Ringling Brothers' ten-week training course that was founded in 1968 in an attempt to stanch the decline in clowning but was brilliantly marketed as an academic exercise rivaling that of the Greeks. When the time came, however, I chose a more conventional academic stage. At Yale, I taught drama in local schools, directed the children's theater, and even helped start a campus mime troupe, but the dream of joining a circus seemed to be fading away. When I graduated and moved to j.a.pan to teach English, the dream was completely out of my mind.

Yet somehow the clown in me never died. In j.a.pan, where I lived for three years, I would often mime, clown, or occasionally even juggle my way out of a cross-cultural impa.s.se. In England, where I attended graduate school, my sense of humor, my voice, indeed my whole way of communicating were louder and more theatrical than that of my European friends. Was this my personality speaking, my nationality, or both? Spurred by these questions, I decided to come home after five years abroad and spend some time exploring my own culture. It was then that I returned to my adolescent roots: what better way to discover America, I thought, than from the back lot of a circus. I could join a show, possibly even perform as a clown or a juggler, and write a book about life inside this most American of inst.i.tutions. Circuses, after all, have been around since the founding of America. They crisscross the country year after year, visiting towns both large and small and always managing to reinvent themselves on the verge of their own extinction. They are, I believed, the embodiment of our dreams: a metaphor for ourselves. And, I hoped, a way home. So it came to pa.s.s, fifteen years after learning to juggle, five years after leaving the country, that my childhood aspiration coincided with my adult wanderl.u.s.t to lead me back into clowning.

Having decided to join a circus, it didn't take me long to realize that I didn't know anything about circuses, much less how to join one. My first step was to visit every show I could find-glitzy and seedy; air-conditioned and muggy. Like many adults without children, I hadn't actually seen a circus in almost twenty years. My immediate reactions were twofold. First, I was thrilled to discover that the circus was almost exactly as I had remembered it, with colorful costumes, daring acts, and exotic animals. Second, I was surprised to find that the circus, though quite traditional, was shrouded in a cloud of controversy of a distinctly modern variety. Many of the shows I visited, for example, were surrounded by picketers protesting the infringement of animal rights. Inside, the circuses themselves adopted a surprisingly defensive air, not only about their treatment of animals but also about their desperate efforts to prevent the circus from withering away. The circus was certainly alive and well, but its future seemed in doubt.

Once reacquainted with the circus, I set out to find the perfect show to join. From a friend, I learned of an organization called Circus Fans of America (its motto: "The Greatest Hobby on Earth"); from its treasurer, Irvin Mohler, I learned of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin (the original home of the Ringlings); and from its librarian, Fred Dahlinger, I received a list of every circus in America, which was a surprising four pages long and contained 117 entries. At the outset I narrowed myself to tented circuses, ones with greater mobility, deeper access into the country, and more grit. This cut the number to thirty-seven. Next I aimed for large, high-quality shows, with a wide variety of acts and a full cast of animals. This reduced the list to six. I wrote letters to each of these shows and told them of my plan: I would like to travel with their circus for a season. I'd be prepared to do my part-pull ropes, shovel manure, whatever they needed-but most of all I would like to perform.

I sent off the letters in late November and sat back to wait. To my surprise, all six shows called back almost immediately and said they were interested in hearing more about my idea. In order to decide which show was best, I ventured out a month later on a circus parade of sorts-from Washington, D.C., to New York City; from Sarasota, Florida, to Hugo, Oklahoma. It was during this trip in January 1993, on the two hundredth anniversary of the American circus, that I arrived in the sleepy town of DeLand, home of what had always secretly been my first choice, the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, largest tented circus in the world.

"Sit down. Welcome to Florida. Let me buy you a drink."

I met Doug Holwadel at the Lobby Bar, across the hall from Sonora Sam's Restaurant in the Holiday Inn & Convention Center on Route 92 in DeLand. Feeling somewhat like an actor on audition, all day I had wondered what to wear. Would the owner of a multimillion-dollar circus be a slick Hollywood promoter, a b.u.mpkin country lawyer, or an uptight Wall Street investor? To play it safe I wore my most middle-of-the-road preppy casual attire. Fortunately I guessed right. Doug, a salesman at heart, was wearing his b.u.t.ton-down best. He was also drinking Chivas on the rocks, and for the first three rounds of our twelve-round night I struggled to keep up (and keep sober) as this former concrete dealer and longtime circus fan told me how he was invited in 1981 to join former acrobat turned administrator John W. Pugh in purchasing the show. In a little over ten years, Doug boasted, the two partners had completely redesigned the show's twenty-seven trucks and 3,000-person tent, solidified a eight-month route that ran the length of 1-95 from Florida to New Hampshire and back again, and increased their lagging attendance to close to one million people a year. During this time, he noted, they had accepted invitations to film commercials, doc.u.mentaries, and hundreds of local weathercasts. However, they had never accepted an invitation from a writer to travel with the show. He wondered why they should change now.

After Happy Hour, Doug took me to dinner at Pondo's Restaurant & Lounge, just up the road from the thirty-five acres of land where the show resides during the off-season. At the table, he ordered another round of drinks as I examined the menu. Later I learned that this was a test of sorts to see if I was an animal rights provocateur and that my whole plan might have been jeopardized if I had ordered "just a salad." Fortunately I ordered duck (he had lamb), and the two of us began to talk. No, I was not a plant from PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; yes, I remembered the first circus I saw. No, I was not an IRS spy; yes, I could live in six inches of mud. As soon as I laid to rest his initial concerns, Doug began to open up. My letter had intrigued him, he said. He was an amateur historian. He liked to read. He relished the opportunity of seeing his circus captured in print. Also, he said, he couldn't help noticing that I wore a Brooks Brothers shirt.

As we sat for a fourth after-dinner drink in our next stop, the Neon Armadillo, I finally got around to asking if he was amenable to having me travel with his circus. Without hesitation, he said yes. After another round, I asked if he would let me perform. To this he bluntly said no. "If this is just a ploy to get a joyride in the ring," he insisted, downing what would become his last drink of the night, "then we're going to have to say no. We get hundreds of requests a year from people wanting to be guest clowns in our show. Some even offer to pay us. We are professionals. We don't cotton to amateurs."

The next morning Doug drove me to winter quarters to meet John W. Pugh, his partner and the president of the circus. By the end of the previous evening I had persuaded Doug to change his "no" to a "maybe," but still he had made it abundantly clear that Johnny, who was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the show, would make the final decision. A short, stocky man with a boater's tan and boxer's handshake, Johnny Pugh was a former trampoline artist and stuntman who had served as Richard Burton's stunt double in the film Cleopatra. He patted me chummily on the back, invited me into his roving office, then sat back and watched as a group of senior officers filed in to meet me-the vice president, the treasurer, even the boss canvas man, a former addict turned crew chief who was responsible for putting up and taking down the tent in every town. All of them were pleasant, considerably more informal than Doug, but still extremely skeptical. What if I saw the mess inside the cookhouse? they wondered. What if I heard that the workers did drugs? Johnny listened carefully to these concerns but didn't say a word. He didn't care what I had written in the past, he didn't care what I might see in the circus. In over fifty years in show business he had dined with kings and wrestled with murderers, and he would read me for himself. At the moment he was mum.

It was not until later in the morning, with the arrival of the marketing department, that the mood began to change. "What a great idea!" said the national marketing director in a voice I soon recognized was taken as the word of G.o.d. "Just think of all the publicity we can get out of him." Almost instantly I could see the idea gaining strength as it nodded around Johnny's paneled office in the mobile ticket wagon, Truck No. 33. "I don't see why not," one said. "He does have a lot of performing experience." Finally Johnny spoke up: "We consider this circus to be one big family," he said with a faint English lilt in his voice and a defiant twinkle in his eye. "Everybody works hard, and n.o.body gets rich. And I warn you: once it gets in your blood, it never gets out." He stood up and stuck out his hand. "Welcome aboard," he said with a smile. "We start in two months."

That evening I was invited to have dinner with Elmo, the show's producing clown, and several of his friends. We were looking through books of famous clowns for inspiration in designing my face. I had a lot to do before opening day on March 25: find a camper; learn to fall; tell my mother. As I sat on a couch making notes to myself, Elmo was watching Jeopardy! and calling out the questions. Just before dinner the Final Jeopardy answer was flashed on the screen. The category was "Odd Jobs," and the answer: It was the profession of Lou Jacobs, model for a 1966 postage stamp, who died in Sarasota in 1992.

The question, which all of the contestants and all of the people in the room got right: What is a clown?

"d.a.m.n, her toenail sure is big."

Once the scrubbing on Sue's foot was done, one of the a.s.sistants rolled out a surgical tray with several sizes of scalpels and no fewer than twenty pairs of scissors. A team of doctors began gathering around Sue's injured leg, commenting on the dimensions of her foot-approximately the size of a toilet seat-and the thickness of the black hair on her leg-about the consistency of a steel dog brush. Later, if she survived, the wiry hair all over her body would be burned off by a blowtorch just before the start of the season. Fred, unlike other trainers, chose not to primp his elephants further by painting their toenails white. His elephants, though well-trained females, were still dangerous, he seemed to be saying, a lesson one family-indeed one entire community-would learn all too well later in the season.

Dr. Heard interrupted the gawking session to begin the operation. He took a long spike about the size of an oven cake tester and poked it into the heart of the abscess just above Sue's toe. A red, p.u.s.s.y substance oozed from the wound. Using a scalpel, he peeled away the flaky black skin and shaved off several layers of the toenail. As he slowly cleaned the wound and finished tr.i.m.m.i.n.g her nail, the mood in the barn began to lighten. Several doctors began sizing up Sue's teeth. A handsome male teacher posed for pictures next to her head.

Within half an hour, Dr. Heard had finished emptying the abscess and the doctors began rolling the equipment away. One woman remained, filling the banana-sized abscess with sterilized gauze and wrapping the entire bottom half of Sue's foot with seven Ace bandages. At 10:30, after removing the respirator tube, Dr. Heard administered a shot of the reversal agent into the identical spot in Sue's right ear where he had applied the sleeping drug. Almost immediately Sue's eyes flashed open, she exhaled, and her entire body convulsed.

"Everybody clear!" Dr. Heard shouted, as the last several members of the team scampered behind the gates.

"She's moving!" cried Doug, who had just returned. "She's moving her hurt foot."

"Sue, Sue!" called Fred in his steady cadence. "Steady, Sue!"

Sue nodded her head slightly and stretched her injured foot. Blood seeped from her wound and left a small stain on the bandages. Fred began to pace. Everyone else stood still. Sue issued a muted growl and slowly unfurled her trunk. In a moment she began to rock back and forth in an attempt to gain leverage. Then she collapsed, splashing hay on her face.

"This is where they can most damage themselves," Dr. Heard said aloud. "It should take about fifteen to twenty minutes for her to get enough energy to rise up again."

Fifteen minutes pa.s.sed, then twenty, but still Sue was unable to right herself. After thirty minutes she stopped swaying, and at forty-five she closed her eyes. The room became tense again. Hoping to coax her onto her feet, Fred walked into the surgical area and unhinged the steel chains around her feet. Doug turned away in fear. Dr. Heard felt Sue's ear for a pulse and wiped away the tears that were streaming down her face.

At 11:30, a full hour after the reversal shot had been issued, Dr. Heard administered a second dosage. Twenty minutes later, when Sue had still not roused herself, the doctors resorted to a set of home remedies. First they got out the broom again and began sweeping her sides. Next they threw several blankets on her back and three team members began giving her a ma.s.sage. When that too failed, they stuffed a deflated truck tire inner tube underneath Sue's neck and futilely tried to prop her up by inflating it. They even discussed tying ropes to the ceiling and leveraging Sue to her feet.

"It's not going to work," Doug moaned. "She's given up. This is what I was worried about. She's lost the will to live." He asked me to take one last photograph of Sue so he could bring it back to his wife.

By now close to desperation, one of the doctors suggested Sue might be tired of all the humans in the barn and prefer other company. The room was cleared and a student trotted across the lawn to the recuperating barn and returned with a dashing Thoroughbred stallion who was under treatment. The horse was led slowly into the barn. He looked at Sue. She looked at him. Then she fell back asleep. The experiment had failed. The horse was led away.

When all of these old wives' gimmicks had failed, Dr. Heard decided that he would give Sue one more shot of the reversal drug. Perhaps the dosage he had used on the African male in Albany was not enough for Sue, he speculated. If the third dosage did not work, however, Sue would soon be in serious trouble. After lying on her side for much of the morning, she was in jeopardy of filling a lung with fluid.

For the fourth time that morning Dr. Heard climbed on top of Sue and shot an injection into her right ear. Quickly he climbed over the railing and waited. He did not have to wait long.

Within seconds of the third shot reaching her bloodstream, Sue sat upright with a bold and startled jolt. Moving deliberately, but determinedly, she rocked her body back onto her hind legs and paused. The thirty people huddled against the railing around her paused as well. Then, at 12:37 in the afternoon of a chilly, rainy, late-January day, after three and a half hours of morphine-induced sleep, the forty-two-year-old Sue heaved her two-and-three-quarter-ton body onto her three still healthy feet, arched her trunk high into the air, and heralded the start of the circus year by filling the air with a ceremonial elephantine trumpet blast and flooding the ground with an equally unceremonious outpouring of elephant urine.

Let the season begin.

First Half.

The Circus on Parade.

Without warning a voice descends from the blue-and-white-striped heavens.

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the world's largest traveling three-ring tented circus will start in five minutes..."

Behind the back door of the packed big top, Jimmy James turns off his portable microphone, clips on his black pre-tied bow tie, and pulls the ruffled cuffs from underneath the sleeves of his royal red tailcoat. Without thinking, he pats down his hair, unavoidably white after three decades and three hundred thousand miles on the road, and pulls down his waistcoat, surprisingly trim as it settles around nearly three hundred pounds of all-American truck-stop cuisine. He smiles wanly, peers through the flaps at the three thousand people hurriedly a.s.suming their seats, and reopens his microphone to a voice as deep and rich as the three primary colors of the tent itself.

"State law prohibits smoking in a public tented area. For your safety, and the health of our children, thank you for not smoking. Throughout the presentation of all animal acts, and through frequent blackouts, please remain seated. Thank you for your cooperation, and have a healthy, fun day at the circus..."

With a quick wave to the veterans and an encouraging nod to me, Jimmy slides through the back-door flaps and steps into the darkened tent. As he does, the three dozen or so performers slip off their bathrobes, snap on their remaining spandex accessories, and ease their way toward the mouth of the tent. Finally, at precisely 4:30 P.M., Jimmy blows his silver-plated ringmaster's whistle and a ba.s.s drumroll hushes the crowd.

"Circus producers John W. Pugh and E. Douglas Holwadel welcome you to the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, entertaining generations of American families since 1884. Your overture, under the direction of James Haverstrom..."

As I move into place my heart beats faster. I try to conceal my trembling hands. For several weeks I had been preparing for this moment, lurching between a feeling of suave bravado and a sense of utter fear. When I first told my friends I was joining a circus they had greeted my news with hollow stares, then disbelief. "You're kidding." "You're doing what?" "No, really?" "And where did you go to school?" I got smiles. Rolled eyes. Squinched noses. Nervous laughter. And more than a few snide asides: "Grow up." After a while their att.i.tude would often take a turn. "The circus, huh?" "How fascinating." "I had an aunt who joined a carnival." "My uncle used to swallow swords." But in the end they usually delivered the kicker. "So what are you going to do, be a clown?"

The circus, I soon realized, has an image problem. Many people have fond images of seeing one as a child, but they still think of circuses-and circus people in particular-as dirty, degenerate, and downright depraved. "Watch out for the lion trainer," people told me. "Beware the bearded lady." Even my mother recalled taking me to a one-ring show when I was a boy that was so filthy and stinking that she took me home at intermission and vowed never to let me return.

At first I scoffed at these concerns. How dirty could it be? I said. I'd done a lot of traveling. I'd slept on a lot of floors. I'd met a lot of greasy con artists on overcrowded Third World trains. In fact I secretly prided myself on my ability to get along with people who were not only vastly different from me but often out to rip me off. Still, as the time came closer for me to leave my apartment, my telephone, my cozy group of urbane, Ivy League, vegetarian friends, I began to have doubts. Maybe this world really would be dangerous. Maybe I was getting in over my head. Talking my way onto a show had been a challenge. Now, after I had done it, the circus seemed less and less like a game and more like a world full of professionals and artists into which I was plunging headfirst with a swagger matched only by my gall. Dear Diary: What the h.e.l.l am I doing?

More than the mud, it was these petty concerns about the people (Will I make friends? Will I be accepted? Will I get invited to play on any teams?) that cluttered my mind that Thursday afternoon as I looked around at the host of performers preparing to enter the tent. On one side of me an aerialist was bending over to stretch her back. On the other a trapeze artist was reaching down to untwist his tights. One of the clowns was playing a game with the king and queen of the opening parade.