The Circus Comes to Poughkeepsie

May 14, 2017

Last week, David Von Drehle wrote in Time Magazine about the closing of the Circus.  He zeroes in perfectly on the why of it:  the loss of our ability to be astonished.  When a small iphone brings us headline news around the clock along with pictures of everything happening everywhere, what can possibly astonish us?

For 146 years, Ringling Bros. traveled the country in trains staying in towns for one or two days.  Local people gathered to watch the elephants pull the ropes that would set up the tent.  Anticipation and astonishment in an unconnected world.  Now in old age, I treasure even more the memory of the day my college roommate and I decided to go to the circus when it came to our college town.

In 1948, Penny and I had just finished our freshman year at Vassar and had decided to spend the last wartime summer term there as well.  We walked from the campus to downtown Poughkeepsie by the Hudson River and approached the enormous beige tent held up by ropes attached to wooden spikes driven into the grass.

For some reason neither of us can fathom, we decided to crawl under the side of the tent to avoid buying a ticket.  To my horror, as I ducked under the canvas I was immediately between the two back hooves of one elephant in a row of others.  To go forward or back out?  I crawled forward on the dirt, came safely out through his front hooves, stood up and stared in gratitude that he hadn’t decided to stamp on that alien being crawling beneath him.  That memory is as alive all these decades later as it was when I was under his belly in 1948.

From that minute forward, Penny and I soaked it all up and everything we saw was new to us.  Before the circus started we went to all the sideshows:  a hermaphrodite, nearly naked women, rare animals, polar bears, unicycles, clowns, jugglers, “sixty lovely girls aloft in flashing color,” and “Wizards of the Wire in Unbelievably Skilled Expansions Beyond the Abyss of Intrepidity.”  And for the finale, “Daring elephants, lovely debutantes, dowagers and an “enthralling extravaganza of graceful, grotesqueries and swirling rhythm.”  Where else in 1948 could you see any of this?

You’re laughing, of course, but most of us in the audience had never seen Ringling Bros before, and certainly we had never heard such descriptions.  The circus travelled over 19,000 miles in four silver and red trains on 37 railroads.  How much rope for what they did in the tent?  Seventy-six miles of it.  Can you imagine a tent full of today’s young people who are surprised by almost nothing?  That’s why Ringling Bros has announced the closing of the circus.

Several decades after Penny’s and my wonderful afternoon, I was approaching the Hudson River for a return to a college reunion when I sucked in my breath in astonishment and pulled to the side of the road.  There, close by, was the silver and red train steaming across the Hudson River Bridge for yet another performance.  What stopped me cold was one car without a roof and there they were:  an entire car full of giraffes.  The river, the bridge, the train, and against the sky the long orange necks.  One more day of astonishment before the modern world killed fantasy.

For 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had delivered the gift of astonishment to joyful audiences.  Modern communication brings everything to everyone now.  No more surprises.  Except one for me:  whenever I think of looking up at the belly of that elephant, I thank him quietly for not stomping me for invading his territory seven decades ago.