“The circus is a place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.”

— Ambrose Bierce

A story: One summer day in the late 1890s, my father ran away and joined the circus.

This is a true story verified by those who were close to it and repeated to me any number of times over the years as in, “Did you know that your daddy ran away and joined the circus when he was a kid?”

His old bar friends at Skeeter O’Neil’s saloon, retired sailors, cops and firemen, would see me every time the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” came to town. “Did you know that your father once worked with that show?”

No one else in the family except my mother really knew why he did it, or what job he held with the circus, but the legend persisted. Some said he was a clown; others, the guy with the red coat and whip who tamed the tigers. I liked to think he was an acrobat, that guy way up there in red tights, who caught the girl in the swimming suit. I could see him up there.

The legend electrified me, and I never hesitated to use it to enhance my position with my friends.

The biggest breaking news this week is not about the circus in Washington with its blue-suited and red-tied clowns dancing to their personal pipe organs, and their big sweaty ringmaster, but that the great Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is folding its tents after 146 years, and rolling into the sunset.

That was probably the same circus that came to St. Louis back in the 1890s when my father, at 15 years of age, decided he wanted to see the elephants, not from the bleachers but up close, right up to their magnificent trunks. Did he succeed? Stay tuned.

Now my father’s favorite creatures will finally be retired, we’re told, to the company’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation, somewhere in central Florida.

That’s good news for those of us who have been saddened over the years by watching these poor beasts being trotted out into the center ring every night for the amusement of cheering and laughing humans.

For me it began when my father took my little sister and me to the circus for the first time, when the big show came to St. Louis in the late ’30s. It was a Technicolor blend of fear, anxiety and magic.

We sat in seats very close to the action, where clowns of every description, with leering eyes and grotesque grins, ran up to us. It got worse — they pointed toy guns at us that, when fired, covered us with colored confetti.

At one point it was announced over a loudspeaker that a man would be shot out of a cannon at any moment. That’s all I needed to hear; I made my father take me to the boys’ room.

Then came the elephants; I remember the poor beasts being trotted out and made to perform acts like slaves, balancing on small colorful boxes, balancing objects on their trunks, and bearing beautiful girls around the big ring. Even at that age, I was not amused.

It was when one of the trainers began to poke one of the creatures with an ugly looking prong that the circus ended for my baby sister. She started with small sobs, then burst into tears, and finally screamed and buried her face into my chest when I began to weep. She kept saying, “The elephants are crying.”

What we all learned later on in life about circus life for the elephants was horrifying. PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has fought for years to close down circuses and has revealed more horrors about carnival animal acts.

In Africa, they were rounded up like wild horses and shipped here in cattle boats, then chained and stuffed into box cars and shuffled from town to town across the country and the world, like slaves.

And the verdant pastures they’re being retired to? The bad news is that while freed from their red-coated, prong-and-whip-bearing masters, the elephants will be used as part of cancer research. Some folks never get a break.

An amusing coda: When they found my father, he had truly been working with the circus, as a crap shoveler in the elephant stockade. A dream come true, but he was happy to go home.

So as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closes shop after 146 years, somewhere across America, another young elephant crap shoveler is out of a job.

Goodnight, Daddy, wherever you are. I’m glad your dream came true, but for me, you’ll always be the acrobat.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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