The Big Top

A new old tradition has been revived in my family: going to the circus. I have an extremely dim memory of the first time, so it must have been in California before my family moved to Texas.

I recall that my dad would play some of the games for prizes, after asking his daughters to decide what sort of prize they wanted. My sister usually zeroed in on stuffed animal lions and tigers, but this was so long ago that I was still in my doll phase. I remember coveting a pale “lady doll” who had black hair and blue eyes (in other words, she looked like my ancient hero Wonder Woman). She was way at the top of the dolls. My dad never had trouble winning the games, and after the prize was won, the guy reached for a blonde doll behind him. My dad wouldn’t take no for an answer – it had to be the one his baby wanted. So the guy had to take a pole with a hook on it to get the doll with the black hair, and I clutched her with glee as we all went off to win a stuffed tiger down the row. I wonder what happened to that doll? Someday, I’ll have to hunt for one to stand in for her. Maybe the next time I’m in the Oh Susanna shop in the French Quarter. But I digress….

We used to go to the circus every year when I was little, in California and later in Texas. We’d get cotton candy, popcorn, and chocolate malt balls (though after one night of far too many malt balls, I can’t even smell them to this day).

I suppose what broke the habit was when the family moved to Saudi Arabia for my dad’s job, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey couldn’t follow us there.

Last year, I was driving through Houston and saw a billboard for good ole RB and B&B, and called my sister to read off the information to her. We went with our mom on a nostalgic whim, but ended up having such a good time that we knew we’d want to go again. Well, that time is now – or actually, that time is tomorrow evening. We’re even planning to be there early enough to visit the performing animals in their cages before the show like we used to way back when. I won’t be scarfing down malt balls, but the cotton candy will not be safe from me!

Here’s a bit of circus trivia for you: Ringling Bros. used to be a rival of Barnum & Bailey, and sometimes the competition got out of hand. Funny that they ended up joining forces and still exist today when others have disbanded and disappeared long ago. When I’m watching the performances, I often think about the history of the show and how they used to travel by train with special cars. Watch “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, at the beginning – you’ll see one of these special trains, complete with a giraffe staring at you from a hole in one of the cars. Bygone times….

It’s terribly cool that the circus shows are still around, and even though a lot has changed, you can still see the lion tamer, the trapeze troupe, and the magnificent horses – and of course, those wonderful clowns and pretty acrobats. Good times.

What WAS It?

I was born in San Francisco, CA at the tail end of the sixties, and when we moved out of the city proper, my parents bought a house in Pacifica, straight up a hill. I would have been approximately two at the time of the move, and we lived there for five years. I have no recollection of how old I was at the time of this incident, but I was probably five or six.

The house was small, but it had a huge backyard (which also went uphill) full of a variety of fruit trees. It also had a wooden privacy fence around the property, and if you climbed to the back corner of our hill and climbed halfway up the fence on the southwest side, you could see the ocean at the bottom of the hill on a clear day. I used to do that a lot, but one day, right at twilight, I happened to look up the hill instead of down.

At the crown of the hill above the neighborhood was a park surrounded by pine woods. It had meager playground equipment (swings, maybe a slide) but it had long ago turned into a place you did not take your children. It was known to be a spot favored by criminals and drug users, and in the wild and wooly sixties, you just didn’t go up there at night if you wanted to be alive the next day.

When I looked up toward the park, my eye caught a flash of something white. Having been born with an overactive imagination, I instantly thought it was a ghost. The memory is both dim and frustratingly clear at the same time, and it is seen now through the funhouse mirror of childhood perceptions, which clears up nothing. The only thing I am sure of is that it looked like a white sheet floating horizontally through the air and moving into the trees, and the sheet had a vague human shape to it. To a child, a human-shaped sheet is a ghost – I saw them every Halloween, so I knew that was what it was at the time. Normally, (I was a weird kid) seeing a ghost would have delighted me; but something about this incident terrified me. I jumped down off of the fence and ran madly down the hill and into the house to tell my mother.

I was frantic, and I guess she was just trying to calm me down, but she told me there must be people up there putting on a play, and there was a ghost character in the play, and it was someone dressed in a sheet. I don’t think I ever believed that, even then.

I never saw it again, but I’ve never forgotten the memory of the sight of it, either. As an adult who ended up a fan of true crime books, I’ve since come up with a macabre theory. In studying serial killers who were in operation in that area at the time, I discovered two case histories of killers which mentioned Pacifica as a dumping ground for their victims. Perhaps what I saw was a body wrapped in a white sheet that wasn’t floating, but was being carried by a man wearing dark clothing so that he was not visible at that distance. This perhaps sounds far-fetched, but further research dug up the fact that bodies had been found in that park more than once; one of them had even been stuffed into an old steamer trunk that had been dumped up there with some other garbage.

Or maybe it really was a ghost? I’ll never know, of course. What it left me with was something I am (perhaps weirdly) grateful for: a macabre sense of wonder that there truly are creepy things in the world, and for a kid (and adult) like me, that is a marvelous thing.