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.

July 10, 1937 – for Darhl C. Cowden

In February two years ago, my dad passed away. June and July are always a little odd now, in particular Father’s Day and today, July 10th – Dad’s birthday. I usually stop by the cemetery (just a few streets down from home) and spend some time in a “visit”, clean off the stone, straighten the flag and flowers, water the grass if it looks parched. Today he would have been 72, having been born in 1937. Part of my brain still reflexively thinks, “I need to get a cake and a present.”

Not that he didn’t have his problems, but he was a great dad and if I say so myself, he did a fabulous job of raising my sister and I along with our mom.

He was a blast when we were little, and then he took us all over the world after his oil company job moved us to Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Western Europe and Kenya and Egypt in Africa – dreams fulfilled to be in some of those places. I’m a history buff, so it meant a lot to stand in the Parthenon in Greece, the Roman Coliseum, and among the pyramids of Giza. We toured Munich, and visited London and Amsterdam multiple times (they were the stops on flights to and from Saudi Arabia), as well as Switzerland, and others. We visited Cowden England, and ate lunch in a pub named after us.

One of the best adventures was going to Exeter, England and learning how to sail. We went all up and down the English and French coasts, discovering wonderful towns, beautiful little islands, and meeting some of the best people in the world. I even got to explore the ruins of a once grand villa on the French coast that had been shelled in World War II! What was left of it (mostly just some walls) was still riddled with bullet holes.

Now, I have to wonder if I’m a history buff because of these travels? Probably so.

One of my guilty pleasures, watching “Dancing with the Stars” was started because my dad was watching it.

He loved Corvettes, movies (especially James Bond), and listening to the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffet. His enjoyment of “Cast in Bronze” (the Carillon at the Texas Renaissance Festival) got us all to fall in love with that humbling, soaring music. He loved Country, too, and 50s rock and roll, and the tales of King Arthur.

Because of my parents, I have an abiding love for broadway musicals, especially “Camelot”, and Folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio.

I made a cloak for him for the Renaissance Fair so he could look like Richard Burton’s King Arthur, and he bought a lovely gown so my mom could be his queen.

At his funeral, they had the Air Force honor guard there, with a rare bugler to play “Taps” live. Even now, I can hear it, as they folded the flag and handed it to my mother, and everyone there who had either served or ever loved someone who had, ended up in tears.

His magnificent RC model airplanes still hang on display in the family garage where they were built. He was a pilot in California when I was a baby, and a Sheriff, too. He used to make his own bullets, and he taught me how to shoot a handgun. Even now, I follow in his footsteps with my job in Records Management (the same job he did in Saudi for Bechtel and then later for Shell).

And now it’s July 10 again, and memories, happy and sad, crowd in. I gave him a song, a sort of dedication: “I Am A Town” by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and it always makes me cry. All I have left to say is this:

Happy Birthday, Dad. We love you, and we miss you.

TRF: End of the Season Blues

Once again, the Texas Renaissance Festival comes to a close. 2008 was a sporadic year for me, since I was only able to attend four of the eight weekends, but those four were good ones. We also saw near perfect weather, with only the last weekend really acting like winter during the daylight hours.

The end of the season blues used to hit me harder in many ways, but now it seems like a quieter feeling more akin to nostalgia and waiting, far more patiently than ever before, for the next season.

On that last Sunday afternoon, I caught myself watching leaves blow across one of the main squares, a meeting of many pathways. Bagpipes and drums faded slightly, as the thought slipped in: “Where will I be, what will be different in my life, by the time I sit here again next year, listening to the pipes and watching leaves blow?”

In a crisp Autumn wind a question like that can seem melancholy, but the emotion that inspired it was hope mixed with a touch of wonderment.

I suppose a less poetic soul might slap the cliche “winds of change” on the whole scene and call it a day, but I prefer to be more reflective.

Perhaps for those who are new to the phenonemon of TRF, an explanation is in order? When I was young, sixteen to be precise, I was introduced to this six weekends long event. When it ended, I longed for it to start again, sometimes getting “fest miss” (a common ailment) as early as June. This cycle continued for the next twenty-two years…. Then the place itself, and its rules, started changing, and not for the better. Perhaps the people with children thought it was improved, but I did not. It got less and less like a renaissance fair and more and more modern and commercial. Now, having watched this decline for two years (and seeing no end to it) I find myself confiding in friends that I go mostly to see loved ones I can’t easily spend time with anywhere else.

Unfortunately, the only thing that may stop the eroding of the place could be its eventual demise. King George, like the rest of us, is getting older, and when he is gone, his heirs are not likely to keep it going. They do not love it like he does, and those who build the endless anthill subdivisions would love to take it all away from us. So the question becomes this: “Do I walk away before the slow stripping of spiritual flesh from bone? Or wait and tarry only to become an unwilling witness to it?” Typically, I have found a middle path; I withdraw in increments, going there less to soften the inevitable blow of its loss.

The grounds still have magic in a few tired corners, far from the bustle and shouts of children clutching items never once imagined in the historical ages that the signs and hawkers try to evoke. I can feel it in my hair when the wind blows, and in the dark after fireworks are smoke. I wonder, now and then, what will become of it when concrete, asphalt, and fences plow it all under, dreams, leaves, memories and all.

Will anything be left? The people will remain, most of them (we’ve already lost so many, God rest their souls). But while life goes on, it gets “in the way” of some of the quieter, simpler things. What it comes to is, without this great place of fading magic that calls to us, very few would ever find time to gather and share food, warmth, stories, and all that makes people into friends. And even if some do gather, it will likely diminish and fade without that one unifying focus. Perhaps a new place might be either found or created, just like King George made this one, out of a strip mine and a dream, over thirty years ago.

For now, it still stands, in spite of all the changes. The pine trees that line the parking rows are taller than most people’s dreams, though in my mind I recall when I could step over them to reach my car. And so many rich memories lurk in every shade, every beam of sunlight. The old Robin Hood stage I loved is gone, but the Carillon of Cast in Bronze helps me mourn its loss so poignantly, even as it stands in its place.

Next year I may withdraw more, willingly or no. Yes, I am busy, more than ever, and likely to be busier as time goes on. My fear is that someday the old toss away saying of, “See you next year” will be as lost under asphalt as the fair grounds themselves. When that time comes, the fair will be lost, forever, whether or not something new takes its place.

But I will still miss it, and all it will take is one curling note of a bagpipe to lead me off down the wind to that same place, chasing the leaves all the way – even if it is only in my mind.