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Lions and Tigers and Elephants -- the Circus is in Town!


The word had been out a while around McKenzie school the fall I turned eight, but I didn't know what to expect. The annual agricultural fair was familiar with its Ferris Wheels and Merry Go Round, but the circus? And not just any circus, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey! Posters were up on shop windows and big ads appeared in the newspaper, promising excitement like Florence had never seen before. On October 26, 1951, the biggest of the Big Tops came to Florence.

The Circus Train came to a slow stop, blocking Coit Street between West Evans and Darlington Street. It didn't take long for the news to spread and townspeople turned out in droves. People came on foot and in cars and pretty soon they were everywhere, onlookers, helpers, greeting the circus crew and animal wranglers as they descended from the train. "Stay close to me," Daddy warned, "or you'll have to get back in the car." I didn't want to get stuck back in the car I wanted to see the elephants!

The smells were like a cross between Mimi and Da's mule pen and hot tar. The animal smell wasn't unfamiliar or unpleasant to a mostly agricultural community like Florence. But the incredible sounds! Deep rumbles and high pitched squeals identified several jungle animals with a few low growls mixed in, presumably from lions and tigers.

Then the elephants chimed in! I would recognize the trumpeting of elephants anywhere. Chills went up my arms and I tugged hard on Daddy's hand, urging him forward. "The elephants, Daddy! I want to see the elephants!" But we had to stay back, there were too many people ahead of us.

Suddenly I couldn't wait to get to the circus. "Can we go now?" I asked Daddy, "Can we go to the circus now?" As he led the way back to the car and we headed home, I clammered to know why we couldn't go right now and see the lions, and tigers, and especially the elephants.

But the tents weren't up yet and the equipment still had to be unloaded, like the high wires, trapezes, the human cannonball's cannon, not to mention the sawdust and bleachers. Daddy explained that the animals had to be unloaded too, not just lions and tigers and elephants, but trained horses and dogs and their trainers. We'd have to be patient.

They planned to parade the elephants down the street to the designated site behind the National Guard Armory on West Evans. We missed that, but when opening time arrived, Mama and Daddy, Harold and I were in line. We entered the Big Top by way of a path lined with huge painted cages. I imaged myself looking like an appetizer to the big cats peering through the metal bars and tried to wedge myself between Mama and Daddy.

Hawkers in striped costumes were selling souvenirs and hot dogs. Little booths on wheels sold snowballs and cotton candy. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the fairgrounds, except for clowns on stilts and women in shiny spangles welcoming us into the tent.

Three sections had been created it was a for-real three-ring circus the largest ring in the center, of course. The bleachers looked a bit wobbly to me and I didn't want to go very far up. You can see more up there, Daddy explained, pointing up a few more rows. No! No! The fear of heights even then was getting a grip on me. So Harold and I sat just a few rows up from the ground, Mamy and Daddy right behind us. Sort of in-between two of the rings, we could see most of the center ring and all of one more.

The performers and animals were introduced by the Ringmaster as they circled the tent before separating to spots on the ground and in the air. The circus had begun! Big striped tigers in a metal cage performed their routine with a whip-wielding handler. They seemed unhappy as they performed, human and cats alike. A cat lover, I was both thrilled and sympathetic. If a tiger took a nip out of that handler, I might not have minded too much.

The circus wonderland kept me mesmerized the entire afternoon. Acrobats and jugglers, the lady and man on the trapeze flying back and forth through the air, I hardly knew where to look. "Look, look!" Mama would point as something new started in a different ring. The clowns with their big noses and floppy feet crammed themselves into a little car and a little house how did so many squeeze into such a small space?

The Ringmaster directed our attention to the far side of the tent. Pow went the cannon, and a flash of red went by as the human cannonball flew through the air into a safety net. Not too impressive, I thought, mainly because I missed most of his flight. But there was so much movement, so much sound, so much to see.

I loved the elephants, those wonderful gray creatures with big eyes and long eyelashes. As they lumbered into the ring, a dainty girl posed across each neck like a shiny pom-pom. Then up the elephants rose, front legs resting on the rump of his fellow in front. Up again, until each one was sitting on his hind legs with trunk raised, the girls gracefully slipping to the ground. I watched the trapeze artists and the horses and the dogs and the clowns and tried my best not to miss anything important. I probably ate a hot dog, maybe some peanuts. But what I remember most from that day is the elephants.

We've had other circuses in Florence over the years. Ringling traded in their trains for trucks in the middle 1950's, our local Big Top site was changed to the airport, finally indoors at the Civic Center in recent years. But nothing will ever be as good to me as that day in 1951 when Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey brought the circus train and the lovely elephants to Florence.

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