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James R. Stout

Is That All There Is?

            For my 8th birthday my parents took our family to the circus. We lived in Bryan, Texas at the time and a circus like Ringling Brothers didn’t bother with small towns like ours. But there was plenty of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to a circus that it would be profitable for a smaller circus. For weeks prior to the circus coming to town there were advertisements on TV, radio, and in the newspapers. In other words, there was a lot of hype. The circus that was coming to town was the Clyde Beatty Circus. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was in its last few years of existence. Clyde Beatty had been quite famous as a lion tamer and had actually appeared in several movies in the 30’s and 40’s and even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. But times were getting tough for his circus by the time 1963 rolled around. In fact, he would pass away in 1965.

            The posters that were plastered all of town made going to the circus seem so exiting. Posters with elephants, lions, high-wire acts, and all the usual parts of a circus made my almost 8-year-old mind filled with excitement. Finally, the day came and on a Friday night we all piled into the car and went to the circus. We got to the location and there was the big tent. Multi-colored flags blew in the wind and a sense of excitement filled the air. The first person that we saw as we went into the tent was a clown. I was never much of a clown lover, but he was friendly and handed out programs. The first thing that I noticed was the smell. It was a cacophony of smells. There was sawdust, manure, popcorn, cotton candy, and all the smells that you would associate with a circus. Of course, the sounds of the circus were there too. Animals making their noises, whips snapping, backfiring little cars that the clowns rode around in, crowd speak, and musical instruments playing loudly all mixed together with the smells and the sights. Did I say sights? Flashy and gaudy costumes on both performers and animals gave the impression that they had all been painting and had gotten more paint on themselves than anything else.

            Then there was the opening fanfare and a parade around the three rings. The first thing that we saw were several elephants walking with their trunks attached to the next elephant’s tail. There were costumed performers riding on the elephants and waving at the crowd. Frankly, what I couldn’t help but notice was the prodigious amount of elephant excrement left behind. I’d been around my grandfather’s cattle and as much as they produced, the elephants greatly surpassed the bovine production. I have some other vague memories of the night such as the high-wire act, the dancing horses, and the antics of the clowns. But hands down the one thing that I remember the most was the human cannonball. First, that boom was deafening. Second, the helmeted human cannonball flew the length of the three rings and landed in a giant net.

            I’d love to tell you that it was a magical night in my young life, but it really wasn’t. There was a song that was a big hit about 6 years later that the singer talks about going to the circus as a child and when it was over, she simply thought, “Is That All There Is?” That’s how I felt. Over the years when I have thought about that night and the trip to the circus, I have compared it to life in general. There are people that we meet that are clowns. They may not be official clowns, but they have clown like attributes. Some of them don’t wear the make-up (but some do) and costumes, but they are in general superficial people. You just don’t ever know what a clown is really thinking. There are some incredibly talented people in our lives, and these are the high-wire performers. You look at what they do and realize that it takes a special kind of person and talent to do it. You know that you could never do what they do. When I hear a lot of politicians speak, I think of the human cannonball. A whole lot of noise, a big flash, and there always seems to be a net to catch them.

            I don’t want to give the impression that I hated going to the circus. It’s just that it simply didn’t live up to all the hype. It occurs to me that there are a lot of things in life that seem bigger than life and so exciting. It’s human nature to imagine these things greater than they could ever be. I have found that the most exciting events in life usually come out of the blue and are totally unexpected. Maybe that’s the key. If we build up something in our minds, then we’re setting it up so that it can’t possibly compare to our imagination. And it’s about that time that we sing, “Is That All There Is?”

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