What do an old man, a garage, glass picture frames, a basement, clowns, dogs & Dr. Pepper have to do with each other? Quite a lot, if you happened to be me at the age of 10.
Our dog Muppet had gotten out of the yard. Again. How she could squeeze through that narrow crack between two boards in our back yard fence I’ll never know, but she always found a way. Who knew that one day in the summer of 1978 it would shape my life and my perceptions of people around me for the rest of my life?
Summer holiday found me on my bike most days, cruising through the Riverside area of the town I grew up in, Wichita, Kansas. I’d hang out at the local golf club selling balls I’d retrieved from the rough for a cold Dr. Pepper, or at Cowtown, the living museum & shops of the Old West Wichita, or at the local Indian Center. I usually had Muppet with me, on a leash running near my bike. But sometimes she’d go without me, and I’d have to go find her. One day I rode off and searched all the usual places, with no luck. I’d just about given up when, riding down the street and calling her name, I heard an old man call out, “Ya lookin’ for a white dog?”
Barney, 90 at the time, told me that he’d taken Muppet into the house as it was a hot day, and he invited me in for a cool drink and to meet the Missus. Muppet was being spoiled rotten and was in no hurry to leave; she’d been charmed by dog treats and a comfortable dog bed; Bessie charmed me with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, but Barney won my heart when he offered me a Dr. Pepper so cold that it frosted the glass on the way in! Their only son, Buster, lived just up the street with his wife, but they’d never had any children, and so I became the Bernards’ honorary granddaughter. My mother had met them both as she was the local Avon Lady, so she knew where to look for me from that day on.
On my second visit Barney & Buster went out to the garage and took me with them saying they needed an audience: Showmen at heart, and just like the revealing of Rosie in the film “Water for Elephants,” they slowly opened the wide double door of the garage to reveal another world, as floor to ceiling color met my wide eyes: Clown costumes; a vanity with tins of face paint by the mirror, the stool being a bull tub; and the walls were lined with wooden pegs holding rows and rows of juggling equipment, clown tricks, masks, brightly painted wooden poster boards, wigs… oh, and a set of winter tires just to add that touch of normality. You see, Barney had cut his teeth as a juggler, clown and acrobat with the circus (among others, the Barnum & Bailey), from 190-something to the late 1940s. He travelled all over the US, living for the applause, and the smell of sawdust, elephants, horses, and face paint.
One summer the circus had landed on an Indian reservation in Arizona, and before they pulled up stakes again he’d met his future wife, the daughter of the local missionary. With no promise of stability or routine, Bessie had no choice but to live the life of a gypsy if she married Barney. Not knowing if or when he’d ever return, she pulled up stakes, grabbed the nearest judge and said “I do.” Buster was born a few years later, and raised in a circus wagon cutting his teeth on juggling pins and clown costumes.
Eventually the nesting instinct and need for solid ground beneath her feet led them to settle at a mid-way stop in the road to ensure their continuing contact with the circus. They built a temporary log cabin on the plains of Kansas, and each time the circus would pass by they’d be sure to set up camp around the Bernards’ home. Imagine the sight of looking out your window in the mornings to see an entire zoo, a ring of caravans, people in various stages of costumes and makeup, and elephants bathing themselves in dust or nipping down to the river for a swim and ripping up chunks of buffalo grass for breakfast. By the time I came along the settlers of Kansas had filled in the gap between Wichita & the plains surrounding the Bernards’ home. Where elephants once rehearsed now stood my own family’s home.
Father and son, 90 and about 69, picked up one heavy juggling pin after the other, and soon had half a dozen and more flying back and forth down the driveway. From there they moved on to rings, balls, knives… if they wanted to juggle fire, they had to be faster than Bessie’s watchful eye. They could still juggle to beat the best, though I was a bit worried at first that Barney might hurt himself showing off – those pins were much heavier than they looked! But one by one, they’d send them flying …5…6…7…8… and by the 9th or 10th pin I was having trouble imagining how they were going to stop without injuring someone or something. But one by one, the pins would begin to disappear until only one remained and someone decided to hold onto it for the finale. I was watching a piece of history come to life, and I reveled in it.
On another visit Barney took me down to the basement to show me his “secret source of power”: A bar with a fridge that chilled all those Dr. Peppers, and a giant mason jar filled with my dog’s favorite treats. The basement, one large room with simple carpeting and very little furniture, was completely lined with stacks of photo frames each up to my shoulders’ height, a backdrop for more circus paraphernalia, including a life-sized mechanical lion staring at me hungrily from the corner! Barney had had it custom made; it roared, tilted its head and shook its mane, and twitched its tail. For a little girl standing next to a one-of-a-kind life-sized animatronic lion, it was awe-inspiring. Muppet barked and growled and carried on a storm until she got used to it, but she always kept one eye on it after that whether it moved or not.
In what became our habit, I’d take a seat on one of the bar stools as he’d pull out a random picture frame from a nearby stack, sit down next to me, and we’d take a journey back in time through the eyes of an old man reliving his magical youth. “And this spot in that empty field right there,” he’d point enthusiastically, “is where your house now stands! I remember when ours was the only house around! I hauled the stones I built this house with from the river & river banks. But I had help,” he smiled with a twinkle in his eye, reaching for another photo. It was a black and white picture of one elephant carrying a stone in his trunk and another pushing a wheelbarrow. During one of those visits their pachyderm friends helped them build the house I came to know (next to that original house site) in what is, I’m certain, unique to the history of Kansas! The beauties would haul the stones up from the riverbeds to the building site, and help lift them into place as the men swarmed the walls with buckets of cement. It was all there, in black and white. Any time I smell a particular flavor of musty wood, I’m transported back to that magical time myself.
Each and every one of those frames contained a black and white moment in the history of the circus, or of the Midwest as it developed from prairies to towns to cities. With each black and white photo came a story: the juggler’s life; the life of a gypsy; the high wire; the tight rope; the clown routines; the grease paint; the costumes; the life of a rag tag mob thrown together by talents, personalities and circumstances, welded into one family by blood, sweat and tears; washing clothes in a tin bucket and stringing them up to dry between circus wagons, waving in the wind like colorful flags; the characters of circus life both in the ring and outside of the ring, on the road, around the camp fires, in country fairs and city streets, in circus parades, wagons, tents and big tops. My heart aches at the thought of how many stories have been lost from that time; if I’d known I’d one day become a writer, I would have chronicled each and every story in all its color, intensity, and spirit.
Each visit was more fascinating than the last, and I learned over the years to never underestimate people: The midget with a heart of gold, the bearded lady who loved to sing, the clown who was really lonely, and the juggler who also dabbled as a cook… each one gave their all and played their part in making life rich and worth the living. I learned that you can learn something from everyone, and that everyone is important in some unique way. I learned that the little old lady I pass on the street probably has an amazing story to tell, if I’d just take the time to listen. They might be a former actress, or refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, or the survivor of a plane crash, or a former stewardess of an ocean liner, or a cousin of the Wright brothers (that would be my great-grandmother). There’s a saying: “We make a living by what we get, but make a life by what we give.” Barney and Bessie taught me that its far more blessed to give than to receive; they never had much materially, but were two of the richest people I’ve ever met.
I continued visiting them until my family moved away in 1983; Bessie passed away in her sleep just eighteen months after I got to know them, and Barney lived to the ripe old age of 95, and passed away just a few months after we’d moved. I was able to see him one last time in the hospital a week before he passed; it was an important moment for us both.
When I’m old and grey, will someone take the time to ask me about my life? Will my experiences pass from this world with me? By writing them down I have the chance that someone will know, and be touched by something I’ve learned.
It’s the human desire to pass on what we’ve learned and experienced because each life is remarkable and unique. The next time you see an elderly person, stop and think about what they might have experienced; better yet, take time to get to know them, talk to and listen to them… chances are they’ll blossom into the vigor of youth, and you’ll unearth a trove of incalculable treasure.
I wonder if the people who live in Barney’s house now know that it was built by elephants?
[For a lexicon of American (among others) circus slang, check out the website here. ]