The Circus Comes to Town
Hard work to set the stage
As a child there were few announcements of greater import. Even the big towns in the Hudson Valley were too small for significant events but when both your town was small and you were small it didn’t take a lot stir the imagination. Because the circus and their more frequent cousins, carnivals, came almost every year they were regular punctuation in the relentless small town calendar that began with the new school year and ambled on through football season, the falling of the leaves, the shortening of daylight, Thanksgiving, the winter solstice and then Christmas.
Next snow and the coldest month February followed by Easter that never arrived predictably, being on the lunar calendar. With spring came flowers and mud and later the flowering fruit orchards that made the Hudson Valley seem briefly a magical place. In June summer would arrive but not until exams, the gatekeepers to ten weeks off, were successfully navigated.
Summer had it’s own punctuation. Many families had summer plans. Did we have any? Most went to places. My family went away as if escape was the key, and really, my Mother’s key. The Hudson Valley wasn’t where she wanted to be but I wouldn’t know this for many years. Once the big summer plans were known I would work on the smaller ones. Would there be a parade on the 4th of July and if so, could I go, and possibly even march? The criterion for inclusion was a beating heart and mine beat particularly fast when I wore my Little League Red Sox or Cub Scouts uniforms. Early on we lived a mile from town leaving me dependent on parents who had other things to do. When we moved into town in 1954 I never asked again. From then on I made my own schedules and commitments.
So when posters went up for the carnival or circus each July I was ready. With an allowance of a quarter and opportunities to earn more I could make plans to spend, a dime on the cotton candy, a dime [for one] or a quarter for three rides and a couple dimes for the games of chance. I could turn these coins into two hours of entertainment and feel like I was observing real life. My parents didn’t like these events but if I earned the money and could get there on my own I could go. Earning your own money was something my family respected. Money always seemed to be the key.
The Circus Comes to Town
A city of gypsies
Beginning about age 11 my parents let me use their lawnmower to mow the neighbors’ lawns but it became an issue with my father about splitting the money and with my mother about wearing out the equipment. So when I was 13 I bought my own 22” from Sam Emanuel who had a hardware store on upper Main; the cost $64 paying half down and a portion every week from my lawn-mowing route. Sam got to know a lot more about my finances that he ever expected because I would stop in several times a week to update him on my jobs and payments. When the bill was paid off at the end of summer I never had a reason to go back except a year or two later when the muffler needed to be replaced. We spoke for about an hour and I realized I had made a good impression on him by how I had handled my payments. In truth it was easy. My parents were always clear that promises made are promises to be kept. Throughout my entire life this has been a given.
So, come summer, I would have money in my pocket and the biggest July-August event, the carnival, upcoming.
These fairs and the occasional circus would arrive by truck on Tuesdays, take shape on Wednesdays and be underway on Thursdays, early enough for exchanges of opinions about “what’s good this year?” If the weather held there would be good crowds. If not a smaller crowd would be wearing slickers. Come Sunday while we slept in, the fair would wrap up and move on – leaving impressionable kids with memories to last a lifetime.
The event, sponsored by the fire department, was kind of tacky in the daylight but splendid at night when the bright lights set off the imagination. In the daylight the Dive Bomber, a two-seat affair for fifty cents that flung its riders from here to hell and back looked beaten up and intimidating. At night it just looked scary. Early on I saw it as an IQ test. Years later I heard it was involved in a terrible accident. They should have called it the Death Wish.
There were also the baby-rides. This isn’t what the carnival folk called them but my friends did. There were also games of chance including one run by the fire department one year that was intended to be level but was canted prompting the excited to bet their limited fortunes on the possibilities in one far corner where the ball inevitably landed.
The Circus Comes to Town
"The Circus Tent by the River" by Jorge Enciso: Magic
You could also throw darts or shoot BB guns at balloons to win prizes that would quickly go into the attic to be retrieved with quizzical looks twenty years later by someone asking “what did this cost you?” I was always very good with numbers but the distinction between shiny and crap took a few more years to figure out.
Once in a while a travelling circus, in place of the carnival, came through with the requisite elephant and a menagerie of snakes and turtles for the big show. The show women, who had once been beautiful, wore spangles and high heels that were out of place on the Campus School athletic field where imagination and mystery could coexist only in the dark.
Nevertheless I went each year for four or five years and every year saw the same things but saw them differently. In time I came to see these shows as a window on a seamy outside world. My parents after all were right but I had to see it for myself.
Looking back it was how people reacted that was most telling. Many never went. The fairs it seemed were sentenced before any testimony was even given. For others who did go there was sometimes something in their eyes that was unsettling. They could seem as caged as the monkeys. New Paltz, it would turn out, would not be enough. More than fifty years later most have left. The kids I grew up with, like the plentiful milkweed silky seeds we could find every fall, have moved on or been carried away. In either case, driving or driven, they are gone. And for the few of us who think about it the impulse to leave probably owed something to what we saw as we sat on the Ferris wheel, rising high, seeing ourselves disappearing into the night and thinking we wanted to go higher.
The images with this piece are photos of the carnivals and circuses in the Hudson Valley taken about 65 years ago. Elephants can live to 70 years so its possible that one of the elephants in this picture still lives. If so, it will be because it didn’t eat the cotton candy.