Clown Lingerie and Elephant Rides

by the Reverend Pillsbury

“You ain’t got the nerve!” PopPop spat out the declaration. Laughing hard enough to spit out his dentures.

I shouted back at him. “Aw, what do you know?”

Even amidst the sights and sounds of the circus marquee, we were drawing attention. People stopped to stare as my grandfather pointed to the massive animal. He bellowed, “You’ll fall the hell off!”

“Aw, what do you care?”

“I’d have to explain it to your mother!”

Gawkers started to laugh as we kicked sawdust and straw over each other’s shoes.

“You ain’t getting up there!”

I dropped my money on the ticket counter. “I’m gonna do it. I’m riding that goddam elephant!”

It was 1978. I was eight years old. The Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus had come to West Chester, Pennsylvania. I was with my PopPop.

I can still remember seeing the cardboard sign advertising the event in my father’s shop window. It left me with this nostalgic feeling. I pondered on what could be tugging my heartstrings. It hit me that this could be my last chance to see a real circus.

Unsure of where my hunch originated, I started pressing my parents to take me.

Mom suggested PopPop go with me.

Normally, this would induce panic. My grandfather was the type of person even somebody skilled in diplomacy and poetry would sum up as a mean old bastard.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved him, but he could bring a tear to a glass eye.

Visiting museums was always surreal with PopPop because he refused to pay for entry. Instead, we always found a way to sneak in. Sometimes by jumping in with tour groups and others through the loading dock. We climbed a wall to creep into one institute I will refrain from naming. Police officers walking by happened to notice us. PopPop talked them into giving him a boost.

It is always a bad idea to unlawfully access a building and then behave like a perfect ass. It draws attention. That never stopped me and PopPop from fighting. Constantly. Statler and Waldorf style. Our mutual verbal assaults upon each other are the stuff of family legend. When we would attend a holiday party together, the Groffs kept us in separate rooms.

PopPop was an electrician. He tried to get me to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, his idea of mentorship was barking incomprehensibly. He also had a fondness for electrocuting me. He thought it was hilarious to tell me to grab a wire, complain when I asked him to check the breaker, and then watch me get the stuffing zapped out of me.

Getting electrocuted hurts, by the way. A bad shock always felt like hot insects burrowing under my skin.

One of PopPop’s frequent customers was a doctor. He was some kind of shrink. Lived in a massive and crumbling Victorian house. The house was always full of medical students.

We started getting regular calls for simple jobs. Going to the doctor’s place to fix something was close to a biweekly event. Then I noticed that the med students were shadowing us through the house. With clipboards. Taking notes. Like anthropologists or primatologists hiding in the bush. Studying the great American blue-collar grouch.

Going to the circus with PopPop would be different. Something told me that the days of the big top were winding down. This would be a refreshing visit back to the good old days for my grandfather. I wanted to go with him.

Now we were here. At the circus. I was about to take a ride on an elephant. He was not having it.

“Why do you want to waste money on this?” PopPop growled.

“Because I don’t know if I’ll ever get another chance.”

PopPop understood that. He stopped arguing and jogged to the far end of the elephant ride pen.

Yeah. Jogged. He may have been seventy-seven, but still as spry and in shape as a much younger man.

Several of the people watching me argue with the old man also gathered around the pen. I was the only sucker to buy a ticket.

I asked the handler if I could say hello to the elephant. She was a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair. She lit up at my request and walked me around. A treat was placed in my hand to be scooped out by the elephant’s trunk before I knew what it was. The sensations were overwhelming.

I walked up the platform and was helped into the howdah by a rough-looking man with a kind voice.

The handler walked the great pachyderm around the pen. The height off the ground, the sway of the beast’s back, the smell of the pens all washed over me. PopPop heckled me from a safe distance.

The elephant ride was as memorable as I had hoped. It also served the dual purpose of getting PopPop into the mood of the moment. By the time we took to the bleachers to see the show, he was as happy as a pig in poop.

The circus was spectacular. We were both having the time of our lives.

During one of the clown skits, there was a call from the ringmaster for two children to come forward. The clowns needed help in the center ring. Before I could even begin to think about raising my hand, PopPop did the volunteering for me.

He did this by pinching me so hard that I stood up with a yelp. Then he planted his foot square up my rear. I was carried off by clowns and deposited in the center ring with another dazed looking boy.

My grandfather was laughing so hard he could hardly stay in his seat. Great bellows of infectious laughter.

I tried to take it all in.

The tent was painted bright yellow with red stripes. Sunlight passed through the yellow bands. That contrasting of bright light and dark shadow blended with the lighting overhead. It seemed like there were miles of rope and wire holding everything together. The tent poles looked like sequoias. The smell was a blend of everything under the circus tent, strengthened by the bright lights.

I had a heartbeat to take it all in before the clowns descended upon me once again.

The ringleader of this clown posse explained that we were about to have a contest. The winner would get something — I forget what — and the loser would get a balloon.

My grandfather heckled me through peals of hysterical laughter. The clowns had me and the other kid see who could put on a bra and girdle the fastest. We attempted this while the clowns were doing what clowns do. Clowning around. Turning us in circles, telling jokes, and quietly coaching us to keep things funny.

I shook my fist at PopPop. The crowd roared.

I wound up falling face first. My arms haplessly trapped and my backside sticking up in the air. The clowns said I was a good sport.

By now, PopPop was in tears.

He laughed all through the rest of the show and all the way home.

“I be go to hell, boy. That was something. I am glad I thought to take you to this.”

I be go to hell was something PopPop said when he was happy.

I sighed but could not help but laugh. “Yeah. You sure do have good ideas.”

We were still laughing when we got home. PopPop told my Irish Catholic grandmother everything.

“He put on a bra?” She brought out her rosary. I cracked up.

“And rode an elephant! You should have seen it! Oh! Those clowns. It was like the old days.”

I reached into my pocket and showed off my deflated second prize balloon.

Grandmom was confused. We tended to have that effect on her.

PopPop insisted on inflating the balloon. It was crazily long and wide. A few puffs later, it got sucked into the living room fan.

A year later, the circus came back to town. Something had happened to the tent, so there was no big top. The acts were different. The vibe was a half a bubble shy of plumb.

As I came out of a Bigfoot on Ice sideshow display, PopPop told me that I had been right. The year before was a sort of ending. It would never be the same. He may have had more to say, but he wanted to know what was in the Bigfoot on Ice trailer. I made the mistake of telling him. That led to a scene as he tried to get my quarter back from the carny.

Even PopPop couldn’t get money back from a carny.

A wise man once shared with me that opportunity comes at you like a snail and leaves you like a rocket. The next time the circus or its equivalent comes along, go. Live. Ride the elephant. Take a round in the dunking booth. You never know what adventure will be your last, so get out there as much as you can.

And no, I will not tell you what went on in the Bigfoot on Ice sideshow. You’ll have to let your imaginations run wild.

I love you, PopPop. Always.


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