After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will fold its tents for the last time in May of 2017. Over twenty years ago, the circus came to our town for the last time. Although I didn’t buy a ticket for the show that night, I arrived there in time to see the methodical – almost mechanical – dismantling of the circus, from bleachers to Big Top, the night before it moved on. Instantly, I was drawn back to childhood days, when our family went to the circus every year. (Please note: While it is sad to see a beloved childhood memory come to a close, it is, at the same time, a pleasure to see circus animals – especially elephants – released and retired to live out their lives in animal preserves and sanctuaries, all due to the diligent work of animal rights groups. )
A surge of nostalgia pulsed through my veins as I ducked inside the tent to savor the final phrases of the ringmaster’s spiel mingled with hefty aromas of roasted peanuts and cotton candy. But hardly had the dust beams of yesterday sifted into place when a thunderous succession of swooshing vibrations jarred me back to reality, and I sidestepped a string of leather-harnessed elephants, tails in trunks, that brushed past me into the night.
Even as they disappeared, hollow sections of the wooden rings that had held their last act were carted off by performers still in costumes and undaunted by the endless river of faces that flowed from bleachers and funneled itself out of the Big Top. At the same time, safety nets and tightropes, trapeze, and even massive cluster-lights gave way to rigging manipulated by acrobats and bareback riders. Steel bleachers clanked and clanged and rang as they were broken down and, like the precision closing of a child’s pop-up book, folded back into the sides of six, now-visible semi trailers that lined the tent.
As side curtains were dropped and packed away, the semis, already stacked high with props and clown paraphernalia rolled out, making way for elephants outfitted with chains to dislodge the poles that supported the crest and main weight of the tent. From center to outskirts, poles surrendered their positions, until at last the mighty Big Top whooshed its final breath and collapsed on the asphalt. Performers turned roustabouts swarmed to loose its center lashing, then scattered to its sides to fold and feed its candy-cane stripes onto the revolving drum in the Big Top’s own truck.
In minutes, all that remained in the amber glow of the street lamps was an oblong circle of iron stakes embedded in asphalt. And now each of four elephants eyed the crowd and rocked in place to its own beat as the loose end of its dangling neck-chain was slung around a stake. One by one, stakes eased from their asphalt grips clashed to the ground in fitting finales to labored trumpets that trailed off into the heavy night air.
As the last stakes were pulled, trickles of illusion eroded my senses. The elephants’ work was done. The Big Top was down. And tomorrow the circus would move on.