It's shortly before dawn. The rigs are packed and ready to hit the road. Diesel engines roar to life, clattering while drivers make final adjustments in the bright slices of headlights cutting through the dark. The dogs have had their leak and a drink and are hopping one by one - wet from the morning dew - into their owners' trucks.
This could be any company of folks who work hard. Whatever the business, the people and the daily challenges are remarkably similar. But this business is one you won't find in the Yellow Pages. This is The Circus.
One summer, not long ago, I traveled with the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus. It was The Big Top. It was Exotic Trained Animals. It was Trapeze Acts. It was a heck of a lot of work. And I was there on weekends to work as a big top hand and general gofer. Pay was in the form of all the experience I could soak up.
This particular morning I'm sitting high in the passenger seat of Heidi's semi truck, surrounded by a tangle of worn leather bridles and harnesses, a boa feather, and a tiny gauzy skirt for a show dog. Heidi is third-generation circus. This semi is her home, an RV of sorts. Hitched behind is her family: a stable of three ponies, a mule, a donkey, three horses, including the one for her dancing horse act, seven dogs, and a cat. Heidi has gotten all of her animals from animal shelters - some of the horses literally from the glue factory. They all work for a living - two shows a day, every day.
Heidi comes jogging toward the semi, yanks open the door on my side, and shouts above the engine noise to the huge, hairy dog with her, "In ya go, Buster!"
To my horror, Buster leaps onto my lap. He's wet from the dew. He smells like a - what else? - wet dog. Heidi slams shut the door, runs through the headlights around to her side of the truck and bounces up into the driver's seat.
"Let's hit it!" she grins, as she grinds the truck into gear. We laboriously pull in behind the Airstream RV belonging to the Hungarian family trapeze performers. The circus is on the road!
"Don't let Buster bother you. That's usually his seat." Buster's no more inclined to give up the seat than I am, and it looks like we'll share it.
It's summer, and I'm traveling with the circus through western Colorado. I didn't know what to expect, but this certainly isn't it.
Perhaps some people join the circus to escape their real life, but what I found was my life reflected right back at me. You know the saying, "Wherever you go, there you are." Well, there I was, still in the world of small family companies working very hard to make a go of it.
Yes, the circus is a lot like a plumbing and heating company. Or vise versa. You'll see what I mean when I describe the truly wonderful folks I found there.
Big Top ComparisonsLet's start with Heidi. Heidi grew up in the business. She doesn't give a lot of thought to whether she likes it or not; it's what she knows. She was literally born into her parents' dog and pony show. As a kid she saw the inside of schools only as a performer; she was home-schooled on the road. When the parents passed on, she inherited the show, and here she is. Do you know anyone like that in the PHC biz?
The Hungarian trapeze performers are another slant on the multigenerational family business. It's mom and pop and their twenty-something daughter and son. Mom's the trapeze star. No one would guess she's 45, but she says the work is killing her back, and she's going to have to get out of it soon. She wants her daughter to take her place, but the daughter fears that this isn't really the future she wants. Still, the dutiful daughter stays as the stunning perfect lady at the top of her brother and father's acrobatic act, and the fearless gorgeous girl in red that an elephant lifts high into the air, curled in his trunk.
Like the PHC business, some folks go to trade school to get started. Clown school is the circus equivalent of a vo-tech. It's a for-real school that teaches the skills of clowning.
As in any small business, regardless of training, circus folks don't do just one thing. And that goes for the clowns. Besides being an Uncle Sam clown with 5-ft. long, red-and-white striped, stilt-enhanced legs, Jason is the "advance guy." He's a little like a plumbing tech who sells. He works in towns ahead of the circus to sell the show. He pumps up sponsors, makes sure there are lots of posters in store windows, and hands out coloring books to kids on the street.
Just as important, Joey marks the way for the circus that is coming behind him. Ever wonder how the circus knows where it's going? Ever see a solitary paper arrow on a utility pole? The advance clown tacks up those arrows so the circus rigs know the way to their next location - usually the fairground of a small town.
Henry, another clown school grad, has gone into management. No more clowning around for him - now life is very serious. He sweats paying the bills, getting trucks fixed, and hiring someone to clean up after the elephant. Know anyone in this position in the PHC world?
The trip in Heidi's semi was a long one. We crept over Wolf Creek pass, high over the Colorado Rocky Mountains, at a speed so slow that it didn't even register on the speedometer. With the thin air and the elevation gain, it seemed that the truck might not ever make it. I admit I've always been impatient behind a truck lumbering up a hill, but being in one, sharing a seat with circus paraphernalia, I was especially antsy to be done with the trip.
When we finally arrived at the fairgrounds, the physical work began. Putting up the big top tent is a huge coordinated effort of many manual laborers - and one elephant named Barbara. We unrolled canvas, toted tent stakes the size of fence posts, and heaved ropes. We worked hard. Barbara pulled up the center pole effortlessly.
Life's LessonsAt the bottom of any company are the unskilled workers: those who never intended to be there and are staying until they get enough money to go somewhere else. The circus has those, too. There was Bob, the skinny old bow-legged cowboy whose job it was to keep the grounds clean. And there was Bertie, the cook.
Bertie was a tough ole gal, with a voice like a crow, and an attitude that assured no complaints about her cooking. Her job was to keep the hands fed, and whether or not they liked baked beans and hotdogs on paper plates was never a question. Uncaring as she seemed on the surface, Bertie had a heart of gold. Here's how I found out.
My weekend bunk was in the cook trailer, Bertie's domain. I never felt like an intruder. It always seemed like she couldn't care one way or other if I was there.
I was supposed to catch up with them Friday night in the small town of Crede, Colo. I had no trouble finding the town. But my directions for finding the circus - "follow the arrows that the advance clown put up" - just weren't working. It was after midnight. I was at the fairgrounds, but couldn't find the circus. There were no lights out there. Wherever the circus was, it was bedded down for the night.
I slept in the back seat of my car.
Once the sun came up it was easy to find the circus; it was pretty much right in front of me.
I didn't think anyone would notice I was late, let alone care. After all, this is the circus. People move around all the time. Besides, with my comings and goings, they probably didn't even remember when I was coming back.
As I approached the cook trailer, I could see Bertie was dishing out breakfast beans onto paper plates. The hands looked grateful. I expected to be ignored. She usually looked right though me like she did everyone else. And here's where I learned something about how people look out for each other no matter where they are.
Bertie looked up from her pot, glared at me and growled, "Where the heck have you been? I was worried all night!"
Well I'll be ...