Asher loves elephants. The little boy plays with a stuffed elephant. He rides around the house on a toy elephant with wheels. He likes it when my wife and I entertain him with an elephant hand puppet. He gets excited if we go to the zoo to see the elephants. Asher is into elephants.
This being the case, we took our toddler grandson to the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Baraboo is a quiet place in central Wisconsin with a pleasant small-town feel to it. The city of 11,000 people straddles the Baraboo River and gives the impression that not much happens there. Baraboo’s claim to fame is that back in 1884, Ringling Brothers made the town the headquarters for their circus. Life in Baraboo has revolved around a circus ever since then. The museum is the latest manifestation of that fact.
The Circus World Museum has numerous displays of old wagons. It has a hall with exhibits explaining the history of the American circus. The museum also has a big top, where twice a day during the summer, people can watch live performances. We took Asher to the show because, well, they have elephants.
Besides the big top tent, the museum has animal rides. Asher rode on a small pony (five minutes for five bucks). The museum had elephant rides, but the line of people waiting to go atop a pachyderm was endless. We also thought that Asher might be frightened if we were with him riding on such a large animal. Riding an elephant and riding a pony are very different things.
The proprietors of the museum boast a gaudily painted merry-go-round, one that blasts out vaguely familiar old songs while riders seated on wooden horses go in circles. The loud circus music is both joyous and annoying. The music comes from some ancient mechanical device equipped with horns and drums. I am certain that the manufacturer of this automated music maker closed its doors decades ago. It is probably impossible to buy or even fabricate replacement parts for it. Asher and my wife rode on the merry-go-round. I held the boy on his steed while the giant wheel turned counterclockwise. The experience made me dizzy.
The museum has a tent with exhibits that describe circus sideshows. That was disturbing. A lot of it was about the attractions in freak shows: skeleton men, bearded ladies, wolf boys, etc. I thought about The Elephant Man. Some of the attractions seem distinctly cruel. Some of them seem, in our day and age, a bit outdated. Who nowadays wants to pay money to see “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”? I can see women with tattoos anywhere. The exhibits in the tent also bothered me because many of them seemed so dark. It reminded me of the Ray Bradbury novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Once a person has read that book, the traveling carnivals have a definitely creepy vibe.
The show in the Big Top had a variety of acts. There was a unicycle rider from Argentina, an acrobat/juggler from Spain, and a strong man from Romania. I kind of wonder about their origins. Circuses historically have been notorious for exaggerating the fame of their performers. These folks were good. There is no doubt about that. However, they could all be from Kokomo or Des Moines for all I know. I guess it really makes no difference. They had amazing shows.
Then there’s the clown. The show had a clown. It probably had to have one. That’s a tough gig. Clowns have a rather sketchy reputation in our culture. Think about John Wayne Gacy. Think about Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. And Stephen King has done a rather thorough job of demonizing clowns in his novels. Would any parent or caregiver let their young child within a mile of a stranger wearing face paint?
That being said, the clown in the Big Top show was really quite funny. Chase the Clown dressed up as an old-school hobo. He never spoke, but he wasn’t really a mime. He used the ringmaster as his foil, as he did silly tricks to entertain the audience. His act was humorous and wholesome. He was definitely kid-friendly. That was somehow a great relief to me.
There were animal acts. They were rather lame. One lady had goats and dogs do tricks. Ho hum. There was no lion tamer putting his head into the mouth of a beast. No scary stuff. The coolest thing was when the animal trainer convinced a goat to ride on the back of a pony. That impressed me.
The finale came when the ringmaster made the announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, now I will say for the last time the words that have been said in the Big Top for over a century: ‘Hold your horses! Here come the elephants!'”
Two elephants came through the rear curtain and entered the ring. The crowd went nuts. Asher was sitting on my lap. I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell that he was in awe. I was too. It was astounding when one of the elephants raised its front legs and mounted the rear of the other animal.
The elephant act didn’t last very long. The manager of the museum came into the ring to announce to everyone that the two elephants were retiring. It was their very last show. They were going to Oklahoma to spend their remaining years. They wouldn’t be replaced. No more elephants. The show’s over.
At least Asher got to see them.
Frank (Francis) Pauc is a graduate of West Point, Class of 1980. He completed the Military Intelligence Basic Course at Fort Huachuca and then went to Flight School at Fort Rucker. Frank was stationed with the 3rd Armor Division in West Germany at Fliegerhorst Airfield from December 1981 to January 1985. He flew Hueys and Black Hawks and was next assigned to the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, CA. He got the hell out of the Army in August 1986.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.