On reading aloud (cont.)
Little Sister writes [SPOILER ALERT! Anyone who has not read “Charlotte’s Web” should skip to the next item now, read “Charlotte’s Web” ASAP, and then return to Little Sister‘s report]: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’
“E.B. White sure knew what he was doing when he planted that first-line hook in ‘Charlotte’s Web.’
“Having been an elementary teacher in my other life for years before retirement, I read aloud to every class, every single day. This book was always among the favorites. There are so many wonderful passages in the story that cannot help but conjure up images of the turn of seasons, cozy kitchens, old barns, contented farm animals, and something so simple as an intricate spider’s web — which, of course, we learn is not so simple at all. The author’s added gift of establishing the characters makes for a story that draws in even the most reluctant listener or reader. While getting hooked, we learn many life lessons in the context of a storybook for children.
“There was one problem I had with the book. [SPOILER DIRECTLY AHEAD! WE WARNED YOU!] Whenever I came to the end of Chapter 22, I would choke up. This is the part where Charlotte dies and Wilbur must leave her behind at the Fair Grounds: ‘Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.’ You would think that after 35-plus years of reading this story aloud, I would have had enough practice to overcome this, but it happened every single time. Just typing these simple words have me teared up.
“I guess that’s what makes a truly great story: those that paint glorious pictures in our minds, make us laugh out loud, or bring us to tears, no matter how many times we read them.”
BULLETIN BOARD SAYS: E.B. White made a habit of writing those stories, and essays, and poems, and letters, and . . .
Another circus memoir from Tim Torkildson: “In LaGrange, Indiana, I met my old Ringling friend Holst for the last time. He was there to steal clowns. LaGrange also features in my memory as the only time I was ever involved in a circus tent blow-down.
“In the winter of 2003/2004, I worked for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as a warming-house attendant at Van Cleve Park. It was a warm winter that year, so the ice rink retained a patina of slush — discouraging all but the most rabid skaters. I was often alone for hours at a time, with nothing to do but mop the floor and sort used skates from the donation box. Clowning jobs were drying up for me, and I had just about decided to quit the circus trade altogether to work for the Park and Recreation Board full-time, when I got an intriguing letter from Barbara Byrd, owner and operator of The Mighty Carson & Barnes Five Ring Circus, out of Hugo, Oklahoma. She had read in Circus Report magazine that I was ‘at liberty’ for the 2004 season. She wondered if I would be interested in a position with her show. Not as a clown, but as ringmaster.
“Ringmaster! Such an exalted position had never before entered my career plans. It turns out that Ms. Byrd was a fan of my writings in Circus Report, where I often dilated on my checkered career as a radio announcer over the years. She thought my broadcast experience would make me an interesting ringmaster.
“Who was I to disagree with such an elder stateswoman of the circus? At the end of February, I showed up in Plano, Texas, with a battered top hat, a white dinner jacket, a shiny red cummerbund, a pair of white cotton gloves, and a pair of balding tuxedo trousers, to begin my new career as equestrian director. The show was camped on the asphalt parking lot of a shopping mall for its first performance of the season.
“Carson & Barnes was a truly magnificent outfit in those years. The canvas tent enclosed more space than two football fields and had five full rings filled with acrobats, contortionists, horses, elephants, high-wire acts, lion tamers, trapeze artists, and, of course, clowns. The show ran for over two hours, including a long intermission during which I was expected to do an over-the-top ‘peanut pitch.’ I was initially terrified of my responsibilities with such a huge conglomeration of artists and animals, but Ms. Byrd was kind and patient — letting me grow into the role at my own pace and in my own way. It wasn’t long before I even mastered the peanut pitch — whipping the audience into a frenzy of desire for those ‘original circus peanuts . . . grown by American farmers in the lush delta soil of Alabama . . . unavailable anywhere in the United States except right here and right now!’
“In mid-July, the show was ambling through Indiana, with mostly straw houses (meaning: so full that bales of straw had to be used as seating). We no longer played on parking lots, but in dirt county fairgrounds. The weather was steamy and unsettled; the sunset often illuminated welling thunderheads in the distance, black and solid as anvils, building to a terrible outburst. So far we had been lucky and avoided the worst weather — but not drenching downpours that left everything, including my patent-leather ringmaster boots, permanently soggy and on the cusp of mold. I grew used to squelching around flooded meadows and pummeling my boots prior to putting them on to discourage grass snakes and leopard frogs from making them their permanent home. The peppery smell of wet weeds went to bed with me each night.
“When the show pulled into LaGrange, a large contingent of Mennonites came out to watch the tent raising. The bearded Elders were wide-eyed at the usefulness of the elephants in pulling up the massive oak king poles; they appeared to be calculating how much work they could get out of an elephant in their farm fields, versus how much it would cost to feed one.
“A large crowd of the show’s performers were gathered around the folding table where instant coffee and stale donuts were served in lieu of breakfast each morning by the cook tent. A larger-than-normal crowd. I went over to see what was causing the hugger-mugger.
“My old pal Holst stood in the midst of the crowd, shaking hands and submitting to abrazos from the heads of the main Hispanic families on the show. For Holst was now Mr. Big with Ringling Brothers: the Vice President in Charge of Talent! He it was who hired all the new acts for the show each season.
“He and I had stayed in touch over the years, mainly by letter, ever since we had both started out as First of Mays with Ringling back in 1971. But he looked pretty busy at the moment, so I turned and headed for my room in the back of the generator truck.
“‘Hey Tork!’ I heard yelled over my shoulder. When I turned, there was Holst striding up to me for a massive hug and a punch on the shoulder.
“‘I heard you were out here in the sticks playing ringmaster,’ he said. ‘We’re gonna do lunch today. Meet me over at that silver diner by the grain elevators at noon — OK?’
“Before I could reply, he was whisked away by Barbara Byrd, who was burbling about how they had some good elephant stock for Ringling if Mr. Holst were interested. But he managed to turn and give me a wink and a grimace, indicating it was all part of the game and he wasn’t about to start taking it seriously.
“I went and shaved and showered and met him at the diner for lunch. The sky was gun-metal gray, and the damp heat glowered in the air until it gave me a headache. I didn’t have much of an appetite to begin with, but watching Holst engulf a plate of ham and eggs and home fries, with a chocolate malt on the side, soon had me matching him calorie for calorie.
“‘Hey,’ I said between gulps of milkshake, ‘ain’t you supposed to be watching your diet since you had that heart attack?’
“’I mostly do,’ he replied, carelessly mopping up some egg yolk with a piece of buttered toast before popping it into his mouth.
“I sensed that he didn’t want to be nagged about it. In fact, he didn’t want to talk about himself at all. I learned later that things had taken a bad turn for him in his personal life — and that all he really had left was his job with Ringling.
“So I babbled on and on about myself. Since he had been the ringmaster at Ringling for several years, I asked him point-blank what he thought of my ringmaster possibilities.
“Ordering a piece of cheesecake, he gave me a skewed grin and said: ‘Let’s just stay friends, OK’
“I took the hint.
“We went down the list of old colleagues from the Blue Unit and what they were up to now. Holst knew where everybody was and what they were doing. He never let go of a friend. Or forgot a favor. Then I reviewed each of the clowns on Carson & Barnes for him. They were all from either Chile or Argentina and did too much music and not enough slapstick, I said. I tried to pay for lunch, protesting that I was making a good salary, but he waved away my wallet, saying: ‘Ringling will be glad to pay for this lunch as a business expense!’ He was trying to tip me off, I guess — but I was too dense to take the hint.
“Outside, the rain was plunging down in intermittent sheets. Holst drove me back to my room so I wouldn’t get drenched. We shook hands, and I asked him about his plans that evening.
“’Catch the show, then driving back to my plush hotel room in Chicago to watch basketball on pay-per-view,’ he said happily.
“I had been so glad to see him that I didn’t ask myself why exactly he had shown up in the middle of nowhere to catch the show. And in such threatening weather. Just to see me? Idle curiosity?
“But when I got to the back door of the tent, I stopped thinking about Holst altogether. There was a deep sucking silence all around as the crowd filed OUT of the tent, not into it. There was no need for an announcement. The yellow sky said it all: A tornado was coming. The roustabouts got the guy wires loosened before the howling wind took the tent up into the air like a plastic bag and sent it sailing onto a barn a mile away. The crowd huddled in their buggies, and we performers crouched in our trailers as the whirlwind roared past, tipping over the cook tent wagon and scattering the horses into seven counties. Only the elephants remained unruffled; as long as they were fed and watered on time, they didn’t care what calamities occurred around them.
“It was over in 10 minutes. The Mennonites left in a body, clopping away as stolidly as if nothing had happened. But they were back in an hour, dragging the bundled-up tent behind them. They helped to set it up again, and we were able to do the evening performance, sans horses.
“And Holst? He told Barbara Byrd he didn’t want to sit through the show, if she didn’t mind, but wanted to wander backstage to visit with some performers. She told him to go right ahead. So he did. He talked to every blessed clown on the show, sometimes using an interpreter, and hired them away from Carson & Barnes for the 2005 season. All 11 of them.
“Barbara was speechless with fury when she found out. And when she found out I had had a very long and chatty lunch with Mr. Holst prior to the blow-down, she decided I was his confederate. We were in cahoots. And she could do without my services for the next season.
“So I finished out the season under an immense black cloud of surliness. I tried getting on with other shows as ringmaster — now that I had tasted the high life, so to speak, I didn’t want to go back to the greasepaint. But none of them were interested in me as ringmaster.
“Holst passed away in a hotel room in Brazil a few months after the blow-down, while watching a basketball game on pay-per-view TV. Another heart attack. I think he liked going that way.
“I spent that following winter back at Van Cleve Park as a warming-house attendant. It was a good winter for skating: below zero all the time, and the ice as smooth and hard as a diamond. I often thought of that last lunch with Holst while I helped kids unknot their sodden laces; I wondered if he was trying to warn me of what he was up to, so that I could prepare an alibi. But in the end, it became a moot and unimportant point; Culpepper & Merriweather Circus contacted me about clowning for them just after the New Year, so I headed back down to Hugo, Oklahoma, in February with my musical saw and rubber nose.”
Our birds, ourselves
Raindancer of North Oaks: “Subject: Bam!-Bam!-Bam!
“You think there’s nothing to do on a dark, cold, snowy morning? It’s all in your perspective.
“For my resident pileated woodpecker, making a half-dollar-size hole in a perfectly good aspen to scratch out breakfast is worth 20 minutes’ effort. And I had 20 minutes to watch him and enjoy listening to the forest sounds.”
Our pets, ourselves
And: Our theater of seasons
Reports Doris G. of Randolph, Minnesota: “Our cat enjoys the winter. My husband made her a snow tunnel that she loves be in.”
Every blasted time
The Doryman of Prescott, Wisconsin: “Subject: Small price to pay.
“Every blasted time I staple papers together, I am reminded of a boss I had back in the early ’70s. His pet peeve was receiving a batch of papers with more than one staple in them. You soon learned that if you added anything to a report headed to him, you removed the original staple and replaced it exactly through the original holes before forwarding it.
“You could smoke at your desk and have a drink at lunch, though, so we forgave him.”
Band Name of the Day: The Rubber Noses
Website of the Day: “Charlotte’s Web” for sale