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Veronica Hogle: Chills and thrills under the Big Top

When I saw the coupon for the Shrine Circus in the newspaper, my mind flashed back to the time we were children in Ireland. After school, we followed Tommy Cosgrove, the poster man, and watched him paste colorful posters on walls. The day we saw, “Duffy’s Circus – Fair Green – Bagenalstown: May 6 to 9,” we rushed home to empty our money boxes hoping to have enough for three days’ admission.

Long before the early morning aroma of baking bread from Connolly’s bakery permeated the air, the sounds of voices, animals and wheels woke me up. There was only Doran’s Drapery Shop between my house and the Fair Green. I popped my head out the window and heard people talking in a language I did not know.

My heart beat like a hammer watching the mostly tall, light-haired people pulling wagons with bellowing lions into the Fair Green. Then, the hungry animals were given breakfast of big chunks of raw meat.

On my way to school, I watched brawny men putting up the big tent until it was high and taut. When I came home in the afternoon, crowds were filing into the Fair Green for the matinee.

My best friend, Ann Farrell, and I barely had enough money to go to the circus every day.

We sat in the front rows, around the circle of sawdust, and devoured toffee squares and marshmallow mice. We screamed when the clowns raced through the seats and drenched us with water from the red carnations in their lapels. Poodles did somersaults on the backs of Shetland ponies, tigers roared before jumping through flaming hoops. A man dressed like Tarzan put his head in a lion’s mouth and I held my breath in fear.

A man wearing a turban played wailing music on a bamboo flute while a wrinkled elephant lumbered into the circle. He told her to pick up her toys. Using her trunk, she put them in a toy box. Then without warning, she showered us with a trunkful of sawdust, and we squealed with delight.

When the ringmaster introduced “The Daring Svetlana from Moscow,” I sat on the edge of my seat. The beautiful blond woman was dressed in a swimsuit covered with blue sequins. As she climbed up a rope ladder, she crossed her ankles and hung from another rope by her teeth. She shimmered in the spotlight, spinning like a top.

Then she went up to the top of the tent where a suntanned man shimmering in red sequins greeted her. They did gymnastics together while the brass band played “When you are in love …” Then the drums rolled. The ringmaster bellowed: “Attention! Pleeze! Quiet! Look, zere is not a safety net!”

The tent went dark and quiet. My heart pounded with worry. While the music played, Svetlana swung faster and faster on her trapeze. At a loud beat of the drums, she somersaulted into the air. The man in red swung toward her and grabbed her hands. The brass cymbals clashed, the crowd roared and caps flew in the air. The music galloped while Svetlana climbed onto the man’s shoulders. The lights went up. My hands were hot and sticky with nerves. I looked in my lap and saw the squashed bodies of my marshmallow mice.

The last night, I went to bed early, so I could rise early and wave goodbye to the circus people and animals that made me so happy. But when I woke up, the silence told me they were gone. All that was left was the circle of sawdust.