Circuses make me sad

by John R. Stiles

I know I'm probably a rarity, but circuses always seem to make me sad. Well, I shouldn't really say ''always,'' because I can remember no real opinion what-so-ever on the big-topped affairs that I knew of until almost 20 years ago. I seemed to have formed this negative opinion of circuses while I was living in the Dallas/Fort Worth area back in the 1980s. It was then that one of my two daughters -- Carrie Anne -- use to spend summers with me, while we made the rounds of all the various amusement parks and other attractions throughout Texas.

My oldest daughter was a teenager during that period, and trying to convince her to give up all the social obligations and protocol that accompanies such an age to go off for several weeks in the summer and spend time with your father, would have been, so I was informed, far too great a price to pay. So, I settled for a little father-daughter bonding with my youngest.

I use to spend the better part of nine months of every year looking forward to those summers with the ''Bear,'' my nickname for Carrie. And then the actual visit would be the quickest 10 weeks or so of my existence. Actually, the two of us had quite the time south of the Red River. And I'm certain she wouldn't be the least bit shy about saying the same thing. As it always seemed to happen during my summers with the Bear, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used to make its annual stop at Dallas' Reunion Arena in early August each year. More specifically it was the first week of August as I remember it.

Coinciding with that annual play date, it was at that time that I would usually have to pack the Bear up for a return trek to the Quad-Cities, so she could spend the bulk of the month getting ready to restart the school year. Anyway, as it turned out, the Bear loved going to the circus and it seems that that was always the very last adventure we'd have each and every year before heading back to Iowa. My daughter has often expressed the opinion that those annual August ventures to the circus and the always sad trips back to Iowa that shortly followed, had a lot to do with the feelings I ended up having for the traveling, three-ringed extravaganzas, or so she always told me.

Fast forward a little, just about exactly a decade, and we come to the Bear's wedding, which was celebrated recently in West Des Moines. I'd already walked one daughter down the aisle and wasn't really too concerned about this most recent fatherly chore. She and her mother had spent the better part of a year planning the affair. Hell, all I had to do was squeeze into one of those monkey suits and show up -- which I did in plenty of time for the rehearsal and dinner the night before the great event.

But despite my logistical preparedness and walk-through, something happened to the old man on the way to the altar. Now it's not like I'd know exactly what such a thing felt like, but as I stepped to the entrance at the back of the church, the beautiful Bear on my left arm, a strange feeling overtook me. I had the almost uncontrollable urge to burst out in tears. In fact, if I'd have tried to verbalize my feelings to my daughter at that particular moment, I'd have lost it. I tried everything to overcome the feeling, from reminding myself that for Chris'sake I'm a paratrooper. I've stood in the door and stepped off into the abyss with little more than a few feet of nylon and chords, as well as an abundance of faith in a chute rigger I had never met between me and being a grease spot on the countryside.

''Stiles, you've been shot at for God's sake, well maybe not God's but at least Lyndon B. Johnson's sake,'' I recalled telling myself. Well, the humor, as it usually does, seemed to pull me through. But not, as it turns out without being busted by my daugther, who said she could feel her old man shaking as we stepped off down the aisle.

A day later, as my wife and I returned from the wedding, I had that same hollow, dull ache in the pit of my stomach as I once again pointed an auto toward the Quad-Cities. I guess I must now confess to the Bear that she was right all along. It wasn't the circus that made me feel so bad all those years ago. It must be car rides to Bettendorf.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 27, 2000

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