Columns

Magic Under the Big Top

Sawdust. Greasepaint. The wire stretched tautly high above the center ring.

The circus was never about the animals for me. It was about magic, make believe and those daring young men on the flying trapeze. Once upon a time it really was “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Last week’s news that after 146 years, the curtain was coming down on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, triggered a flood of memories.

While the industry’s sordid history of its deplorable treatment of animals is undeniable and inexcusable, the circus of my childhood was more than bullhooks and elephants.

I can still remember clutching my dad’s hand tightly as we went through the turnstile at the old Spokane Coliseum. My parents had taken me to the El Katif Shrine circus before, but this was my first exposure to the crème de la crème of circus magic – Ringling Bros. – the big time.

Even as a kid I loved old movies, and I’d seen the glamour and pathos of the circus in films like the Academy Award-winning “The Greatest Show on Earth” and Disney’s “Dumbo.”

But I’d recently seen “Trapeze” on television and I was enthralled with the idea of flinging myself through the air into the waiting hands of the well-muscled Burt Lancaster or pretty boy Tony Curtis.

My friends and I played “circus” on the playground at recess at Jefferson Elementary. We’d swing higher and higher, until the swing set rocked with our rhythm, then we’d let go of the chain and sail through the air to land in the gravel, hoping to nail a dismount worthy of Ringling Bros.

Mostly, we just got rocks in our shoes and occasional bloody knees and skinned palms.

Under the big top of the Coliseum, I sat entranced. From the red-coated ringmaster with his shiny black top hat, to dozens of clowns in a tiny car, to the lovely ladies in sparkling costumes riding atop high-stepping steeds, the circus held me in its grip. My eyes glittered like the sequins on the tightrope walker’s tutu as I tried to absorb the pageantry.

And then Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big cats took the floor. He strode into the center ring with a leopard around his shoulders, dimples flashing, blond hair flowing, bronzed abs rippling under the lights. Pure showmanship and undiluted magic.

I saw several other circuses, but nothing ever measured up to the first time I saw the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

However, by the time I reached my teens my Gunther Gebel-Williams poster had been replaced by Andy Gibb and Leif Garrett posters – the gaudy glow of the circus had dimmed, replaced by the flashing lights of disco fever.

Later, as a busy mom of four sons, my home often seemed like a three-ring circus complete with roaring animals and stunts as breathtaking as a toddler scaling a teetering bookcase. I had neither the time nor the inclination to leave my house to see one. My parents took my oldest son once, but my youngest at 17, has never been to the circus.

Now it looks as though he never will.

I’m OK with that, but I wonder what his generation’s equivalent will be. Running away to appear on “America’s Got Talent” doesn’t have the same allure.

Sure, they can watch death-defying stunts on YouTube, but seeing Johnny Knoxville catapulted in a Porta Potty will never equate to watching an aerial acrobat soar high above the ground, spinning into a triple somersault, stretching to grab his partner’s waiting hands.

In fact, today’s kids seem to have their eyes on electronic screens from the moment they wake up until the moment the clock on their cellphones, Kindles or iPads tell them it’s time to go to sleep.

Perhaps that was the best thing about the circus – it got us out of our houses, away from our screens and caused us to look up for just a moment.

 

Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

Advertisements
Columns, War Bonds

Magic, Make-Believe and Me

In this column for the Spokesman Review, I address the importance of keeping magic and make=believe alive for our children– especially now.

I was smiling as we walked out of the movie theater into the warm summer night.

“That was absolutely magical,” I said.

My sons, 16 and 21, nodded, but they didn’t seem as enthralled by “The BFG” as I’d been. The movie, based on the book by Roald Dahl, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between an orphan girl named Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant. The two join forces to rid the world of mean, nasty giants.

I loved the retelling. It brought back memories of curling up and reading the book with my second son, who was notoriously difficult to get to sit still and read anything at all. Dahl’s books were just scary enough and just off-kilter enough to capture his imagination and still his ever-churning legs.

 The week before, we’d seen “Finding Dory,” and both sons preferred that movie to “The BFG.”

Not me. While “Dory” was a fun film with great visual elements, humor and a compelling message, it lacked the heart of “The BFG.” It lacked magic.

For me, the best part about being a parent has been the ongoing permission to indulge in my love of make-believe. From sharing beloved childhood favorite films and books with my boys to discovering new stories and new adventures with them, parenthood has allowed me to retain a bit of the ability to believe in the impossible.

Perhaps that’s why I reacted so strongly when my youngest got in the car one day after kindergarten and announced, “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”

Furious, I whipped around and gave his older brothers the “look” – you know the scary glare meant to stop even the naughtiest child in their tracks. My offspring have dubbed it “Mom’s Death Ray.”

“Don’t look at us!” said Zack, then 11, “We know Santa is real!”

Taking a deep breath, I asked, “Why do you say that, Sam?”

“Tyler’s mom helped us with Christmas crafts today, and we were talking about what we wanted Santa to bring us for Christmas. She said, ‘Santa Claus is a made-up character, and he doesn’t take presents to children all over the world.’ Is she right? Is there really no such thing as Santa?”

I looked into his troubled blue eyes and tried to gauge his desire to know with his longing to believe.

So, I reminded Sam of the story of St. Nicholas and how he used his wealth to give to the poor and needy. I told him the story of Santa Claus came from St. Nicholas’ and asked him what he thought.

He scratched his head, looked at his brothers and then replied, “Oh, he’s real all right, but I think he has help getting all those presents delivered.”

Crisis averted. Magic preserved.

I know not all parents agree that a healthy dose of make-believe makes for a happy childhood. For instance, one of my sons told me of a millennial parent in his acquaintance who told him that allowing his preschoolers to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is the same as lying to them, and he will never lie to his kids.

But children are not miniature adults. The brain, body and emotions of a 5-year-old boy are not equivalent to those of a 30-year-old man. Fairy tales and make-believe allow imaginations to soar. They create a sense of wonder and possibility.

These past few weeks have made it difficult for many of us to hold onto any sense of hope, wonder and enchantment. The world can be a harsh, unlovely place. Maybe that’s why we need stories of magic and mystery all the more.

In a darkened theater we can watch a blue fish with memory problems cross the ocean to find her family, or see a little girl have tea with the queen of England and help banish evil giants from the land.

Stories offer us a respite from ugly reality and fan the flames of flagging faith, encouraging us to believe in the unbelievable, at least for a little while.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.