In 1972 I was 22 years old and looking back on a thoroughly undistinguished post-high school career.
I’d played some baseball at a junior college in Statesville, North Carolina but my academic accomplishments were unimpressive and I’d used up my baseball eligibility. I was living in my hometown and working as a heavy equipment operator at a nearby quarry. I was young and restless and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t it.
In April 1972 I decided I needed a change of scenery. I quit my job, emptied my meager checking account, packed a few belongings into my 1959 Ford, and moved in with friends in Statesville.
I didn’t have enough money to stay unemployed long. The Iredell County Cattlemen’s Association held cattle auctions every so often and was always looking for wranglers to work the sales, so I could get a couple days work there. The job was to make sure the animals ended up in the correct holding pens after they’d been weighed and graded and released from the grading pen.
It was simple work—one wrangler held a pen gate open while others kept the animal moving down the alley into the pen. The pay was pretty good and you got free meals.
The same week as the cattle sale, a friend and I learned that there was another opportunity for some quick cash. The Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus was coming to town for a couple of weekend performances. The circus management was looking for roustabouts to help erect and take down the big top.
The pay wasn’t great—a ticket to the performance if you helped set up the big top, a few bucks cash if you helped take it down. My friend and I had no interest in the tickets, but we did want the cash. So on a Sunday afternoon after the circus’s final matinee performance, we showed up to take down the big top.
The tent was dropped to the ground. Then one gang of roustabouts separated sections of the tent and folded them up while another gang lowered the tent poles. I worked with the gang on the poles while my friend worked with a carney to load tent sections onto a wooden sledge.
The sledge was harnessed to an elephant, a patient, good-natured beast that towed the sledge back and forth between the tent site and the truck that hauled the tent sections. The carney and my friend sat on a pile of folded tent sections as the elephant trudged along.
Seeing an elephant towing a sledge wasn’t something I’d routinely witnessed growing up in rural North Carolina, so I often glanced in their direction. They’d made a couple of trips between the site and the truck when the elephant suddenly stopped and stood very still for a moment. It raised one of its rear legs and stood balanced in that position for a second or two.
And then, with a loud, lingering, sort of moist ripping noise, the elephant let loose a mighty expulsion of flatulence. As the gaseous blast escaped the great beast, I swear I saw its butt cheeks quiver and the same sort of shimmery image you see in the distance on a hot highway in the summer.
The foul-smelling fumes enveloped my friend and the carney, and they fell over backwards like they’d been shoved by the force of a powerful wind. They rolled off the sledge and lay on their backs in the grass and waited for the noxious cloud to dissipate.
The elephant, relieved of its discomfort, waited patiently for them to resume the work. Meanwhile, a dozen or so men were helpless with laughter.
When we finished, my friend and I waited with the others for our pay. A couple of the circus carnies approached us and struck up a conversation.
It turned into a recruiting pitch. Had we ever thought about joining the circus, they asked. We could use a couple guys like you.
The pay was OK but not great, they said, but there always were opportunities to pick up a few bucks on the side and off the books. You got to spend the winters in Florida. And if you had debts or an ex-wife, they’d never find you.
I wasn’t running from creditors or former wives, but I’d always secretly envied carnies. They seemed wise in a way I wanted to be. They understood human nature and could size up people, spot their weaknesses, work a crowd. It seemed like a waiting adventure. I may have been on the verge of joining up.
Then they showed us the sleeping quarters.
They slept in a tractor-trailer truck that had been converted into a rolling bunkhouse. We looked inside the trailer but didn’t enter. It was dark and a bit dingy, and I got a sensation that the dim light concealed all kinds of unpleasant surprises.
You’d think a couple of young guys not known for fastidious hygiene wouldn’t have been bothered by those conditions. But I felt an internal shiver, a primal dread, about the prospect of sleeping in there.
The carnies kept up their pitch. We leave tomorrow morning, they said. If you want to go, be here around daybreak.
We collected our pay—seven bucks for about three hours work—and left.
As we drove back to Statesville, my friend asked me, “So you gonna go?”
I thought for a moment. “Nah,” I said. “Something about those sleeping trailers.”
“Yeah,” my friend said. “Me too.”