Why I Never Joined The Circus

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.”


All My Pусский Contacts, I Swear

So we’re up to our nostrils in all things Russian these days and people are worried sick that the US is soon going to be Moscow on the Hudson, as well as Moscow on the Mississippi and Moscow on the Rio Grande and Moscow on every other river and creek and bayou in the country. We’ve become so suffused with Russia paranoia and things have become so edgy that Representative Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wants to get to the bottom of all this Russki stuff. He’s urging that folks come clean about all their contacts with Russians.

Gowdy minced no words in his call for full disclosure. “Someone needs to get everyone in a room and say, from the time you saw ‘Dr. Zhivago’ until the moment you drank vodka with a guy named Boris, you list every single contact with Russia.”

Pretty hard to misunderstand that kind of demand.

Now, I consider myself a loyal American and a patriot, and in this stressful time I think I should, like all good Americans, come clean about my association with Russians. So here’s my confession: A long time ago in Chapel Hill—a town of known leftist tendencies that US Senator Jesse Helms once said could function as the North Carolina state zoo if you put a fence around it—I had contact with Russians. And in that spirit of full disclosure that Representative Gowdy is demanding, I’d like to tell everything I can recall about those contacts.

It was the summer of 1977. I’d signed up for a summer school course at Carolina. I had a good friend from Raleigh, a brilliant linguist who was fluent in Russian, German and Polish and could probably make himself understood in at least half a dozen other languages. He was good friends with some Soviet (as we called them in those days) exchange students.

He was especially good friends with a guy who I remember only as Evgeni—or, as he may have spelled it in Cryillic, Евгений. Evgeni was, until Vladimir Putin came along, the image that popped into my head when anybody mentioned Russians.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s generally not a good thing to think of groups of people in stereotypes. It can get you into trouble in lots of ways. And yet, Evgeni pretty much perfectly fit the American stereotype of a Russian. He was big, blond, loud, and backslapping friendly with a booming voice that could have been heard by Sarah Palin on the other side of the Bering Strait. And he could drink all the residents of any small rural American county under the table.

I don’t remember the first time I met Evgeni, but it may have been when I bumped into my friend and him on Franklin Street. During my introduction, my friend probably said something to Evgeni in Russian that sounded something like this: “Das vidanya. Spragelly meestslamy mas y telly joo davastli.” And then a huge grin spread across Evgeni’s face and he extended a hand the size of a bear’s paw and wrapped his fingers several times around my hand as he shook it.

I saw Evgeni regularly, always in the company of my friend. One day, my friend asked me to spend a Friday night with Evgeni. I think he had a date and he didn’t want Evgeni tagging along. Evgeni knew very little English at this point, and I knew no Russian. But what the hell, I was game. I figured with enough beer, everything would be OK.

And it was. We hit many Franklin Street watering holes that night, and downed many beers, and exchanged no intelligible language that I recall. But alcohol, in the hands of open-minded and imaginative imbibers, can erase language barriers and be a remarkable facilitator of communications. We made ourselves understood with gestures, backslaps, facial expressions and noises. And when all else failed, we ordered another round. By the end of the evening, we were drinking buddies even though we had not exchanged a single coherent sentence.

As the summer progressed, Evgeni’s English improved, as did his ability to calculate American prices in terms of his Soviet background. I recall him asking the price in American dollars of something he wanted. Someone told him. He was silent for a few moments as he mentally converted the cost in US currency to the Soviet economy. He became wide-eyed when he’d finished the calculation. “Is two cheekens!” he exclaimed in disbelief.

I had another memorable encounter with Evgeni later that summer. This time I was stumping down Franklin Street with a cast that covered my left leg from my foot to just below my knee. How I got that cast is an anecdote that makes a great story, but it’s a story that I’m not ready to publicly disclose. I will say this, however: It involved excessive alcohol on a Friday night, misplaced youthful exuberance, and one of the worst decisions I've ever made. Still, no laws were broken, no property was damaged, no cops were involved and no one except me was injured. I never received a bill for my visit to the emergency room at North Carolina Memorial Hospital, so I assume it was covered by my student health insurance.

Anyway, I was somewhere near the Varsity Theater when I heard this booming voice above the Franklin Street traffic noise. It was speaking Russian. I have no idea what was being said, but it sounded like “Vee lee! Vu dees eu da!” I think I must have looked skyward, because my friend said afterwards that I looked like I’d heard the voice of God calling to me.

It was, of course, my drinking buddy Evgeni, and he was concerned about the cast on my leg. I don’t remember much else about that encounter. I’m sure my friend explained to Evgeni what had happened to me and he thought it was hilarious and slapped me on the back.

I saw Evgeni occasionally during the next year or so. I remember parties with other Soviet exchange students. I remember these guys downing tumblers of vodka like it was ice water, and feats of strength and loud conversations, mostly in Russian. I never picked up any of that language, so I have no idea what they were talking about. But since the conversations seemed to involve calls for more vodka and challenges to arm-wrestling, I don’t think anything subversive was being said.

That’s all I recall of Evgeni. I think he left Chapel Hill sometime in the late ‘70s, and I haven’t heard from him since. So this concludes my debriefing of my Russian contacts.

A final note to Representative Gowdy. I also saw Dr. Zhivago. A long time ago in Charlotte. With a couple of friends. I’m still good friends with that guy from Raleigh, and he still speaks Russian fluently. And sometimes I use Russian vodka for my vodka martinis. That's all my Pусский contacts, I swear.


Guess Who I Bumped Into At The Grocery Store

The late Buddy Hackett
Editor's note: This was originally posted on a blog called Side Salad shortly after the death of comedian Buddy Hackett on June 30, 2003. See the tagline below for a detailed explanation.

It was the mid-'70s, and I was recently out of the Army and in school at the University of North Carolina. Had a room on Franklin Street (Chapel Hill's main drag) across from the campus and a few blocks from Fowler's Grocery, where I'd go once or twice a week for beer, frozen dinners, and similar provisions for a guy living on a GI Bill budget in a rooming house with several other guys, a refrigerator and a toaster oven.

Fowler's was an institution in Chapel Hill. It was famous for its meat counter and its frosty, walk-in beer cooler. It offered the staples, as well as other eclectic items I'd never seen in the grocery stores back home in Stanly County. This was long before the days of Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and similar upscale food stores. You could get things at Fowler's that you just couldn't find anywhere else.

So I was in Fowler's one night, took a left at the end of the canned soup section, I think, started down the next aisle, nearly bumped into this pudgy guy pushing a shopping cart in the opposite direction. Looked up, and I thought "Jeez, that guy looks like Buddy Hackett."

If I remember correctly, his cart was pretty well loaded. There was no one on that aisle except Buddy and me. I went to the end of the aisle, turned right, and headed up the next aisle. There was Buddy again, only by now he'd been recognized by some of the other shoppers. And he didn't seem too happy about it.

I didn't hear what the first person who recognized him said to him, but whatever it was, Buddy launched into a stream of profanity-laced insults. The woman who'd spoken to him just stood there with this sickly smile frozen on her face as old Buddy sailed away with his shopping cart, leaving her in the wake of his hysterically funny, profane insults.

What was Buddy doing in Chapel Hill? I didn't dare ask him, but he was probably taking part in the famous rice diet program that once was conducted at the Duke University medical school. As you probably know, dear old Dook is only about 10 miles down U.S. 15-501 from Chapel Hill.

It was, so I was told, extremely expensive to go through the rice diet program. Many tubby celebrities went through it in those days. The ricers often came to Chapel Hill to presumably escape the confines of the rice diet's restrictions. My guess is that Buddy was playing hookey from the program and had ducked into Fowler's to grab a few off-the-record carbs before heading back to Durham. (The New York Times reported in 2005 that Hackett was known for ordering pizzas for fellow dieters during his visits to Duke.)

Anyway, Buddy caused quite a stir as he pushed his cart through Fowler's, and he was giving everybody absolute hell and you could watch their smiles of recognition slowly morph into this look of shocked horror as they realized they were being sliced to pieces by the sharpest tongue they'd probably ever encounter, and they were powerless to protect themselves or even respond. I mean it was non-stop, take no prisoners. Buddy was talking out of the side of his mouth in that nasal, sort of high-pitched Noo Yawk accent, and he was cutting people down left and right.

I wish I could remember some of the insults he flung at people, but, as I said, it was a long time ago and I wasn't taking notes. I will say this -- he was profanely articulate and funny, and he kept it up even as he went through the checkout line, and I just remember a lot of numb, silly smiles when he left, or, rather, made his exit.

So, bon voyage Buddy, and thanks for a memorable improv performance.

Editor's note: Long ago, in the frontier days of the Interwebs when we were at the mercy of dial-up landline connections and busy signals, I was an occasional contributor to a lively blog called Side Salad. It was produced by Jeff Houck, whom I've known since my days in the South Florida journalism wars of the last century. Jeff is a very funny guy with the quickest wit I've ever met. He's the guy who instantly comes up with the sparkling situational one-liner that you might think of two weeks later. I wrote some stuff that I thought was funny, and Jeff was kind enough to post it on Side Salad. That wonderful blog is no more, alas. But Jeff has agreed to let me dig up some of my stuff from the archives and re-post it on Drye Goods. So here's the first one--a recollection of the time I bumped into the late comedian Buddy Hackett in the aisles of a Chapel Hill grocery store. It was posted on Side Salad on July 9, 2003, shortly after Hackett's death on June 30. Please note that I'll probably tinker a little with some of these re-posts. I just can't leave stuff alone.


The Kid Grows Up

John Morrow, Dickinson College Class of

Our nephew, John Morrow, a political science major, graduated with the Dickinson College Class of 2017 last weekend.

This is the kid who was delighted when, as a toddler, I'd hold him upside down by the ankles; who once mused, as a small child as we were passing Jockey's Ridge (a giant sand dune on the North Carolina Outer Banks) that, one day, "we must shovel that;" who explored with his dad and me the sites of legendary baseball parks in the NY-NJ metro area; and who did me the stunning honor of mentioning me in his college admissions essay and saying that he'd learned about so much more than baseball from those trips and hoped to apply the same learning methods in college and beyond.

Here's what he said in that essay in 2012:

"When we went looking for old baseball locations we found urban history, learned about the benefits of redevelopment and preservation and we encountered people I would never have met anywhere else. Uncle Willie embraces learning that way and I hope to do the same for the rest of my life."

Congratulations, John, and well done.

And here are links to posts about those visits to old ballpark sites: Ebbets Field, Polo GroundsRoosevelt Stadium, and Hinchliffe Stadium. (Photo by Jane Morrow)


An iconic still from Woody Allen's 1979 film, "Manhattan."

So somehow, "Manhattan"--the 1979 Woody Allen movie about self-centered, white wine sipping, white linen wearing, early New York Yuppies--found its way into his DVD player. He poured himself a glass of chilled chardonnay and sat down with the spaniel to watch it.

At first he was struck by two things--how dated the movie seemed, and how the opening montage of New York scenes that ended with the fireworks display against the Manhattan skyline made him think of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And he felt superior to those urbanely provincial people depicted in the movie who fretted their ways through failing marriages and affairs and dealt with agents and publishers and unfulfilling but lucrative jobs.

But then, as always seemed to happen when he watched a Woody Allen movie, he started noticing uncomfortable familiarities and he realized the same thing he'd realized the first time he saw the movie 38 years ago--that he had more than a few things in common with Allen.

And it occurred to him that over the years he'd become, in some ways, a sort of Southern-fried, redneck version of Woody Allen--even to the point of dealing with agents and publishers and his own collection of chronic neuroses. But without the fame and huge income.