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A Writer's Season in the Ring

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Author Bruce Feiler

Author Bruce Feiler

Author Bruce Feiler had always dreamed of running away with the circus, but like most of us, he took the path more traveled. Feiler went to college and wrote several books that required him to immerse himself into other cultures. Finally, after years of "going legit," as he terms it, Feiler re-visited the dreams of his youth. Much like Big Apple Circus rookie clown, Glen Heroy, Feiler decided to try his hand at clowning under the big top. He joined an American circus -- the Clyde Beatty-Cole Circus -- and performed as a newbie clown named Ruff Draft for the 1993 eight-month touring season. The resulting book, "Under the Big Top," chronicles his assimilation into an insular but talented community that in many ways mirrors the nation it travels through.

PBS CIRCUS talked with Feiler about the season he spent traveling through the South and up the East Coast with the circus.

PBS CIRCUS: Why did you decide to spend a season traveling with a circus?

FEILER: I wanted to join the circus because of what it could tell me about America. I’d been abroad for the previous decade, and I wanted to reconnect with America. I thought [joining the circus] would be a good way to do that. Beatty Cole was an old-fashioned tented circus that traveled the huge breadth of the country, and it was a great way to experience the underside of America. In that year, I found the seven circus sins ... we had it all. On the other hand we had astonishing expressions of family togetherness like bible study groups and three and four generational families traveling together. We even had two Tupperware parties!

PBS CIRCUS: Today, there are so many entertainment options. Why do you think the circus remains relevant?

FEILER: I’ve always believed that the circus is successful because there is the investment in keeping the dream alive between the townies and the circus people. You know, both sides have the same troubles. We all have trouble paying the bills, trouble with the kids, challenges with work, but under the big top, both groups agree that dreams really can come true. There’s a shared desire and need for the circus. One hundred years ago the circus was the embodiment of modernity. [The circus] brought ... the exotic discoveries from the rest of the world. It brought travel to a place that could not travel. Today, with television and the Internet, modernity comes into our homes. Today, the circus is old fashioned. It’s the one place where things are actually real and not manipulated by special effects. … The circus is real.

PBS CIRCUS: Why did you decide to work as a circus clown instead of some other type of performer?

FEILER: Well, I learned to juggle when I was twelve, and I’d always dreamt of running away from home and joining the circus. Instead, I went legit and went to college and traveled. [Writing this book] seemed to me to be an appealing way to live out my American dream. I’ve always felt that if I went back [to the circus], I’d like to be a ringmaster. That’s a role that uses words to bring the act alive and takes the audience to a place of really appreciating what they’re seeing. I admire so many of the acts, but the most respected act is horseback riding because it combines acrobatics and animal training. It’s a lot of work.

PBS CIRCUS: What most surprised you about the year you spent traveling with the circus?

FEILER: I wasn’t surprised by the scandal. Mostly, I felt the circus was about camaraderie. The people in the circus couldn’t tell you the name of the vice president of the United States, but they could tell me the name of anyone [circus performer] around the world who was hurt, and this was before cell phones were everywhere. [Circus people] have always been ostracized, so they protect one another. There’s a powerful sense of safety. I never felt safer than my year in the circus. There’s a sort of yin and yang sense of family. It’s really true that [the circus] is an international community, and they communicate through a language of performing, not a language of words.

PBS CIRCUS: Did you ever feel accepted as a part of the circus, or were you always regarded as an outsider?

FEILER: I feel like I could go into any circus in the world and be welcomed as an insider. It didn’t take forever. Within six weeks I felt assimilated. There was this moment in the book, a kind-of coming-of-age moment, when I climbed the tent (big top) from the outside. It felt to me at the time like I was crossing a threshold, becoming an insider.

Book Excerpt

 

Under the Big Top book cover

BRUCE FEILER is one of America’s most popular voices on faith and family. He is the best-selling author of nine books, including WALKING THE BIBLE, ABRAHAM, and AMERICA’S PROPHET, and one of only a handful of writers to have five consecutive New York Times nonfiction bestsellers in the last decade. He also writes the “Family Matters” column for the Sunday New York Times and is the writer/presenter of the PBS miniseries WALKING THE BIBLE. His latest book, THE COUNCIL OF DADS, tells the uplifting story of how friendship and community can help one survive life’s greatest challenge. This excerpt is adapted from his book, UNDER THE BIG TOP: A Season with the Circus. For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com.

PROLOGUE: A Star-Spangled Boy

By Bruce Feiler

At first he looks like Elvis, only thinner. Then Superman, only blond. But when he finally arrives in the ring--riding a gun instead of a horse--Sean Thomas doesn't look like them at all. He looks like a figment of the American dream: a cowboy, an astronaut, the Human Cannonball.

He is short, as human cannonballs go. He's decidedly bowlegged, too. But standing atop the world's largest cannon with his blue eyes and blond hair aglow in the light, with his white rhinestone suit shimmering like a torch with red and blue star-studded racing stripes, Sean Thomas, in fact, looks taller than God. At the moment, however, he's madder than hell. Someone has taken his brush.

"Bruce, Bruce! Look here! Look up!"

The voice from the top of the cannon is desperate. In less than a minute the ringmaster will make his final call and Sean Thomas will slide a white helmet over his head, position a pair of lemon goggles over his eyes, and slide his body into a solid steel barrel about the size of small spaceship. Then, as everyone in the tent grabs his breath and Sean grips onto his heart, a ferocious explosion will shake the earth and, if all goes according to plan, Sean Thomas will burst from the barrel like a shooting star, soar through the air with the greatest of ease, and land on the far side of the world's largest tent with only a puff from his giant airbag. He isn't faster than a speeding bullet. He isn't even faster than a speeding car. But when Sean Thomas does fly, Godspeed, through the air he's the biggest, fastest shot in town. That's all the more reason he must look his best.

"Bruce," he whispers when I finally turn around, my floppy shoes making even the slightest turn hard. "How do I look? How's my hair?"

Standing in ring one alongside the cannon, my job is to make Sean Thomas look good. For the show's grand finale the entire cast has streamed into the tent and stretched in two lines alongside the rings as if to point the way for the cannon to fire. Beaming in my white face and gold bow tie, I am stationed in my usual spot just beneath the lip of the barrel. Sean, meanwhile, is standing at the base of the cannon even as the mouth of the thirty-foot barrel slowly rises into the air. Undaunted by the fearsome task that awaits him, or even by the fearsome music that is supposed to trumpet his ascent, Sean refuses to climb the barrel until every hair's in place. My task, if hardly heroic, is clear: the show must go on... his bangs must be fixed. Responding to this plea, as to so many before, I lift my hand as discreetly as possible and grab an imaginary strand of hair and flick it away from my eyes. In truth I don't even have any hair, just a skull cap and pointy blue hat, but Sean gets the message and mimics my move. At last he is ready to fly. Now if I only could get him to smile. Only in America can a bald-headed clown with a greasepaint grin give hair care advice before 3,000 fans to a golden-haired cannonball with a permanent scowl on his face. Even the Long Ranger occasionally smiles.

"All eyes on the giant cannon..."

Sean arrives at the top of the barrel and surveys the three-ring path he hopes to traverse and the inflatable bag where he hopes to land. It was only five years earlier that his predecessor took off from the exact same cannon and overshot his bag. Sean Thomas, a former garden boy and surfing thug, was born of that tragedy: even now it is etched all over his face, still stunned by his sleight of fate.

"Lieutenant Thomas prepares to enter the gun barrel..."

With one last tuck to make sure his hair is in place, Sean slides his motorcycle helmet over his head, removes the foam lid from the mouth of the cannon, and flings it in my direction. At the start of the year, when I was still unsure on my feet and Sean was still tossing stakes in ire, this manhole-sized cover would often hit me in the head and knock me to the ground. By the middle of the season, when I had become much surer footed and Sean slightly humbler after his fall, I started trying to catch the lid. By the end of the year, when I had become near flight of foot and Sean much nearer to God, his throws became more synchronized and I would often snag the lid with an artful flourish, as I do on this final day of the year. The audience flickers with applause: the Human Cannonball is jamming with a clown. The ringmaster brings us back to our tasks with his ominous voice: Darth Vader as librarian.

"A final farewell..."

Sean positions his ski goggles over his eyes and scampers into the open barrel. Before his head disappears from sight he waves goodbye to both sides of the house and gives a final thumbs up to the crowd. Then in a sequined flash he is gone. The music suddenly skids to a halt. Only the pulse of a timpani drum disturbs the spreading silence. The pause is almost painful to bear. The tent is dense with fear. The ringmaster heightens the dread.

"With an ignition of black gunpowder, combined with the chemical lycopodium for safety, he will blast off at a safe speed of fifty-five miles per hour..."

Ta-dum! the drum roll grows even louder. Oh no! the children cover their eyes. Please God! the performers offer a plea.

"Countdown!" the ringmaster commands, and all the performers raise their hands in salute. With each booming call from his proud bass voice the audience joins the cry.

"Five.

"Four."

Until every voice in the six-story tent begins to chant in rare harmony.

"Three.

"Two.

"One..."

And all our dreams at last confront their test.

"Fire!"

© 2010 Bruce Feiler.