This piece is gonna wander from story to story. Stay with me.
(I was going to name this The Tattooed Lady, then it struck me how irrelevant of a topic that is these days, when you can see more tattoos on a barista than we saw in the sideshow 30 years ago…)
When my father dropped out of high school and attempted to join every branch of the military before he was of age (and subsequently rejected from every branch), he joined the circus. What was his job? This is the standard question. He anchored and twirled the ropes for the girls performing great acrobatic feats of strength and flexibility up above. Or so the story goes.
Now I don’t know if it was because of his own personal connection to the circus that my dad brought us there, but both the big tent and the fair were his attractions of choice during my childhood. I have vivid memories of painted trailers, adorned with the promise of viewing bearded and tattooed women, snake people, giant pigs, ladies with mermaid tails, fire eaters, and the list goes on… and we saw every last one of them.
As a five-year-old, I waited in line to witness these oddities with great anticipation and total elation. In my memory, these opportunities conjure up visions of the movie Moulin Rouge, with thick red carpets, shiny brass hardware on the trailers and sparkling twinkle lights.
I think I was probably oblivious to any casualties life on the road had caused these folks and their own adventurecrafts… Had I been interrogated by crime scene personnel that very evening, I would not have recounted any cracked floor boards, missing carnie teeth or sweat-stained mermaid tail costumes. I bought what my father, and the show itself, sold…wonderment. Total fascination with the surreal and mysterious abnormalities of nature. All I saw was a beautiful dream unfolding in each trailer….compounded by the fact that I could only catch a glimpse of each show before being ushered outdoors, down the ramp, standing dazed in the glow of the snow-cone signs.
Enter Jason Wilber, Eddie Smalls, Amazing Grace and Sideshow Dan: When Jason Wilber, the opening act for and longtime friend of John Prine, started to recount a carnival tale from his own childhood on stage last Friday night, I was hooked. Along with rivers and trains, a good carnie story gets me in my guts and paints my own childhood on the canvas of my mind.
After the show, I tried to find Jason’s story online. No luck. Hey, Jason, if you’re out there, please record the story with the song! I’ll do my best to capture it here…
When Jason was young, his dad paid for him to see Eddie Smalls, the world’s smallest man, when the carnival came to town. First of all, Jason was absolutely befuddled by the fact that his father had no interest in joining him. Secondly, he couldn’t wait to experience that which was promised to him on the side of the trailer…the opportunity to hold Eddie Smalls in the palm of his hand! Upon entering the trailer, and separated from the world’s smallest man by only a moldy red rope, it became extremely apparent that there was no conversation to be had with the tiny man with the stained shirt and a pile of PBR cans at his tiny carnie feet. And it became painfully obvious, in that short window, that Jason was most assuredly not going to get Eddie to perch on his palm…..so he wandered back outside.
With that memory in his arsenal, though, Jason wrote the song The Ballad of Amazing Grace and Sideshow Dan; ironically, Eddie Smalls only makes a brief cameo in the whole tune. Regardless, the story-song combo makes for a great concert, and clearly brought me back to a few great memories of my dad.
Surely you have a sideshow, circus or carnival memory. We gotta hear it.