Life Under the Big Top
AS TOLD BY JOHN SMALLEY
“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the greatest show on earth!” To most people, those words of the circus ringmaster signal the start of an exciting show featuring animals, clowns, and acrobats. But to my family it meant the start of another work session under the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
I WAS born in 1951. You could say that I was born with “sawdust in my shoes,” a term that refers to the sawdust placed on the ground under the large tents of the circus. From the time my brother and I could walk, we shared in some facet of circus life.
My parents, Harry and Beatriz, joined the Clyde Beatty Circus before I was born. My mother was a singer and performed Spanish songs in full Mexican folk costume. As a musician, my father had played with the bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa during World War I. Then in the 1950’s, my father was hired to play the tuba in the famous Ringling Brothers Band, perhaps because of his background with Sousa.
As time went on, we worked with various circuses, finally ending up in the Al G. Kelly & Miller Brothers Circus, which had also become very famous in the United States. This show had three big tents. One housed the menagerie of lions, tigers, elephants, hyenas, and other exotic animals.
We called the second tent the sideshow. In it there was usually a sword swallower, the so-called half-man half-woman, midgets, a giant, and other people with unusual physical traits. Living with people who were different was a good education for us children. Some called them unkind names, but to us they were family. We worked, ate, and lived with them for most of the year.
The third tent was the big top, which contained three rings where acts were performed simultaneously. Normally, the most dangerous or most intriguing acts occupied the center ring.
A Day in Circus Life
My brother and I were acrobats from a very early age. We were also part of the Wild West Show, where we played little Indian boys. A Native American family of the Choctaw tribe who were part of the show taught us to perform Indian dances.
Our day usually began about six in the morning. At that time we began preparations to move to the next town. All of the performers shared in the work of dismantling, transporting, and reassembling the circus. For example, in addition to being a musician, my father also drove a big truck loaded with seven elephants. Sometimes my mother, my brother, and I rode with my father in his truck.
We usually traveled to a new location every day and put on two shows a day. The exception was Sunday, when we had only a matinee and could then rest with our families during the evening. My father always did something special with the family that day, whether a trip to town for a milk shake or an evening at a drive-in movie.
Setting up required much work. Even the elephants helped. How? They were harnessed to pull the long poles for the three tents. One end of the pole was inserted into a tent ring, and then an elephant would drag the other end until the pole was upright. When all the poles were up and the electrical generators were in place for the lights, we would ready ourselves for the afternoon show.
Learning New Tricks
Between the afternoon and evening shows was the time when the many children in the circus learned how to do somersaults, walk on a wire, juggle, swing from a trapeze. Those who taught us were longtime circus patriarchs who usually came from generations of circus families. I remember the Italian performer who taught me my first somersault. I started when I was about four years old. First he secured me with a safety belt; then he used just his hands to support me as he ran alongside me. Eventually, he took his hands away, and I did it on my own.
The only accident I ever had took place during the grand parade around the hippodrome of the big top. My brother and I were placed behind a clown with two monkeys and in front of a herd of elephants. While walking and swinging my arms, I must have startled one of the monkeys, which then grabbed my hand and bit it severely. Fortunately, it did not get infected, but I still have a faint scar on my left hand—a serious reminder always to be cautious when dealing with wild animals, no matter how cute and tame they may seem.
I Learned Valuable Lessons
Circus life did not interfere with our family life. My parents always took the time to teach us good principles and morals. I can still remember my father putting me on his knee and giving me advice about not being biased against people of a different race or background. This was a valuable lesson, for I lived not only with people who were physically different but also with people of various nationalities.
My mother too was a good influence on us. Sometimes the big top was filled to capacity; other times the crowds were sparse. My mother used to tell us: “You perform for the appreciation (as she clapped her hands together), not for the money. Whether hundreds of people attend or just a few, always do your best.” That thought never left me. It was her way of saying that we should have personal interest in those who came, no matter how many or how few.
In addition to our performances, my brother and I had to help clean up after the shows, picking up trash from under the big top. This was good training for us.
From April to September, the circus was on the road, so we could not attend school as others did. We wintered at headquarters in Hugo, Oklahoma. During this time we attended school for about five months. Other circuses wintered in Hugo too, so there were many children in the same circumstances. The town’s school system accommodated our special situation with an adjusted schedule.
The Day That Changed Our Lives
On the morning of September 16, 1960, my father woke up about five in the morning and began getting us ready to travel. That particular morning my mother decided that instead of riding in the elephant truck with my father, we would take the usual transportation provided by the circus.
As we arrived at the circus lot, my brother and I began exploring our new surroundings. Then we heard someone scream out: “There’s been a bad accident. Smalley and the ringmaster didn’t make it.” Of course, my first reaction was, ‘It just could not be true. There is some mistake.’ Later I realized that our mother had already gone to the crash site. My father was driving down a mountain highway near Placerville, California, when apparently the brakes failed. Evidently, the weight of the elephants caused the trailer rig to jackknife. The truck’s large gasoline tank was compressed, and it then exploded, instantly killing my dad and the ringmaster, who was riding with him. I felt devastated that day. I was very close to my father. We were real friends.
After burying Dad in his hometown of Rich Hill, Missouri, we headed back to our winter headquarters in Hugo, Oklahoma, while our circus stayed on the road completing the season. In the meantime, we boys attended a school with a regular schedule. That was a new experience. Still, we eagerly awaited the next season to go out with the Kelly Miller Show again. But our lives took an interesting turn.
The Bible Comes Into Our Lives
When I arrived home from school one day, my mother introduced me to a lady who was there to study the Bible with us. Her name was Jimmie Brown, and she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Studying the Bible was the last thing I wanted to do. Going back to the circus and learning the trapeze had been my focus and dream for years. My brother and I even rigged up a makeshift trapeze between two trees so we could practice. However, we all started studying the Bible and attending meetings with an isolated group of only eight Witnesses in Hugo. In time, my mother decided to retire from circus life and pursue her Bible studies. With tears in my eyes, I accepted her decision. It was especially hard when members of our circus family came to visit and wondered why we were not joining them.
I had never known any life but the circus. At one point I felt as if we were turning our backs on our father’s memory. Ironically, however, his death was also my reason for studying the Bible, since one of the strongest motivations for me was the hope of the resurrection. This hope is still very much alive in me. I want to be one of the first to welcome my father back as he enters the promised earthly Paradise.—Revelation 20:12-14.
One Witness couple, the Reeders, helped us to see that there is a big family in Jehovah’s organization. And how true that proved to be! The small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses became a congregation, with several families worshiping together. I must also mention Robert and Carol Engelhardt, a couple who adopted me as their spiritual son. They lovingly but firmly provided counsel and direction during my teenage years.
Such love from mature Christians filled a big void in our lives. And in a variety of ways, that has continued to be true throughout my life as a Christian. Over the years I lived in both Oklahoma and Texas, and in every congregation, I met many loving Christian brothers and sisters. Some of the older brothers provided me with fatherly direction and encouragement. Yes, they became my spiritual fathers.
Just a few years ago, my mother fell asleep in death. Until that day, she remained a serious student of the Bible and a faithful Christian. I know that she will rejoice when God brings back his loyal ones from the tomb. While I await that day, I find comfort in the fact that Jehovah’s organization has provided me with a family in more ways than one.
I felt especially blessed when, among God’s people, I found my wife, Edna. After marriage we arranged our affairs so that we could share in Bible educational work on a full-time basis. To support us, I worked as an apprentice television reporter. I had no experience or training in that field; yet, the training I had received as a Bible teacher in the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses qualified me for the job. Eventually I became the news director at a radio station. However, my goal was never to achieve prominence in the media. Rather, Edna and I made ourselves available to serve as teachers of Bible truths wherever there was a need.
In 1987, I was invited to become a circuit overseer, visiting congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a volunteer traveling elder, I visit a different congregation each week and provide my spiritual brothers and sisters with encouragement and training in our Bible educational work. Now, spiritually speaking, my family is even bigger. Even though my wife and I have never had children of our own, we have come to have many spiritual sons and daughters in Jehovah’s organization.
In a way, it is ironic that after so many years, I am still traveling from town to town. From circus work to circuit work! Once in a while, I wonder whether I could have made it on the trapeze. Would I have realized my childhood dream of mastering the triple somersault? Those thoughts, however, quickly fade when I think about God’s promise of a paradise here on earth.—Revelation 21:4.
True, I was born with “sawdust in my shoes.” But I am reminded of what the Bible says: “How comely are the feet of those who declare good news of good things!” (Romans 10:15) The privilege of helping people to know God is greater than anything I could have achieved as a circus performer. Jehovah’s blessing has made my life full!
[Pictures on page 19]
Some of our circus “family,” and my father with his tuba
[Picture on page 21]
With my wife, Edna, today