Living By The Sword
Growing up, the idea of the circus held absolutely zero appeal to me. What I knew about circuses my prime sources of derivative experience: library books and television.
Kids in the books I read sometimes went to the circus, but they were always kids from the past. Small town, turn of the century - that other century - children for whom the circus coming to town was a long anticipated event. Or kids - the boys in their knickers, the girls at play wearing dresses, of all things - from the 1930's and 1940's - decades that seemed impossibly remote to me as a child in the 1950's and 1960's.
I also learned about the circus from TV. Each week, one of the Mickey Mouse Club shows was devoted to the circus.
So hurray for the circus, every one loves the circus.
And that includes the merry Mousketeers.
Well, I did love the Mouseketeers, but I drew the line at loving the circus. I much preferred the weekly Talent Rodeo. Still, I learned a bit about circus acts from watching the Mickey Mouse Club. I picked up more information from watching a show that was on Friday nights for a while. I'm not sure what the name of it was, but the film actor Don Ameche was the host, and, as I recall, the show featured European circuses, and from this I decided that the circus was not only old-fashioned, but vaguely old-world. Mittel Europa. Unamerican. Communist, even.
And on Sunday evenings, the Ed Sullivan variety show, with its stupendous, breathtaking combination of high and low brow acts - Bolshoi Ballet and Señor Wences; Metropolitan opera bassos and Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse; the Beatles and the borscht-circuit comedians - often featured circus acts. Men and women in outfits that even on black and white TV seemed dazzling and lurid who spun plates, threw knives, and swallowed swords.
In our living room, TV shows having to do with things-circus also featured my father making fun of circus acts, so not being a circus fan came naturally.
The circus, I felt, was weird, freakish, and creepy.
My feeling was confirmed when my friend Kathy Shea and I spent a high school spring vacation week in New York City with her "career gal" aunt Mary, who took us to Madison Square Garden to see the Ringling Brothers circus.
I hated it - especially when a clown making his way through the audience seemed as if he were going to engage me in his act. His time-honed instincts, however, were able to pick up on the 'back off, buddy' vibe I was sending out, so he moved on to the next row.
I was depressed for days by the side show freaks, the ghostly pale giant, the bearded fat lady, some guy with tattoos.
Never again, I promised myself, and kept the promise for many years, but broke it to take my nieces to the wonderful Big Apple Circus, and even to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth (which I found too noisy and extravagant, but which I did enjoy - especially when a clown dusted my husband's bald head with his feather duster).
So, although I'm something of a latter-day circus fan, it's not high on my entertainment list.
Still, I am always on the lookout for intriguing professions, so I was interested by a bit in the May Atlantic Monthly about sword swallowers.
Citing a survey in the British Medical Journal ("Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects" by Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer), the Atlantic noted that those who lived by the sword seldom, in fact, perished by them.
Surveying 33 sword swallowers, the authors find that many suffered occupational maladies from soreness ("sword throat") to chest pain and perforation of the esophagus...sword swallowers rip their innards most when swallowing curved blades, when taking in multiple blades at once, or when distracted by audience members...Yet they have an amazing low rate of mortal injury: The medical literature lists not a single fatality.
First, that there are even 33 sword swallowers to survey is, for starters, amazing enough. (I can hear my father asking his regular circus question: "Just how do you find out you have that talent to begin with?") But to learn that, aside from a bit of post-show blood vomiting, it's a relatively safe occupation. Well, who would have thought that sword swallowing is no more hazardous than all the occupation-hazard-guff swallowing that we all have to do on the job on occasion?
More curious still, sword-swallowing wounds tend to heal better than similar perforations inflicted accidentally by doctors who insert scopes down their patients' throats.
Still, I am reminded of my early in life sentiments about the circus. Weird. Freakish. Creepy.
(Which is perhaps what circus folks would make of a career in B2B technology marketing: weird, freakish, creepy.)
Yes, I know that there's more to the circus than sword swallowers. There are amazing acrobats and aerialists, jugglers and animal acts.
Sword swallowers. Amazing. My original sentiments still hold.