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After the last show on Sunday I chose to drive halfway to Hartford, to a town called Sturbridge. There were several "old fashioned" or "colonial-style" hotels in the area at a good price. I picked one and settled in. Neat wallpaper.

The next morning I decided to continue to Hartford and eat breakfast there. There was plenty of time...the train was not supposed to arrive until 2am(!) but I was crossing my fingers for an early arrival. I found an Au Bon Pain and enjoyed a bagel sandwich with smoked salmon, cucumbers, wasabi spread, herb cream cheese, on a dill and onion bagel.


To kill time I worked on more resumes for my friends. And then I made a trip that I've been meaning to make since joining the circus, and somehow never got around to it: visiting the Hartford circus fire memorial. (CLICK HERE to read more about the Hartford circus fire.)

The memorial is located in a not-so-nice area in the North End, behind an elementary school. I circled the school once, unsure about where to park, but when I pulled into the school's lot I saw that they had a pretty decent visitor parking lot. To get to the memorial I had to walk fully around the school via either the front or the back. There are playgrounds on both sides and recess was in full swing. I chose to go around the front, figuring if I was going to look like a creeper I may as well be as visible about it as possible.

On the other side of the school there was a pavement path leading to the back. It then became a gravel trail lined with markers to commemorate the tragedy that took place here 73 years ago.


I followed the path, reading each marker in turn. They spelled out the disaster minute by minute. As a circus employee, it made me feel uneasy to imagine what it must have been like. Every performer's worst nightmare. And looking across the open space behind the elementary school, it seemed like there were areas where the grass still wasn't growing back.



At the end of the path was a diagram of the memorial, showing how it marked the actual location of the circus tent on the day it burned down in 1944.



The main memorial stands where the center ring was on the day of the tragedy. It's a raised metal circle with a depiction of the big top etched on it, and the names of victims engraved all around it.





The circle is surrounded by a number of bricks, many of which bear inscriptions in memory of loved ones who perished in the fire, or express thankfulness for survival. I was especially touched by all the bricks thanking emergency responders.


This series of bricks in particular was very saddening to read.


At the corners of the brick plaza were metal diamonds inscribed with famous words, to offer some comfort in the face of a seemingly senseless tragedy.



Looking at the map again, I saw that there was supposed to be a marker for the entrance of the circus tent. It seemed to be partway across the playground in an area that had since been paved and painted with hopscotch patterns. I found the marker...I think? It took a while to find because there was absolutely nothing to distinguish it from the pavement.


Standing there and looking back at the center ring and past it to where the other end of the tent would have been gave me a sense of scale for the tent. It would have been HUGE. Back at the map, I was pleased to see that the bandstand was marked with a dogwood tree. The trees had been planted where tent pegs once stood, at the bandstand's location, and where the animal entrance portal had been.


I walked over there and stood where the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus band had performed on July 6, 1944.

I looked toward the center ring, and tried to imagine it. The relative normalcy of the show, the music moving along smoothly...and then everything changes. And the bandmaster has to make that awful choice, and gives the band the cue to play the Disaster March. The dread that must have filled the circus people when they heard it. The desperation as they evacuated the tent filling with fire and smoke. And when all was said and done, being witness to one of the worst disasters in circus history. Over 160 people, mostly women and children, died that July afternoon in Hartford.

Honestly, it was surreal. Especially with all the kids playing happily nearby.

In two weeks, Ringling's Red Unit will cease to exist. And a few weeks after that, the final show performed by the Blue Unit will signal the end of Ringling Bros. as it has existed for the past 146 years. Standing in this spot with so much circus history, and feeling the weight of the tragedy that took place there, and the end of this circus looming close...well...it was painful. Yet I am so, so grateful to have been a part of this unrivaled magic, this limitless culture, that was Ringling. This living, beating heart that powered an American legacy. In a few weeks that heart will beat no more.

There was one more thing to do before I left. I looked around to make sure no one was watching and the kids were far enough away. I pulled out a little token I'd brought: a small jar containing a little vodka. I poured it out around the bandstand tree. Even ghosts appreciate a good drink and a good hang. Cheers to my windjammer predecessors. See you down the road.



Back to the present and back to the car. Around 3 I had a meeting with my tax preparer (this is the last year that I'll have fourteen or more W2s thank goodness), then treated myself to a matinee at the local theater. They were showing a new anime movie, Kimi no Na wa (
"Your Name") by director Makoto Shinkai. With subtitles even! As much as I love anime, I've never seen an anime movie in a theater. It was a great movie, the art was incredible, and the storyline was funny, moving, and somewhat creepy. If it's playing near you, I'd highly recommend going to see it. Even if you're not an anime fan there's a lot to appreciate.

After the movie I decided to hit the public library and finish the resumes I'd been working on. I stayed there until closing time (8pm), and had a choice to make: either wait for the train to arrive in the hopes that it would be spotted before midnight, or cave and get a hotel. I was hungry and tired. Dinner and a hotel turned out to be the right choice as the train was not even in Hartford until 11:30, much less spotted.

The next morning I got groceries and went to the train. This is one of the few yards that I don't need a map to reach; I remember it well. I spent the day relaxing on the train as the weather was rainy and cold.

Wednesday was less rainy. I went to a nearby mall for some new sneakers. Maybe when I'm not living in a train yard any more my shoes will last for more than a few months! I also took the time to window shop for things I'll need for my new apartment. I have to admit, it's pretty exciting to think about things like being able to shower without flip-flops, being able to lie full-length on the floor, and having (gasp) furniture! It's the little things y'all. My "shopping" took several hours...I was just killing time and trying not to spend the day holed up in my room to be honest. For dinner I stopped at Frank Pepe's for a genuine original tomato pie. A classic since 1925.


Thursday was opening day. We had a very short rehearsal. Afterward I went around backstage taking pics of random stuff, because soon it will all be gone. Stupid, I know, but I did it anyway. I'll save those pics for a later date. For dinner Brett (bandmaster) and I went across the street to Agave. Great Mexican food right across from the arena. I don't think I've been to Hartford once without eating here. I was weirded out by the oranges on my fish tacos, but it actually worked really well! Kind of like how pineapple tastes nice with pork.


The show went well and was well attended. I got to meet some of Jameson's friends who are currently performing in town with Circus 1903. I would have liked to see their show, but our performances overlapped so it didn't happen :/ In any case they enjoyed the show!

After the show was over and the crowds had gone, it was time for a little fun! Every year, each circus unit holds a "No Talent Talent Show". Any circus employee can participate and showcase their talents, whether it's something that they do in the show or another skill that they want to show off. Tonight was special, because it was the last talent show that we'll have. I'm sorry to say that I didn't stay for the whole thing as it ran pretty late, but it was a lot of fun and I captured as many memories as possible.

The talent show opened with an enegetic dance routine by our talented Brazilian dancers (and Chantelle, who works in production but is a fantastic dancer!!)



Then we enjoyed a gymnastics demonstration by one of our aerialists and her student. One can see why circus kids turn out to be brave and confident individuals.


One of our clowns, Mariko Iwasa, shared her amazing tap dancing skills with us!


A short clip of the Red Unit kids showing their Jiu Jitsu skills. This was the end of the act, I missed the beginning unfortunately.


Circus clown Matthew Lish cheers us up with his comedic magic act!


The last act that I got to watch in person was put on by Claudia, our highly talented "laundry woman". For those who don't know Claudia, she is eccentric, and kind, and whimsical, and has more creativity in her pinky than most of us have in our whole bodies. Her act was called "Cougarlicious and Her Kittens", and I just had to stay and see what THAT would be all about!


At that point it was getting late and I decided to start walking home. ZB (animal crew) was also leaving, and we walked back together, enjoying the nice evening and a good conversation. I will miss this city, and this train yard, and living in an environment with such talented and wonderful people from all over the world.

The next day we only had one show. I slept in a bit, then worked on uploading all of my talent show footage (internet in this yard is awful so it took quite a while). I tried to scope out my room a bit and gather together anything that would need to be packed or taken to a thrift store next week. Then I decided that I should peel off the faux wood stickers that I'd put up to cover some metal strips in my room when I'd first moved in. The ones on the window edges kept the sun from reflecting off the medicine cabinet mirror and into my eyes. With only a week left I feel like that doesn't matter any more.



Then I figured, may as well tear out the flooring too. I'd installed it about four years ago because I like to be barefoot and thought this would feel nicer than the built-in tile. The panels came up easily, and after a quick cleaning it was just like when I'd first moved in.


Maybe it's stupid to spend time doing this stuff. Too bad. The way I see it, after we all move out, this car will be bought, gutted, and turned into something else. I am the last person to live in this room, and the last to care about it. So I'm going to show that I care by cleaning it and leaving it in as good condition as possible before I move out forever. That's just my personal choice.

Yesterday Tim (sax) had found a bangin' halal food truck downtown, so I decided to walk in early and find it for dinner. It was hot and humid, but the sun was nice, a pleasant change from the cold rain we've been having. There was quite a line when I got there and sadly I was at the end of it. When I finally got to place my order the cook said he was out of rice. Dang! But after he'd served everyone else, he confided that he had one serving left and just hadn't wanted us all to fight over it, and since I was last in line he'd give it to me. Lucky!! I got lamb (gyro meat) over the saffron rice with hot sauce and a nice salad with that tasty white cucumber sauce. Great dinner!


The show that evening went well, although Benny (wheel) was injured during his act.

Saturday, three shows. Benny and the Wheel act would be out for the entire day; the clowns would cover with an audience participation gag while the band played Emergency Music. Not a big deal, we've done it before. Before the first show I ran into Stacey (vet tech) who suggested that I head over to the camel area...she knows that I've been really wanting to get close to the camels. I mean, look at them! They look so fuzzy! I've always wondered if their fur is as soft as it looks. And today I got to find out. Nikolai (animal crew) led me over to the camels right as the open house was starting. He pretty much just opened the barn gate and we walked right up to Moose. I was surprised that Moose immediately came up to me and started checking me out, snuffling me and using his big camel lips to search my hands for treats. Nikolai stepped back to take a picture of us. There were no special instructions for how to interact with Moose...so I just threw my arms around his neck and hugged him! He did not seem to mind!



Pete saw that Moose was getting attention and came over to see what was going on. He put his giant eyeball right next to my face while checking my hand for treats. I was surprised at how long his neck was! I mean I know I should be able to tell from seeing them every day, but it's way more apparent when you're up close!



While I was giving Pete a treat I felt something nudging my head, and then a blast of hot camel breath. This was Gus, who also wanted a piece of the action. None of these camels were led over to me, they came over of their own volition to check out the new thing in their space. It was pretty neat! Gus stuck his nose into my hair and breathed in...and out...and in....and out....for quite a long time! To the point where my head started to sweat! "He likes your shampoo," Nikolai said.

As it turns out, camel fur is not as soft as it looks! It's pretty coarse :)

I had a wonderful time with these amazing and surprisingly social animals today. Thank you Nikolai, Stacey, and everyone on animal crew, again and always, for caring for these animals so that people like me can experience them. And you know what, I'm just going to say it: SHAME on anyone who makes judgements about these people or these animals by sitting at home watching youtube. Shame on you.

I can't express enough how working here has opened my eyes to the importance of seeing for yourself and experiencing for yourself. You guys, when I started working here, I had questions too. I was worried about how the animals were treated. And I can tell you, from from personal experience, that all those animal activists ever had to do was come inside and see the truth for themselves. Lord knows they were invited many times. But they would not get anywhere near our animals. Because heaven forbid they might be wrong about circus animal care. For some people, it's easier to believe the convenient lie than to admit that they're wrong.

The circus has taught me that in any aspect of life, whether it's animal care or politics or race or religion or whatever, it is so, so important to find out for yourself. Even if it means that you might have to admit that you're wrong, or open your mind to a viewpoint that you don't agree with. It's more work than a Google search, but it is very much worth it in the end.

I returned to the open house between every show on Saturday. Hartford is the last city where we can display the animals like this. The barn was packed before each show and I took care to stay out of the way of ticketholders, but still managed to take some photos and videos. After next week it is likely that I'll never get to see these animals again.


From left to right: Princess, Shakira, Govinda, and Hercules. Thank you Isaias (tiger crew) for that information.


All of the shows went well. We're all hoping that Benny will be healed enough to perform his act for the final week.

After the last show of the day I walked back to the train. The downtown area was bustling with people as a baseball game had just let out. But the closer I got to the train yard, the quieter it got. This was the last time I'd walk through the Hartford train yard, and I tried to burn it into my mind...the foreboding entrance, the broken glass and rusty nails, the big engines sitting silent at night, the dust hanging in the air as the circus bus drove past full of people going home. The smell of rail tar, rotting trash, and spring coming.

I climbed onto my car, car 38. Outside my door was the last-ever attendance record for the final Red Unit train run. The paragraph at the bottom is from our head porter Eric, and reads, "It's been a fun ride while it has lasted. Thank you all for some of the best memories I will take with me. Best of luck to you all where this existence will take you. May all your days be circus days and stay safe!"


On Sunday I drove in and dropped my car off at the hotel I'd be staying in that night. The first show went well, it seemed to be sold out. Between shows I went back to the animal open house. The very last one we'd ever be able to enjoy. It was packed with people again, but I did manage to get a few clear shots of members of our animal crew with their charges.

Steve the camel guy and Pete the camel (pretty sure that's Pete anyway...)



Justino and Pete :)


ZB and Colonel.


I wanted some pics of the tiger handlers as well, but they weren't around that I could tell. I went to the end of the horse stalls and tried to get a clear shot of Lori (horse specialist). Right when I took her pictured she yelled, "Megan! Come over here. Let's take some pictures without bars in the way."



I came around to the back of the stall, and at that very moment Tin Man (the Fjord in the next stall over) decided to take a big dump. I took a picture, because this is what animal care really looks like and people need to remember that. It's lifetime care and lifetime commitment. Unless, of course, your animals are prematurely taken away from you by people who decide your ability to care for them based on youtube videos.


When Lori had finished cleaning up after Tin Man, we visited Eddie in his stall. Eddie knows how to "say cheese"! Lori makes a pinching motion with her fingers and says, "say cheese!" and Eddie shows his teeth. Smart horse :)


I learned that Lori had dreamed of working with horses since she was a young child. She got her start cleaning up after racehorses. After gaining some experience there, she applied to work under famous Ringling animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams. She became one of the first female barn hands on Gunther's team. Since then, she has worked with Ringling's horses for nearly two decades. And now it's all coming to an end. As the open house guests were ushered out and the crew began packing up the barn, we talked a bit about what she'd do afterward, and shared some of our worries and feelings. Whatever happens when all is said and done, I'm glad to have spent time with Ringling's animal crew. I really hope to see these folks working with animals later in life.

After the final show, I had a special Hartford tradition to fulfill. Jameson and I used to go to Agave for drinks and to watch the wagons loading out. I planned to go by myself, have a big ol' fried ice cream, and wax nostalgic while watched the wagons loading out of the XL Arena for the last time. As it turned out, one of my former classmates and former Ringling musician Chris Conte had come out to see a show, and was having dinner with a few band members at Agave. I sat with them and enjoyed some conversation while they waited for their food, and ordered my ice cream to go (because I needed time to write this HUGE post!). As we parted ways the tiger cars were pulling out to make their way to Providence, and the other wagons were being loaded one by one. Goodbye Hartford.

(photo courtesy Chaz C.)

The train will take all day Monday to reach Providence, so I'll have to find ways to kill time. And then..........


Other stuff:

Raymond (train crew) celebrates his 40th birthday this week with a pie to the face.

(photo courtesy Raymond A.)

Jr. (train crew) enjoying his down time by the tracks.
(photo courtesy Nikki R.)

Dave Mahoney (BMX) doing tricks on the XL Arena ramps.
(photo courtesy Dave M.)

Jon (animal specialist) moving his house using a tractor. When the RVs are inside an arena this is a common way of moving them, as there is not enough room for both the RVs and the trucks.


Stacey, Ringling Red Unit Vet Tech.

(photo courtesy Stacey T.)

For those who have asked for a listing of which circus cars have been sold and to whom, we now have that information thanks to Robert Cline and the Circus Historical Society:

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
donnad
May. 1st, 2017 12:41 pm (UTC)
I think the last time you played Hartford you spoke of the Hartford Circus Fire. I am always interested in local history so I bought and read a couple of books about it then. It was such a horrible tragedy. Thank you for the pictures of the markers and explanations. I'm sure visiting the site was an emotional experience. I am grateful for modern technology that allows us to waterproof canopys and tents without highly flamable creosote. And also that we can flame proof them now.

The videos of the performers in the no-talent show are wonderful, the kids are so cute.

I am really going to miss the circus posts, I look forward to reading them every Monday morning.
taz_39
May. 1st, 2017 03:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading. I haven't read any books on it so far, a lot of folks keep saying they're inaccurate so I've held off.

By the way, thank you for the card! Cute tiger on the front <3 I'll hang onto that clipping!

Yeah...I'll have to find something else to write about after this. Probably will focus on transferring this blog to another more stable site like Wordpress, cleaning up the broken parts, and maybe fleshing it out with details that I've left out over the years in order to be polite to my employer. Or maybe that can wait for a book haha.

I do have another personal blog that's more of a diary that I'll probably switch back to. But I don't want to share it with the people who read this.

In any case, the days of circus blogging are definitely ending. Bummer.
donnad
May. 1st, 2017 04:03 pm (UTC)
I don't know about accuracy in the books I read about the Circus fire, the ones I read seemed to be very much the same story, timelines etc. It's still a pretty sad story. It hits a little close to home, I know someone who was supposed to be at the circus that day in Hartford, but stayed home because she was sick. She was six years old and still remembers it now.

Please let me know (via email if you would rather not share it here) where you end up blogging, I really do enjoy your writing. And yes, I think you should take all the circus bits you have written about and compile them into a book. I would buy it.

"Five Years at The Greatest Show on Earth: See you down the road." By Megan O'

That newspaper clipping was from my little small town local weekly newspaper. I found it interesting that they picked up the story, normally the paper is all about local town politics, high school sports and upcoming events at the local senior center. :)

Edited at 2017-05-01 04:04 pm (UTC)
Melissa Bondar
May. 2nd, 2017 02:45 am (UTC)
I love your no talent taken show footage - omg, Claudia! It was one of my favorite things at the circus.

I just wanted to let you know I've been following your blog since I left and it always makes me a little homesick for that stupid train and everyone on the show (and I'm sure I'm not the only former Feld employee lurking on here). Thanks for keeping it up all these years!

-Melissa Bondar
taz_39
May. 2nd, 2017 04:06 am (UTC)
Lol! Glad you like. I wish I had gotten everyone's acts but some of them didn't turn out right due to lighting and other times I just had to pee lol.

Thank you for reading. I'm sorry this blog will be ending, but I'm also a bit relieved. Especially in the past few months, people have gotten just crazy and ridiculous, accusing me of being censored by Feld, or bribed to write certain things. And of course the criticism of what and how I write. I think it will be nice to have a break, and not feel obligated to post. Maybe read what others have to say for once.

Thanks again, it's good to hear from you :)
pineapple_sour
May. 3rd, 2017 02:01 am (UTC)
So sorry the circus is ending. Shame!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )