Monday, August 20, 2007

Going to a flea market and ending up at a circus

Today I got up ridiculously early and set out for a large flea market on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border. Mainly I went to buy ephemera - I'm not sure what's going to come of it but I've been collecting old photographs, pamphlets, and illustrations for a couple of weeks. I also thought I might find some useful tools. What I ended up with was a stack of old photos, two books, a wonderfully weird "silver-tone" belt from probably the 60s (I like the way the links interlock), and three different types of African trade beads. I don't normally use African trade beads in my jewelry, but these caught my eye because they look like stacks of miniature 45s. I exchanged cards with the seller, a gentleman who was very excited to hear that I made jewelry using Adinkra symbols.

I hadn't been to the flea market in ages and the whole experience was bizarrely nostalgic. Partly it was the weather - chilly and misty, it was more like late September than mid-August. And September means the start of school and, more importantly, the end of summer, which is a moment of multi-layered nostalgia. All those childhood summers when you could see the beginning of school bearing down on you like a red plaid steamroller kicking up a flurry of orange and gold leaves. Being part of academia, I've never really escaped the feeling that the year starts in September. What really made it nostalgic though, was the poster for the Clyde Beatty Circus prominently displayed at one of the booths. (This isn't the exact poster I saw, but it was similar to this one.)

My father was a drummer in the circus. He had gone to Julliard but dropped out to become the drummer in the Ringling Bros. Circus when it was still under canvas, when it was still a real circus. Later, when Ringling stopped traveling, he moved to the Clyde Beatty circus. Clyde Beatty was a lion tamer who was killed by his favorite lion. I used to have two claws from an earlier favorite lion who went rogue and had to be put down. I kept them in cotton in a white box like the ones you get from a jewelry store. They looked like dirty pointed yellow toenails.

My father's nickname, Boom-Boom, was given to him by a non-English-speaking circus hand who accompanied it with the appropriate drum-beating gesture. I think it stuck because it suited him: he had a booming voice and a personality to go with it. His belly was round and solid, he smoked big cigars, and wore his hair in a short flat-top, tight on the sides. He imagined he was Jackie Gleason: "One-a these days, Alice..BOOM!" He imagined he was Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and Johnny Carson. He imagined he was famous and, I suppose, in the circus world, he was famous, a little.

After some years the band leader who hired my father retired and Boom-Boom became the band leader as well the drummer. This meant that he was responsible for arranging all the music that played during the performances, hiring all the musicians, and working with the acts to coordinate their musical cues and highlights: Drumroll! as gymnast #1 clambers to the top of the human pyramid. Rimshot! as he lands on the see-saw that flips gymnast #2 into a somersault. Fanfare! as gymnast #2 flies to the top of the same human pyramid and lands on a pair of shoulders.

For me one summer, it meant that I could help him with his work. He carried the music for all the musicians in a big wooden chest. That summer I helped him organize the music by writing the names of the songs and the parts (bass, organ, trumpet) on manila envelopes. That summer he also built short wooden screens that sat in front of the first row of musicians, hiding their music stands. They were about three feet tall and he painted them with musical notes in bright colors. I helped him glue glitter onto the notes. As the band leader, he wore brightly colored jackets and shirts with ruffles down the front. It was generally agreed that he was the best in the business.


Joey & Aleethea said...

What a fascinating read I've stumbled upon this morning! Great photos too.

Angela Vandenbogaard said...

Flea markets are so much fun, I wish I were closer to them....sigh

pamela said...

what a sweet story about your Dad!
I've never heard of anyone who worked in a circus!

Helen | Pepperina Press said...

I loved reading about your dad – what a life!

Ben Can Dance said...

Yes, I agree....fascinating! I want to hear more about boom-boom and the circus. Did you travel a lot or did your father come home every couple of weeks? Did you have circus friends?

Write more circus tales! :)

knitsteel said...

That is a great read. What an interesting childhood you must have had.

yellow monday said...

What a beautiful story about your father. That must have been a fabulous experience

LampworkDiva said...

I enjoyed reading about your father, Boom-Boom. Funny, what will trigger a memory huh? So what do you think you'll make with the ephemera you're collecting?