62. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!

November 1, 2020

In the summer of 1949 when I was fifteen, for eight weeks I was a junior counselor at a farm camp in Vermont where I had been a camper for the previous six summers.  I taught sailing to 50 boys, including my two younger brothers, and three or four girls who were there to keep the camp owner’s daughter company for the summer.

The farm property was 360 acres and in addition to a piece of the shore of a mile-wide lake, there were hayfields, riding trails and a ring for our six horses, cows to milk, archery and rifle ranges, some clay tennis courts, vegetable gardens to tend, and a craft shop for those who wanted, for instance, to make their own yew longbows or fletch a quiver full of arrows.

In the farmhouse living room the director read stories about Robin Hood, or  Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys in the quarter hour of quiet time before each meal.  And every week, pushing aside the tables used by chess, checker and card players, it was in that fireplace room that we staged talent shows and sing-songs on Friday evenings.  Once a summer we put on a vaudeville show; and once a summer a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: HMS Pinafore or Trial by Jury. Late in the season, as the camp seeason was coming to a close, we put on an outdoor one-ring circus with side-shows, always during a weekend when parents were especially invited to visit.

The currency for the circus was dried navy beans, earned in the previous week by turning in pails of wild blueberries picked in the bushes that surrounded our hay fields, and in the forest clearings in which they flourished.  A large can full of berries earned a small paper cupful of beans to use as money at the circus.

The cook and her helpers turned the blueberries into pancakes and muffins, and with milk from the cows, using a hand-cranked ice cream churn charged with rock-salt and ice from the ice house, we made fresh homemade blueberry ice cream by the gallon.  After the circus the beans were collected, washed, soaked, cooked and made into Boston baked beans.

Out circus side shows were imaginative, amusing and sometimes educational.  The signage on one booth shouted “COME TROUGH THIS PORTAL  AND SEE THE EGRESS!”   Entering, the unwary found themselves outside the ropes and had to pay more beans to get into the circus again.  The campers being aged seven through fourteen, the booth always made money, and the boys never forgot that egress means exit.

The single ring, flanked by a freshly mown knoll from the slope of which spectators watched, featured various acts, including some fairly tame trick riding, for which dutiful parents applauded encouragingly.

Now, various groups at camp had their favorite activities.  Each camper signed up for three sessions a day.  But the activities could be fairly spread out, so there was a tendency to pick ones that were in some proximity to one another.   The riding stables and land activities were near the house, but the lake was about a three-quarter mile walk over a hill and  through the woods down to the lake.  So people who wanted to avoid having to rush to the next activity might pick, Riding, Archery and Tennis, or Sailing, Rowing and Canoeing.  

As a camper I had experience all of the activities, but had always been most drawn to the crystal clear water of Ray Pond, so I had become significantly less proficient at riding during my previous six years as a camper than my pals who would rather ride a horse than eat dinner.  Which was why I was very puzzled when Nancy Gore, older than me by three years and the daughter of the camp’s owners, came to me with the request that I learn a riding trick to perform in the circus, then still a couple of weeks away. 

I declined, but she was very persistent, and enlisted her two brothers, young adults and both senior counselors and camp managers, to convince me.  Still bewildered but outnumbered and outranked, I finally agreed.

What she wanted me to learn, was to ride standing barefoot, on the back of our only ‘quarter-horse’, Butch, a gentle brown and white piebald gelding, as he was cantered in a circle on a rope lead.  I had to learn a running mount to a bareback riding position, then carefully to get my feet under me and stand up.  I had never before ridden on a cantering horse standing up, nor even seen it done, but as it happened, it wasn’t all that difficult.  I also didn’t see why it would be that interesting, but she was satisfied.  She implied vaguely that something else would add to the spectacle, but wouldn’t elaborate.

On the day of the circus I showed up for my performance, as she had requested, a few minutes early.  I was a little nervous, but that soon turned to outright alarm when Nancy brought out the costume she intended  me to wear.  Which was a pink tutu and brassiere!  I was trapped and it was too late to back out. The audience was waiting, our riding instructor was beginning to trot Butch in his circle.  A nearby bush had been chosen for my dressing room.  

I stepped into the tutu and found the brassiere a bit tight for the breadth of my developing chest, but it worked because at least there was nothing else to fill it.

As I walked barefoot out of the bushes to the ring the crowd began to laugh and to applaud.  Somehow it had swelled in size and I gathered I was the only one who had not known what I would be wearing.  But somehow my inner clown took over and I waved, smiled and bowed my way out to my running vault onto the pony’s back.  The crowd went wild.

Charged with adrenalin, I managed to rise and stand where the cantering beast’s back began to broaden into its haunches and make it twice around the ring without falling off.  Rounding my arms into a circle above my head, in a burlesque of a ballet pose I even managed a tentative plie or two the second time around, before regaining my seat astride, then dismounting.  I have no recollection whether the pony had stopped or whether I managed a moving dismount.

As it turned out, of course, because of the hilarity of my costume, I hardly had to do anything at all to win a standing ovation.  And at least one of the reasons for selecting me for the job was clear at last.  Neither of the actual riding counselors, though they were far more expert riders, could have fit into the tutu.