October 30, 2009
Some nights when I was young I’d lie awake with the window open and I’d hear the scream of a train whistle across the Midwestern plain and dream of running away and joining the circus. Then I’d wake up and realize I was not Ray Bradbury and that not only was I not in the Midwest but that the scream was coming from across the street where a family named Horde lived. I swear that’s true: their last name really was Horde, and even though they didn’t look Mongolian they lived up to that name. The family consisted of the mother and father and their twenty-seven boys, all between the ages of twelve and fifteen. They had the neighborhood reputation for doing terrible things, too, and this was back in the good old days when Halloween was still fun and those of us who were normal kids would be sent out alone wrapped up in black velvet and carrying sacks of toilet paper and eggs. The Horde boys would go out with buckets of kerosene and road flares, but then they moved away. Or maybe they were the ones who really did run away and join the circus, although it seems unlikely. Joining the circus was kind of like finding a razor blade in some Halloween candy: it was something everybody’d heard about but I neither knew anyone who did it nor did I know anyone who knew anyone who’d done it. And thanks to those lousy child labor laws it probably would have been impossible for me to do it even if there’d been a train that came within five miles of my house. I’m not even sure the circuses that I went to came by train–and when I went to see the circus I couldn’t get away from my aunt who always took me. I’m not even sure what I would have done if I’d tried to join the circus. Setting up and taking down tents was something I did as a Boy Scout and wasn’t really something I had either the desire or talent to do professionally, I was too scared of heights to be a tightrope walker, don’t get me started on clowns, and by the time I was old enough to go to the circus lion tamers had become one of the few species that actually benefited the planet by going extinct. I would have been too honest to work one of the carny sideshows even if those still existed, and being part of a freak show was even more out of the question. They’d been gone even longer than lion tamers. Besides, I didn’t have anything freakish about me. It seems kind of strange now to think that freak shows were most popular at a time when practically everyone had rickets or chilblains or an extra arm growing out of their back–things that nowadays can either be prevented or quietly taken care of with surgery. The Bearded Lady can get electrolysis, Lizard Boy is sent to a dermatologist, and the World’s Heaviest Man is helped with a lap band. About the only freaks left are the ones with lots of tattoos, and they’re not freaks–they’re We’ve become so much more civilized now that we look down on the freak shows of the past and instead turn on television shows so we can watch ordinary people biting the heads off live chickens and swimming through pools filled with lard. It’s amazing to think that, in the old days, we would have had to go behind the big circus tent and pay a guy outside a smaller tent a nickel to see that sort of thing. Maybe that’s why there are no freak shows anymore: if we really want to see a freak all we have to do is look in the mirror.