Tuesday, March 22, 2016

EARLE REYNOLDS: My dad grew up in a circus (1st of 3)

     Now that you know him as "Skipper," I thought I'd describe other facets of this  remarkable renaissance man who was my father
     Dad was not only a physical anthropologist, playwright, yacht designer and captain, tri-state tennis champion, peace activist and a felon. He was also, at one time, a trapeze artist.
     In his 80's, when dementia had stripped him of most of his memory, Skipper could still remember building a boat and sailing it around the world. Until the dementia he could also remember growing up in the circus.
      He was born Earl Frederick Schoene on October 18, 1910 as the circus passed through Des Moines, Iowa. His parents and Uncle Frederick were trapeze artists and tightrope walkers.
      As a child, I loved hearing him tell of "sleeping in a wardrobe trunk," on the lid of which he remembered were pasted the pictures of his "best friends: the fat lady, the man with no arms and the Wild Man of Borneo." He said he cut his teeth on the corner of a resin box.
      They moved constantly, always staying in the best hotels, eating in the most exclusive restaurants, wearing expensive clothes--for show; expenditures always kept pace with their earnings. Before he could read, his parents would tuck the name of the hotel into his pocket and let him roam all over whatever the city they were in by himself. He remembered one day when he had walked himself to exhaustion and, as instructed, found a cab and handed the driver the card. With a flourish, the driver bowed and opened the back door for him. He drove slowly around the corner and stopped, then got out and opened Earle's door for him. Earle had been only half a block from his hotel.
     Once he rounded up all the local boys--newsboys, shoeshine boys, street kids--and brought them back to the hotel dining room for breakfast, charging his parent's room. Just once.
     He remembered as a toddler singing "Over There," the sentimental song of the Great War, for crowds and having people throw him pennies; on rare occasions I could get him to sing it for me. His version was "He climbs upstairs in his unnerwears" (instead of "all unawares"); please tell my daddy to COME home. Just a baby's prayer at twilight for his DADDY over there."
     After eighty years, he still resented the memory of a "piddly little girl" who walked up and stood on her head once while he was singing. His parents made him split his earnings with her "and all she did was stand on her head. Anybody can stand on their head!"
     In his unpublished (and unpolished) eight-page memoir, Penny Arcade, Earle described his experience in the circus in the third person. (He didn't actually change his name from Earl to Earle until he was adopted by his stepfather, Louis Reynolds, Then he changed it to Earle Landry Reynolds.) Here's part of his memoir:

Circus Day
     Even before the sun had entirely chased away the shadows on the lot, scurrying strikers had pitched the most important tent--the cook tent. Here, while the busy workers set up the big top and the menagerie, preparations were in progress for breakfast. The heavenly odor of frying bacon, the sound of the pounding tent-pegs, and the confusion caused by urchins quarreling over the honor of watering the elephants, all rose on high in an indescribably conglomeration. Seeming chaos reigned.
     But this confusion was only outward. In a miraculously short time, the empty, barren lot was transformed into a billowing sea of canvas. [Foreshadowing the billowing canvas which would be raised hand over hand up the masts of the Phoenix? JR] By early afternoon all was in readiness: The animals were groomed, the red and gold wagons glistened, the clowns were in full regalia, the parade commenced, augmented by the entire juvenile population.
     What heaven this was to a boy! What seven times seventh heaven it was to a boy who, not once or twice a year, but daily, enjoyed this unsurpassed splendor! Earle reveled in it. The thrill of actually sleeping in a special train, with yard-high scarlet letters on each side; the excitement of arriving in a new town in the small hours of the morning; the never-ending pride of being the center of an admiring and envious group of town boys--all the joys conspired to keep the youngster happy and content.
     He was all over the circus lot each night, and on the inside of every gimmick and con-game ever devised to extract money from honest people's pockets. For in those days it was not even expected that the games and chances offered to the suckers should be on the level. Not a single concession but had its pet method of bamboozling the rubes.
     Earle's occupation around the age of five was an exalted position as howler in the den of the Wild Man of Borneo. The word describes the work. With a well-resined string, a tin can, a glove, and plenty of energy, he howled. . . Meanwhile, the dimes rolled in.
     Earle had two unavoidable duties. First, he must every day study with his mother, both in secular subjects and in his religion (Catholicism). Even while their life stretched out as a succession of one-night stands in one-horse towns, she planned far ahead for her boy. He learned to read, and, far more important, he learned to love to read. . .
     His second duty was indeed no duty, but an unalloyed pleasure. One hour each day he spent on his own miniature trapeze, hung a few feet from the ground. Here he practiced hanging from his heels, "skinning the cat," and all the other bone-cracking acrobatic delights known to boyhood.
     His one aim, contrary to the intentions of most boys, was to follow in his father's tracks--but then, most boys' fathers are not trapeze performers! Earle's greatest delight was to be carried aloft with his parents during rehearsal, and, securely strapped to a swinging bar, watch the ground move swiftly underneath.

To be continued

No comments: