I grew up in Sarasota Florida. Venice, actually, which is also the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus. The winter quarters is the off-season home-base for man and beast and clown alike. We were a circus town, as much as a beach town. But inland, we're a white sand road and pine forest town. That's where you'd find me most days.
My family owned a campground. The Royal Coachmen Resort. The origination of the resort campground concept, actually, that was the spark for Fort Wilderness, but that's another story. It was my very own hundred acre wood, filled with 32 sets of seasonal, snow-bird grandparents, pinching my cheek every Thanksgiving and saying " My, how you've grown!". Also filled with good natured campers, marshmallow roasts, pot luck dinners, swim races, pancake breakfasts, and some local artists. We were so close by the winter quarters, that dad got to know the folks, and we had so much space, that the circus would put up the overflow acts in trailers, behind the general store, on the outer circle drive, over near Shackett Creek.
One year we hosted a family of four, that each rode their own, old fashioned penny farthing bicycles of all different sizes. I’m not exactly sure what their circus act was, but it was fun to watch them riding by. Another year, we got a set of 15 year old twins who both walked on 10 foot tall stilts. They’d climb up on the roof of the game-room, by the pool, (it was the right height to put on their stilts), then go walking around the streets and through the trees. It was always a big crowd pleaser to see them rehearsing. In a small roundabout near the camp fire circle, and the far side of the pool, a man set up his cotton candy wagon to sell to campers. The smell was magical.
That brings me to the trapeze.
One year, I must have been about 6 or 7, behind the general store, where we usually set up long rows of half-barrel barbecues for summer all-you-can-eats, they set up a full trapeze rig for an all-girl group of Romanian flyers. I watched them, and watched them, in awe and wonder, as they climbed and flew, jumped and twisted, stretched and made it all look so easy. Calling out and laughing with each other, stern direction, and smack talk.
It was a Saturday morning, perfect and sunny and balmy, and out came the girls, wrapping and taping, and chalking up their hands, stretching, then checking the rigging tension, in the pine dappled sunlight.
I, as always, gazed, mooney eyed at their beautiful form, grace, and good natured focus. I can’t remember if I blurted out and asked, or if they asked me, or my sister asked them for me, but all of a sudden, I’m hearing them say, “ Sure she can try it, has she flown before?”
My heart swelled, and I was so excited to try it. To finally get up there and show them I could do exactly what they’d all been doing before.
I was a dancer, an okay diver, and we had a metal trapeze on the swing set by the mini-golf, I played on all the time! Of course I could do this!
“Up you go” I heard some one say. So I put my feet on the ladder and started to climb.....and climb.....and half way up I realized.....I was only half way up......and this was so much higher than I had ever imagined. It was at that moment I learned that I was afraid of heights. But I had said yes! So I couldn’t back down. My hands got flop-sweat-slippery on the thin metal rungs, my breathing got shallow and the breeze seemed to pick up, the higher I got. I kept telling myself - they’re all waiting for me at the top, get up to them! Up.. go UP.
I got to the top. Shaky, and pie eyed at just how exactly high off the ground I actually was. I was really freakin high. I saw the pine trees below me, and the roof of the general store. I’d never climbed anything this high before, and I was shell shocked. No harness. Frozen. Terrified.
Just open air.
Then it got worse. It was crowded on that narrow bar with two other women filling it up, so it wasn’t easy to move around. Then they realized, I was too short to reach the bar, so they added another flat bar of metal, a yard higher in the air for me. “ Hop up!” One of them barked. It was business as usual for them, and no time for me to adjust to this colossal new position in space. I don’t even remember getting up onto that last higher platform, shaking in the breeze and the summer sun. Suddenly I realized I was just too high, the vision of all that space below me made my vision waiver and do funny things with my focus. My knees were shaking, liquid, and I felt like my fingers just couldn’t hold onto anything they were so slick with fear sweat. The wind sang in my ears like I was looking down into a canyon.
I remembered thinking, I have to climb down, but I was frozen in my spot, couldn’t move. From far away, so very far away, I could hear my sister and one of the performers saying, “ You have to do it now....that’s the only way down. Jump! Push off and pull a beat!”
I was screwed to the spot with fear. The net stretched out below me, but, so far down. It wasn’t going to be a big, triumphant, flying leap through the air. It was going to be a scared, fearful, falling tumble into the net, which was just so completely NOT what I had in mind, what I wanted to happen,…. what I knew could happen.
I screwed up my courage, and knew it really was the only way down, and I pushed off.
Nothing but that great height, and falling, and silence but for the wind rushing around my ears, and grey fuzz at the corners of my vision from the fear and low key panic, my heart pounding in my chest. I swung out! So far......such a grand swinging arc....and back.
The catcher, up in the air, across from me, waiting, yelled, “ Now beat! Beat with your legs!”
But I couldn’t. I wanted to! I wanted to show them that I knew I could do this! But the shock of the height was too big a gradient for my little brain to wrap itself around, and took my ability away, and left me hanging there...slowly swinging slower......and slower.......a tiny little failure hanging pathetically from that beautiful, grand , white trapeze. Until all that was left to do on that last gentle swing, was let go and fall into the net.
Shaken, embarrassed, frustrated at my loss, I bounced around in the netting and dismounted just as I’d seen all the performers do with a clean somersault around the rope to the ground. At least there was that.
I must have pleaded with them to let me do more. My next memory is back up to the lower platform, and climbing out onto the cradle, with the catcher.
I climbed down her legs and she wrapped her strong hands around my wrists and gave me instructions in what was, to me, a surprisingly high, voice for a lady with muscles so big and buff. ( a trapeze catcher after all) “ Beat- pull! arch! flip through.....beat pull! arch!” and I did. And I was finally doing just exactly what I’d seen the girls do up there in the rigging and it was so much fun! Wonderful team work, listening, working, doing acrobatic move after move, and transitions and poses. Redeemed! And the extra heart-swell of hearing the team call out more moves.
It probably only lasted a few minutes, I was so focused on following directions and proving myself, I had no sense of time, just the teamwork. Just a few minutes in the sunny, pine tree scented morning, but for me, it was heaven. Elastic, strong, pas de deux in the air.
I was so thrilled. I was transported. A beautiful place of dreams coming true right then and there.
Drop to the net and bounce around and down to earth. Good natured laughter, a bit of ruffle-my-bangs praise. Pat on my shoudler. And they went back up, to rehearse.
My feet felt funny on the ground, earth bound again and wobbly from the thrill, stepping over pine needles and pine cones around the rigging.
I was all at once a tiny stranger in a strange land, unaccustomed to gravity, longing to be back up there with the fear , and the elation, and the breeze in my hair.