Logo of Carson and Barnes Circus

Grampaw

This is a story from my time with the Carson & Barnes Circus, 1979.

Some Circus Jargon: 

Towner: Someone who lives in a town. 
Lot Lice: Towners who arrive early to watch the tent go up and ask questions. The “lot” is the  
area rented for the circus to put on its show. 
First of May: Someone new to circus life, their first season on the road. In the days when circuses moved by horse-drawn wagons, they would go out around May 1 because the roads were finally dry enough. 
Bolero Jacket A Spanish-style jacket, cut off at the waste, usually black. Male flamenco dancers wear them.

Logo of Carson and Barnes Circus

To look at him, you would never have have guessed how ill-tempered, ornery, and downright mean Grampaw was. He was short, tiny really, with unkempt hair and the deep wrinkles that come with age.  Arthritis sometimes bothered him, as did rainy weather. If you ever saw him you would remember him for the tattered and filthy bolero jacket he insisted on wearing, especially since only a few of the dingle balls remained in place. A look at his shifty eyes was your only clue that Grampaw was not a baboon to tangle with. 

When he was younger, he wore that jacket and a matching hat in the show. When he bounded up on the back of a pony circling center ring, the audience was guaranteed to laugh and clap; but it wasn’t until he grabbed a loop in the pony’s harness and lifted his right arm in victory that they would really let loose. We all have those days of glory to remember. 

 Too old now to perform, he was relegated to the menagerie tent. The menagerie was the first thing folks saw after their tickets were taken from them at the marquee. Although most shows had dropped them, the Carson & Barnes Circus still kept one. Johnny, the manager, said the animals always showed up for work and never asked for a raise.  

Before television the wild animal menagerie was as much an attraction as the big-top show itself. There you could see a real zebra, come within spitting distance of some camels, sense the power of the big cats as they paced their cages, and marvel at the row of elephants.  If a Martian came to earth and you told ‘em there was an animal as big as a bread truck that had two long teeth sticking out of its head, and it ate by picking up grass with the end of its nose and putting it into his mouth, that  Martian wouldn’t believe you for a moment.  P. T. Barnum would be embarrassed to tell a whopper like that.  But there they were, not just one, but a dozen or more, keeping an eye on you as they calmly ate their hay, waiting for their time in the ring. 

But back to Grampaw.  Shortly after his pony express days were over, the wardrobe ladies found his bolero jacket and someone passed it through the bars of his cage. That afternoon, when the band struck up “Robinson’s Grand Entry” to begin the show he put it on,  never to take it off again.  Still, for an animal that was there to be seen, he didn’t like it when people looked at him.  Sometimes he would bolt up to the front of the cage, lips curled back to show those big teeth, slamming against the bars and reaching his long hard fingernails out to grasp whatever might be in reach.  It never failed to make me jump back. Once he had done that he’d settle down for a bit, but he still didn’t like people looking at him. We’d give him an apple sometimes for the fun of seeing him take pieces out of his mouth and fling them at the towners.  

 The trucks had just pulled onto the grass a chilly morning and there weren’t any lot-lice around. We were just getting the equipment out of the trailers when someone started pulling the horn of one of the diesels, alternating the blasts with cries of “Grampaw’s loose!”  I ran towards the commotion because that was what the other folks were doing. Being a “First of May,” I relied on others to show me the life.  

 We soon saw the little ape squatting in the grass, looking around, unsure of what to do.  The show-folks did know what to do, as they formed a wide ring around the beast, giving him plenty of room, but no easy escape. All well and good, but keeping him from getting away wasn’t the same as getting him back in his cage. Johnny came over and tells me to get a burlap sack from the menagerie wagon.  A moment later I came back with one in my hand. Johnny says, “Sneak up behind him, then throw the sack on him and grab ’em.” 

Sammy Johnson faced Grampaw from his spot in the ring, about 15 yards away. He began making soft hooting noises to get the little fella’s attention. I crept behind him real quiet-like and tossed the sack. Before I could even reach for the little monkey, Grampaw turned that sack into a cloud of dust. The Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brother cartoons couldn’t have been any faster. I don’t know if he used his teeth or those fingernails, because I was running too hard to look around.   

So there we were, back in the circle with one mad monkey in the middle. I had my hands on my knees catching my breath, and only then that I noticed the veteran show folks were all armed:  Baseball bats, tent stakes, the cook with a garbage can lid.  Even the lion trainer had a weapon. That should have been a clue to me why Johnny sent a First of May to try the burlap trick: no one else would dare. 

We let things calm down a bit, watching the two-foot terror. After a moment, Turtle Benson says to Johnny, “I think I can rope him.”  Turtle had a western act where he threw knives at a lady tied to a dart-board and spun a lariat over his head. It wasn’t much of an act- and no one had ever seen his lasso anything other than a milk bottle off a table. But Johnny says go ahead. While Benson was getting his rope Sammy resumes hooting. Turtle returns, spinning the lariat over his head in slow easy turns. He gets about 10 feet behind the baboon, and throws. Sure enough the rope drops right over him and Turtle cinches it tight at the shoulders, pinning his arms to his body.  The cowboy then long-armed the rope, leaving Grampaw dangling sideways a foot off the ground.  

Wayne stood behind the open door as Turtle walked him back to his cage. He was howling and gnashing his teeth, but there was nothing he could do. Benson swung him up and in, and CLANG! The door was shut. The rope-spinner slacked the cinch a bit and Grampaw took his rage out on the end of the lariat. Turtle says to Johnny “You owe me $15 for a new rope” but Johnny only says, “That’ ain’t in your contract.

4 thoughts on “Grampaw”

  1. Great piece and great launch with that first paragraph — I am tracking Grampaw as a human and you end the paragraph telling us he’s a baboon. Was a little tired during the first reading tonight and so missed that Grampaw really was a baboon, not just a baboon of a human. Sleepy me. When you described the menagerie, I pictured Grampaw as a human relegated to taking tickets or directing traffic in the menagerie. But then there was a cage. Huh? That first paragraph — extra great fun!

    What a life that must have been for both you and Grampaw dealing with that Johnny character!

    Thank you, Tony.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the twist in the first paragraph. There was a human equivalent of Grampaw who did take tickets, but that’s a story for another time. And Johnny Frazier was the single most memorable person I have met in my life…he’s worth a book.

      1. Stephanie DeMunbrun

        I also totally fell for the baboonish human twist! And TG, what the heck did you do when you were in the Circus??

        1. Hi Stephanie. Primarily I played in the band, but I also drove the Hippo Truck, the Lions and Tigers, and booked the show during the off-season. The phrase used in contracts is “generally useful”

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