An Early Morning Serenade
Our final Jump Day began with a rousing version of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” played by staff members parading around the bunk trailers with accordions, trumpets, drums, kazoos, and all sorts of other instruments. We coiled our muddy cables and started off towards home, the Circus Barn in Greensboro, Vermont. After driving just over an hour, we made the turn onto Circus Road! Car horns honked in excitement. People audibly sighed as they breathed in the icy Vermont air. A small group gathered in the wooden chairs on the porch. Though it had been almost two months since we’d sat here and looked out on the field, there was a familiarity to the view. The rolling hills and weathered buildings signified that we were home.
This jump was one of the smoothest moves of tour. But the ease of this jump wasn’t coincidence. Moving this many vehicles down the road takes careful planning and frequent maintenance. The man behind our machines is Jeff Maynard, Back Lot and Maintenance Supervisor. He’s written an incredible post giving insight into all that he does do help get Smirkus down the road!
“I’m a behind the scenes guy. In fact, I’m the behind the scenes guy behind the behind the scenes guys. People may not ever see the tent guys who assemble our tents, or the tech staff as they install and run the lighting and sound kit for the show. Like them, I’m invisible, but my task, like that of our cooks, is to keep the Circus going. I keep everyone else stocked with what they need to do their jobs. Full fuel tanks, electricity thrumming in the lines, water rushing through the pumps, all 168 tires properly inflated, all 1,134 lug nuts tightened, every engine ready to start with the turn of a key.
Jeff Sits Fueling the Generator (Photo Credit: Joy Powers)
Part of the circus magic is in the ring. The acts, the performers, defying gravity and their own bodies. Another part is on the road. The Jump is my act, and it strives to defy nature at its own game. Our setups lie in grass fields, which quickly become mired in mud once it starts to rain. Four wheel drive is our ally, as are paths built of plywood to get through the deepest of the muck.
Once all the wheels are back on the pavement, we chase each other down the highway, racing the clock on our way to get back to work. We want to take our time, but there’s so much to do on the landing, and we’re already burning through daylight. I keep at the back, miles behind tent boss Nat Brown in the leading Gooseneck, which carries the Big Top in its entirety. Minutes slip to hours, over the laboring bray of my diesel engine. I’m in the water truck, pulling a tremendous camper that is 8 of our staffs’ home, and other motorists unwittingly play a dangerous game cutting in and out my blind spots. We hit a hill, and I’m eyeing the gauges, nervous about my engine at nearly full throttle trying to cope with 23,500lbs of circus. Once over the summit, that weight is still against me, but instead of stressing my motor, it’s heating up my brakes. If my engine overloads, it’ll de-rate, incrementally shutting down so it stays in safe limits. If my brakes overheat, I become an expensive train wreck on its way to the lowest point.
All the while, I’m looking ahead, and listening for my phone. Someone might call in with a flat, or worse, that their rig got hung up on a post, under a bridge, in a ditch. Or I might come around the corner and find orange triangles on the shoulder, marking the approach to a stranded truck that might be one of my allies.
Jeff Helps Change a Tire on the Pie Car (Photo Credit: Joy Powers)
Every jump is an unsolved question. Will we all get there? Ultimately, we will, but maybe not all together, maybe not all on time, and maybe not all in one piece. With this many moving parts, some of them are bound to develop personalities. Maybe a rig will roll in with some of its body strapped in place by bungees after getting caught on something. Maybe I’ll need to drop my trailer at the next lot and rush back to rescue another coupled to a dead truck waiting for a tow.
Our next act begins upon landing. What was once an empty field becomes an empty field covered in orange marks: mark-out surveys for the crew to know where each tent pole, tent stake, and truck lands in this new blank canvas. Suddenly, there are trucks, packed with straps and tarps. Equipment seems to explode out of them. Cables and water hose chase through the grass. The diesel generator breathes its first breath on this site with a roar and a polite puff of smoke. Dodging people and stakes, our little loader is placing racks of tent parts around the perimeter of the Big Top and the out tents, zipping back and forth with an orange beacon flashing on its top.
You could miss it if you walked out to get a sandwich. Turn your back for an hour, and you’ll return to find three tents and a small village of campers and trailers. Do so again, and all of the empty racks disappear, the tent sidewalls are up and laced shut, and it looks like we’ve been here for ages.
It’s been seven hours since the first truck jumped off the old lot. In two or three days, we’ll erase what we’ve done, and a visitor might arrive to find a vacant field covered in weird orange marks, pockmarked with vanishing stake holes, with patches of dead grass from where a truck or tent was sitting.
This performance is what makes us what we are. Someone will pose a comment like, “we should stay here for a month,” and earn a few laughs. Most of us would start to go crazy three days in. We are made to move. We train and rehearse it. We repeat it at a moment’s notice, no matter the weather. The easy jumps are forgettable. The flawless tear-downs become a boring note in my log, something to the likeness of “Jump went well today,” end of statement.
It’s just that the messy ones make for such better stories. Sometimes, the weather doesn’t cooperate, and we discover standing water three inches deep under the entire Big Top shortly after midnight. Sometimes, the ground is terrible, and our massive tractor trailer buries itself in the mud trying to pull off the lot. Sometimes, the water pressure is so low that our pumps suck the hoses flat. Other times, the pressure is so high, those same pumps become dramatic water features in our new truck-mounted swimming pool when a fitting lets go. Some people might become bogged down and grumpy, looking over all the things that have gone wrong and will continue to go wrong.
I often jokingly state, “But if this was easy, it wouldn’t be fun.” Some might expect it to be sarcasm. In the moment of a fix, it might not be a trip to Disney World. But the laughter and celebration afterward would beat Space Mountain any day.
Trenching the Fields
Weather gods took our water theme a bit too far and flooded the big top? Break out the shovels and have a trenching party.
Semi truck knee-deep in mud? Well, if we put a farm tractor on the back and push at the same time we’re also pulling forward with a pickup in four-wheel drive…
It becomes a puzzle game, after a fashion. Personally, I’m comfortable laughing at a problem. What I didn’t expect to find when I arrived here at Smirkus was an entire family of other workers who do the same thing.
I am accustomed to hard work, but in my various jobs, I was also well accustomed to the “not my problem” attitude often adopted by more senior workers, along with an unhealthy dash of apathy and “whatever, man, I don’t get paid enough” from the younger ones. I had the expectation of facing the complexity of the Jump relatively unsupported.
I was very wrong.
All Hands on Vinyl!
“All hands on vinyl” is a thing. It doesn’t matter what your role might be, if you can step away from your project, you help roll the Big Top up onto its trailer. The lunch bell rings on the first day at a new site, and the cooks have already set up their own serving tent, along with the rest of their setup, and a bunch of people throw in to stake and pitch the dining tent so we have shade to eat under. Jump day morning is an absolute maelstrom of cable coiling, jack cranking, block gathering, tailgate slamming chaos in which I only have time to double-check the trailer hitches and ensure all the engines start before the backlot is pulled out from under me. This place is our home, and we understand it takes cooperation and collaboration to keep it in good shape.
I have never felt less alone. After a while, it gets into your head that nothing is truly unattainable. I could walk into the backlot and ask for hands flipping the tractor trailer upright, and with a few squawks of “Seriously? How does that even happen?” people would be on their feet to get to it. Rain becomes an involuntary shower, but we supposed we needed one anyway. The hot beating sun is barely mentioned, because there was a day that was worse last year.
Never before had I encountered such a cast of characters. Reading books aloud by the glow of Christmas lights. Arguing for hours about telepathy and inner peace. Sunburnt, bruised, blistered, soaking wet. Rain boots haven’t dried in three sites. Heart and soul devoted into the act.
As if by magic, the circus moves. Somehow intact. Somehow on time. No missing fingers. Just the satisfaction of a job well done, sitting by the glow of the moon and that one outside light on a trailer that still works.”