Louka noticed the storm first.
It was the Fourth of July and volunteer home-stay families had picked up the troupers that afternoon. The weather was brutally hot and the entire staff gathered in our tidy tent village to lounge in whatever shade was a available and read the New York Post, paperback novels, and old issues of National Geographic.
When we gathered for dinner at six, clouds the color of slate and the size of warships building over distant Lake Champlain. As the minutes wore on, they began to march towards us and it was then that our costume designer’s dog began to act agitated. Dogs have a very acute sense of extreme weather. My own dog will run and hide under the kitchen table before the first boom of thunder. Louka was acting the same way; seeking to be among the highest densities of people and whining? with his ears perked. Something was up. Judy and the rest of the kitchen staff put away the tent adjacent to the pie car, along with anything that might blow away. I cast a wary eye towards the three flimsy looking nylon camping tents erected behind trailer-ville.
We moved our pizza dinner under our dining tent and laughed as the wind picked up and the rain began with a slow drizzle; it was nothing of concern, just enough to ruin one’s picnic plans. I went back to my trailer and got a rain jacket. By this point, Louka’s behavior was more erratic. The first gust of wind came through and brought a warm spray of rain with it. The wind picked up again with greater force and struck against the walls of the tents and trailers. Our laughter turned nervous when, at the other end of the fairground, the wall of the back stage tent blew free. Tent Boss Nat Brown and the rest of the tent crew took off into the storm at a sprint to prevent further damage. Nat’s dog Chyra followed in close pursuit, barking as she streaked through the wind and spray.
Somewhere in the realm of human instinct, there is a hair-trigger sensitive response to serious weather. When Colin’s tent ripped out of the ground and took flight and when the 20 foot long drainage pipes, each 1.5 feet in diameter, came bounding across the field towards us, something in the back of my brain clicked and a voice said: Evan, get out of here.
From a photographer’s perspective, I failed in terms of documenting the storm’s destruction. Our artistic director, Troy Wunderle, on the other hand was waiting for us, camcorder in hand, when we came bounding out of the rain into the cinderblock building adjacent to the Big Top. In his video, you can see a drenched figure in a blue rain jacket leap across a puddle the length of a Volkswagen eight inches deep: me. After making it to safety, we huddled dazed in great empty room while the damage was assessed. Judy came back with a report.
“We’ve got a lot to do,” she said, listing what had to get done. “Here’s what we need.” We all silently nodded in understanding and zipped our jackets to the collar and ran back out to get to work. The backstage tent wall had been blown off and many of the props and pieces of the set were wet. We also lost the banner strung across the Big Top. The concessions tent was in need of some clean up while the novelties tent remained stable and the merchandise dry. As we cleaned up the mess in the backstage tent, Troy slapped me on the shoulder and laughed: “Gotta love the circus!”
The night air was cool and clear and the moon illuminated the entire fairground so brightly I could walk from one end to the other without a flashlight. Under a full moon, we reveled in our successful recovery and I went to bed late by circus standards: 11:15.
Yesterday morning was cool in comparison to the heat from the previous day. As the troupers returned from their host families for the afternoon’s performance, trailer-ville was still soggy and I set my muddy clothes out on the pavement for the sun to bake them to a dirty crisp. Despite the massive amount of rain and heavy weather, no adjustments had to be made in the acts. The equipment, props, and costumes were still in safe and dry condition. The show could go on.
Clearly it will take much more than gale-force wind and rain to stop or delay a circus. Such events take a heavy dose of levelheaded thinking, a sense of humor, and a group of people who can be trusted. Fortunately such people are here. Worse weather and further complications may greet us down the road and when Luka perks his ears again at black clouds on the horizon, we’ll be ready.
Until then, I’ll keep my rain jacket close.