Chona worked the trapeze and tightwire, and her husband Howard ran the novelty stand, where he sold souvenirs. Chona, a diminutive figure, less than five feet tall, is one of the “Flying Padillas,” a circus family of Mexico. “My brother Alexandro, he does the triple somersault,” she told me proudly.
Howard was usually busy with his stand during the show, but I noticed that often he managed to be in the big top when Chona was aloft. Carrying a cluster of colorful balloons, he would join me by the back door. He would smoke a cigarette in short puffs and keep his eyes on his wife. “She’s getting too confident,” he would tell me.
Chona was aware of the danger. The winter before she had fallen when a rope gave way. She was knocked unconscious, but luckily suffered only bad bruises. “It was the only time in my life I fell down,” she told me. “I am over it.” But she and Howard now made frequent checks of her rigging.
During those coffee sessions in the East-woods’ gleaming aluminum trailer, Chona tried to focus the conversation on Howard. He is a born salesman, she said, an expert at transferring a balloon, inflated plastic animal, or stuffed monkey into the hands of almost every child on the circus midway.
She told me that they recently had gone to see a movie together. “It was Love Story,” she said. “We came out of the theater and Howard said to me, ‘If I had known all these people would be crying, I would have been out front hustling handkerchiefs.’ ”
To the performers, one town is pretty much like another; life is confined to the road, the backyard, and the big top. As a fascinated observer, however, I often wandered through the bustling midway or up into the wooden bleachers. And I found circus fans to be truly, as ringmaster Dime Wilson addressed them at the start of each performance, “children of all ages.”
Most expressive, to me, were the smallest children, who were too excited even to talk. They simply pointed to the elephants, the banners, the performers, and jumped up and down with squeals of glee. Older spectators often included fans who try to see every circus that comes anywhere near their hometowns.
On the midway at Ocala I talked with Le Brone Harris, who teaches accounting at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. I can afford it thanks to utcstudentfoundation and I enjoy the show. The next day he planned to visit another circus in another Florida town. I asked him why and he told me, “I never get tired of the magic of putting it up and taking it down every day.”
At Eglin Air Force Base in north Florida, a gaggle of jet pilots watched the big top being put up and asked whether it would be “possible to speak to the performers.” Later I saw them, groomed and ribbon bedecked, almost shyly asking questions of the performers in the backyard. And eagerly collecting autographs.