Everyone wants to be a bigshot, right? Not so much the rich guy with the cigar who waves wads of big bills around (although would that really be so bad of a gig?) but the one who knows important people when he goes out on the town. Most of the time, I am pretty much the opposite of a bigshot. I tend to stay home in the evenings, and the people I know and run into while out are ordinary people much like the rest of us. But for one night, I was a genuine bigshot in the eyes of some people whose opinions matter to me, and boy was it fun.
Those with small children know the drill. You see the announcement that the circus is coming to town. Not one of those little parking lot carnivals, but The Circus – of the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey kind. It is a ritual of parenthood that you simply must take your children to the circus. In the cool, deliberate easy chair of the empty nester, I wonder just why, exactly, circus attendance is mandatory. Other than that our own parents took us to the circus, just like their parents took them. It just must be done.
By the age of six or seven, most modern American kids have seen things on television or in the movie theater that dwarf most any experience that can be had from sitting way up in an arena looking down on the equivalent of an old Vaudeville show. OK, a vaudeville show with animals. “Hey Daddy, can you take us to buy some horehound candy sticks and play some mumbletypeg afterwards?” is what today’s kids would ask in a sarcastic voice if they understood things. But fortunately, the kids one takes to the circus do not understand things, and they become excited when you make your eyes wide and say “We’re going to the CIRCUS!” The Mrs. and I agreed that our daughter was too young for the experience that year, so this would be a father-and-two-son outing.
It is a mighty expensive night out, the circus. The tickets are only the downpayment. I suppose a Class-A tightwad might have the ability to glare at his children and say “NO” to the cotton candy, the popcorn, the multi-colored slushies and those oh-so-fun toys that every other kid in your section is happily playing with. Against the back of your head. I, however, am not that hard-hearted person, so out came the twenty dollar bills as we patronized one traveling salesman after another. These expenses were rationalized by reminding myself that since it would be impossible to afford this outing ever again, I might as well make this one memorable.
For all of my grousing, I did enjoy the show and so did the boys. I brought some binoculars that we could pass around, which would give us each a chance for some really close-up viewing. During one of my turns, I looked over to one side and saw the most amazing thing. When the lights came up at intermission, I wasted no time saying “Come with me, guys – we have to go say hello to someone.”
I went to high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was never athletic and had no interest in sports. Many of my best friends were in the band, so I took enough lessons on a trombone to make the cut for band my junior year. I wasn’t great at it, but I had a lot of fun and became part of a great circle of friends (all of whom were much better musicians than I was.) All of us knew that there was one genuine standout among us and it was Mark. Mark played a mean trumpet and was one of the few high school players who would get the occasional call to sit in on a professional gig from time to time.
A couple of years after graduation, I ran into Mark at a party. He had married another friend of ours and I sat transfixed at their stories of life on the road where Mark made his living playing his horn. I envied his lifestyle, one that conservative old me would never have chosen. It may not have been for me, but there was something I found attractive about a life that did not involve final exams. I soon lost track of Mark, periodically wondering what he was doing with his life. I once heard his name being mentioned in the credits of a radio broadcast of the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra, and was not surprised that he could be at home at that level.
By now you have no doubt figured out who I saw through my binoculars. That’s right I saw the guy directing the band for the Ringling Brothers – Barnum & Bailey Circus, and I by golly damn knew him from way back!
The boys and I made our way down from our upper level seats and worked our way to the floor of Indianapolis’ old Market Square Arena. Which was, coincidentally, the very last venue that Elvis played. I am not sure how security let me walk out on the floor and over to the band, but we did. And for just a moment, I was a genuine bigshot – someone who KNEW people. Which was the farthest thing from my mind, because I was simply thrilled to see an old friend and do whatever catching up was possible in the five minutes that we had before it was necessary to head back to our seats (and let Mark get back to work.)
To be honest, I don’t really remember the actual performance of the circus from that night, at least to distinguish it from the other times I have been there. The kids had fun and walked out with full tummies and a toy, along with memories of clowns, tigers and elephants (back when that was still possible). I walked out happy to have run into an old friend in the most unexpected way.
If I am going to be truthful with myself, this evening probably didn’t make me a bigshot at all. My sons were young enough that I was a bigshot already. I didn’t start to become a bothersome idiot until they got into their teen years, something that I have since recovered from. Or so I like to believe. But at that time of life, I would never have turned down an opportunity to make deposits to the bank of fatherly influence, and my kids’ dad knowing the guy who made the music for the circus couldn’t hurt. So, I got to be a guy who, for at least a moment, impressed two little boys who were among the most important people in my world. And who needs to be more of a bigshot than that?