More Lesson's I Learned at the Circus

January is an important month to me. It is more than just the first month of the New Year, but it is the month when I travel south to play my tuba at the circus in Florida. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy getting together with my circus music buddies...


Unfortunately with the loss of school support, the costs of operating and maintaining the circus facility fell upon the PAL's shoulders. Given the age and condition of the facility, they were faced with the need to raise a substantial amount of money. Fortunately they were blessed with a dedicated, hard-working fundraising director in Jim Shirley. He is ably assisted by Sailor Circus Director Patty Campbell.

Right now they are in the midst of a major fund-raising campaign designed to gather the resources necessary to renovate the Sailor Circus facility located next to the Sarasota High School. They have raised 1.9 million dollars of the 3.1 million dollars needed to complete phase one of their renovation program. You can help too. Just go to www.RaisetheBigTop.org for the necessary details. I know I will.

On Sunday, Jan. 28, I was part of a 125-member Center Ring Circus Concert band which regaled a crowd of more than 400 people at the Sailor Circus arena. We played such widely divergent pieces as Wagner's Prelude to Act Three of Loehengrin, the American Red Cross March, the International Vaudeville March, and Barnum and Bailey's Favorite. There were also waltzes and intermezzos. In my mind, I felt as though I had drifted back in time to the 1920's.

This is not uncommon for me though. I have often thought that I would have made a terrific tuba player for the old Newark Fire Department Band of the 1920's and 1930's. Heck, I would have loved to have played in the old Freehold, New Jersey Fireman's Band of my youth. Unfortunately neither group has existed for a great many years now. Times and tastes change. I guess you could say that I have developed into a practicing anachronism; a man born years after his time.

After we completed our performance, the arena floor was cleared and the smaller circus band took our place. This 28-piece group, led by an actual retired circus bandmaster, provided appropriate music for the young performers who delighted us with their circus skills. After a short introductory concert (as was the way in the old days), the young performers came out to strut their stuff for us.

Once again I was like a kid at the circus. I had my popcorn and a hot dog; Shades of Freehold circa 1957. The only concession to time and aging was that I bought a diet Coke to go with the hot dog and popcorn. There I sat, like a kid at the circus. How often do we get to relive our lives? It was fantastic.

Anyway, I once again learned some important lessons at that circus which I want to share with you. They involve the important concepts of safety and teamwork. My friends, there was a solid, continuing emphasis on safety. As the various high wire and elevated props were rigged by the crew, each step was overseen by what we in our fire service world would call a safety officer. No act was allowed to perform until the safety officer was satisfied that the prop was properly rigged and ready to go.

It was evident to me that the performers in the various acts were well drilled in the skills of their craft. Their performances were obviously the product of a great deal of practice, preparation, and perspiration. In many instances, the performers worked in two-person teams, with each backstopping the other in the presentation of their daring deeds. I was privileged to witness a marvelous marriage of precision and practice come together 20 feet above the center ring of the circus on more than one occasion.

The rigging teams worked as a well-oiled machine under the direction of the team leader. Each aspect of the operation was checked, doubled checked, and then checked again. These men and women displayed a keen sense of concern for the young lives which were placed into their hands by the PAL organization. Safety was their watchword at all times. The teamwork spoke for itself.

Sadly, it is often quite different in our fire service world. How many times have you and I witnessed a fire department operation which seemingly rolled out of the starting gate without a hint of safety being on anyone's mind? Like the young circus performers I witnessed, you and I also perform some pretty dangerous and death-defying stunts in our world. The PAL's concern with safety provides a lesson and a mindset which surely needs to be understood, appreciated, and emulated by us.