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Lessons from the Circus: 2013

One of the great joys which I have been able to experience in the many years since my retirement from the good, old, Newark Fire Department is the ability to travel when I want to and not when a vacation spot or personal day is open. Thanks to this freedom I have been able to become an active a member of a real special organization, the Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. We fill a real small and special niche in the world at large. Ours is an organization dedicated to the preservation of old-time circus music, the type not often seen anymore among the various circuses which travel across our nation to the accompaniment of canned music and an occasional drummer. 

Our little band of merry musicians come together twice a year to return to the days of yesteryear and play a type of music little seen in the world today. We play an array of marches, waltzes, novelty numbers, gallops, and period pieces. This is the sort of music you would have heard had you attended a circus back in the 1930's, 40's, 50's, 60's. or early 1970's. The beat is fast and the notes come at us very quickly. 

Circuses were a part of my youth. I can recall the small circus which came to Freehold every year when I was a little kid. They would set up their tents on the parking lot at the Freehold Raceway out on State Highway 33. The sights, sounds, and smells are still with me. The mix consisted on unequal parts of popcorn, peanuts, hay, and horse poop. To this day I can still recall the driving beat of the circus music and the wide variety of acts which entertained us year after year. 

Back in the day, the music played by a circus band was designed to support the circus acts, excite the crowd, and enhance their entertainment value. The waltzes helped us to melodically enjoy the trapeze artists as they flew back and forth in their death-defying acts. The same held true for the high-wire acts, the horses, and elephants.

Heck, there was even a designated "disaster" march to alert the circus performers to the need to quickly hustle the crowd out of the tent Oddly enough it was entitled Stars and Stripes Forever, which is now our national march. Though rarely used, this march is credited with saving scores of circus patrons during the Great Hartford Circus Fire in 1944 which killed 144 people. .
One thing which would never have occurred to me as a child watching the elephants was the set of organizational and logistical skills which I now know to be so necessary in bringing the circus to town, setting up the circus tents and infrastructure, holding their performance, and then breaking down the show, loading it up on the trucks or train and then moving it to the next town for the next show. Please bear in mind that in the old days, a circus might play 30 towns in 30 days on some of the show circuits.

Let me suggest that each year I get to relive a little bit of my youth when I travel to Sarasota, FL, for the annual Winter Meet of the Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. We meet and play our special music for five special days in January. We play and record each day, in addition to rehearsing for our concerts. Over the course of a week the group's two recording bands will play 60 or more different pieces of music. Our final day is spent at the Sailor Circus facility in Sarasota. We perform an old time Center Ring circus concert and then watch as our association's circus band provides the music for the student performers of the Sailor Circus. .

It has been a number of years since I was able to write one of my "lessons learned at the circus" commentaries. For one reason or another, I have not attended a performance of the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Florida since 2010. One year I had to leave early because of bad weather up north, another year I did not have the funds to make the trip south, and in another, there were just no lessons to be learned.

A word about the Sailor Circus is in order. It was formed in 1949 as vocational program at the Sarasota High School. Over the years it morphed into an independent group supported by the local Patrolman's Benevolent Association (PBA). It is now affiliated with the Circus Sarasota. The mission of Circus Sarasota is to educate children using unique and innovative learning programs; to improve the quality of life for individuals in care facilities; and to advance the extraordinary legacy of the circus arts. This group assists in the training of local youths from the community to perform classic types of circus acts. 

Such is not the case in 2013. I saw something among the performers and their adult leaders which really caught my eye. In fact this column might better be entitled "Teamwork and Trust: The Keys to Leadership Success." There were a number of impressive interactions between the performers and between the leaders and the performers which really got me to thinking. 

It was my good fortune to have a dear friend and his wife attend the concert and circus with me. Ed Cleveland is a retired fire chief who lives in Bradenton, Florida. Ed was a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) board of directors with me for many years. He and his wife Sonjia were with me as the circus band struck up its music to support the student performers. We usually get together for supper one night and attend the circus on Sunday. We have been doing this for many years now.

This year we were treated to a very professional show by the student performers. There were jugglers, tumblers, unicyclists, and a variety of special acts which specialized in classic airborne hanging and spinning maneuvers. There was even an act which used one of the youngest performers in the circus as part of a human jump rope.

Let me share with you the fact that the young lady who performed the flying 'human jump-rope' role was probably no more than ten or eleven years old. She was tossed to and fro by the members of her team. The amazing thing to me was the way in which she had the utmost trust in her fellow performers. She knew that if they tossed her into the air, they were going to be there to catch her. Trust like that does not happen to anyone over night. It is a result of a concerted effort by dedicated performers. 

Throughout the act she kept flying through the air and always had the biggest and cutest smile you would ever want to see. There was not the least little sign of fear in her eyes. This is when I had my first moment of thought about the need for trust and teamwork in a successful circus act.

However, it was the final act which made the greatest impression on me. There were four members of the group who performed on the flying trapeze. These were people whose lives and safety literally depended on the skills, strength, and talent of their fellow performers. Imagine the trust in your teammates that you need in order to allow you to let go of the flying bar in mid-air, turn quickly and grab for the strong pair of hands you know will be there to catch you.
I believe that the team's trust and teamwork began with the actions of the veteran adult members of the ground support crew who laid-out, erected, and tested the safety nets for the flyers. Nothing could begin until these men had checked and rechecked the stability and integrity of the net which would serve as the ultimate difference between falling into a safe haven or crashing to the floor. To say that they were supremely meticulous in their preparation is an understatement.

Just prior to commencing the act, the advisor, the ground crew, and the flyers huddled at one end of the net for one final team meeting, and when I say huddled, that is exactly what they did. Then each person moved off to their designated position. The ground crew went to their spotter's positions and the advisor moved to her position on the south side of the net. When all was in readiness, the performers ascended to their places aloft in the rigging. They were at least 30 feet in the air. There were three flyers on the main balance platform with one guy in the strength position on the trapeze over the center ring of the circus.

Each of the flyers conducted a number of preliminary journeys back and forth on the flying bar opposite the guy who was hanging from the main location. It was as though they were sizing up the situation and getting their airborne bearings. It became obvious that each of the three flyers was going to attempt a mid-air hook up with the fellow on the flying trapeze. As they gained their confidence and flexibility with the preliminary movements, I began to wonder just how they would synchronize the flying actions of the two individuals aloft on the flying bars. The answer was not long in coming.

When all seemed in readiness the advisor began to bark out a series of commands designed to guide the performers. On one command the guy on the trapeze in the center began flying. At the next command, the other performer began flying. After a serious of ever increasing swings arcs, the moving performer would reach the peak of their arc, and then let go of their bar and reach out for the waiting hands of the person making the grab.

Three performers made their try and each was successful. It was truly a beautiful sight to see. Think about it my friends. Think of the level of trust you must have in your partner in order to let go of your safe perch and reach for their grasp in midair. Do you have that level of trust in the people with whom you fight fire, or perform rescue operations in your department? 

How do you think that this sort of performance is created and delivered? Let me suggest the following as being the important parts of the formula for success:

  • Training
  • Practice
  • Dedication
  • Commitment

It is absolutely essential for you to have someone who knows how to do the task at hand correctly to conduct the training. The movements must be laid out, choreographed, and then taught faithfully according to the prescribed formula. There can be no tolerance for a half-hearted performance by any member of the team. How good would the flying team be if one member of the group was not see as up to the task by their partners. That lack of faith would go a long way toward breaking up the integrity of the group. Is that how it is in your department?

Once the skills have been taught and imprinted into the brains of the performers, there must been a protracted period of intensive practice. The practice must be conducted under the guidance of the person who performed the initial training. There can be no tolerance for anyone who fails to faithfully attend all of the sessions and devote themselves to continual practice sessions. Is that how it is in your department?
As my band director Jim Bast is so fond of saying, practice doesn't make perfect. It is only perfect practice which makes perfect. Since we humans are always prone to some form of screw up, it is critical to train frequently and faithfully with the people upon whom you will depend.

Let me suggest that their faith in you will lead to you having greater faith in them. That is how I recall things were when I was a battalion chief in Newark. I shared my style and theories on firefighting with the gang and we trained on how I liked to see things work. When we had a fire, the guys knew what I expected and rare was the time when I was disappointed by the gang.

Your dedication to a task cannot be faked or phoned in. When you make a commitment to a group you need to devote yourself to doing all that is asked of you. There should be no doubt that you will be where you are expected to be when you are supposed to be. Whether it is a high-flying circus act, a local community band, or a volunteer fire department the requirements for dedication to the cause remain at heart of all you do.

Teamwork does not just happen. The members of the team must make a conscious effort to devote themselves to the common good. I have heard this 'common good' phrase from a number of politicians lately. I think that for many of them it has sadly morphed into one more B.S. political phrase.

It is my belief that their understanding of the concept of 'common good' is far different than mine. I think what they are suggesting is that doing things for the common good is doing things their way. Sorry Charlie, but that is not how it works The team has to define the common good for their efforts and come to an agreement on how to operate in the chosen manner.

Each member of the team must believe that all of the other members are just as committed to the task as they are. Each member of the team must believe that their fellow travelers are as dedicated and committed to the case as they are. Here is an appropriate analogy. Trust is like something akin to a brick wall which is built one brick at a time. You cannot skip a step or it is possible that you will leave something out and end up with a weak wall that will come crashing down with the first storm of adversity.

This is my lesson from this year's visit to the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, Florida. Teamwork, trust and training are essential elements in the success of an organization whether it is a circus or a fire department. Sadly as I go from place to place I am reminded of an old saying with which you might find familiar: "Different circus, same clowns".

Don't let that one happen to you.