Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.3]

The summer after fifth grade was my fourth year as a performer in the local amateur circus. Our town had been the winter headquarters for several famous circuses from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, which left a legacy our town officially began celebrating with annual amateur performances in 1960. Around 200 local children participated each year. In early spring, after a few weeks of physical training to get everyone back in shape after the eight-month fall/winter break, the acts to be performed for the year were announced and formal tryouts began. Each performer could participate in up to four acts each season, with the acts varying from year to year.

The only criteria for participating were that you had to reside in the county and be between the ages of eight and twenty-one. Training for the shows was conducted by a team of adults who themselves had been circus performers at one time or another. Hundreds of other volunteers made the shows possible by designing costumes, applying makeup, performing in the band, assembling and disassembling equipment during shows, taking tickets, manning concession stands, etc.

To say that performing in the circus each summer was “a thrill” would be an enormous understatement. There was simply nothing else like it, and the feverish months of practices leading up to the public shows were as equally challenging and rewarding. Upon entering the large arena, which was approximately a hundred feet by seventy-five feet by fifty feet and sectioned into three large rings, we were transported to another world. Entire summer days were spent learning a variety of acrobatic skills and routines individually, with partners, or in groups, depending on the type of act. Acts designed with younger performers in mind were less complex, less demanding, and less risky than acts designed for older performers.

A wide variety of acts requiring a wide variety of skills ensured there was something for everyone. Some required steady balance, such as rope or wire walking, unicycle riding, and performing tricks while on balls, chairs, or tall poles. Juggling acts required superior hand-eye dexterity. And aerial acts, such as the trapeze, teeterboard, trampoline, or tumbling, in which you left the ground or flew through the air from one place to another, required astute mind-body awareness to compute and control where you were in space and time. Acquiring the mind-body control required to make yourself balance, flip, twist, fly through the air, and land on the ground or in a net without breaking something came more naturally for some than others, and someone’s talents and timing of skill advancement were often at the mercy of her biological development and body shape.

After mastering a set of acts at one skill level, there was another more challenging set to master the next year. My first few years, I tried things like tumbling, trampoline, pyramid building, and stationary or low-to-the-ground trapeze acts. Even though I had some skill as an aerialist—it certainly didn’t come nearly as easy for me as it did for others—I loved being off the ground, especially on the trapeze.

The second year, I had my first taste of flying in an act called “low casting,” which was a miniature of the larger flying act. It was set low enough to the ground to warrant safety mats rather than a net, and it was simplified in a key way from the high-flying trapeze act. Namely, the person catching the flyer leaving the trapeze bar hung upside down from a stationary bar only a few feet away, instead of hanging from his own moving trapeze. This reduced the complex challenge of timing two moving pendulums.

The tricks performed were often simplified or modified for younger flyers, too. I performed in “low casting” for three years with about twelve other kids. We each practiced and mastered one trick for the show. My assigned tricks consisted of a “seat over” in year one, in which I pulled myself up until seated on the trapeze and then leaned forward and fell into the arms of the catcher. Year two, I performed a “bird’s nest,” in which I hooked the front of my ankles to the bar and turned myself inside out until I was facing forward again and in position to let go and reach for the catcher at the proper time.

And year three, I did the “splits,” which required me to insert one leg through my arms and hang upside down with the bar in between my legs, arch my back enough to view the catcher, and release the bar when I was at peak height, taking care not to scrape my top leg on the bar. There was simply nothing like grabbing that trapeze, hopping off the pedestal, and flying swiftly through the air.

This summer, I would be performing in a more challenging aerial act called “high casting.” It consisted of a set of thick bars soldered into a large twelve-by-five-foot rectangle that was suspended flat horizontally about thirty feet in the air. One catcher would hang down from each of the two shorter ends of the rig and then toss and flip flyers back and forth between them above a black and yellow net. In between tricks, or while another flyer was performing, the other flyers and catchers would catch their breath for a few seconds while sitting on the padded resting bars the catchers hung from.

Some tricks required the flyers to stand on the resting bar and jump or flip over the catcher below and across to the catcher on the other side. I was part of an opening stunt where I had to stand on the resting bar and dive up and backwards, flipping over until I reached the outstretched hands of the catcher underneath. I never got comfortable with that trick. I suffered five seconds of terror every time, right before I held my breath, closed my eyes, and jumped with abandon.

When practicing difficult stunts for the first time, we were often harnessed in a safety belt that was connected to a rope threaded through a pulley and held by the trainer below, a precaution that had spared many broken bones over the years. One day, however, one of the flyers sitting on the other side of the rigging from me was to do a one-and-a-half back flip from the far catcher to the one under me. As her catcher released her for the trick, her safety rope became twisted somehow around the hand of the receiving catcher. Their hands missed, and as she began falling to the net, the trainer below—without noticing the rope was looped around the catcher’s hand—tightened the rope to prevent her from landing in the net on her neck.

As the full weight of her body jerked downward and the rope became taught, I heard a pop and a yelp. Nobody knew what had happened until the catcher next to me pulled himself back up to a sitting position on the bar. I saw a look of horror on his face when he got a glimpse of his hand for the first time. One of his thumbs had been 95 percent torn from his hand and was hanging on only by some skin and tendon. Blood spurted up in little arched streams with each beat of his heart. He turned white and almost passed out, so the trainer climbed up to assist him down. Accidents like that were fairly rare, but they did happen.

Once while I was performing “low casting” on a road trip, a last-minute stand-in catcher we’d barely worked with threw me too forcefully back to the trapeze after my trick, and my elbow crashed down hard onto the heavy trapeze swinging toward me. I was only eight years old at the time, but I knew something was wrong with my arm. It ached constantly and hurt to straighten. Our trainer had a practice of erring on the side of “not babying us,” so I was told to “suck it up” and “not be a whiner.” And that’s what I did. A few months later, a photographer was taking pictures during one of our performances and in all the photos that came back of me flying on the trapeze, my right arm was crooked at a thirty-degree angle. The fracture was later discovered in an X-ray and I was given physical therapy. In a weird way, I felt like I’d proven myself.

I had another near miss once in “high casting.” I was supposed to stand on one side of the rig facing backwards and then quickly turn and dive across to the catcher hanging below on the opposite side while a girl on the opposite side was to do the same thing simultaneously, allowing us to pass closely by each other in midair. For some reason, I was utterly terrified of crashing into the other girl, so as soon as the trainer called for us to jump, I did so but then immediately panicked after taking flight and grabbed the nearest part of the rig I could. That turned out to be the five-inch thick sidebar, which my small hands couldn’t possibly grasp tightly.

As my body fell, my weight jerked my hands right off the bar and I flew sideways toward the ground, just outside the perimeter of the net. A few seconds later, I felt the breath heave out of me and my face go numb as my stomach and face smacked onto the cold concrete floor below. I was pretty shocked but somehow okay. Within minutes, my trainer was ordering me to go right back up and try the trick again. His reasoning was that we would start to psyche ourselves out and our fear would grow if we had too much time to think about it. I hated him so much in that minute I did the trick out of spite, but he never made me do it again. Years later, on an overnight road trip, our trainer told my falling story and admitted that he’d rarely been that scared. He’d seen me start to fall—head first and with lightning speed toward the concrete—and without thinking he dove under the net, grabbed hold of my hair, and yanked me into a horizontal position so I would land on my side instead.

Most of us had a story of a dramatic near miss we’d had or witnessed. This sort of folklore made us all more cautious. However, the scariest accident I ever saw involved a young man who was attempting to do a double back flip on the high-flying trapeze. As he was about to begin his flip, he let go of the trapeze a little too late and pulled inward a little too much, and so his double flip didn’t travel upward and outward to the catcher as it should have. Instead it traveled upward and backward and essentially occurred right over the bar itself. When he blindly came out of his flip at 60 mph and stretched out for the catcher, the bar collided with his stomach and buckled him in two around it. His injury took him out for the rest of that season.

Even though flying through the air and practicing and mastering our assigned tricks was what we all craved most, there was a lot of down time in between practices and times spent watching other performers practice. So the circus building became our summer hangout. For an only child, hanging out among fifty other kids at any one time, ranging in age from seven to twenty-one, was perhaps the most enjoyable part of it all for me. I loved watching the junior high and senior high school girls, and I took careful note of what they wore, how they did their hair and makeup, what music they listened to, and how they talked, walked, and interacted with each other and the boys their age.

Some of them were very friendly and took the time to notice and talk to us younger girls or let us in on their secrets. We showered them with endless compliments and found excuses to speak to them, like asking them where they bought their clothes or got their hair done. We tried to covertly spy on the pack of boys that not-so-subtly followed the girls around, analyzing how those interactions went down and who seemed paired off with whom.

Each year there were always three to four rather glamorous senior girls, always trapeze artists, who were adored by all. Each year one older girl and one older boy were selected to hold the title of Circus King and Queen and receive recognition during the opening ceremony of every show. Because the other performers voted, the most beautiful girl—who had also been nicest to the rest of us—would always be named queen.

One of my all-time favorite girls was Olivia, who had long black hair, dark brown eyes, and beautiful tan skin. She was bubbly and friendly, always smiling with kindness, and had an equally attractive twin brother named Oliver. This year was their last before going off to college. It was a tradition for the show to begin with the high-wire act and end with the high-flying trapeze. Oliver was in the high-wire act and Olivia was the star of the flying trapeze. Oliver was a little lanky and shy but still earned his way to be a critical member of a six-person human pyramid constructed on the two-inch copper wire.

Olivia was to perform two tricks this year: (1) a graceful but fairly simple opening called a “flange,” and (2) the final trick of the act, a double back flip, which she was able to complete successfully about 75 percent of the time. She was magical to watch, with her silky dark hair pulled up and out of her adorable, determined face. Like a lot of kids in the circus, I begged my dad to install a trapeze on the swing set in our back yard. I spent hours out back on days I didn’t have formal practice, pretending to be Olivia.

During rehearsals leading up to the performances, we would all sit in the bleachers and eagerly watch the other acts, impressed by the tricks our peers had mastered. Performances took place over the third week in July, beginning on a Saturday. The two scheduled shows that day went off well. I enjoyed my acts and completed my tricks as practiced. Whenever the flying trapeze act was about to start, many of us would sneak into the arena and hide in the back behind some bleachers to watch the flyers. I vicariously flew through the air with each of them, often silently bubbling over with tears from a mix of awe and longing to be a high flyer someday.

They seemed utterly fearless. Their moves were so graceful; I wondered if I could ever be that strong and polished. The act was designed to start with simple tricks and progress to more and more complex tricks, ending with Olivia’s double. The band choreographed their music to heighten the suspense and intensity of the act. I lost myself in their performances, standing on pins and needles until each flyer completed a trick, and I erupted after a lengthy, suspense-building drumroll with the rest of the crowd whenever Olivia completed her double. This particular day, she completed it on the first try during the first performance and on her second try during the second show.

We younger kids typically went home with our parents right after the last performance of the day because we had more shows the next morning; however, the high school students often gathered together at someone’s house. This Saturday was no exception. While waiting for my mom to pick me up, I watched the older girls stream out of the changing room, looking ultra-cool and exotic in their street jeans and performance makeup, their hair wavy and tousled from being wound up in braids all day. I ached to be a teenager.

I slept well that night and went into the kitchen for breakfast the next morning. Mom seemed upset and said Grandma Jane had just called after hearing a police dispatch on her home scanner reporting there was a car accident last night involving four circus performers, two of which were killed in the crash! Only the last names of the two fatalities were given, one of which happened to match Olivia’s last name. Stunned, my heart dropped and I felt emotions I’d never felt before—a mix of fear, sadness, and utter disbelief. We listened for another twenty minutes to the local radio news until finally a more detailed story was given. The four teenagers crashed into a tree while speeding on a country road around midnight; the driver had been drinking. Both of the backseat passengers were killed instantly. Their names were Oliver and Julie.

It wasn’t Olivia after all! It was her twin brother, Oliver. One part of me felt some small relief, but another part was still horrified. Then I was hit hard by the thought of how dreadful Olivia must feel. We were all called to the circus building at noon for a meeting to discuss whether we would still perform the remaining shows that week. The morning show for that day was canceled, but the adults and family members of those in the accident said they felt the afternoon show should go on because that’s what their children would have wanted. The sadness and fear in the arena was overwhelming. Those closest to Oliver and Julie were clearly most affected—tormented, in fact. For most, it was our first experience with the death of someone our age. It shook our world view and was hard to comprehend.

Olivia didn’t attend the meeting that afternoon. Rumors were she had locked herself in her bathroom. In the end, she decided to perform in only one show that week, the very last one in her tenure as a performer—in dedication to her twin brother. They had a little sister, Allison, who had also found the courage to perform that night. The entire performance from beginning to end was absolutely gut-wrenching. Kids could hardly keep from breaking down in the middle of their acts. No one knew what to say to Allison or Olivia, who huddled stunned and crying in the staging areas next to their closest friends.

My heart went from aching to breaking when the flying trapeze act was announced and Olivia, escorted by two other flyers, walked into the arena. She bravely climbed first up the rope ladder to the pedestal, and then the other flyers followed. The flyers were somber but resolute—mostly an act they put on to be strong for Olivia. Smiles were forced and the typical high fives after completed tricks were lackluster and rote. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the arena; most showgoers were aware of last Saturday’s tragedy by now. Knowing this would be Olivia’s final performance before graduating and leaving for college only added to the love and cheers we sent her way while she was on that pedestal.

On pins and needles, we all hoped she’d make her double on the first try, but she missed by inches, her timing off a smidge. When she stood up in the net, she nodded to the trainer that she wanted to try it a second time. We cheered and held our breath again. This time, adrenaline might have caused her to over-rotate because when she connected with the catcher, her body continued to rotate right out of his hands. Olivia stood up, her body language clearly displaying dejection. Historically, Olivia completed her double on her first or second attempt, or she accepted when she hadn’t and called it a night. Tonight, tears were visible on her face, and she wiped her eyes and nodded to the trainer that she wanted one more try. We all almost died from the tension and fear that she might not be able to end on the high note she was hoping for. It was almost too much to bear.

Olivia must have been absolutely drained when she climbed the rope ladder one more time. She took her time powdering her wrists with chalk and rosin, setting up her pedestal position, and stationing her grip on the trapeze. She looked up to the sky, took a deep breath, and yelled “ready.” The trainer called Olivia off the pedestal with a “hup.” She hopped up and threw everything she had left into building her momentum on the first swing, then on the second swing, she raised her legs straight in front of her to the proper level and held them in position on the second swing until the trainer called “break,” at which time she swung them back hard and forward again whipping her body into the air.

At the peak, she released the trapeze, curled herself into a ball, rotated two times, and then looked up and reached for the catcher. Leaning as far out as possible, he clamped onto her wrists in such a way we could tell he wasn’t letting go. We could see her hands tighten around his wrists and the entire arena exhaled at once. She’d done it! The catcher returned her to the trapeze and she landed in the arms of the other flyers. The show was over. One by one the other flyers flew off the trapeze and down into the net, leaving Olivia for last. No sooner was she on the ground than the catcher scooped her up and carried her off, her arms around his neck. She collapsed, clearly sobbing, and so were we. I’m certain everyone who performed that year will remember the image of Olivia being carried out of the arena as long as they live.