The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Show People Find Their Way To Chestnut Mountain

By Grace Cash © 1988

Issue: April, 1988

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

One Friday, in the winter of 1926, the Rose Killian Circus camped on the school ground. School had been canceled for the one-night stand to let the students attend the afternoon and night shows. I didn't have a ticket, but I got to go to the schoolhouse on Friday and see what I could outside the ropes. Tents covered the basketball court, and the barren, sloping yards all the way from the church across the road, down to every foot of the school grounds.

Harsh recorded music blared blatantly, and circus-callers hawked various shows over large hand-funnel megaphones. There would be animal shows, and strange tropical birds and snakes and other wild creatures, all secured in cages. A tiger, watching me standing there outside the ropes, looked pleadingly through steel bars - as caged-in as I was caged-out. I wanted inside and he wanted outside.

The tiger's plea for freedom, and his native Africa, was destined to get him no farther than mine, since I had already been told that the circus-admission money at our house gave out when it reached the fourth child down the line. There was no fifty-cent piece for me to go beyond the ropes, but I rambled around outside the forbidden area, taking in as much as I could, seeing all that wasn't hidden by the flapping tents.

At one of the brown tents, a Gypsy fortune-teller opened the flap-window and caught my attention. Her head was draped in a red shawl, and she said, "I tell-a-your fortune. Come in. I tell-a-your fortune." She would expect payment for telling my fortune, and I shook my head, trying to let her know I couldn't, not daring to approach the window and tell her I didn't have any money. I think she knew - being a fortune-teller - and she looked at me in a sad, dark way.

This was the second circus I had missed because of being born fourth-down. The other happened when I was five years old, but my seven year old brother Carl came home with such picturesque tales of Barnum & Bailey Circus at the county seat that I thought now - six years later - that I knew what was going on inside the show-tents, and in the exhibition hall in the schoolhouse. In 1920, at the Gainsville circus, there had been a street parade with strange animals and floats and pretty painted girls waving at the people. I remembered Carl telling about the beautiful show girls, in short frilly dresses, on the high wires.

But on this Friday - at the advanced age of eleven - I discovered that just about as much goes on outside the show-tents as inside. A fat lady stood behind the tent flap and cut huge slabs of yellow hoop cheese, and I watched her slice thick loaves of bread. She smiled at me, and I smiled at her. There was the smell of pork frying inside the tent, and the rancid odor of mustard and burnt meat. The smells of animals in cages, and the equally poignant smells of people living in close quarters, meant that such was the stuff that set a circus apart from everything else on earth. A dark-skinned, bearded man hawked off various tent shows. An all girl-show, he guaranteed, was like nothing anybody had ever seen in these parts before. One tent showed a girl, whose entire body was covered with leopard skin - born that way, he said. Nobody was to miss the prize-fighting midgets, he said, and everybody ought to see the man who would cut his wife's head off on a chopping block.

The circus people left on Saturday - a cold rainy day - passing by our house on the hill. We saw the caged animals - still in their specially marked tents - peering out the windows. The girls were now wearing every-day clothes, and the circus-people looked solemn-faced, intent on reaching their next destination.

The next year Charlie Chaplin came to the schoolhouse. It was a silent movie, and the first movie of any kind I had ever seen. The school principal had the petition pulled back so that the sixth-and-seventh-grade room, and the fourth-fifth-and-sixth-grade room, formed a great long hall. They darkened the hall and flashed silent pictures across the improvised screen, this side of the big blackboards on the stage.

The quick-stepping little actor, like an animated rag doll, kept the audience bursting with laughter. It was superb acting, and even then we knew he was the most talented showman in the business. For us - in our family - it was something to talk about a long time afterward, the way he was here, and the next minute there, as though his soft-moving feet hadn't touched the floor.

Charlie Chaplin, and the other silent actors, were something to marvel about. They got their ideas across without talking. It puzzled us at our house, and we wondered how in the world they had achieved that remarkable feat. Somebody suggested filling the mouth with water. Each person was to ask questions, and answer whatever was asked, with his mouth closed. The first person to spit water across the floor would be a "rotten egg" The game ended with the last one of us spurting a mouthful of water across the floor.

Yet with the advent of radio into our house a year later, in 1928, we sat for hours without talking. The brown square box-like radio sat on the corner table in the fire room. We gathered there after supper - or any time of the day - to listen and to laugh. We got better acquainted with President Herbert Hoover, and Papa kept informed on potential political candidates, between hillbilly shows and Amos and Andy. There was a developing world financial crisis - the Great Depression - and the seeds were being sown by an unknown Nazi leader called "Hitler" for the Second World War.

We hardly listened to governmental affairs at all. We liked gospel quartets and sextets, and anything that made lots of musical noise. Fibber McGee and Molly belonged to us. They might as well have come in and sat on our radio, facing us there, in our circle of straight chairs. We knew Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams and Roy Acuff, and nearly all the Grand Ole Opry stars, in the same way we knew all the others who came into our living room and entertained us by way of our little brown box.

There wasn't much reason to strain for anything except harmless amusement. Nobody could leave home and get a job in town, because we were unskilled for anything except farm work. We didn't dream of going to college, and some of us received no education beyond the tenth grade at Chestnut Mountain. Pin-up pictures of movie stars were tacked on highway billboards, and on decadent weather boarding of vacant outbuildings. The picture of Sue Carol, a brown-haired, brown-eyed movie star, smiled at us from a billboard on an abandoned plantation house, located on the 350-acre farm we now rented on the thirds.

Norma Talmadge's picture was prominently displayed on road signs and on the covers of school writing tablets. I knew about Lillian Gish and Diamond Jim Brady by reading newspaper announcements of coming attractions to the local theaters. On the crumbling weather boarding of an unused corn crib there had been posted a picture of a pretty American girl, holding a Coca-Cola bottle in her hand, and seeming to give utterance to the big-lettered sign: DRINK COCA-COLA!

A bird's eye view of the circus and the movies, and billboard pictures of lovely movie stars, and the tempting Coca-Cola signs and the radio in our living room - now a part of our lives - invited us to leave the farm, and the warmth of home, and come along with them. We wanted to go, and we wanted to stay. In a close-knit family, such as ours had always been, the very thought of leaving home for a city job tore the heart out with anticipated homesickness.