It’s a kick in the gut to hear that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus will end its 146-year run through the imaginations of America this year.
This is the big one, the biggest of the big tops, that has long since moved inside. It was chilling spines of young and old in the Savannah Civic Center when it became my turn in life to haul a bunch of kids down there to be spellbound.
They mostly enjoyed the extra stuff you could buy, like leashes without a dog, and sticks that glowed electric colors in the dark. And there were plastic swords that lit up and made kids shout “By the power of Grayskull” before trying them out on each other’s skulls.
My cash did an amazing disappearing act as three rings of excitement down below never rested.
Sequined beauties did somersaults in the air while a man walked among wild tigers that leaped through rings of fire.
But you know what the favorite “act” of my crowd was? The elephants pooping.
And it was the absence of the elephants after complaints by animal-rights groups that helped render the big circus unsustainable, its leader said.
My first thought was not of the elephants, but of the hundreds of people on the circus who will be out of work. That’s because of my Uncle Jack.
Jack Farnam Heinsohn didn’t have to run away to join the circus. He was born in 1927 in Long Beach, Calif., to parents on Vaudeville and by the time he was 9 months old, he had been in every state west of the Mississippi River. After his parents split up, he grew up in the circus with his father, a tight-rope walker.
Over time, Uncle Jack was a clown and everything else, ending up as a flying trapeze artist working the big cities of America and Canada for big cash.
His Wallace Brothers Circus wintered in the Upstate town of York, perhaps the only village where Santa Claus arrived on the back of an elephant in the annual Christmas parade. Uncle Jack was taken in by the Charles and Olive Bennett family — a house full of kids so enamored by the circus that they actually created their own circus, performing in York, Rock Hill, Clover and Sharon.
The Bennett boys went to Erskine College in bustling Due West, S.C., and when Uncle Jack went to visit them during a break from the high flying, he never left. He enrolled and ended up marrying my Daddy’s baby sister. He was a star cheerleader back when tiny Erskine played football (don’t laugh, they once beat FSU — and Clemson).
Uncle Jack became a Christian and took his show into the pulpit, thanks to an anonymous benefactor who paid for his seminary.
He was an evangelist, a church planter, a college chaplain, college and seminary professor, and pastor of churches from tiny ones in rural South Carolina to the historic big steeple of Immanuel Presbyterian on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
He had a head full of flowing hair, a great sense of humor, and timing and drama. He used no notes, and he always recited the Scripture by heart.
His show-stopper was the “clown sermon,” in which he made himself up as a clown while discussing the pretensions of mankind, even in church.
He must have lived in two dozen places. The last stop before he died at 81 in 2009 was a church in Clinton. Two of his five children set down roots in South Carolina — “Little Jack” is pastor at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia and Walter Lee is an attorney in Rock Hill. But Uncle Jack never really settled down. It was in his blood.
A circus parade day
We all loved it when he told circus stories on our family message board.
I’ll close with this one that merges the pulpit and the trapeze, and helps explain why we care when the circus stops.
“Circus parades were almost a thing of the past when I came along,” Uncle Jack wrote. “I can only remember being in three or four. It must have seemed to a small town in those days that they had suddenly wandered with Alice into Wonderland or with Dorothy into Oz when the calliope, clowns, elephants, camels, zebras, lions and tigers moved down Main Street.
“I remember that the clowns carried on a kind of contest seeing who could spot a woman looking out of a second story window so they could shout, ‘Hello, Grandma. How long are you in for?’
“One of the things that helped kill the circus parade was a group of people called ‘second story men.’ They were not with the circus but followed it. They would find the route of the parade and while people were watching the parade they would break into their houses and steal all they could. The parade was no doubt spoiled for the people when they got home and found that they had been robbed.
“Paul said the church is ‘a constant parade of triumph.’ I have always thought that when Jesus said, ‘Judge not’ and ‘Forgive seventy times seventy’ He was talking to ‘spiritual second story men,’ and in other words saying, ‘Don’t spoil the parade.’
“Now you see that my problem is when I start to tell a circus story it tends to end up a sermon. Have a circus parade day, everybody and don’t let some second story man spoil it for you.”