When Popeye punched me out of the Greatest Show on Earth

ringlingAs is my pitiful custom, each morning the first thing I do is look out the window to make sure we haven’t been taken over by a life form made of Jell-o, then check my phone for emails from insomniacs and any news bulletins. The coast was clear after my window check and my only emails were junk.. But this morning the news bulletin hit me like a peanut being shot from an elephant’s trunk: The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced it’s folding its massive tent after 146 years.

The reason this hit me so hard is because of the time I hit a woman so hard, while I attended the circus, totally by accident. I have been ashamed of this incident for almost 60 years. Here’s how it went down. It was 1957. My father, who never took a day off work, did so on the occasion of taking me to the circus. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus at the old Madison Square Garden. The greatest show on Earth! He shelled out big money at the time, five bucks apiece, for the best seats in the house. He bought me cotton candy. He bought me a program. He bought me peanuts. Then he bought me a Popeye Light–a small flashlight on a lanyard.

popeyelightThis didn’t happen right away. It was only after the ringmaster bellowed that at some point the lights in the arena would be dimmed and that everyone should swing their Popeye lights! It would look amazing. This instantly brought out vendors hawking the tchochkes and I wanted to be part of what would obviously be an amazing, life-changing event. So my dad coughed up another buck and the treasured Popeye light was in my grubby five-year old hands.

Sure enough, a few minutes later as the house lights dimmed, the ringmaster intoned, “OK kids, start swinging your Popeye lights!!” Oh, we did. We swinged and swinged and the thousands of swinging Popeye lights created a wave of illumination that caused your jaws to drop and carmel corn to fall out into your lap. And then my swinging Popeye light hit an obstacle. Whap! My swing lost its arc and slammed right into the head of the woman sitting in front of me. She quickly turned around as she rubbed the noggin I’d just inadvertently bopped and gave me the harshest look. “I’m so sorry!” I cried. But the damage had been done. Thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed and afraid a giant bump would pop out of the woman’s head from the collision with Popeye’s plastic fist, I said to my dad, “I wanna go home!” He was not amused. After all, he gave up a day’s pay and probably a week’s paycheck on all the crap he bought me, including the Popeye light, to take me to the circus. “Edward, don’t worry about it. You didn’t hit her that hard and you apologized. Plus, we’ve only been here 10 minutes,” he said to me. But I was inconsolable. I gamely sat for perhaps another half hour and watched the animals, clowns and acrobats, but I couldn’t take me eyes off that woman I’d accidentally assaulted who was constantly rubbing the spot where Popeye and her cranium ended up in the same place at the same time.

Wracked with guilt I just couldn’t stand it any more and neither could my father who finally agreed to leave. Over the many years that followed every time the circus came to town my father would give me some good natured crap about that and said one day my own kid would find a way to even the score. He was a very smart guy.

Shortly after moving to Michigan in 1989 I took my son to the Ringling Bros. circus at Joe Louis Arena. He was five at the time. Same age I was when I tortured my father. Popeye lights, thankfully, had long passed into kitschy history but I sprung for everything else my son desired. Candy, popcorn, program, great, expensive, seats. You know how this ends. Barely 45 minutes into what was scheduled to be a 2.5 hour show he turned to me and said, “Can we go home?” No, he hadn’t assaulted an audience member as I had innocently done. He was just bored.

I told my father about that. He smiled at me and said, “told ya.”

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