Terry Parsons used to stroll through the Ringling clown alley and lay his hands on various heads before shouting “You are healed, brother!” He did this to get my goat, since he was a militant atheist and I was a recently returned LDS missionary. But I never rose to the bait. Besides, I liked Terry as a friend and sparring partner. He really didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Let others think what they would about wicked circus clowns getting a blessing from God -- I knew what I knew . . . .
When I had left the Ringling clown alley in 1973 to serve as a voluntary missionary in Thailand for 2 years, it was with my clown trunk. I was called to work with the Thai Red Cross part-time -- doing fund-raising clown shows the length and breadth of Siam. The LDS Church needed some good PR in SE Asia at the time. I was happy to tramp the boards in my baggy pants and polka-dot blouse for the people of Thailand -- I found them to be the friendliest and most prone to giggle audiences I’d ever encountered. They doted on my musical saw and couldn’t get enough of me falling over backwards off a folding chair. I took so many pratfalls off so many chairs onto so many bamboo stages that I’m still picking the lightweight splinters out of my keister forty years later.
Two months into my Thai mission I put my shoes on one hot afternoon after a heavy lunch of sticky rice, green papaya salad, and broiled fish -- only to feel a stinging sensation on my left heel. I quickly removed my shoe, shook it, and leaped back about forty feet when a small scorpion fell out of it to wriggle malignantly away. Since my foot didn’t really hurt, I shrugged it off. My companion and I went out knocking on doors until the early evening -- when we came back for a bowl of rice noodle soup flavored with dried squid and tamarind paste before beginning an hour or two of language study. By then my foot was throbbing, but I decided to ignore it. The next day my companion and I visited a small local hospital, where I put on my clown gear and did about 20 minutes for the kids with my saw and a couple of cheap Chinese-made balloons that kept popping in my face as I tried to blow them up. The only good latex balloons I could ever get while in Thailand were shipped to me from the States by Robin Shaw -- who addressed me on her packages as “Elder Babycakes” -- something I never lived down while in Thailand.
After the show I was in agony. When I removed my left clown shoe it was filled with blood and pus. Since we were already at a hospital I was able to have an intern look at my swollen foot right away. He cleaned it up and bandaged it, then told me to hie myself over to Bumrungrad International Hospital in downtown Bangkok if I didn’t want to die of gangrene in the next 24 hours. I took his advice.
The doctors there put me on an IV and notified my mission president, President Morris, that they had one of his missionaries heavily sedated and ready for surgery to remove an infected foot. President Morris told the sawbones to not get any funny ideas about lopping off any of my appendages just yet until he could get there to assess the situation.
The news he gave me after consulting with the medicoes was grim. If the swelling did not start to go down in 24 hours they recommended amputation to save me from probable blood poisoning. I had no words to convey my shock and disbelief to him. I was mute with horror. He told me to trust in the Lord, and then placed his hands on my head to give me a priesthood blessing. I don’t really remember the words he spoke to me in that blessing, except that no healing or quick resolution was promised. It was more an exhortation to trust in the Lord and be patient.
After he was gone my companion settled into a nearby chair and was soon snoring. Mormon missionaries are never to be left by themselves, even in the hospital. The tropical sunset is always sudden and jarring -- and the night birds, even in the middle of Bangkok, sound weird and tortured. My room had no air conditioning, just a sluggish ceiling fan that barely moved the dust and dead flies around. The nurse looked in silently, then shut the door.
Now began my spiritual agony. I lay in bed and talked to God, as only an anguished soul, threatened with a terrible loss, can talk. At first I was bitter -- how could He let this rotten thing befall me? Hadn’t I joined His one true Church and been faithful in paying tithing and obeying the Law of Chastity and the World of Wisdom? Hadn’t I gone to church every Sunday while traveling with the circus, despite the high cost of cab fare and lack of sleep it caused me? And now here I was on a sweltering night in Bangkok, an ordained minister of the Gospel, about to lose my foot. How could I ever clown again? It was the only livelihood I ever wanted!
After some quiet weeping, I resumed my conversation with The Man Upstairs -- but now I was ready to accept whatever came. It would be hard to never hear those big bursts of laughter again from a rowdy crowd made intoxicated with cotton candy and watered down Coca Cola, but if that was how things fell out I would accept it like Job accepted his troubles -- and not curse God and die. Then I fell into an exhausted sleep that lasted until the nurse came in the next morning to change my bedpan and bring me a large bowl of rice gruel flavored with saffron and full of grilled chunks of pork liver.
And the swelling in my foot was down. In a few days I was out of Bumrungrad and back onstage for the Thai Red Cross, tripping over my own clown shoes and juggling coconuts. Some days the heat was so intense that during a performance my clown white literally melted and dripped off my face like sweat -- but I didn’t care. I was clowning again -- and with both feet firmly up in the air!