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The Long Road from Ringling Clown to LDS Missionary in Thailand

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I would like to preface this longer-than-usual memoir of early my circus years by narrating just how I got the funds to enable me to go on an LDS mission to Thailand. I would like to thank the LDS Church History Department for their kind permission to copy this report from their archives.

I was, at the time, a member of the University of Minnesota Student Branch, even though I was not a student. The branch met in a cavernous former Christian Science church building on University Avenue, across from the University campus. I lived just a few blocks away, with my parents.

When I told my branch president, Lewis R. Church, that I wanted to go on a mission, his first question to me was “How much do you have in the bank?” I reported that I had exactly twelve-dollars. He gently told me I would need much more than that in order to be called. My parents were not members of the Church, and they made it known in no uncertain terms that they would not contribute a dime to my upkeep as an LDS missionary. They both told me it was a foolish pursuit.

Having completed a season with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus as a clown, President Church suggested I might advertise myself as available for birthday parties. I did not own a car, nor did I know how to drive at the time, but with his help I put together a flyer and stuck copies on every telephone pole in Southeast Minneapolis.

As I was laboring in an area called Prospect Park, a woman called to me from her front door, to know what I was doing. I told her I was advertising as a birthday party clown. She came over to me, looked at the poster, looked at me (pretty scrawny and homely at the time) and asked if I would perform at her daughter’s birthday party. I gladly agreed. She asked me how much I charged, which floored me – since I hadn’t given that any thought. I asked if twenty-five dollars would be all right and she agreed. The party would be the coming Saturday.

I walked to her house on Saturday, carrying a suitcase with all my costumes, makeup, and equipment – a distance of about three miles. At the party I played my musical saw, made animal balloons, and did a silly little pantomime with a golf club and a marshmallow. This good woman had been inspired to call a friend of hers who worked on the Minneapolis Star newspaper, to ask if she, the reporter, would be interested in covering her daughter’s birthday party with the clown there. As a favor to her friend, the reporter showed up, with a photographer in tow. The reporter interviewed me about my career as a birthday party clown; I made sure to mention that I was doing it to save money to go on an LDS mission. This lady reporter then did something that to this day I can only explain as being directed by the hand of the Lord – she asked me for my telephone number to include in her newspaper article. This, I later learned, was strictly against the newspaper’s policy, as it smacked too much of free advertising.

The piece, with plenty of photos, appeared in the Minneapolis Star newspaper the next day, with plenty of photographs, and my phone number. My parent’s phone rang like a fire alarm all that day. I had more offers than I could handle. But since I did not drive, I decided to knock down the price of doing parties to twelve-dollars, if the client would give me a ride to and from the party. I did dozens of parties, and was even hired to do a few weddings! Larry Lopp, the owner and operator of Paul Bunyan Land up in Brainerd, Minnesota, hired me for several weeks in the summer to clown at his theme park.

I had made a good start on my savings, but by late summer the work fell off – since I did nothing more to publicize myself, not wanting to spend any of my money on advertising. By the end of August my career as a birthday party clown had ground to a standstill. Dusty the Clown was not the hot commodity he had been back in May!

I hit the streets, looking for any kind of a job, while I put up more birthday party flyers, but found no one willing to hire me.

In early September, just before my twenty-first birthday, I was contacted by an old circus friend, Steve Smith. We had performed together as clowns on the Ringling Blue Unit, and had then gone down to Mexico to study pantomime with Sigfrido Aguilar in Patzcuaro, Michoacán. Steve had been offered the position of advance clown with the circus – traveling ahead of the show to perform at hospitals, schools, and libraries, as well as to do media interviews. But circus management didn’t want him alone – they wanted a clown duo out ahead of the circus. Once again, the Lord intervened; moving Steve, who was completely irreligious, to reach out to me to see if I wanted to work the season as his partner, our salary to be split 50-50. I was overjoyed to accept such a wonderful offer, but made sure he knew upfront that I could only commit to one season. After that, when I had the money saved up, I would be at the beck and call of my Church leaders to serve a mission wherever they happened to call me. He was fine with that.

And so the team of Dusty & TJ Tatters was born. The circus provided us with a handsome salary and gave us a large motorhome to travel and live in. We crisscrossed the United States for the next nine months, having a hilarious time doing our own pantomime routines at hundreds of schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries, even prisons!

I saved my advance clown salary like a miser, eschewing eating out or going to movies. I even turned down the few pretty girls I met along the way (sometimes at church and sometimes through work) who indicated they would like to go out with me. My clown partner Smith complained I was so tight I squeaked. I wouldn’t pay a nickle to see the Pope ride a bicycle, nor spend a dime -- even for a date. (Truth be told, that is the only part of my savings program I now regret!)

After the season was over, with a fat bank account, I proudly went back to my old branch and told president Church I was ready to go. The papers were filled out and soon I received my call to Thailand – a place I had never heard of before in my life.

I have no doubt that once I had made up my mind and committed myself to serving a mission as the Lord wanted me to, He made it possible for me to earn the necessary funds.

When I arrived in Salt Lake City to enter the Mission Home, I was first greeted by a professor from BYU. I am sorry to say I no longer remember his name, but he taught a correspondence course on Missionary Preparation, which I took while on the road as advance clown. He welcomed me into his home and took me through my first temple session at the Provo temple. He drove me back up to the Mission Home, with a passenger in the front seat, another professor at BYU. This one I DO remember by name: Hugh Nibley. When my professor friend asked Dr. Nibley to explain his latest project to me during the drive, the good Doctor gave me a long and hard look, then dismissed me by saying “I doubt he would understand it.” Having dipped into some of Nibley’s books, I silently concurred.

At that time the mission home, where all missionaries received their initial training, was located in Salt Lake City. It was a large converted mansion, belonging, I believe, in the past, to some mining magnate. I arrived with my one missionary suit, which I had purchased out in Burbank, California. It was a robin’s egg blue seersucker.

The president of the mission home was a gruff old specimen, not much given to coddling his eager young charges. Needless to say, I stood out amidst the sea of ZCMI-bought dark suits like a zircon in a pile of coal. I was immediately called into his office on my first day there. He looked at me with thunder in his visage, then asked me to tell him something of myself. As I narrated my story, his visage softened. At the end, he told me, in a kindly tone, that my suit was not appropriate to my calling as a representative of the Lord, and I would have to buy a regular dark suit. He reached into his pocket, offering to pay for my new suit, but I told him I had sufficient for such a purchase, and thanked him. I went to ZCMI and bought the ‘missionary special’ suit – dark navy blue, made of indestructible fiber guaranteed to last through Armageddon. It cost $129.00. In the event, I never used my suit coat. When I got to Thailand we were told to hang up the coat in a closet at the Mission Office, to retrieve when we went home. It was just too hot and humid to ever wear a suit coat. We worked in our shirt sleeves.

We spent most of our time paired off to learn the Church-sanctioned proselyting discussions, which, we were told, should be learned by rote and then recited to investigators – during recitation the Spirit would take over at some point, hopefully make it less deadly dull than I initially thought it was.

We also heard from many General Authorities, as well as some practical lectures on how to live without our parents cooking and fussing over us. Since I had been on the road with the circus for the past several years, that part of it didn’t really interest me. I knew how to take care of myself. The one lecture I do remember was on driving safety. It was given by a blind man from Holland.

The LTM (Language Training Mission) for all Asian-bound missionaries was located on the BYU campus in Hawaii. President Snow ran it with scriptures in one hand, a lei in the other, and a laid back smile that proved more infectious than measles.

Most of our time was spent learning the Discussions in Thai, by rote. We also received a smidgen of Thai grammar and vocabulary, with a dollop of Thai culture. But the days droned by mostly with recitation. We took one break to climb a nearby inactive volcano, another break to attend the Hawaii temple for one endowment session, and, at president Snow’s request, I did an hour pantomime show for the entire LTM one Monday evening. We also attended a performance at the BYU Cultural Center. But otherwise it was strictly business, with no breaks except to eat and sleep. Many a pretty girl walked sedately by our windows, some walked by as if they were soldiers on sentry duty, but we never took our eyes off our studies. Except, of course, in the evenings, when the geckos liked to hang on our screens and gobble up unwary moths attracted by the light – that was pretty entrancing to us entertainment-starved Elders!

Eventually our eight weeks of study were up and we boarded our 20-hour flight to Bangkok. President Morris met us at Don Muang Airport, escorted us to our hotel rooms, and let us sleep for the next eighteen hours. We then had dinner at the Mission Home with his lovely wife Betty and their kids, and were given our assignments. I went to Bangkapi, a part of Bangkok, where my senior companion was Elder Barton J. Seliger.

We hit it off right from the start. His two passions in life were preaching the Gospel, and golf. Mine were preaching the Gospel, and clowning. President Morris had given me a special assignment before I had even arrived; he had charged me in a letter to use my performing abilities to create goodwill for the Church in Thailand. Elder Seliger was pretty long-suffering with me when we had a show to do --- he would basically tag along, moving my props for me, while I was in the limelight. He never seemed to mind.

We did manage to spend one P day doing what he wanted, playing golf. At the time there was only one main golf course in Bangkok. It had been built by the British while they were building the Thai rail system in the 1890’s. Never having played golf before in my life, I was somewhat of a trial to Elder Seliger, who had gotten a golf scholarship in Texas to go to college. My balls consistently went into the klongs, or canals, or else wound up in the tall grass – where signs warned the unwary duffer that cobras did not take kindly to their tramping about. Determined to make at least one decent shot, I at last took a vicious swipe at my ball, causing it to slice like a boomerang and bounce off the bell of a steam locomotive that was permanently parked nearby as a monument. The peal of that bell, which had not been rung for the past fifty years, caused a dozen or so members to pop out of the clubhouse to see what was amiss. For some reason, Elder Seliger became discouraged at this point, so we went back to our rented quarters early . . .

In addition to all this, Elder Seliger had to put up with my apparent allergy to the tropics. The first six weeks I was in Thailand I had to stay in the hospital twice. Once for a severe gastrointestinal attack of some kind that left me unable to eat so much as a spoonful of rice. The second time was for a scorpion bite, which caused my foot to swell up until it looked like a pale watermelon with toes. This took a very long time to heal, forcing Elder Seliger to spend long, long hours at my bedside, reading the scriptures and reviewing the discussions. I never heard him murmur about my indispositions. He was a great Elder to have as my first companion. He and I remained in close contact for the next fifteen years. When I was honorably released from my mission and returned to the Ringling clown alley I made sure he got a free pass every time the show played Texas. Today he and his wife reside in Thailand, on a small durian plantation he developed himself.

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