Not everybody survives working for the circus. I don’t think I did. It has nothing to do with the physical dangers of broken bones from inept pratfalls or being mauled by an uncaged lion. It is the mindset engendered by the sorcery of the entire big top adventure that proves so inimical to a successful return to quotidian existence. Ringling Brothers was and always will be a fairy kingdom -- one that can change a person’s very DNA before letting him go, and not always for the better.
The encomiums are falling thick and fast for Ringling, now that it is become extinct. There is nostalgia and honest mourning for the passing of a way of life from the American scene. As a clown on the Ringling Blue Unit fifty years ago, I share in such emotions -- but I can’t let it rest at that. There are darker passions and obsessions that come into play -- at least for me.
Like Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market,” where the imps inveigle the virginal Laura to “come buy, come buy” their wares that “men sell not such in any town,” I was bewitched the moment I read about the Ringling Clown College in Life Magazine. It spoke to my deep need to make people laugh as a way to validate my own existence. I was not curious so much as lustful for what that place seemed to offer. And so it fell out that I attended that Goblin Market in the fall of 1971.
Untalented, awkward, and completely jejune, I think my presence was an embarrassment and irritation to most of the other students and staff -- but no one could deny my powerful longing to exist as a circus clown. In the end, the only reason I was allowed into that fay realm that is the circus was because I was thin and not too tall -- just the right size to fit into the preexisting show costumes that were hand-sewn and thus so expensive to create. I was, in a very real sense, just another warm body to Ringling.
Thus began my “Lost Weekend” with the circus. The circus became my bottle; with it, I could do no wrong, and without it I was a miserable and unknown cipher. This became the pattern of my life -- one which still haunts me today.
How I relished strutting out into the ring in time to Fillmore’s “Lassus Trombone” to become embroiled in some ridiculous scrape that involved foam rubber mallets, shaving cream, and black powder explosions! Or playing at inflating a huge balloon in front of a raucous crowd while the band tootled Allen’s “Whip and Spur!” The off-kilter camaraderie of clown alley -- where I knew I was accepted once Swede Johnson gave me an official nickname: Pinhead. Intoxicating flashes of inspiration when a new idea for a clown gag came to me like a religious epiphany -- sometimes they clicked with the audience, and sometimes they didn’t. But the sheer exhilaration of juggling those sparks in my mind was very bliss indeed!
This began so long ago that there was as yet no such thing as ‘creepy clowns’ or coulrophobia. Clowns were still thought of as icons of innocent and robust mirth. Each Sunday when I was asked to stand up and introduce myself in an LDS Sunday School class I would brazenly state my name and occupation -- Tim Torkildson: Clown at Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. There would be ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the class members, and several invitations to Sunday dinner after church. Cub reporters (they really did have such people on newspapers way back then) interviewed me with envy -- they often spoke of wanting to do just what I did, kicking over the traces to become a wandering gypsy. The townie girls that I met in bookstores and restaurants treated me like an exotic hothouse flower. And even when I left the circus to serve as a volunteer proselyting missionary for the LDS Church for two years in Thailand, Salt Lake City asked me to bring along my clown trunk so I could entertain at schools and hospitals instead of knocking on doors. I was transformed into the One and Only Clown Elder!
It was all insidiously wonderful.
But ultimately this potent brew I had been drinking for so long left me unfit for normal daily life and its accompanying responsibilities, duties, and inevitable dullness. I met my wife Amy at church after my mission in Thailand; we married and raised eight children together until the day she put them all in the van and said to me “Everything bores you but the circus” and left. I couldn’t deny her diagnosis. During our fifteen years of marriage I had tried and failed at several different careers. We moved frequently, sometimes living with her parents and sometimes living with my parents, while I tried to find suitable work -- or gave up on normal employment and went back to the circus. We even tried reversing roles -- she got a teaching job while I stayed home to tend the kids, do the laundry, and cook dinner. I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself -- but it secretly broke Amy’s heart that she was married to a man who couldn’t tolerate the commonplaces of existence. Every boss I ever had was ripe for a pie in the face. Every office routine I was tasked with had to end in comic disaster. Every social cue I was given demanded a loud raspberry. I honestly believed that I could get away with the same kind of misanthropic stunts that Harpo Marx or W.C. Fields pulled -- and eventually come out on top with wealth and fame. I was seriously compromised as a functioning member of society. To me the idea of the clown was inextricably identified with Genesis 16:12 -- “And he will be a wild man - his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him - and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
My real income declined each year as one career disaster followed another. My divorce did not act as a wake up call for me to come to grips with reality. Instead I sunk deeper and deeper into my delusion that this clown gag called Life would end with a happy blow off. I would win the fight, find the pirate treasure, blow up society, and wander off into the sunrise with Paulette Goddard on my arm like Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times.”
Instead I wound up in a homeless shelter in 2012.
Since then kind friends and government assistance has seen me placed into a cozy apartment with subsidized rent, where I collect a modest Social Security pension that keeps me fed and clothed and occassionally able to see a doctor. Where my kids invite me over for Paleo diet dinners so the grandkids can laugh when I make funny faces at them, and so I can give them Kennedy half dollars as good luck charms. Where I still dream, and write, about shaking the laughter down from the trees. Where I no longer believe I am a member of the human race -- I am a circus changeling. God help me.