June 14, 1944
The sun shined warmly through light, wispy clouds and a gentle westerly breeze blew over Lake Michigan cooling the city. The man and boy stood on the safety island waiting for the eastbound streetcar that would take them to the Chicago Stadium and the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Baily Circus. Looking at the two, anyone passing by could easily see that they were father and son. Both were dark complected with straight, dark brown hair and their faces—giving for their twenty-nine year difference—were noticeably alike, except the man had dark brown eyes while the boy’s were light green.
The man is six feet tall and, with the exception of a slight bulge around his waist signifying the beginning of a paunch, Walter was well built, handsome and, for his age, youthful.
Inches taller than any of his friends, looking older than his actual age, at almost five-eight he was about four inches short of his lifetime maximum height. Though near fifteen pounds overweight, Mitchell’s bone structure carried the weight well, giving him a robust appearance.
Women, both younger and older, turned their heads discreetly (or sometimes not so discreetly) to look at both, father and son.
Dressed in white cotton slacks and a dark blue blazer, the man’s white sport shirt was open at the neck revealing an abundance of chest hair.
Mitchell was wearing dark blue cotton slacks and a light blue, short-sleeved polo shirt.
Well aware of his appearance, Walter basked in the glances he knew he was receiving. He was not aware, though, that the looks of passersby were as much for his son as himself—maybe even more so, because the boy radiated not only beauty, but the healthful glow of youth.
Looking upon his son as a noisy, in his opinion, “not too smart kid,” the argument with Myra the night before over his attitude towards Mitchell had left him feeling, for the first time in his life, older, and, Maybe she’s right, he’d thought. It won’t hurt to spend some time with the kid, to try to get to know him better. When Mitchell was younger he did feel love for him, but then, try as hard as he might, rather than the warmth one would think a father would feel for his son, Walter felt a void.
This day was the first time in their lives that they’d been together without the company of others, and Walter, quite honestly, would rather have been home reading the Sunday newspaper.
As for Mitchell, there was no place in the world that he’d rather have been than right there, at the side of his father.
The streetcar’s steel wheels squealed to a stop.
Taking Walter’s two dimes, the conductor handed him four cents in change, pulled the rope to the counting device twice, and stamped on the steel button beneath his foot twice—and the streetcar lurched forward.
As it traveled northeast, the streetcar filled with people. When it reached Madison Street, Walter discovered that they were not the only ones going to the circus, as better than half of the car emptied and the adults and children began the two-block walk west to the Chicago Stadium.
Standing in line to buy tickets, Walter was amazed to see that this many adults would spend a Sunday afternoon here, waiting in line to buy tickets to the circus, with their children, at two dollars for adults and a dollar, twenty-five for…
“How old’s the kid?” the man behind the window asked.
“Not even ten,” Walter replied.
“Yeah, sure!” Looking from Walter to Mitchell, “How old are ya, kid?”
“Yeah, sure. When’s your birthday, kid?”
“The year, kid. The year!”
“Uh, ’34. 1934.”
“Okay, mister.” Looking at Walter, “You sure feed that kid good… That’ll be $3.25.”
Entering the building, consulting the tickets, “J-F-17, J-F-18.” They walked up three flights of concrete steps, turned right to section J, went down a half flight of steps to aisle F, then midway through the row to seats 17 and 18 and sat down with fifteen minutes left to show time.
Motes of dust reflecting from within seemingly semi-solid gelatinous beams, the three rings were lit with dozens of spotlights that shined from around the circumference of the stadium. Clowns sauntered about the sawdust-strewn floor. In the center ring a clown was dressed in a brown, overly spangled uniform bedecked with medals. He was white-faced and had the telltale features of Adolph Hitler: a triangle of black hair over his left eye and a short, stubby mustache beneath his nose. As he goose-stepped to the accompaniment of boos and hisses from the audience, he about-faced, showing a huge behind over which was the word “HINNIE.” Another white-faced clown ran behind him and swatted him on the HINNIE with a large paddle, causing a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and a loud explosion that made Hitler jump three feet into the air, do a somersault and run away.
Mitchell laughed hysterically.
Walter watched with a look of near boredom on his face.
Vendors in white jackets carrying trays of peanuts, cotton-candy, soda pop, balloons on sticks and circus souvenirs walked up and down the steps calling their wares, then, when purchased, sending the peanuts, cotton-candy, soda pop, balloons on sticks or circus souvenirs down the aisle, passing the quarter or dollar bill as it traveled from hand to hand back to him.
Pointing to a vendor at the head of their aisle waving a package of peanuts in the air, “Hey, Dad, look. There’s Mister Parminter!”
Not recognizing him, “Who’s Mister Parminter?”
“You know, Normie’s dad… Mister Parminter.” Mitchell yelled, “Mister Parminter!”
Looking, Frank Parminter searched for the voice calling his name. Spotting him, “Hi, Mitchell!” he called. “Here, pass these down, please,” sending two packages of peanuts down the aisle. “For you and your dad!” Standing, Walter started to dig into his pocket. “No, it’s on me! Have a good time!” Frank turned to a young girl sitting in the aisle seat on the opposite side that was tugging on his sleeve.
The spotlights lowered, then darkened completely leaving only the embedded stair-lights glowing.
A loud drum roll… One brilliant light knifed through the darkness shining on the center ring where the ringmaster stood resplendent in red jacket, white jodhpurs, shining patent-leather boots and a black top hat.
“Boys and girls of all ages!” His voice booming over a hundred loudspeakers, “Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey are proud to present their year 1944 edition of The Greatest Show on Earth!”
A dozen lights dancing across the three sawdust-covered rings; the parade began.
Lions and tigers growled as their trainers walked alongside the rolling cages snapping their whips in the dust. Acrobats on elephants. Clowns tumbled and fell. Beautiful women in glimmering, scanty costumes danced upon the backs of snow-white or pitch-black horses.
“Boy and girls! Clyde Beatty and friends!” Three sharp reports of a pistol and the cracking of a whip that sounded as sharp as the pistol, and Clyde Beatty stepped into the cage, along with four snarling lions and two white tigers.
“Dad, can I have some popcorn?”
The midget car sputtered, backfired and belched clouds of black smoke. As it puttered around the ring it lost all four fenders, and when it came to a stop the small car collapsed onto its axles. The passenger door fell off and a red-faced clown tumbled out, followed impossibly by eleven more clowns.
“Dad, I’m thirsty. Can I have some pop?”
Waving to a vender, Walter passed another quarter along.
Elephants danced in a circle, each tail held in the trunk of the elephant behind.
Standing with all four legs on a small box, as the trainer signaled, the elephant raised one leg and the trainer, to the fearful “Ohhhh’s!” of the vast audience, laid his head beneath.
“Boys and girls, the Great Gambinos on the high wire of death!”
The stadium went dark… A spotlight pointed high in the air to two men and one woman on a suspended platform. The men, so handsome, the woman, so beautiful—at least from that distance.
The knife thrower rapidly flinging needle-pointed knives and sharp-bladed axes at a lady spinning on a wheel.
“Dad, can I have some cotton candy?”
He looked at his son, but the boy was so enthralled that he didn’t notice the dark look on his father’s face as he signaled the vendor, removed a dollar from his pocket, passed it along and waited for his change.
More clowns. More acts… until The Greatest Show on Earth ended and the thousands of people made their way down the flights of steps into the tightly packed vestibules where they squeezed through the doors, and onto the sidewalk to scatter in all directions going to whatever transportation would take them home.
Walking along Madison Street, going to Ogden Avenue where they’d catch the south-bound streetcar, “The show was really great, wasn’t it, Dad!?”
Walter didn’t answer.
Thinking he hadn’t heard, “It was really great,” Mitchell repeated. “Wasn’t it, Dad?”
After a long moment, “Yeah,” looking straight ahead, not looking at his son, “it was just great!”
Noticing the sarcastic inflection in his father’s voice, but passing it off, “Wow, that guy they shot out of the canon! J’see how torn and dirty his clothes were? An’ all the smoke that came outta his mouth!” Mitchell looked up, but, staring straight ahead, once again Walter did not respond.
“Dad,” trying again, “what’s wrong? Did I do something wrong?”
And was met with stone-cold silence.
They waited for the streetcar in silence, and the ride home was in silence.
“Hi, guys! You have a good time? Dinner’s almost…?” Myra had been waiting, hoping that this day would bring a new-found understanding between Walter and his son, and she’d prepared one of their favorite meals, spaghetti and meatballs, but her husband marched through the door stone-faced, and her son followed with tears running down his cheeks.
Muttering a weak, “Hello,” Mitchell went into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Following Walter to their bedroom, “What’s wrong?” Myra asked.
Hanging his jacket onto a hanger, “Nothing! Nothing’s wrong!”
“Oh, yes, something is wrong!” Grasping her husband by the shoulder, turning him so he’s facing her, “Tell me!”
“That kid of yours! He didn’t stop asking for things!”
“What things did ‘my kid’ ask for, Walter?”
Shrugging her hand off, “Peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, pop… You name it, he wanted it! He was more interested in what he could shove in his mouth than in the damn circus!”
“Walter,” trying to… desperately wanting to salvage the day, speaking softly, “he’s just a kid. Those are things all kids want when they go to the circus…” Receiving no reply, “Walt, please!”
“The last time!”
“Huh?” Fighting to hold her anger down, “What did you say?”
“This is the last time I’ll ever take your son anyplace!”
Knocking softly, “Mitchie,” Myra opened his door.
He’d been lying face down on the pillow. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes and running nose with the back of his hand.
Going to his dresser, opening the top drawer, taking a handkerchief, “Here, blow,” Myra handed it to him.
Taking the handkerchief, wiping his eyes and blowing his nose, “I didn’t do nothin’, Mom!” His words coming from between sobs. “I d’know why dad’s so mad at me. I asked him why an’ he wouldn’t tell me.”
Sitting on the bed next to the sobbing boy, “Shh,” rubbing his back. “Your father’s, uh…” Trying to find an excuse for her husband, “Your father’s feelings were hurt because he thinks all you were interested in were peanuts and popcorn and all the other things you asked for,” unknowingly turning Walter’s irrational behavior into her son’s guilt.
Thinking that he’d hurt his father’s feelings, “Mommy,” the word he thought only babies used slipped out, “No! I loved it! Normie’s dad was there an’ he gave dad’n’me bags of peanuts, an’ all else I asked for was popcorn’n’cotton candy’n’pop! I’m really sorry if I made dad think I didn’t like it, ’cause I did! I loved it!” Thinking, He was so nice to take me to the circus! a deep sense of remorse overtook the boy and he further thought, An’ now Dad feels bad ’cause he thinks I didn’t like it. His tears coming again, “Mom, tell dad I’m real sorry if I made him think I didn’t like it. Please, tell him I loved it!”
Realizing what she’d done, wishing she had a way to retract her words, “Okay, sweetie, I’ll tell him. You get washed now. It’s almost time for dinner, and I made spaghetti.” Standing, ruffling his hair, closing the door behind her, Myra left the room.
Sitting in the living room, smoking a cigarette, reading the Sunday paper, not looking up, “Dinner almost ready?” Walter asked coldly.
“Walt,” sitting on the edge of the sofa, “Mitchell’s in his room crying because he thinks you think he didn’t like it today because he asked for those things. Please, baby, go to your son and tell him everything’s okay and that you’re not mad at him anymore.”
Angrily slapping the newspaper seam straight, “No!”
“Walt, please,” putting her hand on his knee. “If not for him, if nothing more, do it for me, please.”
Starring at his wife a long moment before speaking, “I knew it, Myra! I knew you’d take his side on this!”
“What ‘side,’ Walt? No! I’m not taking sides on this,” she lied. “But he’s so unhappy! Please go in to him!”
“Yes, you are! And I’m not going to go to him and tell him I’m not angry when I am! He made a pig of himself today and that’s that!” Glaring at Myra a moment longer, Walter brought his attention back to the paper.
“Oy, Walt. Someday, my honey, someday you’ll remember how you treat him, only then it’ll be too late….” Knowing her husband’s obstinate, unbending look, giving up, “Dinner’s ready,” Myra said flatly.
“Mitchie,” attempting to sound cheerful, “dinner!”
Still red-eyed from crying, coming into the kitchen, Mitchell sat down.
Still angry, coming into the kitchen, Walter sat down.
The family ate in silence.