Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus

Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus

by Bruce Feiler


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Both a great American adventure and a rare entry into asheltered world, Under the Big Top describes one man's pursuit of every child's fantasy: running away to join the circus. Bruce Feiler's unforgettable year as a clown will forever change your view of one of the world's oldest art forms and remind you of how dreams can go horribly wrong — and then miraculously come true.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060527020
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/25/2003
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

Bruce Feiler is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Abraham, Where God Was Born, America's Prophet, The Council of Dads, and The Secrets of Happy Families. He is a columnist for the New York Times, a popular lecturer, and a frequent commentator on radio and television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and twin daughters.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

October 25, 1964

Place of Birth:

Savannah, Georgia


B.A., Yale University, 1987; M.Phil. in international relations, Cambridge University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

Under the Big Top
A Season with the Circus

Chapter One

A Toe in the Ring

"Before we start I want you all to know there's always a chance we might end up with a dead elephant ... "

Dr. Darryl Heard's voice was stern and deep, softened only by a faint Australian brogue that gave his already blunt warning an eerie, otherworldly air.

"Whenever you take an animal this large, this old," he continued, "and put her under general anesthesia, there's a forty percent chance that she won't wake up again, we may have to roll her out of here."

"You can't use local anesthesia?" E. Douglas Holwadel stepped forward into the doctor's face, removed a rapidly disappearing cigarette from his lips, and ran his empty hand across his receding gray hairline. As co-owner of Sue, a forty-two-year-old, 5,500-pound, "petite" Asian elephant valued at around $75,000, he alone was allowed to smoke in the operating barn. Though it was not yet 8:30 in the morning, he was already nearing the end of his first pack.

"Not with an operation of this magnitude," Dr. Heard replied. "She might go berserk and crush us all. We have to put her to sleep entirely."

"And you've done this before?"

"A dozen times. Just last weekend I went up to Albany, Georgia, to remove a tusk from an African male. We had him up twenty minutes after the operation was done. I just want you to be aware of the dangers. We can always stop the operation if you're not comfortable — "

"No," said Doug. "We're here. Let's do it."

"In that case," said the doctor, "I need your signature."

Doug dropped his cigarette onto the floor and retrieved a fountainpen from the well-starched pocket of one of his two dozen Brooks Brothers shirts. A little over four hours earlier, Doug and I had left circus winter quarters in a dark, driving rainstorm not uncommon for late January in central Florida. The previous day, after our introductory meeting, Doug had invited me to accompany him during this emergency operation to remove an ingrown toenail from Sue's right front leg. Never having seen an elephant under anesthesia, I agreed.

It was well before dawn when we set out. The outside thermometer in his maroon Cadillac with EDH plates said 39 degrees. We followed behind newly painted "Truck No. 60, Elephant Department," kitchen white with stylized red letters that read: "Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus-world's Largest Under the Big Top." Leaving DeLand, home of the circus and undisputed fern capital of the world, we passed through DeLeon Springs ("They don't have a decent bar," Doug mentioned, "so everyone drives to Barberville"), across the St. Johns River, which runs from Orlando to Jacksonville ("Do you know why the St. Johns is the only river in Florida to run upstream?" he asked. "Because Georgia sucks." He laughed especially hard, knowing Georgia was my home state), until we arrived at the crack of dawn at the William N. Inman and Clara Strickland Inman Food Animal Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"Could you stop that drilling and sawing," Doug called out to some nearby construction workers after he had signed the papers. "It'll spook the hell out of Sue."

Finally, at a little past 8:30, with the arrangements for the operation complete, Captain Fred Logan waddled alongside the high-tech operating barn and began escorting Sue up the walkway with a bull hook, a short cane with a stubby hook on the end. He paused slightly to let a Vietnamese potbellied pig wobble across the path. A seventy-year-old Canadian who had literally run away to join the circus when he was a boy, Fred had been the chief elephant trainer with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus for over two decades, but in all that time he had never had to put an elephant under total anesthesia.

Once inside, Fred led Sue to the center of a hay bed about the size of an average mall parking space.

"Be sure she lies down on her left side," called Dr. Heard. "It's the only way we'll be able to get to her right front leg and have total access to her toenail."

"Don't worry," Fred said gruffly. "That's the only way she'll go." Circus elephants, he explained later, are trained to lie only on their left side. It's one of only eight or so commands the average elephant can comprehend.

Once Sue was standing in her place; Fred tied a thick yellow rope to each of her left feet and tossed them under her body. As soon as she felt the ropes Sue started to squirm.

"Back, Sue. Back!" Fred barked.

Sue stepped backward and began to grumble.

"Front, Sue. Front."

She stepped forward and started to shake.

"Steady, steady ... Thata girl."

With the patient temporarily calm, Dr. Heard snapped into action. He tossed the ends of the two ropes over Sue's back and ordered four of his white-coated assistants to stand behind the protective railing and prepare to pull her over if necessary. When everyone arrived in position, he gave the signal to advance.

"Down, Sue. Down!" commanded Fred, but Sue did not obey.

"Sue, down!" he shouted.

Sue slowly leaned down on her back legs, disobeying his command to lie down on her side. Fred ordered her to stand up again, which she did with an unfriendly growl.

"Back, Sue. Back!" he continued. "Front, Sue. Front! Down."

The process was repeated several times, but each time Sue kneeled down instead of lying on her side. "Let's try a little psychology," Fred said. He asked one of the assistants to retrieve a kitchen broom, which he used to brush Sue's back in an effort to bribe her down. It didn't work.

Dr. Heard then changed the plan, announcing that he would inject the patient with a dosage of morphine 80,000 times the potency normally given to humans. He rested one hand on Sue's forehead, pulled back her rubbery flipperlike ear, and gave her an injection with a syringe.

The elephant shook angrily even before the injection was completed. She began to swing her head in disgust.

"Down, Sue. Down!" Fred pleaded, but she ignored him and grumbled loudly.

"Hold on to the ropes!" Dr. Heard shouted. "Don't let her fall to her right or we'll have to abandon the operation."

Four men pulled the ropes taut. Doug turned his eyes away. Fred shouted more frequently.

"Down, Sue. Down. Steady!" His voice took on an imploring tone, but at that point it no longer mattered. Sue could no longer hear him. She knelt down on her back feet as she had done twice before, but instead of leaning down on her front knees, this time her entire body went suddenly limp like a deflating hot-air balloon.

"Now, now!" called Dr. Heard. "Pull her toward the left." The four assistants slowly tugged the 5,500-pound Sue until she collapsed droopily on her left side. The ropes had worked perfectly. Sue's inflamed foot was exposed. The operation could proceed.

Under the Big Top
A Season with the Circus
. Copyright © by Bruce Feiler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Winter Quarters
1A Toe in the Ring13
First Half
The Circus on Parade29
2Under a Canvas Sky34
A Rare Breed of Tiger43
3First of May53
Facing the Fire66
4Outsiders Always Make Mistakes81
Swings of Fate99
5This Is When They Become Real109
Give the Bear a Dog125
6Death of a Naif137
The Amazing Art of Hair Suspension152
7Please Don't Pet the Elephants164
Nights with White Stallions172
8A Streak of Blood180
The Color of Popcorn193
Second Half
9The Star of the Show205
Triple Whammy218
10Without Saying Goodbye225
Where Are the Clowns?232
Love on the Wire254
12At Heaven's Door262
An American Dream273
Behind the Painted Smiles285
Read All About It287

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Brinkley

“Writing beautifully...Bruce Feiler penetrates the heart and soul of circus life with such stark clarity.”

Jim Foster

“A three ring triumph...the best book ever written about the circus.”

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Under the Big Top: A Season with the Circus 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
bnbookgirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book. What an interesting life. I learned so much, good and bad, about the life of circus preformers. Some humor, some sadness, but all great storytelling. Feiler's observations were brought to life on the pages of this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is the best book about the circus. I loved the book is is great. The book is a good book about the circus.