Saturday, January 21, 2012

My father didn't go to the circus

Edw. H. Downs, Age 3

On the day of the fire, July 6, 1944, Ed Downs (then called Ned) was three years old and his parents were already separated and on their way to divorce. My grandfather came by the house to pick up my father, planning an afternoon at the circus. He and my grandmother argued. Who knows the reason. You’re not taking him anywhere! she said.

Hundreds of people did go, though. One hundred sixty-eight died. Ned stayed home, missed out, survived, thank God.

Years later, my Irish great aunts would make the sign of the cross during family gatherings. They’d say, “Thank God that Ned didn’t go to the circus that day.”

That’s the family story. Perhaps the story is apocryphal. When last I mentioned it to my father, he said he didn’t remember hearing it. But I did hear it, years ago. He might have told me. Or maybe his brother did.

Someone must have told me that story. Because the story is the reason I made the main character in The Greatest Show a three-year-old boy when he and his mother go to the circus. That’s the age my father would have been had he gone. In my head, I sent another three-year-old boy in my father’s place. A famous writer I’ve heard speak has often instructed, “Don’t write about what happened in your family. Write about what you fear might have happened.” So when I sat down to write about the circus fire, I created a little boy named Teddy.

…[S]uddenly he’s toppling off the bleachers, falling through air, a little boy in summer shorts and shoes with laces knotted twice, plummeting through heat and the rush of air, too young even to imagine that there is something called death. On the ground his body won’t work anymore. Bits of straw tickle his nose. He can’t move. Heat like the most savage cold weighs on him, and the weight eats away his clothes, invades his skin and the skin under his skin. What’s worse is the fear, his trembling heart, the emerging awareness that his mother is not the world, and that the world hates him.

Ned Downs never made it to that circus. So I sent Teddy instead.