PRETEND, for a minute, that you've never seen an elephant. Not in pictures, not on television, certainly not in person. One day, a circus comes to your town. Not only have you never seen an elephant - you've never been to a circus! It's a pretty exciting afternoon when your parents take you to see the big tents. You step right up to the red wagon to pay for your ticket. (The wagon isn't painted red, but the circus people call it that, anyway.)
There's a man, a ``talker,'' they call him, standing on a ``bally box.'' He's yelling about all the great things there are to see in the different circus tents. In the menagerie tent, for example, he says they've got animals that - well, you won't believe your eyes.
So you find your way to the menagerie tent and peer inside. And there you see this enormous, gray mountain of a thing with a long, snaky hose hanging down from its face and big flapping ears that look as if they belong to a jungle plant. This so-called ``elephant,'' you decide, is nothing but a hoax, a phony, a pasted-together fake. As for the ``convicts,'' they must be painted horses. And the ``humps'' - who knows what real animals are hiding underneath those crazy costumes.
It may sound funny today, but that's exactly what people thought 50 years ago, when they saw elephants, zebras (``convicts''), and camels (``humps'') for the first time: They didn't believe they were real.
In the 1930s, in the days before television, the arrival of a traveling circus was a big event in rural America, and none was bigger than the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. When it came to town, with its 1,600 members and 600 horses, everyone turned out to see - and sometimes to make fun of - the new sights.
You've probably heard circuses described as ``The Greatest Show on Earth.'' But people in those days used to call them ``mud shows'' and ``mud operas,'' because the heavy wagons that carried the animals and performers often got stuck in mud and had to be pulled free by elephants.
The bandwagon, with 20 to 30 musi- cians perched on top in flashy uniforms, was one of the horse-drawn wagons that led the mile-long circus parade as it made its way into town. Next came the various cage wagons that carried the wild animals, and then more wagons carrying equipment - often 140 wagons in all. At the end of the parade there often was a calliope wagon that blasted organlike music through a steam-powered instrument.
It usually took 30 elephants and a hardworking crew of men to hoist the ``big top,'' the main circus tent, which was anchored to the ground by strong ``funny ropes.'' Inside each big top, there was room for 14,000 people to sit on bleachers. Once that area was filled, bales of hay were scattered around for another 3,000 people to sit on - the so-called ``straw house'' seats.
There were two shows a day, rain or shine, and folks came from miles around to see the wrestling bears, musical donkeys, performing geese, and acrobatic goats. Not to mention all the people performers! In fact, the only thing more fun than watching a show was stocking up on peanuts, popcorn, and lemonade at the ``juice joint'' before it started.
One of the few places where you can see an old-time circus parade today is Sarasota, Florida's ``Circus City.'' There's a circus museum there, too, that has hand-carved wagons and real clown costumes. Standing beside the models of the big top and menagerie tents, you can almost hear calliope music pumping away in the distance: ``Oom, pah, pah... oom, pah, pah.''