Authors: Sonora Carver
Having canceled the contract, there was nothing for us to do until our next scheduled appearance at the California State Fair in Sacramento the first week in September. We took rooms in a hotel in Ocean Park and prepared to wait out the summer.
If Dr. Carver had been dependent on me before, he was doubly so now. He did not wish me out of his sight for more than a few moments. I had long since sacrificed personal friendship to his demands, but now the demands included even the stray bits of time that had formerly been mine. When I wanted to do such a simple thing as walk down to the beach a few blocks away and take a swim he wouldn’t let me. He was like a child afraid of the dark and, seeing how upset he was, I stayed with him all the time.
Then one day, out of the blue, he told me to call Al because he wanted to talk to him about taking over while we went on a trip. He had decided that he wanted me to see Yosemite. We could still get back, he said, in plenty of time to make the fair at Sacramento.
I was so pleased to see him begin to come out of his shell that I agreed instantly. I called Al, they made their plans, and a few days later we left. But while we were stopping off at Merced, where Dr. Carver had some old friends he wanted to see, his feet began to swell. When he called me to help him put on his shoes, I was alarmed at the swelling and told him I was going to call a doctor.
“Oh no, you’re not! I don’t want any doctors around here!” He reacted so violently that I decided to wait. However, when the swelling had not gone down by the next day and, in fact, seemed to be worse, he gave in and reluctantly agreed to medical attention.
The doctor who came to his hotel room and examined him said, “You shouldn’t be traveling around like this. Where do you live?”
“I live where I am,” Dr. Carver replied. “That’s where I live.”
“Well, you’ll have to go to the hospital then,” the doctor said. “I’ll make the arrangements.”
“The devil you will!” Dr. Carver thundered. “I’m not going to any damn hospital.”
Taken aback, the doctor did not press further. Evidently he felt it was hopeless and decided to save himself trouble. At the door he gave me a prescription and some whispered advice: “His heart is going back on him. Make him stay in bed or, better yet, get him somewhere permanent and keep him quiet.”
I shook my head and he smiled at me. “I know, nobody can manage that kind, but do the best you can.”
He had no sooner left than Dr. Carver called me to him and told me to put on his shoes.
“But the doctor said—”
“The hell with the doctor. I’m going down to the lobby.” And with this he leaned over and began grappling with the shoes, so that of course I had to help him.
Downstairs he took a seat on one side of the lobby and proceeded to glower at everyone. He finally fixed his attention on a group of women, most of whom were smoking. “Silly bunch of idiots!” he said. “Don’t they know how unladylike they look?” After he had snorted and growled until he wore himself out he went back upstairs.
To my great relief, the rest and medicine helped, and in a few days he insisted upon continuing the trip to Yosemite. I thought perhaps it would take his mind off himself, so I agreed, but his condition was so constantly on my mind that I don’t remember much about Yosemite. In fact, we had no sooner arrived there than I became very uneasy and determined to get back. Just as soon as I could persuade him I had enough of the park, we left for Sacramento.
Lorena and Al met us at the station, and after we got to the hotel I took them aside and told them what had happened to their father. We agreed that he should be persuaded to settle down and let Al handle the act, but we also agreed that it was highly unlikely he would go along with this scheme.
Dr Carver seemed to feel pretty well the first few days we were back, but one afternoon he suddenly became so ill he had to go to bed. Still he wouldn’t let me get a doctor. The next morning he seemed even worse, and when I insisted I was going to call a doctor he didn’t put up a fight.
The doctor came and repeated the first doctor’s diagnosis and also firmly suggested taking him to the hospital. Although Dr. Carver was lying in bed with his eyes closed, to all appearances not listening, at the word “hospital” his eyes popped open. “No damn hospital,” he said, and immediately closed them again.
The doctor gave me a prescription and said in that case there was nothing more he could do.
He came every day for three or four days after that, and Dr. Carver seemed to get better. As a matter of fact, by the end of the week he was sitting up, joking with some friends who had dropped by, but the recovery was a false one. That night he got worse. He was sick all night and by morning seemed so exhausted that when the maid came to change his linens I told her not to bother him, but he heard me whispering and opened his eyes. “Let her,” he said, and, raising himself, threw one of the blankets around himself and walked a few steps across the room to a chair. When he sat down I looked at his face and knew as I had not known before that he was going to die.
It hit me so hard that I almost cried out, but I held onto myself and, telling the maid to call me when she was through, hurried to my room. There I stayed and had my cry.
When I returned I helped him out of the chair and back into bed, and that night he lapsed into a coma. In the morning we took him to the hospital, but he didn’t even know. He had had a long and eventful trip through life, but the end had come at last. Dr. Carver died that afternoon.
We could not go with him to his final resting place. He died only three days before we were to open in Sacramento, and he had told us, “No matter what happens to me, don’t break any contracts. My word has always been good and I want to keep it that way.” So we sent him off alone to a grave beside his parents in Winslow, Illinois, knowing he would have wanted it that way and that we were doing the thing he would have most respected; we were keeping his word.
I tried to keep busy after that, getting ready for our appearance. Because of Dr. Carver’s illness I hadn’t had time to buy any new bathing suits. I went out and bought a dozen in different colors and styles and also some spangles to sew on those I’d be wearing at night. This was a wide departure from the outfits I had worn before, but now I was working for Al, and Al’s outlook was different from his father’s. He allowed his performers to dress the way they pleased, so I put away forever the old red suit with its modest neckline and gave over to a new magnificence.
To top my new finery, Lorena gave me a shawl of green silk with long fringe around the edge and a peacock on the back. She had embroidered the peacock herself with a large punch-work needle, and I was as thrilled when I had it on as a little girl dressed up in her mother’s finery.
In one last gesture of putting aside the old and taking up the new, I discarded the helmet. For a long time Lorena had not worn one when she was away from her father, adopting in its place a headpiece made of sateen over a regular bathing cap. Surely by this time, I told myself, I had been diving long enough to know how to protect myself from the horses’ hoofs.
There was one thing I couldn’t bring myself to change. Dr. Carver had been so pleased when I let my hair grow—“Now you look like a lady”—that for a long time I refused to cut it.
The night we opened in Sacramento it was Al who announced the act. He pulled out all the stops, and the spiel he unwound was a sure guarantee to make everyone listening believe he was about to witness the most breath-taking performance in history.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Al said, “all eyes cast atop this lof-ty tower,” breaking the word “lofty” in such a way as to make it seem as high as any human could possibly go without benefit of oxygen. “Tonight we present for your entertainment the most exciting act in show business today ...” and so on until every eye was hopelessly and completely glued to the tower.
Al had picked up his art of announcing in his days with the circus he had run away to join when he was only eleven. Eleven years old and a runaway, a dead match for his father; yet his reason for running had not been the same. He had not been mistreated; he had been ignored. It was during the time his father owned a Wild West show and Al yearned to go touring with the cowboys and Indians, but Dr. Carver forbade it, saying he wanted Al to stay home with his mother and go to school. Al simply up and left home.
With an eleven-year-old’s impracticality he chose the month of December, which, living in Colorado as he did, was the next thing to suicide. He caught a freight train leaving Colorado Springs for Denver just as it pulled out of the yard, but he didn’t climb up inside a boxcar because he was too small to catch hold. Instead he crawled onto the cowcatcher, whose big underslung iron jaw jutted out in front of the engine, and it was here that he spent the night.
He might have been all right had it not started to snow. By the time he reached Denver he was nearly frozen and in fact probably would have been if the yard men who checked the cars had not found him asleep on the cowcatcher.
In Denver he became a Jack-of-all-trades. He couldn’t join the circus right away because it was winter. Also, he knew his father would look for him among show people.
He began by going to work for a construction company as a lantern boy. It was his job to trim the wicks of the lanterns and fill them with coal oil each day for use out on the job each night
Next he worked in a butcher shop delivering meat. As it happened, the butcher had a sickly wife who often solicited Al’s help in the kitchen when she was too ill to prepare the meal herself, and in that way Al soon learned to cook.
The following summer he figured enough time had elapsed to make it safe for him to join the circus. When it came to Denver he found a job with a woman bareback rider. It became his duty to feed and water the horses and otherwise make himself useful.
When he wasn’t helping her he was free to help anyone else on the lot who needed him. He often managed to be free in time to perform the most coveted tasks, feeding and watering the elephants and assisting the roustabouts set up the tents. In reminiscing he said that far and away his biggest thrill came the day he got to drive a circus wagon.
It was a big twelve-horse team that pulled a cage of tigers. The driver had taken ill suddenly and someone was needed to take his place. Al was handy and willing even if he was small, so they turned the wagon over to him, and when he climbed up on the box he says he never felt so magnificent. His hands weren’t big enough to hold the reins for that many horses, but he was smart enough not to admit it. He simply knotted half of them together and wound them around a stanchion, after which he proceeded to guide the team with the other half. He then drove down Main Street to the music of the calliope and the circus band and gazed down on the hundreds of unfortunate school children who had not had the good sense to run away and join the circus.
He was with the circus about five years, and during that time he did everything from bareback riding to selling tickets to announcing the acts.
Al was nineteen when he decided to leave the circus and go around the world. By this time, of course, Dr. Carver had long since located his wandering son and given up trying to persuade him to go back to school. When Al returned from a world cruise (glad to be on land again after a typhoon), his father taught him to train horses for the diving act, which was a natural for Al with his circus background. After Dr. Carver’s death it wasn’t long before people in the business were referring to Al as “Doc” the way they had his father and looking to him for the same high-caliber performance his father had always provided. Thus the voice that announced me that night in Sacramento may have been different, but the regime was not.
Because we had been late getting started, the season passed very quickly, but for the first time since I had joined the troupe we did not go to Florida in the fall. Al and Lorena decided that we would go instead to Lorena’s farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
For years Al had fumed about the cost of transportation. “All we do,” he said, “is make money one place so we can take it down and hand it over to the railroad so they can take us someplace else.” His fuming was justified, because fares did cost a fortune. Dr. Carver would not consider traveling any way but first class, and it took half a freight car for our horses. Now, however, there were beginning to be good highways across the country and Al decided that the time had come to buy a car and save money. He had to compromise by allowing the horses to travel by train but insisted he would do so only until he could have a truck built for them to his own specifications.
The first car he bought was a Chevy with a rumble seat. Rumble seats were all the rage then, seeming to represent the wind-blown freedom which had come with the twenties. The cartoon of a shingled head over the top of a rumble seat with a flask uptilted was quite a common one but, as far as I was concerned, overdone. There were flappers and there were speakeasies and jazz and short dresses and cigarettes, but all these were part of the big cities—the East mainly— not the small towns I had grown up in. I had been in many big cities since I left home, but Dr. Carver had quashed any inclination I might have had toward revolution. The twenties might have been roaring, but I didn’t hear the roar.
The fact was, I was too sensible for things like rumble seats. As far as I could see, they weren’t good for anything but to mess up my hair. Fortunately Al and Lorena felt the same way, so the Chevy didn’t last long. Al sold it within a short time and bought a Studebaker Big 6 Special. The top was leather, the windows rolled up and down, and it had wire wheels. We were all set to travel across the country in style when it was discovered that by the time all three of us got our trunks and suitcases in the back and Lorena got her Pekinese and the binoculars and the candy and the crackers in there wasn’t room for people. Realizing that at best it would be uncomfortable on long cross-country trips, Al went out and bought a second car, defending the purchase by declaring that from now on we would have to have two anyway since there would still be two separate units touring the country. Lorena was going to take one out by herself and we would have the other.