Authors: Sonora Carver
The next morning I got up early and dragged Jac out of bed. It was Sunday and I didn’t have to go to work and she didn’t have to go to school. “Come on,” I said. “We’ve got to hurry.” She didn’t need to ask where. She put on a sailor dress and I a blue serge skirt and white blouse, and we hurried out without breakfast.
When we reached the hotel it was only nine o’clock, but the desk clerk told us Dr. Carver wasn’t there. For a moment I experienced a sinking sensation, thinking he had already checked out, but the clerk added, “I think he’s gone down to see the submarine.”
The submarine the clerk had referred to had been the object of everyone’s attention since its arrival. Hopefully Jac and I began to walk through the park leading down to the river and hadn’t gone far when we saw a tall, erect figure coming toward us.
With Dr. Carver were his son and daughter and the rider named Vivian, all of whom I had met the evening Mother had dragged me to the hotel lobby. As they approached, I saw signs of recognition on their faces.
I cannot recall after all these years our exact conversation, but I apparently said that I had seen the act the night before and had changed my mind about riding. What happened next remains hazy. The conversation shifted and changed, and then they were saying good-by and walking away.
“What did I do?” I asked Jac, dumbfounded.
“You didn’t do anything,” she said.
“Well, why didn’t they say anything about my joining the act then?”
“I don’t know,” she said, then added, “maybe they don’t want you.”
That much seemed fairly obvious. “But,” I puzzled, “if they didn’t they could have told me so.”
“Yeah,” Jac agreed.
I was confounded and remained so. There seemed no reason to it. Then one day about three months later I came home to find a letter. It was from Dr. Carver, who wrote, “If you still want to learn to ride the diving horses, reply at this address.”
I sat down and answered right away. Of course I expected to hear from him immediately, but one week passed, then two, then three, and still no word came. Just as dust was beginning to settle over my newly revived hopes, Dr. Carver himself appeared at my boardinghouse while I was at work, but told my landlady that he would be back to talk to me. I waited that evening in vain. He didn’t come until the next afternoon. Mother happened to be with me, so he invited us both to dinner to talk about the job.
During the meal he said he was glad to find that I still wanted to ride the diving horses. He made no explanation for not having taken me up on my job acceptance back in October and I refrained from asking for any. The point was, I was getting another chance to ride and I wasn’t looking a gift horse in the mouth. When he asked how soon I could leave, I said the next day. This pleased him, because he was anxious to get back to Florida, where the rest of the troupe was in winter quarters.
I had already mentally packed everything I owned and was in the process of imagining myself waving good-by from the train, when suddenly Mother piped up. “Sonora,” she said, “are you sure this is what you want to do?” There was no mistaking the worry in her face and voice.
“Why, of course I’m sure!” I retorted. “What do you mean, ‘am I sure? You sound as if you don’t want me to go.”
“It isn’t that I don’t want you to go,” she said. “It’s just that I’m afraid you’ll get hurt.”
“You weren’t afraid last fall. Why are you afraid now?”
“Well, last fall you weren’t really going,” she explained. “It was just something to talk about. Now—well, now it’s different.”
I should have been prepared for such a shift, but I was not. She had been so completely sold on my going that I never anticipated a reversal. I don’t know what I would have done had it not been for Dr. Carver. He saw what a quandary I was in, took over, and soon placated Mother. He was, I was to find in the course of our acquaintanceship, a master placater.
Half afraid something would happen to change someone’s mind before I got away, I hurried back to the boardinghouse and packed all my things. Then I went out to the cottage to spend the night and say good-by to my sisters and brothers.
Perhaps those last few hours at home should have been filled with nostalgia; but, to be truthful, I was so excited about going that there wasn’t room for any backward glances. Fortunately the children were equally excited, so there were no tears.
It was different, however, the next day at the station. Suddenly I realized I was leaving and that, no matter what happened, things would never again be the same. There seemed to be two parts of myself then—a part that loved my family and would miss them, and a part that was wild to go.
Now they all stood on the platform, waving good-by to me, and as the train pulled away and the track spooled out behind me I knew that I was starting a new life.
I think it is important for me to give my impressions of Dr. Carver, for although I was excited at the prospect of learning to ride and dive on the horses, it is doubtful that I would have joined the act had I not realized from the first what an unusual person he was. It was more than his press clippings. It was the man himself.
I have described him as tall and commanding and going on eighty-four. I have not said that he had a big strong face and big strong hands, which, though stiff and old, were nevertheless extremely impressive. He also had the air of an impresario, which he had acquired during his years in show business. Total strangers noticed it and behaved accordingly; it would have gone against some law of nature had they behaved otherwise.
He was a descendant of one of the first governors of Massachusetts and a long line of doctors and lawyers and professors. His father had been a doctor, and in the years of Dr. Carver’s growing up he had been fairly well-to-do. For some reason I never understood, Dr. Carver and his father did not get along. In fact, his father treated him so cruelly that he ran away from home when he was only eleven years old.
I suppose a runaway child was not so rare in those days, but it is unlikely that many of them succeeded to the extent that Dr. Carver did. It is also unlikely for him to have emerged with such presence had he not inherited a sense of dignity. I am a great believer in heredity, and it pleased me to learn many years later that the family motto engraved on a gold-headed cane belonging to Governor Carver was “Blood Will Tell.”
I hope I haven’t made him sound like a stuffed shirt, because that he was not. He was aloof and standoffish with people of his own station, but with his inferiors he showed a warmth that endeared him to them immediately. I can best describe his attitude toward them as one of friendly awareness, and as a result they went out of their way to help him. Yet he still managed it so that under no circumstances did they treat him with familiarity. This is a difficult balance to achieve, but he achieved it and held to it throughout the time I knew him.
Of course by the time I came along he had passed his zenith in so far as his physical prowess was concerned. The glittering brilliance of being the champion rifleshot of the world was gone. He was likely to be crotchety at times, lacking in patience and resilience, covetous of his own comfort, but he was, on the other hand, neither a braggart nor bombastic, both of which he might have been under the circumstances. He loved to talk about his past and did often, but he always told his stories in such a delightful manner that there was never any resentment on the part of the listener.
All, or almost all, of his characteristics were obvious to me from the first, but I was so much in awe of him on the trip to Florida that I hardly spoke. That was not necessary, however, for his love for storytelling took over, and before we reached our destination I had digested a great deal about his son and daughter, the act and its history.
Allen (called Al by everyone) helped his father train and take care of the horses; his daughter Lorena was a rider and had been riding since her early teens. She had injured a leg muscle the year before, however. This accident had required some surgery, so she hadn’t been able to ride during the current season. When spring came they hoped the doctors would release her so that she could go out on a separate circuit with Al. They tried to keep two versions of the diving act working at the same time in different places in order to double the income from it.
I did not know the actual amount of money the act earned per contract until many years later, although I knew it must be considerable. All I knew was that I would be receiving fifty dollars a week, which in 1924 was a great deal of money. As a bookkeeper in Savannah’s largest department store, I had been earning only fifteen dollars a week, and this was considered about standard pay. By taking a job with the act I had more than tripled my income, and later in the season the pay would go even higher when I began riding as many as five times a day—up to $125 a week! During the winter when the act was not working my salary would stop, but even then I would receive a traveling allowance, my board and room, and whatever medical expenses I might have. All in all, it was more money than I had ever encountered in my life.
The idea of so much money made me a little giddy, but I knew even then, young as I was, that money wasn’t everything. To me it wasn’t important at all unless it included an equal amount of experience. Ever since early childhood I had had a craving for life, and as I grew older it had not diminished. I had once shocked a friend by telling her I’d be disappointed if I ever made an ocean voyage and didn’t get seasick.
“Get seasick!” she had said. “Nobody wants to get seasick!”
I said I did. I said I wanted to get seasick and throw up and have to hang onto the rail. How else was I ever going to know what being seasick was like?
Outside of the bits of information I gleaned from Dr. Carver on the four-hour trip to Florida, there is little to recall except one episode I shall never forget.
We had gone to the dining car in the evening and then headed back to our seats. On the way I stopped by the ladies’ room to wash my hands and while doing so had taken off my rings. Sometime later I remembered I had left the rings lying on a little shelf above the basin. My first thought, naturally, was to rush back to the washroom.
The difficulty was that Dr. Carver had now settled back for a nap, and his enormous frame was stretched out so that his legs were blocking the aisle. There was nothing for me to do but jump over him since I didn’t want to wake him, and jumping is what I tried to do. I was almost into the aisle when I heard a whoop, an awful roar. It came from Dr. Carver and was as terrifying as anything I had ever heard in my life. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was grabbing at his hip and knew instinctively he was reaching for a gun. Then I was out and down the aisle, sprinting for the washroom.
I found my rings where I had left them and then went back to my seat. There I found him sitting with his arms crossed, looking stormy and black.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he said. “Don’t ever touch me while I’m sleeping.”
“I won’t,” I said. “I’m sorry. I had to—”
”Never mind,” he said. “When you move, move like a lady, not like a damn grasshopper.”
“No, sir,” I said, “I won’t.”
Later he told me that the whoop was left over from his days on the plains, when a whoop in time meant the difference between having a scalp and not having one. If a man did not wake shouting and reaching for a gun, his pelt was likely to wave from a tepee.
By the time I joined the troupe in Jacksonville, they had been there almost four months. Most of what is known as “winter quarters” had therefore already passed.
Winter quarters is a kind of hibernation period that occurs every year. The fairs and amusement parks all over the country close down during the cold months, so that people in show business are forced to retire. The time, however, is not wasted. During these months they do all the things they haven’t had time to do before. They mend equipment, devise new acts, and make their next season’s engagements, so that when spring comes their itineraries are fixed and they know where they are going.
Show people have a reputation as brawlers second only, I think, to longshoremen. In some cases I’m sure it’s deserved, but for the most part it is as exaggerated as most other stories about them. After all, self-discipline is more important for them than for other people because usually their lives depend on fitness in a way that the ordinary person’s does not. All an aerial artist needs is a second off his timing to find himself lying on the sawdust, and timing comes not only from practice but from constant fitness as well.
Of course loss of life does not always result from loose living, but loss of skill does; and when that goes, so does the professional position that has been built with such painstaking care. Nobody stays at the top very long unless he is dedicated and willing to make sacrifices.
Hence show people work constantly on fitness during these winter months, keeping muscles firm and taut by daily practice. If their act depends on animals rather than themselves, as is often the case, then they work at keeping the animals fit.
Most animals need to be kept in training as much for discipline as for anything else. Lion and tiger acts would go to pieces if the discipline were relaxed for very long. For the Carver horses, however, this was not the case. Once a horse had been trained to go off the tower, he never seemed to forget how to do it nor to lose his skill or style. As a performer, he could be counted on to maintain almost status quo. This relieved Al and Dr. Carver from having to rehearse constantly and they had only to be certain that the horses were properly stabled and fed.
While in winter quarters the diving horses had extra-roomy stalls with foot-deep pine shavings spread on the ground. This was to provide them with bedding which some people apparently were not aware they needed. During my years with the act I heard people say, “Why, look! They’re lying down!” This always made Dr. Carver very angry; he said all horses would lie down to rest if they were given decent bedding. When the pine shavings became soiled they were taken out and replaced with fresh ones.