My big sister JoAnn was old enough to be my mother. Her oldest child is a year younger than I am. That’s why I usually let other people talk about “generations” because my siblings were in separate ones. I’ve always seen the “generation gap” as just the differences in people, their influences, and their attitudes.
When I was five or six years old, JoAnn took me to the circus. It was just the two of us, which I don’t remember thinking was odd, but considering she had a couple of young kids and our youngest brother was at home, it was. Eventually I found out it had to do with my troubled home life of a single mother raising two young boys while battling alcoholism, but at the time it was just great to be at the circus with my Big Sister. It probably happened a lot more - I recall one other time she took me to see Jose Ferrer in a touring production of Damn Yankees when I was 8 - I just don’t remember them like this one. Now that I write this, it occurs to me that we may not have been alone. But it seemed as though we were. I don't remember anyone else with us, which speaks to the power of the memory.
The circus had taken over a baseball stadium about the size used for college games, and we were seated in the stands behind home plate, about halfway up. The backstop wasn’t that high. A pop up could land right in our laps. Which is why, when the man slid down into the giant cannon in center field, which was aimed directly at us, she told me to put my popcorn between my feet so it wouldn’t spill, and hold my arms open on my legs with my palms up so I could catch him if he overshot the net he was aiming for, which covered most of the infield. I obeyed immediately, overwhelmed by both terror and joy.
The overwhelming expectancy I had waiting for him to be shot out of that cannon has stuck with me all my life. The anticipation, making me shiver, the suspension of disbelief that I wasn’t even aware was happening, and the pure adrenaline-fueled suspense in those moments before the explosion that didn’t just seem to last forever, they actually have. I was afraid he’d land in my lap, but I was hoping, even praying, that he would. I wanted him to! I wanted to be the one to catch him. Not just to be the hero and save his life – well, maybe a little – but to be part of the show. I wanted to be in on the secret those performers knew that the rest of the audience didn’t. I wanted be a piece of the mystery, a keeper of the enigma, and people would see me as such and treat me like I knew something they didn't. This is carved and chiseled, not simply etched in my memory. It ended up forging my path forward in life in ways that kept bringing me back to the moment to relive it as a metaphor for becoming an actor, certainly of being an attention-seeking ham, even through the often crushing introversion – and, as it turned out, running away to be a part of the circus when I was twenty-one, which almost shattered any illusion this event helped create. But it didn't stop me.
I’ve been waiting, ready, arms on my lap, to catch the human cannonball all my life. Suspended in that moment right before the explosion. Happy that I’m part of the show, to play a part in the unraveling mystery.
Thank you for that, JoAnn. Good night, sweet sister. And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.