Lively organ music floated through the air, and I followed it in from the parking lot. Why, exactly, had I opted to spend Friday night at the circus? I wasn??t sure, other than the fact that I was drawn here to the Eastern States Expo in West Springfield by faint, happy childhood memories.
The 61st annual Melha Shrine Circus, April 23-26, is produced by the Melha Shrine Center in Springfield — a non-religious fraternity — to raise awareness for the group’s Shriners Hospital for Children.
It had been decades since I’d last come to see the circus here in the Coliseum. The venue, which can seat 5,000 visitors, has the vaulting, welcoming air of a ballpark. By 8 p.m. it was about half-full with a loud, rowdy house.
Children hopped up and down as parents studied ticket stubs. Teens sauntered in, chomping on hot salted pretzels. A hawker, looking like he’d just mugged and robbed half the Jedi Order, traversed the stands carrying a satchel stuffed with neon-flashing, battery-powered lightsabers.
The crowd hushed as Holly Joy, a member of the Ladies Oriental Shrine of North America, sang the national anthem. But all heads turned to the nearby tiger cages when, toward the end of the song, a rambunctious Bengal roared loudly, drowning out the melody.
Slapstick from Bello Nock, the circus’s trademark clown, led into a leaping tiger routine and an acrobat who balanced on four skateboards at once. They impressed, but my sense of childlike wonder, long dormant, didn’t stir until the aerial ring act. Dancers swung 30 feet in the air, Celine Dion burst into the chorus of “I’m Alive,” and suddenly, for a wide-eyed second, I was five years old again.
This silent reunion with my younger, better self made me cranky. I decided to get some air. On my way down from row ‘H,’ I passed three pre-teen girls with identical pigtails. Their mouths hung open as two elephants plodded to the center ring, waving their trunks. I passed an elderly man in a Yankees cap bouncing a toddler on his knee, then two high schoolers in sweatshirts nuzzling each other, and a little boy, who danced with a piece of buttered popcorn stuck up each nostril.
I wandered the echoing cement corridor behind the stands and spent five minutes staring at a clown hanging out next to a face-painting station looking bored. His smile was painted on. I fake-smiled back.
But my inner five-year-old hated standing around like an adult. He hated the idea that he’d one day grow out of his love for the circus. But most of all, he wanted cotton candy.
So I relented, and I returned to row ‘H’ clutching a big fluffy bag of it. I sat at the end of a long, orange line of conjoined plastic seats. The kid next to me took a moment from stuffing his face with cotton candy to make a happy, muffled “Ooooh!” noise through the thickness of his fast-melting bounty.
I folded sugary blue wisps into my mouth. I looked around, taking in the bright, colorful panorama. I tasted the sweetness, and then I let it disappear.•
– Hunter Styles,