July 16

1956 — The final “Big Tent” performance of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus


You didn’t want to go camping.

Your idea of roughing it is a weekend without TV or Internet.  A couple hours without air-conditioning.

Apparently, when you go camping you’re supposed to leave the 500-thread-count sheets behind  and burrito yourself inside a stiff polyester zip-bag.  No running water or flushable toilets, and the warm food comes from foil packages waved over sterno cans.

Instead of a tastefully decorated apartment, you’re expected to climb into a nylon tent whose thin metal frame makes you think of the frail skeleton of an unreliable umbrella — the wrong gust of wind, and your temporary home would turn inside out, exposing you to the elements.

But you’ve tried to be a good sport, to please your date.  You’ve only been going out for a few months, and you want to seem agreeable.

The one comment you couldn’t help making, once you’d finished lunch:  “I feel like we’re practicing for the apocalypse.  That was end-of-the-world food, wasn’t it?”

At least it got a chuckle.

“Follow my lead,” your date said.  “I’m good at this.”

So you went on a hike, mosquitoes biting the backs of your legs as if prepping them for the poison ivy you no doubt brushed against; fishing at a lake, where you caught an eel, and insisted your date throw back any hooked fish.  “Do it, and I won’t complain about the sterno-snacks,” you promised.

Nightfall was welcome.  After the day’s exertions, you actually thought you might be able to fall asleep in the tent.  All in all, you’d held up better than you expected.

You’re in the big tent now, you and your date wrapped in separate sleeping bags.  It feels romantic in a way, being alone like this in a small space.  But it also feels unreal, like a kids’ slumber party where gossip and giggles seem more appropriate than making out.

“It’s just us,” your date says.  “We’re the only two people in the world.”

A low howl echoes in the night air.  Other howls join in.

“They sound close,” you say.  Noticing your nervousness, your date scurries from his sleeping bag and zips shut the flaps of the tent.

Oh, that thin green layer of nylon makes me feel much safer. You don’t speak these words aloud, since your date hasn’t yet expressed much appreciation for sarcasm.  Which is why you don’t also add: If I wanted to see wildlife, I’d go to the zoo…or flip to the Nature Channel.

The howls seem louder.  The group of animals has moved closer to the tent, picking up strays along the way.

“Something’s bothering them,” your date says.  “They don’t normally act this way.”

Comforting.  Again, you keep the sarcasm to yourself.

Suddenly you hear a loud boom, as if somebody’s testing dynamite at a nearby cave.  A faint glow illuminates the flaps of the tent then begins to spread.  It feels like the sun is off schedule, rising again and bearing down on your campsite.

The howls are much closer now.  Animal shadows, cast by the new untimely sunlight, dance across the thin fabric that protects you and your date from the changed world outside.