Judy Garland used to sing the song, “I Was Born In A Trunk At The Princess Theatre.” I often sing “I Was Born ON A Trunk At Ringling Brothers Circus.” My parents met and married at Ringling Brothers during the early forties. She started out as a First of May, he an elephant handler. Her professional name was Jerull Deane. His was Whitey Haven.
Within a couple of years, Mom worked her way up to a specialty act with the elephants. My father worked his way up to being an elephant trainer. They both loved working with these large but sweet-natured animals.
My mother used to say one of the reasons she fell in love with my father was because he didn’t use the eye hook, or let any of his men use them, either. He was kind and loving to his charges, and she adored the man all the more for it. Topsy was one of the elephants Mom worked with and she liked to tell stories about her beloved pachyderm.
As a married couple, they had a little more privacy than other people, and lived in a small trailer on the backlot next to the animals. One of her favorite stories was about the time she took up baking. She would bake a fruit pie – apple, peach, berry, depending on what you could get right after the war – and put them on the windowsill in front of a partially opened window to cool. But pies kept disappearing, not all the time but most of the time. She couldn’t figure out who was stealing them. Also, Mom was running out of pie tins. They cost a lot of money and there were only so many of them, as rationing was still ongoing.
So she set up a watch. She baked an apple pie, put it in the window to cool and waited out of sight. About half an hour later, a grey trunk slowly appeared in the window sniffing the air. Once it located the pie, it pushed the small window open entirely, reached in, and pulled out huge chunks of pie, disappearing out the window with them. After most of the pie was gone, the trunk sucked on the metal of the pie tin, and pulled it out of the window, too.
Mom appeared at the window and looked down at the thief. She recognized Topsy right away. Pie tin on the ground, Topsy was slurping on the remnants like she was a vacuum cleaner. When the elephant had finished the last crumb, she picked up the empty tin and turned to a nearby trashcan. Mom had had enough.
“Topsy,” she yelled from inside the small window. “Don’t you dare throw that tin in the trash!”
The elephant froze in place then slowly turned around to face her performing partner in the ring, pie tin dangling from her trunk.
“You bring that here right now,” Mom demanded.
The elephant slowly crept toward the sound of her partner’s voice.
“Did you steal that pie?”
Topsy lowered her head.
“You did, didn’t you?”
Topsy nodded once, pie tin scraping on the ground.
“You give me that pie tin. You hear me? Right now.”
Mom reached her hand out the small window. Topsy raised the tin up for Mom to take.
“You’re a bad, girl,” Mom said eye level with Topsy’s face. Topsy reached her trunk into the window and stroked Mom’s cheek with the finger at the tip end of her trunk.
Mom laughed, took the grey trunk in her hand, and kissed it lightly on the tip, a tip that smelled of cinnamon and baked apples.
“No, you’re not,” she crooned. “You’re a very good girl and you’re my baby doll.”
Even though her ‘baby doll’ weighed in at 5.5 tons, every now and then Mom would bake an extra fruit pie for Topsy. Especially apple. Topsy loved apple. But Mom stopped cooling any of them on the windowsill after that.
I’ve always been taken with the stories of my mother’s life in the circus, especially during its golden age. As a mystery writer, her stories prompted me to write a noir mystery, Murder under the Big Top, using my perception of her during that time as my muse. I even used a photo of her on top of Topsy as the book cover. I lost Mom in 2014. I’m proud to say Murder under the Big Top won the IPPY Silver for Best Mystery/thriller that same year and right around Mother’s Day.
I like to think Mom was looking down on me then, smiling. Maybe Topsy was, too!