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The Circus Comes to Town With Poles, Pulleys, and Roars

The roar of a bored and restless lion swelled over the sleeping rooftops of our little town.

''Jean!'' I sat upright in my bed. ''Listen!''

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''What?'' yawned Jean from the other bed. ''Are you talking in your sleep again, Betsy?''

''No, I'm awake. Listen!'' Another far-off roar. ''The circus has come to town!'' We both sat up. Then we heard the distant trumpeting of elephants. We shivered with excitement. In Glendale, Calif., in 1929, the coming of the circus was a momentous event.

''Do you suppose we'll get to go this year?'' I asked my older sister.

''Not likely. It costs too much.''

''But listen, Bets, it must be after midnight,'' Jean yawned. ''So this is Friday. Today you grammar-school kids will get to see the big top go up. And that's lots of fun.

''They'll raise the tents today and have the parade tomorrow morning,'' Jean continued. ''The folks won't go to see it because Mama has to stay with the baby, and Daddy will be working. But they might let us walk on down. It's free.''

I lay down again. It took me a long time to fall back to sleep.

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School was a disordered delight in the morning. While we were still in our early-morning classes, we heard the pile drivers hammering the supports for the stakes and poles into the ground. Animal noises, snatches of calliope music, and shouts of roustabouts could be heard in the pauses between poundings.

Our teacher, Mrs. Kelly, gave us a talk about how we were to behave during our field trip to visit the circus site. Then we lined up, two-by-two, and marched primly out the gate of the schoolyard. We circled the circus lot with one of the workmen as a guide, explaining what we were seeing.

On the ground, great sheets of canvas lay in piles. Poles, ropes, pulleys, and winches were all in place. Stacks of boards, which would be assembled quickly into seats, were piled to one side. Painted wagons - red, gold, and turquoise - lined the back of the lot.

Finally, the roustabouts laid hands upon the winches. Horses strained against the ropes, pulling the huge poles upright; and the big top began to rise. It was all accomplished in a few minutes. Like hoisting the giant sails on a clipper ship.

''She's up!'' A shout went out from the circus people and was quickly echoed by all of us kids.

Next came the spreading of sawdust and the ''sprinkling down.'' We breathed in deeply the pungent, piny aroma. At last we took a quick trip past the animal cages, to view the yawning lions, pacing tigers, and frisky monkey families. Then we were led back to our classrooms.

Around the breakfast table next morning, we talked of nothing but the circus. Dad gave us permission to view the parade in town. ''But stick together,'' he admonished. ''David,'' he said, addressing my older brother, ''you look out for the girls.'' Then he turned to me. ''Bets, be sure to hang onto Eddie.'' My little brother was only 7 and had a tendency to stray.

''Here they come!'' The exclamation rippled through the crowd. We were sitting on the curbing of our town's main street. Eddie dashed out trying to see around all the other kids.

''Come back here, Eddie,'' Jean and I shouted. He hurriedly sat down again, just as we heard the music of the calliope in the distance.

First to appear was the band, in their fine, flashy red-white-and-blue uniforms, batons twirling. Then, one after the other, came the ringmaster, cracking his whip; lovely girls, dressed all in golden spangles, sitting on pure white horses; and the clowns, piling in and out of little cars. Finally, the animal cages arrived, pulled by heavy work horses. Tigers snarled, and lions roared. It was all wonderful!

In school on Monday we wrote essays about the circus. Many of my classmates had seen a weekend performance. I wrote about the parade. During recess Mrs. Kelly told me that she had enjoyed my story. She asked if I would be attending the circus.

''No,'' I said, ''We can't afford it this year.'' I hesitated. ''But we enjoyed the parade!''

Mrs. Kelly was thoughtful. ''Well, Betsy, come see me after school. I have something for you.''

When classes were over I reported to my teacher's desk. She reached into her top drawer and drew forth a battered book. The title read: ''Toby Tyler, or, Ten Weeks With the Circus.''

''Here, Betsy,'' she said, ''I want you to have this. It was given to me when I was your age. I'm sure you'll enjoy reading it.''

I was too surprised to do more than murmur my thanks. I read ''Toby Tyler'' several times that week, while the lion roared and the elephant called at night. As long as I had my book, the circus was mine not just for that week, but forever.

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