Circus Home Challenge

In this segment from the novel A Freak’s Journey, six-year old runaway James Stockley is taken in by a new mother who keeps the circus owner from sending him back to the Borough of Islington.

Circus Home

“Mona, come here quick,” the boss canvas-man called out in a loud whisper as he stuck his head into his friend’s caravan. “Come quick, Mona. I don’t know what in the bloody ‘ell to do.”

Mona, at 31, had one of the better caravans due to her position as the lead horse trainer and equestrian performer for the circus. She was as slim and attractive standing on the back of a trotting white Andalusian as she had been 10 years before when she was hired by Mel Singer, the circus owner. Mona pushed her long, dark-blonde hair back over her shoulders, set down her cup of tea, and stepped down two steps, following her friend around to the rear area where three rigger caravans were parked.

“Julius, what can be so damn important?” Mona asked. “If Singer catches you taking a break from raising the tents you’ll be in a…”

They walked around the last caravan to one of the green storage boxes that hung at the back. Julius was holding open the lid of a big wooden box covered with dirt from the journey as Mona squinted to see into the dusty shadows. She let out a short, smothered shriek and held her hand over her mouth, looking down in disbelief.

“Jesus, Julius, what have you found?” Mona asked.

There, under the layers of dust and dirt, she could see what looked like a small, dirty face. Curled into the corner of the box using a heavy coil of rope for warmth was the motionless body of a small boy. Julius picked up the rope and Mona bent down into the box. She lifted the child and fell slowly to her knees, cradling the child in her lap. She attempted to brush the dirt from his face.

“He’s beautiful,” she said softly, her brown eyes sparkling. She looked toward the gray and white sky with tears rolling down her cheeks. Mona had forgotten how thrilling it was to hold a child. She had longed to hold a child of her own. Mona had forced herself to forget what this moment would be like after an earlier miscarriage and the termination of her relationship with the father.

“Thank you, blessed and merciful God,” Mona said, crying and holding the child to her chest. “I accept this gift as the child you promised.”

“How can you tell he’s beautiful?” Julius asked. “He’s covered in dirt.” Mona gave a quick stabbing stare to her friend.

“Just shut the hell up, Julius,” she whispered. “Let’s get him back to my cabin.” Mona’s look made it clear to Julius that she wanted no help carrying the new arrival. She held the boy tightly in her arms while Julius rushed to open the door of Mona’s caravan. Mona lay the boy down on her cot, wet a towel and cleaned the dirt from around his mouth before she attempted to pour in sips of tepid tea. Mona had been having her afternoon tea, a short respite from the pressures of the rough circus life, when Julius had called out. The child didn’t respond and the tea ran over his face onto the cot. A moment later he opened his eyes and woke up coughing and gagging. He turned his head with a frightened look in his eyes and looked at Julius, Mona, and the room.

“Hang on a minute,” Jimmy said, his hair standing up on the back of his neck. “Who’re you and where’s me mum?” Jimmy asked, his eyes tearing up with fright despite trying to be brave.

Instinctively, he reached for the small pouch of coins he wore around his waist and under his shirt.

“Blimey, where’s me money pouch and who took me pants?” Jimmy demanded, sitting up.

“I’m afraid you took a pee in your trousers and I’ve got them drying on the line outside,” Mona said. “Here’s your money pouch.” Jimmy opened the pouch and looked inside.

“I’m Mona and this is Julius, the man who found you,” Mona said, trying not to laugh. “It’s a good thing he opened that box today rather than tomorrow. As for where you are, we are part of the Singer Circus Spectacular and we’re just setting up for a fortnight of performances in three towns located here in Essex.”

“Can I see the elephants?” Jimmy asked, coughing again and falling back on the cot.

“Well, we only have one elephant at the moment and his name is Dudley. You can see him later, after you’ve got some food in you and you’ve recovered a bit. You’re a skinny lad and your time in the box didn’t help that any. You’ll have to take it slow for a day or two. What’s your name?” Mona asked.

“Ji… James.”

“Well James, nice to meet you,” Mona said. “The early evening meal will be ready in an hour and I’ll bring something back for you.” The boy closed his eyes and fell asleep.

“What are you going to do with him?” Julius asked, walking with Mona and Sydney, one of the other lead equestrians, on their way to the dinner tent later that day.

“Leave it to me,” Mona said. She turned, talking to Sydney about their planned performance in the Big Top that evening.

“Morning, Mel,” Mona said two mornings later, as she entered the circus owner’s caravan after breakfast. “I heard you wanted to talk to me.”

“Morning,” Malcolm Singer said, pushing back his straight, sandy-colored hair with the fingers of his left hand. The middle-aged Singer, a tall thin man with a straw mustache, had a commanding voice and stature for his part as a ringmaster. He was holding a ledger in his lap and leaning back in his desk chair. The desk was clear except for Mouser, a fluffy, caramel and white colored cat with a menacing black face, asleep on the right corner. Mouser had gained weight each of his 11 years, so he spread out like a furry pancake when he lay down. For several years Mouser had performed as the Flying Poof Ball due to his ability to spread out and fly when thrown between clowns. In those days he sported long, enhanced orange whiskers and golden slippers. Mouser was retired now and his main responsibilities were insuring that loose objects were swept off the owner’s desk and, on occasion, catching an equally senile rodent.

“I understand you found a young boy in our gear earlier this week,” Mel said. His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward over the desk staring at Mona. “I’m sure his mother must be very concerned about his safety and whereabouts.” Mouser stretched his legs straight out and yawned, showing a mouth full of brown, stained daggers.

“The boy is skin and bone, Mel, and his clothes, what there is of them, are filled with holes. Besides that, best I can tell he’s most likely got a broken rib, a bruised shoulder and a case of lice. He says he’s been kicked out by his mother.”

“Mona, that’s the claim of all young circus runaways. We still need to give him over to the Essex authorities so they can find his family. I wanted you to know I’ve called the constable to take the boy and he’ll be here early this afternoon. We won’t get a permit to come back to these three towns if we hide a runaway child.”

“Mel, I’m not going to send this broken child back to be broken even more,” Mona said, staring down at the circus owner who happened to be her former lover. Mona had lived in Singer’s caravan on the road for three years, but she broke it off after her miscarriage. Mel had made it clear he wasn’t interested in a more permanent arrangement.

“Look Mel, we had a baby you and me and we lost it. Don’t you see, this is the child God promised and took from me halfway through my pregnancy three years back? This child has real fear in his eyes when I ask about his past. You can’t ask me to send him back.”

“Mona, you’re forgetting the feelings as well as the rights of his real mother,” Mel said.
“To hell with his so-called real mother, Mel. How real can she be?” Mona asked standing and looking out the small window. “You should see the shape he’s in, all bony and hanging his head as if he’s your age. I’ll tell you what, if his so-called mother shows up in a week or a year in a flowing pink dress with a ripe fruit basket on top of her head, I’ll give him back. Until then I’m going to rescue this boy. Tell the constable you were mistaken about the boy or tell him the runaway ran away again.”

“Mona, we can’t just…”

“…feed every gypsy that comes down the road. I know the rule of the circus, Mel, and I know your rules. He’ll earn his keep in due time. I’ll start him out as a Junior Clown for now while I think of something he can learn.”

Mona let the door slam behind her. She would give the boy a home, one with the care and love obviously missing from life with his so-called mother.

Malcolm’s Singer Circus Spectacular had been known over the years for its skilled equestrian riders and trained horses. It was a mid-sized traveling circus with as many as 61 working ‘gypsies’ on its payroll. Other than eight riggers, two cooks and an administrative clerk, all members had at least one job “working in front of the curtain.” With the exception of the lion tamer and the lead horse handler, performers worked two or more acts as well as handling equipment and rigging tasks. The clowns also trained dogs and donkeys; the bear handler, an Indian man named Baghman, acted as an untrained vet for the animals and sometimes attended to ill crew members. Two of the high wire walkers changed their uniforms after each performance to assist with the robes for the group of flying acrobats. Performances took place in one ring, customary for traveling circuses of the day.

At the age of 19, Mel had been abruptly left in charge of the shattered remains of his family’s small, struggling circus. His grandfather died falling from a horse a month after his father ran off with the mayor’s wife up in Newcastle. Mel was left with a circus consisting of a ragtag group of performers, 12 horses, two Shetland ponies and four clowns, all performing without a tent. Four of the riggers, acting as the band, provided entertainment and a heartbeat for the show. The circus performed in open fields with patrons standing along the edges of the ring. A year later Mel purchased a used tent and some raised benches. In those early years Mel dreamed of the day when he could afford the best performers, exotic animals like camels and llamas, and a larger tent that would hold more than one act at a time.

Twenty years later Mel gave a brief speech in the dining hall at the start of the season. He loved to tell the stories of how he survived those early days and his vision for the future of the circus. Veteran crew members managed to be busy working or rehearsing after dinner to avoid the stories they had heard many times. New members of the crew and the two cooks, however, were a captive audience.

“Competition on the road in the 1870’s was stiff,” Mel would say. “Nearly all of the traveling circuses had more animals, performers and caravans than we did. Some even had unfortunate malformed individuals performing in side show acts. Each one of us tried to find ways to attract more customers and otherwise outdo our competitors. One circus company even burned the bridge they had just crossed up in Scotland to delay those following them.” That story always got a laugh out of the newer members of the crew. “The greatest rivalries in those days,” Mel continued, waving his walking stick in the air, “were between Phineas Barnum’s circus and the Grand International Allied Shows owned by James Bailey and two partners. Now they are an even stronger competitor since they combined companies.

“I’ve bought and sold acts and animals over the years from Barnum,” Mel said. “Phineas and I became friendly rivals even though his operations were much bigger than mine. He had built a reputation as a great showman during his tours here and in the U.S. with a variety of unusual acts, or freak attractions, as we have come to call them. Barnum had giants, midgets, including the internationally known Tom Thumb, a hugely popular elephant named Jumbo, and industrious fleas. Something for everybody, I guess.”

“The larger circuses travel now by train and unload the animals into caravan cages, which they pull through the town in a parade on the way to the circus pitch. A brass band leads the parade down the high street followed by 20 or so brightly painted caravans pulled by teams of horses, camels, llamas and donkeys. Excitement is heightened by the endless stream of performers in full costume and clowns tumbling and tossing candy into the crowds lining the parade route.

“My family has dreamed of traveling by train and one day we will,” Mel stated confidently, concluding his orientation speech. “For now we are small and we play the smaller towns where the likes of Barnum and Bailey don’t bother. We just need to be more alive, daring and colorful and we can compete and grow. Stick with the Singer Circus and you will live to see it happen.”

Singer was committed to the value of skilled performers and carefully trained animals, so he generally opposed efforts to add what he referred to as “genetic mistakes.” Nonetheless, Singer had recently purchased two small tents where he hoped to eventually increase revenue by offering side shows. These tents were still folded in their boxes awaiting the owner’s decision on suitable side show attractions. He was determined to favor unusual skills in his side shows rather than infirmities of man or beast.

“The Romans made light of killing thousands of animals and hundreds of slaves, criminals, and the sickly in an afternoon,” he said. “The circus has come a long way from those days and I’m going to fight to keep it from back tracking into exploiting the infirm.”

“When are you going to finally start the side show?” Mona asked privately. “There’s a chance to take on the Shetland pony act that’s available in that little Nottingham circus,” she said. “Besides, we need new wheel carriages on half these old rickety caravans.”

“I’m well aware of the need for increasing revenues but I want to do it my way,” Mel said. “Some of the genetic mistakes these companies are putting on display are disgusting and shouldn’t be allowed.”

“I thought you said we all had to be good freaks in some way to earn our keep,” Mona said.
“I’m not against all freaks. The freak business is divided into three categories: foreign malformed naturally and bred, domestic skilled, and fake,” Mel said. “By exploiting the foreign malformed, those guys are encouraging such places as India and Malay, which are known to be breeding grounds for the genetic mistakes, and selling the results to us. There are thriving Bombay businesses dealing in the mysterious achondroplastic dwarfs and Singapore is another trading hub for freaks.”

“I didn’t mean you should push in that direction,” Mona said.

“I’ll take my time and we’ll get a side show going. Just don’t push me,” Singer said, walking back to his dilapidated caravan.

Singer’s other dream was to be able to afford spending at least the winter months in a fixed structure built for circuses. Lord Howe’s Circus performed at the Alhambra Hall in London for months at a time, and the Royal Circus on Black Friars Road performed at the Old Surrey Hall just outside London all year.

The Borough of Islington, A FreaksStart

Now that James has opened up about his early life, this post takes us to his apartment in the 1990 London slum of Islington and the beginning of a Freak’sJourney.

The Borough of Islington

Jimmy ran full speed toward the other three, looking back over his shoulder with full fright on his face and crying “No, No!” Five feet short of the group he tripped and fell, rolling into Max, his teacher. At eight-years-old, Max, a skinny kid living most of the time on the streets, was as close to a father figure as Jimmy had known. For the final bit Jimmy looked up with his wide eyes, brushed his long mop of brown locks out of his eyes and said, “So very sorry, Sir.”
“Blimey, Jimmy, you’ve got to put more spit into the game,” Max said to his young foil. “Let’s see your lower lip quiver when you look up at the target. London streets is ripe with targets but ya’ gotta sell your soul in this bit, Jimmy, or it bloody-well won’t work a lick. I’m not lookin’ for anythin’ queer here me boy just sweet innocent fear in those soft black eyes.” Max, with his dirty yellow hat sitting back on his head, was exasperated at the results of his first training lesson with six-year-old Jimmy, the gang’s newest recruit.

James Northway Stockley was born in the near north side slum of London known as Islington. He and his mother Renee lived in a tiny one-room apartment on the third floor of a building on Childerditch Lane just off Liverpool Road. The four-story buildings stood in long rows close to each other each apartment had one small window for ventilation. Landlords were taxed per window. Typical for 1880s London, the apartments in their block had no water and no toilet facilities. Renee carried water from a pump located about 150 meters down the street from their building. There were pumps located all over London in those days and they were open only certain times and certain days. Lines were typically long at the pumps to fill the families’ pots and jugs. Families who ran out of water while the pumps were closed had to use the water in the rivers, which were also depositories for the neighborhood’s garbage and human “dung.”

Because the latrines on the ground floor of the building were dank and putrid, most upper floor residents kept a copper chamber pot in the corner of the room. When the pot filled for a day or two and the smell in the apartment became unbearable, it was emptied out the window. Richard II, who had become King of England back in 1377 at age 10, later issued a writ that, “no one is to dump dung.” Further, there were penalties, still in effect, for hitting a person with anything, especially dung, thrown from a window. It seemed such restrictions only encouraged tenement dwellers. By the end of the day the streets below the tenement windows were ankle deep in human waste and ripe until the next rain washed it down the gutters toward the rivers. The appearance of the buildings suffered in that a yellowish brown stain quickly developed below each window. Apartment dwellers kept their windows closed despite the occasional hot day to avoid dung spilling in from above.

Jimmy’s mother worked afternoons and nights as a prostitute walking the streets bordering the boroughs of Islington and Heringey, where she competed with women stationed on several other street corners. Jimmy’s first memories of his mother were of her wearing pretty dresses and sparkly bracelets with her blonde hair pulled back and tied, running down her back. He remembered her ruddy complexion and sad loving eyes as she got ready for work. On many nights there were no customers in their dark district but she needed to be there just in case.

“Come to Mommy, Jim Bo,” she whispered as the toddler ate stale bread she’d found thrown out the back door of the bakery. Jimmy looking around the table for more. “Things will be better, Jim Bo, just you wait and see.” In those early years, Renee worked from 3 to 5 pm with Jim in her arms, then took a two-hour break to fix dinner. Before reporting back to the corner, she wrapped her son in a blanket and rocked him in a chair that didn’t rock, gently smoothing his little brown infant curls. Renee spit on her fingers and cleaned her son’s face of the grime of the day. She sang him to sleep with a lullaby, a fantasy of unrealistic hope. Somehow it had been very real when her mother had sung it to her many years before. Jimmy grinned, looking up into his mother’s eyes as she rocked and whispered the song more than sang it.

C u r l y Locks, C u r l y Locks
Wilt thou be mine
Thou shalt not wash dishes, nor feed the swine
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam
And feast upon strawberries, sugar and cream

Renee sang it again with tears slowly ruining her heavy makeup. She placed her son in the top wooden drawer of a beat-up dresser that served as a bed before locking the door and leaving him in the apartment while she went to work. If the night went well, she’d be back a time or two, accompanied by a friend.

At three years old, James walked to work with his mommy in the afternoons and played along the streets while Renee sat on a broken bench with Sadie, a partner prostitute with dark orange hair. Sadie nursed her newborn baby girl, Marilyn, who she called “Pookie.” The baby, with a shock of wavy auburn hair and big blue eyes, was a happier miniature version of her mother.

Sometimes one of Sadie’s regulars walked by and stopped to talk. James couldn’t hear what was said but a few minutes later Sadie stopped the feeding, slid her breast inside her blouse, and declared the baby fed. She stood and handed Pookie to Renee for a while as Sadie and the customer walked toward her flat. James sat down at his mother’s feet and played in the dust.

Renee put the baby down next to her son.

The women worked in pairs so one could watch the children and hold the position if a customer showed up. Sometimes Renee would grab Jimmy’s hand and hurry behind the nearest building. Jimmy noticed that Sadie picked up Pookie and did the same as a black carriage rolled by on the rutted street. Renee mentioned to Sadie that the constable was getting to be a pest with his weekly patrols. Sadie didn’t say much because sometimes the constable winked at her and she walked away with the constable.

The girls were always on the lookout for fancy carriages with skinny-legged horses entering their street. Well-dressed gentlemen from the wealthier boroughs sometimes rode up in carriages providing the girls with a chance for income for the evening..

“Here comes a carriage, Mommy,” Jimmy said, as the women dozed, leaning into each other, back to back on the bench.

“How many in the team, Jimmy?” Renee asked, opening one eye then the other.

“Looks to be two horses, Mommy,” her son reported proudly.

“Come on Sadie,” Renee said. “Put the baby down and get up. This could be dinner for one of us.”

As the carriage approached, the women stood, brushing back their hair, smoothing their dresses and smiling. The carriage passed by with a look of disdain from the dark occupant inside. Some days it seemed the rich had better things to do, and all the four souls on the corner got for their trouble was a smile and a wink from the driver.

The following year James passed the summer playing with Pookie. They ran from one end of the street to the other, stopping in between for a hug or a playful spank from their mommies. It was another year before James sensed a change in his mommy. They were sleeping together by now in the only bed, but somehow there was a growing distance between them. His mother never looked happy at work and for no reason she seemed irritated at him much of the time. Some days she didn’t say more than “Morning’’ when she got up, and that was all she said until noon.

“Mommy, are you mad at me?” James asked one afternoon as Renee got ready for work.

“God no, Jimmy,” she said. “Mommy’s just tired, I suppose.” She fell silent, looking away with nothing more to say.

“Jim Bo, come here,” she said, reaching out to hug her son. “You know I love you and want what’s best for you. I’ll tell you what. I’ve got something I’ve been meaning to give you,” Renee said, digging in the bottom of her bag.

“Jimmy,” she said, kneeling down to her son’s eye level, “this is a ring my father made for me with my initials carved inside, a year before he died. He made it from a piece of mahogany he’d stolen and gave it to me on my seventh birthday,” Renee said, holding her son and resting her cheek on his head. Her hair hung loose and it covered their faces like a soft silky shield against the world outside. “I grew out of the ring some time ago,” she said. “And I have been meaning to give it to you. You are growing up fast Jimmy so I think it’s time.”
“Does it mean we’re married, mommy?” Jim asked, squinting to see the carvings in the blur of the light in the apartment. Renee slipped the ring on his finger.

“It is given in love, Jimmy, so I guess it can mean whatever you want it to mean.”

“Thanks, Mommy. I love my present and I love you.”

Renee smiled at her son and lowered her eyes. She had carved her son’s initials inside the ring next to those carved long before by her father.

Jimmy didn’t really know or care how poor they were. He played along the street and helped his mother in any way he could, including standing in line at the pump to get water and emptying the chamber pot each evening. By age five, however, Jim began asking questions.

“Pookie, why do they sit all day on that bench?” he asked. “Now she’s making me stay in the hallway for hours when she has a friend come into the apartment.”

“I don’t know,” Marilyn said. “Maybe the friends don’t like little kids.” Marilyn was two years younger than Jimmy and didn’t yet suffer from the same level of curiosity. “Chase me, Jimmy.

Come on and chase me,” she persisted. His little friend loved to run and scream as Jimmy chased her down the street.

When guests stayed all night Jimmy had to move out of his mother’s bed to the floor across the room. She explained that the visitors were friends who came to the flat to drink and visit with her. He couldn’t help but wonder if they were really friends and uncles, as she sometimes said, and why they never talked to him. They just looked at him and went back to visiting with his mommy. Most of all he wanted to know about the fights that he could hear and feel across the dark room. He noticed his mother would use extra makeup on her face after a night of visiting with some of these friends. Seemingly irritated by her son’s curiosity, Renee sent him out to play on the streets during the evenings, instructing him to stay away from the corner as well as the apartment. James wondered if her sudden preference for working without his assistance was because she was somehow ashamed of him.

With his mom sleeping (and healing from the prior night’s visits) during the day and welcoming new visitors at night, James was glad to get outside to play and he began to stay out all day. On one occasion, returning at night, he interrupted his mother and a visitor James had seen earlier in the week. The man his mother called Walter, yelled at Jimmy to get out. Walter grabbed Jimmy’s arm and whipped him against the wall.

“Walter, stop!” Renee pleaded. “You’ve got to leave.”

“Somebody’s leavin’, Love, but it ain’t likely me,” Walter said, his eyes sparkling even in the dark. Renee stood up and grabbed Walter around the neck, but he knocked her back into the bed with an elbow to the ribs, followed by a slap to the face with the back of his hand. Jimmy could hear his mother yell in pain as she fell to the bed sobbing. He was trying to stand and go to her when Walter made a drunken lurch in the dark, kicking Jimmy across the room into the chamber pot which emptied in his lap.

“Get your stinking ass out of me sight,” Walter shouted, bending to grab Jimmy by the hair, “before I choose to throw ya out the window.”

Instead, he threw Jimmy out the door where he crashed into the wall with a crack. Jimmy lay against the dark hallway wall in more physical pain than he’d ever felt in his short life. The stench of his own clothing, never close to fresh, made him lose the small chunk of cheese and bread he’d had at dinner. Jimmy took off the offending trousers and threw them down the stairwell, spending the night curled up leaning against the door for warmth and a sense of connection. Jimmy slept in the hall on the nights Walter visited. His mother put some bread and cheese in a tin for her son and set it in the hall next to the door each night. The second night the boy interrupted a small mouse who was halfway through eating Jimmy’s dinner.

Lying in the hall, trying to get warm enough to go to sleep, Jimmy thought of the disapproving looks from those who passed by the corner in their carriages. At first he didn’t understand, but guessed it was obvious: his ragged clothes and the layers of dirt on his face made him very different from those riding in the carriages. He planned to walk down to the New River at the south end of the borough and jump in to get his clothes and face sorted out a bit. The next day there was a rare streak of sunshine coming down on Islington so he headed for the river. If the sun stayed out awhile, his clothes would dry a bit on the way home. He hoped Walter would be gone by the time he reached the apartment. It would be another year before James began to understand his social position, and a lifetime to fully comprehend his mother’s life and her change in attitude toward her only child.

Renee never said much about Jimmy’s father except that he was from the Midlands. James asked where his father lived but Renee avoided the question, eventually saying he was a man who stayed at the house for a fortnight and then for some reason disappeared into the London mist. When Jimmy persisted with his questions and wondered if he would ever see his father, Renee said he was a sailor and she had heard he had died at sea.

A few months before Jimmy turned six, Renee’s business dried up and she kicked him out each morning to find his own food. What money she made was increasingly going to drink. Jimmy met other kids sentenced to foraging on the streets of London and began to run with three lads around his age. Twin boys, seven-year-olds Kenny and Kerry, were the first to befriend James after he had gone three days without knowing how to find food. The third boy in the group was a skinny eight-year-old kid named Max, a dark complected boy with darting brown eyes and a quick idea for every problem of living on the streets. All of the kids were escaping similar hostile home environments. To survive on the streets, the gang of small boys searched for food in rubbish bins and stole fruit from local vendors. They eventually developed a sometimes profitable pickpocket business with young Jimmy as the foil. Even at five, his big hands and stubby fingers made him a lousy lifter of wallets and jewelry, so others were assigned to do the actual lifting while Jimmy played the shill.

“No,” Jimmy shouted, running down the street looking behind him in fright. With his ragged clothes flapping and fear on his dirt-crusted face, Jimmy had developed a convincing act. On cue, just short of the target, he stumbled and fell rolling into the feet of a well-dressed stranger.

“Most sorry, Sir,” James said, looking up into the target’s eyes, clearly in fear for his life.
“Whoa, little man,” the gentleman said, lifting James up and dusting him off, further disheveling Jimmy’s’ collar-length curly mop. He reached into his front pocket for a small coin.

At that moment one of the twins bumped into the man, making a humble apology while the other twin removed the contents of the gentleman’s rear pocket.

“Here, young man,” the gentleman said, nodding to the clumsy twin and looking back, giving Jimmy a coin before sending him on his way. The man resumed his stroll minus his wallet, and the gang could look forward to eating well for a few days.

“Ta, Sir,” Jimmy said, waving gratefully and walking away. Out of the corner of his eye James could see the holding twin making a drop to Max as he walked briskly in the target’s direction. The twins continued to walk briskly the other way, relieved of any evidence of wrong doing.

The boys got better at the scam as they grew until they got caught hitting on the same local gentleman two days in a row.

Jimmy was on the receiving end of a beating from his mother and her visitor when the police bobby brought him home. Renee went into a rage and kicked him out of the house again. Bruised, in pain and confused, Jimmy leaned against the wall in the hallway outside his mommy’s flat and cried quietly for her attention. If she loved me as much as she says, he wondered, how could she prefer to be with that fat drunk rather than her own son? Jimmy decided to do something about his situation as soon as he found a way.

A fortnight later an unusual event happened in Islington. A traveling circus came to town and paraded its wagons and animals down the High Street on its way to the field at the other end of the borough where they were to pitch their tents and perform for three days. The small gang of four had seen billboards advertising circuses before, but they were for the traditional stationary circuses which performed in great halls built as amphitheaters. Earlier in the year the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus had come to London to perform in the London Circus Hall, but the only entertainment the boys gleaned from the show was looking at one of the billboards out on Liverpool Road. Max explained to the gang that the famous circuses performed in great halls and there was no way to sneak into these fortresses.

“I can’t believe it,” Max said, watching the animals and performers parade down the High Street. Reading the sides of the caravans rolling past, he said, “It’s called the Singer Circus Spectacular and they are going to perform shows here in Islington for three days.” The boys had never before seen a circus marching through their town. The discordant whistling notes of the calliope marked the middle of the parade of some 30 caravans painted in bright blue, red, and yellow and an entourage of clowns and other performers. Some were leading elephants, giraffes, and other animals that were not being employed hauling the caravans. A team of high-stepping black horses pulled the lead caravan, with its carved emblems and brightly-painted exterior. Teams of donkeys, camels, and a variety of other horses pulled the rest of the squeaking, swaying caravans.

Of considerable interest to the crowd were the menacing tigers, periodically roaring and charging the bars in their cages. The band provided lively marching tunes and the clowns tumbled and threw pieces of candy to the youngsters along the parade route. The young observers with Jimmy laughed at the animals stepping in the fresh dung left behind by the animals preceding them in the parade.

The Singer Circus, which played smaller communities, was sized and priced for the poorer boroughs of London and the smaller villages and towns spread throughout the English countryside. Jimmy and the other boys soaked in the sights, smells, and sounds of the parade passing by and then ran ahead to see it again. Down at Regent’s Park that evening, the boys were captivated by the teams of men who struck the tent stakes into the ground with precision timed hammers and rolled out the bundles of white canvas. Through it all they could hear the rhythm of the blacksmith’s hammer and anvil preparing and repairing shoes and hardware for the next day.

The smaller dining tent went up first while the main crew positioned the others and directed teams of horses to drag the main poles into position. For their finale the crew slowly winched the wave of canvas up the center pole of the Big Top. The boys joined the small crowd of onlookers in applauding the raising of the giant tent.

The next day the ragged workers from the night before were dressed in colorful costumes ready to entertain. Horses and elephants used for draft in setting up the site were plumed and ornamented, ready for the show. A fresh layer of straw was everywhere, mixing the intoxicating smells of animals, straw and dung.

Jimmy and the twins snuck under the tent by timing the route of the man assigned to keep freeloaders out, and managed to see a few minutes of their first-ever circus. The night gave the boys more color, noise, and fun than they had found in the sum of their whole lives. The second night they snuck in again. However, ten minutes into the show, just as the trained horses and performers were starting their act, they were observed by the guard and they had to flee before they were arrested. Jim had one lasting impression of the show he saw that first night. He was fascinated by the daring men and women of the high wire act. He fell asleep in the hallway that night dreaming of becoming a tightrope walker. The next night Jimmy sat alone at the edge of the nearby woods and listened to the ringmaster’s announcements, the cannons firing during the clowns’ act, the animal sounds, and the band. Magically, the circus took Jim away from his dismal life to a better place where splashes of color, music, laughing, and fun were everywhere at the same time. The magic also showed Jimmy for the first time how much he was missing living on the streets of Islington.

At the end of the three-day engagement, the circus packed up the tents, caravans, and animals for a journey to the next stop. Even watching the crew take down the Big Top and pack the equipment and animals for the road was exciting for Jimmy and his friends.

That evening Jimmy thought about the circus to the point that he couldn’t sleep. At 2:00 a.m., with his mother passed out across the room, six-year-old Jimmy put on his trousers, his ragged tan shirt and the thin short black coat his mother had outgrown. With a quid in his pocket from the young gang’s enterprises, he closed the door without making a sound and walked quietly down the creaking stairs into the night. At the end of Childerditch Lane, he turned right down Rosslyn’s Way toward the river. Tears filled his eyes as he walked, afraid of the dark and a possible attack from the pack of stray dogs known to roam the neighborhood at night. He was surprised at how alarming the night became as he walked away from his home without the gang to lead the way through the streets. Most of all he was afraid of what he was doing. The night before, he’d taken a chance and discussed his plan with Max.

“Go for it Jimmy,” Max had said. “I’d go with ya but for me there’s bigger money here in London. Remember what I taught ya, Jimmy. Ya gotta sell from deep inside or it’s no sale.”

Jim stopped in the dark street two or three times trying to make up his mind. Was this what he wanted? Was it what his mommy wanted him to do? Would she be better off without him? Could he be better off without his own mommy? In the end the “yes” answers outnumbered the “no” answers. A light rain began to fall and he squinted to focus on shadows that seemed to move. Were they street people waiting for a chance to jump out and take his money and maybe his clothes? He walked in small circles around the locked water pump. Finally, hearing two dogs howling to each other in the distance, he decided to keep moving.

The smells of a circus were unmistakable as he reached the park at the end of Priest’s Lane. The Big Top, and the two tents used for animal cages as well as for care and training, had been brought down along with the smaller dressing and wardrobe tents. The animals were in the caravans, except for the elephant which was staked at the north end of the pitch. The dining tent was the only one standing. Jimmy could hear the two cooks inside working and smelled breakfast being prepared. All was ready for an early departure in the morning.

Jimmy thought of trying to steal a piece of bread but knew he’d be sent back home if he was caught. He loved the smells of the circus, the wet canvas, the animals, and the crunch of the hay under foot. He walked slowly around the caravans, staying far clear of the elephant and trying not to wake the other animals or the exhausted crew. Jimmy walked quietly past an open door on one of the caravans and listened to a choppy chorus of snores flowing out into the night. He tried three locks before finding an unlocked box attached to the back of one of the caravans. Jimmy shook with fright at this final moment of decision. Would they send him back? Would the police put him in jail? Would they kill him with a bullet? Wiping water from his eyes with his sleeve, he decided he was too tired to worry any more. He climbed inside the box and quietly closed the lid.

Now he was safe from the dogs but not from the cold. Jimmy reached around under his body and covered himself with the box’s contents, heavy ropes it seemed. He wondered if his mommy would cry for him in the morning the way he was crying for her in the night. His teeth rattled until exhaustion took him to safety, to sleep.

The circus pulled out the next morning at 6:30 and proceeded up the narrow muddy road to another town for another three-day show, with an added member of the crew. Twice the caravans were stopped by deep ruts in the country roads, requiring a team of horses directed by the crew to free the wagons. After a long day’s travel, the winds were blowing as the circus arrived in the village of Shenfield. The riggers would work all night setting up for the first show the following night. The first order of business was to set up the kitchen equipment and raise the tent around the cooks as they worked. During the set-up the boss canvas-man went looking for an extra rope and pulley. Holding a fresh cup of coffee in one hand, he opened the green box attached to the stakes and canvas caravan and made a startling discovery.


Dam Project Conclusion –

The instant he hit the ground Stockley reached back and threw a full-force right fist to the guy’s heart and the driver went down hard. He looked shocked and suddenly out of breath. The driver jumped back up and threw a punch. Stockley ducked and ran a haymaker into the driver’s belly and he doubled over and went down again. Looking stunned and breathing hard, the driver crawled over to his rig and pulled himself up next to one of the tires. The other drivers were idling their rigs to watch the scene. This was the first time they had seen a job boss deck one of the drivers. One of the other drivers jumped down and hurried over to the scene.

“Son,” Stockley said, narrowing his dark eyes and face into a grin, “you don’t have to get hurt if you turn around where you stand and get back on that cat. If you decide to participate in this discussion, I will break your nose. Then you’ll have to take the rest of the day off trying to get it reassembled. I’d hate to lose you for the day.”

The second driver decided to help the first man back up into his rig. Then he returned to his vehicle and led the scrapers to the equipment holding field where they took a break for lunch. It was 10:15 in the morning.

This surprising capability for violence only enhanced the boss’ mysterious presence on the job. Just 24 and fresh out of college, I was anxious to put my civil engineering degree to work. He appeared to be in his late 50s and bent on employing a management style of humiliation and intimidation. James Stockley was a certified playground tough who didn’t play well with others. Over the course of the project I would learn to survive Stockley and, in some ways, appreciate his intentions if not his methods. Little by little I would also discover the path that led him to his seemingly unusual station in life.

A few weeks into the job, Brian Hilliard, one of the other superintendents and I were having a beer at the Yorktown Bar after work when Stockley walked in and sat down on the stool next to Brian.

“How you doing, Boss?” Brian asked.

“Not bad considering I hear from Washington every day,” Stockley said in his usual abrupt manner of speaking.

“What’s the problem? Are they checking up on us?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Stockley said, ordering a beer. “I think they have to move a ton of paper a week and 30 pounds has been allotted to me.” The boss looked straight ahead and took a drink of his beer. He was quiet for a while and we tried to think of something to say. Conversations on the job had always been one-sided, coming straight at us.

“Have you dealt with the Army Corp of Engineers before?” I asked. It was admittedly a question all of us had wanted to ask for several months. He was like a man with no past to those of us who worked for him. The boss didn’t answer, continuing to stare straight ahead as if studying himself and his beer in the mirror behind the bar.

The three of us worked our way through one beer with only a few words said and those were directed at the bartender. After the beer we all left and walked to the parking lot.

“How often do you guys stop here?” Stockley asked.

“Only a couple of times a week, usually on Tuesdays and Fridays,” I said, wondering if he would think that was excessive.

“Okay,” he said, getting in his car. “I’ll see you then.”

“What was that all about?” Brian asked, after the boss pulled away.

“I don’t know. Who knows anything about this guy?” I asked.

Brian and I continued to stop for a beer or two at the Yorktown Bar twice a week after work and about half the time Stockley joined us one beer later. He didn’t have an agenda and he certainly didn’t have much to say other than the occasional remark about the job.

“I assume you’re from England?” I asked one night, not knowing what else to say or whether the boss would favor us with a continuing stare at the bottles and the mirror across the bar, or a response. He paused and attempted a smile, looking at me in the mirror he responded.

“Yes, I was,” he said flatly, “but that was a long time ago. I haven’t been back in many years.”

“What was it like growing up in England?” I asked, too curious now to stop.

My innocent questions seemed to catch the boss off guard and he turned to me.

“It was pretty bad,” he said, in a quiet voice we’d never heard at the job site.

“You were poor?” I asked.

“Yes, I guess we were but there were bigger problems than not having enough money. It was so bad that I ran away and joined the circus at age six.” He turned back to the mirror, having said all he was going to say that night.

Over the course of many nights and weeks that summer at the Yorktown Bar, however, Stockley filled us in little by little on the wild ride that had brought him to us. Some nights he had a lot to say and some he didn’t move the story forward an inch. By spacing our questions carefully, we eventually learned about his journey from his early days in London to his days in a British caravan circus, to his boxing career and appointment as the U.S. Army’s Chief Engineer in charge of the Indian Rock Dam Project.

Through it all, we got the picture of a troubled man carrying some heavy burdens and some self-inflicted stab wounds that refused to heal.

Dam Project

A Freak’s Journey

The Life and Times of a

Six-Year-Old Circus Runaway

By Steven R Roberts

James ran from the love of two mothers
and the girl denied him by his own demons.

The Dam Project

Did you ever meet a guy who had a good job and you couldn’t for the life of you figure how he got it? I’m David Wood and I remember well such a man. He was the Army Engineering Director responsible for one of the largest infrastructure projects of the pre-WWII era, the Indian Rock Dam near York, Pennsylvania. With eight civil engineers reporting to him along with the crews of 12 private contractors, the army’s man on the job was responsible for the government’s sign-off on the engineering, cost, pumping, and finishing of 300,000 cubic yards of cement, four times that used nine years earlier to build the Empire State Building. The position was also responsible for insuring the proper installation of the mechanical portion of the project including the dam gates, all electrical and massive dirt movements for the dam’s earthen berms.

While every phase of the project required the Army Engineer’s official signoff, within two days on the job I knew he wasn’t an engineer and couldn’t read a blueprint. Within a week, I was convinced he couldn’t read anything. In another week, I wasn’t even sure he was in the army. It was a mystery how the man was appointed to such an important position.

The Indian Rock Dam project had been approved for $5.1 million, after a lengthy congressional process, to protect the city of York from the kind of flooding that occurred seven years earlier when six to 12 feet of floodwater streamed through the heart of town. The eighth tropical storm of 1933, known in the area as the Chesapeake and Potomac Hurricane, brought 14 inches of rain in four days to the watershed area of the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, causing destructive flooding and deaths in eastern Pennsylvania, including the cities of York and Reading. The work we did that year on the Codorus River three miles north of York is still protecting the city nearly 70 years later.

As a young graduate civil engineer, I was working as the cement superintendent for the largest outside contractor. In my new job I came in daily contact with the on-site Army Engineering Director, James Stockley. The army boss was an imposing man, around 5’ 10” in height, stout in body and rough in manner. He carried a rolled-up blueprint in one hand each day and walked heavily up and down the dam site. Squinting his eyes and maintaining a facial expression of disappointment in what he saw, “the Boss,” as we called him, seemed to find things each day that made him madder than hell. The younger superintendents on the job joked that it must have been a technique the older man used to stay awake after lunch. Whatever the rationale, Stockley would often find a reason to yell at one of us or one of our workers at least once a day over what seemed to be an incident that could have been better handled in a calmer tone. He had a vertical scar down the right side of his forehead that turned red when he worked himself into a frenzy.
One day the boss noticed that a crew was double wrapping the junctions where the rebars crossed. This actually held the rebar more stable while the cement was poured, but a single wire wrap was specified.

“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted at the supervisor one afternoon, as one of the men told me later. “This is not a Goddamn craft project. There’s a process for doing the job. Do it! There’s a line of guys waiting at the union hall that can follow a simple process chart. You got that?”

Stockley was said to have paused and grabbed his hat, slapping it against his thigh, and narrowing his black-eyed stare at the tall slender supervisor standing a foot in front of him. “You’re not trembling!” he sputtered. “If you value your job I suggest you learn to tremble when I talk to you.” With that, the wide-awake army boss turned and walked down the berm toward his truck.

“I don’t give a damn,” he said in another of his rages later that month, “whether it rained for five days last week. I don’t care about the lorry of rebar being hit by a rubbish collector. And I don’t want to hear that somebody’s bitch dog died. We’re going to pour every day. Lads, I’m not going back to Washington telling them we made a cock-up of this job.”

I guess I forgot to mention, it was clear that our American army boss appeared to be from someplace other than the U.S., possibly Britain or maybe Australia, we thought. We doubted he was a U.S. citizen but we weren’t about to ask.

“Good morning,” I said one overcast day in late September as the boss climbed up the face of the earthen berm we were finishing. I was standing with Roy Kelly, another young civil engineer, the superintendent of the earth moving and landscaping part of the dam project.

“What the hell are those scrapers doing this morning?” We were used to the lack of any form of greeting from the boss. “Have you seen the east end of the berm? I guess not. Well it stinks,” Stockley said, looking at Roy and me as if he didn’t know which one of us was in charge of the earth moving work.

The scrapers were responsible for bringing dirt up to the earth berm and spreading it two feet thick to hide some of the cement buttresses in back of the dam. Stockley didn’t agree with the way the scrapers were doing the work. Without another word to us, he walked over and waved down one of the scrapers.

“You’ve got the whole berm screwed up,” Stockley shouted up to the driver. “You’re dumping too much dirt on top of the dam.”

“Hey, you ain’t the king?” the driver said. He worked for one of the contractors we were using and he hadn’t met Stockley. “I’m spreading according to the instruction Kelly gave us this morning.” The driver’s sizable upper left arm was making a statement as he leaned over the side of the open window and looked down. “I don’t work for you. In fact I wouldn’t work for somebody so stupid. I’ll do my job and you do your so-called job, whatever the hell that might be,” the driver said as he restarted the engine.

“Lad!” Stockley shouted over the sound of the engine. “If you’ll step down off that cat I think I can straighten out this little misunderstanding.”

The driver laughed as he switched off the engine, turned from his seat and jumped down. He landed very close to the shorter man, causing a cloud of dust to rise around them.

Starting the Journey

Welcome to my action adventure blog. Together we are going to go to share stories of some far off places and meet a band of characters, mostly real, living life on the edge. Hope you enjoy the journey. We’ll start with the adventures of a six-year old boy, James Stockney, who runs away from an abusive home and joins a caravan circus in 1890’s London.

  • About Steve

    Steve Roberts was born in Greenville, Ohio, the son of a small-town golf pro and a mom who managed the golf pro shop. The small family lived in the other half of the pro-shop building. Later the family grew to four children as they moved around Ohio in search of more financially rewarding work for Dad. Learn More...