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Mayday from the Circus Tent


I spent quite a few years working circuses, setting up and tearing down big top tents all over the Lower 48. I happened into the business accidentally, just needed a job one day and there it was. I fell in love with it and gained quite an education from it, by no means exclusive to the engineering of large flexible transient structures.

Worst job I had in that business was a company based out of Atlanta that shall in this context remain nameless. They had recently acquired the holdings of a Sarasota-based show that went bust following a catastrophic collapse of their seating system. Dozens of injured customers and the resultant litigation had wiped the show right out. My responsibility involved getting the damaged seating system and the wretched ruin of a tent ready to travel again.

The owner and the tent boss were both raving dope fiends. The tent boss had an insatiable appetite for cocaine. The owner had a fondness for cocaine and heroin, as well as late-night staff meetings where he would babble away on disconnected tangents having little to do with any particular task at hand while the crew, myself included, struggled to stay awake and pretend we were listening.

Setting the whole thing up for the first show in Atlanta was a nightmare. The seating system was, in a word, fucked. The collapse had warped much of the steel support system, and a great deal of imaginative improvisation had gone into getting it to stand on its own. The owner and his tent boss insisted that it was quite safe, but could not persuade any one of us to accept the position of seat boss.

The tent was missing a lot of small parts, so there was a lot of improvisation involved in its construction as well. Corners were cut, odd and unlikely substitutions were made in places where they should not have been in the service of plain hubris. One of my crewmates, a fellow named Jay with whom I had worked on other, more reputable shows, mentioned in passing his unease about the whole thing as we sat outside the tent downing a few beers and smoking some pot at the end of a particularly arduous day.

“Listen,” I told him, “The only people around here who aren’t nervous about this shit are ripped to the tits on blow, Jay.” I walked him around the tent and pointed out no less than sixteen different gaffes on the tent itself that should not be. “Any one or two of these little inventions of ours might fly, here,” I continued, “But sixteen? That’s pushing it. I’m getting out of here as soon as this thing opens, I don’t want any part of this.” I left Atlanta the day the show opened. A few towns and several accidents later, so did Jay.

The present situation here in America reminds me very much of that time. The dedication and loyalty of our armed forces and intelligence officers are being perverted and abused in the service of a war effort most charitably described as completely demented, the weather is going totally cattywhumpus & doomsday despite endless official denial that anything out of the ordinary is going on, the Constitution is in shreds at the bottom of Bush’s wastebasket, the economy teeters on the brink of an abyss, and ordinary law-abiding citizens are beginning to talk about armed resistance. Hell, the only thing missing is the dead rising to attack the living, and with the crowd we’ve got in charge here, I’m dead certain that particular scenario will roll up on us live on the network news in the fullness of time.

In 2004, on the heels of the most blatantly bogus presidential election in my 53 years, I consoled myself and my loved ones with the confident prediction that this regime would follow the track of the Nixon debacle, terminating in August, 2006. I figured that those officers of the military and intelligence community still loyal to the Constitution would make some sort of stand, do what they do best, and restore the Republic. I lost a tidy amount of money wagering on that premise, but it isn’t the money that concerns me, although maybe it should be.

What concerns me is that this can get worse, much worse, and that the “cold” civil war going on behind the curtain inside the Beltway might get very hot and spill out into plain view on the streets. This country seems to be headed toward a second civil war. This evil circus tent we are trapped in is held together with chicken wire and gaffer tape, and the sky has turned dark and bilious, the sure signs of an imminent tornado all around.

When a tornado approaches a circus tent, the rules get simple: lace it up as tightly as you can and run like hell.

ALAN CABAL is somewhere in California. He might be reached at



ALAN CABAL lives in Mountain View, California. He can be reached  at

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