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Daily life inside Circus Vargas

With the greatest of ease

Image by Jim Coit

On the night of January 21, the first day Circus Vargas came to town, Larry Gill stood on a Plexiglas platform high above the University Towne Centre parking lot. With his right hand, he grasped one end of the short metal bar of his trapeze. His body leaned forward, and his muscles molded his leotard into relief. Concentration masked his face.

Larry Gill: “Some places we have a lot of room, but here it took hours to park everyone.”

He nodded almost imperceptibly to Bob Bangs, his “catcher,” a short, stocky man hanging by his knees and swinging back and forth on a shorter trapeze suspended about fifty feet in front of the flyer’s platform. Gill turned the trapeze bar to a horizontal position, then clutched it with both hands and launched himself forward into space. He flashed smoothly through the arc of the swing, kicking at the zenith, then whipping backward to a point far higher than his original perch, to a point so high that his golden hair brushed the tent top.

Jennifer Gill: “Every time we wrote to an agent we’d have to go through everything — tell them we were a four-person flying act, two men and two women."

He dropped again, and this time, just before the peak of his swing, his fingers uncurled from the metal. In some uncountable fraction of a second, his knees snapped to his chest, contracting his body into a ball and spinning it. head down, into a forward somersault. As he dropped, incredibly, he picked up speed, hurtling through a second turn and blurring through a third.

Bob Bangs is totally vulnerable, a lame bird on an unprotected branch.

Bangs, still upside down, swung back to meet the falling flyer as Gill’s arms shot out and his body began to straighten. The two men’s arms strained toward each other, their fingertips just millimeters apart — too far apart. Less than a second later. Gill dropped into the net.

As if the net wanted to see the flyer try the triple somersault again, it threw him back up into the air. In a moment. Gill scrambled to his feet and the spotlight glared at his rueful face. He made his way to the ladder, climbed it, and executed a different — successful — trick.

Sarah Moore, the fourth Flying Larray.

Then the four performers, the Flying Larrays, took their bows and disappeared. The audience had just seen the essence of Larry Gill’s life, the fruition of fifteen years of practice and planning and pain. They clapped for about five seconds. Then their eyes refocused on the lions and tigers in the center ring.

I met Larry Gill on Wednesday morning, the circus’s third day in La Jolla, and then it was one of the show’s publicity men who gave me my first real insight into flyers and flying. Charles Burden is a marketing director for Circus Vargas, one of about ten employees who travel four or five weeks ahead of the circus to prepare for the coming event.

(Each takes a different town, obtaining the government permits, arranging all the animal food supplies, water hook-ups, local clean-up crews, saturating each area with publicity.)

That morning Burden led me to an area in back of Robinson’s and the Mingei Gallery, where the big top was located. Burden is a lean man, six-foot-four, and he wore a brown leather jacket. A thick, dark beard and tinted glasses covered a face that was drawn and irritable; he was working fourteen-hour days. When I asked when he got a vacation, he stopped in his tracks and peered at me with distaste. “My dear, the circus is not a job,” he said with scorn. “It’s a way of life.“

Inside the empty tent, he pointed out the flyer’s catch trap, the fly bar. . . .

“What’s a fly bar?” I interrupted.

Another pause. “Have you ever been to a circus before?” he demanded. “Do you know anything about the circus? You know, most professionals, whether they’re grammarians or statisticians or whatever, tend to use a certain jargon, and it’s generally a good idea to do some reading ahead of time so that you don’t look like a complete fool.” He left me and strode off to find the flying trapeze artist.

But Burden returned transformed. His face was respectful when he introduced me to the blond, well-formed flyer, and then Burden shyly confessed that he himself had wanted to soar through the air on the trapeze. As a child he’d studied with a retired flyer named Billy Scholl, an irascible tyrant who had enthralled a dozen schoolkids in a New York gym class. “He beat the act into you,” Burden said with a chuckle. “But when he saw you getting depressed, he would pull out a picture of someone really good and say. This is what you could be. He’s there because he endured the pain and the discipline and the work!’ Burden looked at Gill with grave admiration. “Oh. everybody in the circus wants to be a flyer. You might think it would be fun to be the ringmaster for a while, but there’s nothing like the moment when the tent is quiet and the ringmaster announces, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen — the legendary triple!”

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“Why didn’t you become a flyer?” I asked the publicist.

He stared down at the blacktop. “I was never any good. Clumsy. Too tall." He still idolized the memory of the great Alfredo Cadona, the legendary flyer who first perfected the triple somersault in the Twenties. “I have all the films ever taken of him. Oh. of course! How could I live without them?” Burden said seriously. “What else could you do in the world that would be better than flying?” He suggested that I return that evening to follow the flying act through its paces. Gill agreed.

So a little after seven I knocked on the door of a twenty-nine-foot trailer squeezed in among a herd of similar vehicles. “This is a tight lot,” Gill explained. “Some places we have a lot of room, but here it took hours to park everyone.” He wore faded jeans and an old green robe. Inside, his two tow-headed children, their grandparents (visiting from Sarasota), and his wife, Jenifer, all crowded into a compact living room. Jenifer is one of the two women who fly in the act. She rose to turn down the volume of the television set.

Larry told me he never cared about the circus as a child — his brother did. “For some reason, the circus got to Ron. When we were little, I would play with my Army men and he had his circus men. He read about the circus. He’d make me practice tricks with him in the back yard.” Every time a circus visited Philadelphia, near their home, the two brothers went together. When Larry was thirteen, his father, a building contractor, decided to flee the harsh winters. “My parents wanted to move to Florida, but they didn’t care where. It was Ron who chose Sarasota. He wanted to go there because it was the winter home of the circus.”

Sarasota had first attracted the vacationing Ringling Brothers Circus back in the Twenties. One smaller circus after another had flocked to the town since then, and by the Forties the Sarasota citizenry included all manner of circus retirees. So it wasn’t surprising for the Sarasota High School in 1948 to institute an extracurricular circus program. A few years later the school acquired a huge canvas tent, and by the time the Gill boys reached high school, the circus program attracted children from all the schools in the county. Every year the youngsters auditioned, learned acts, and practiced for a series of spring performances. Larry signed up, following his brother. “It was just something that you did after school,” he says. “It was very much like a varsity sport.”

In ninth grade he learned clowning. In senior high he worked on highwire, the teeter board, and the flying trapeze. By the time he was a senior, when he still lacked career or academic plans, he got an unexpected offer. Hugo Zacchini, a pro from an old circus family known for its human cannonball stunts, invited Larry and his high school catcher, Ray, to join his flying trapeze act. The pair agreed instantly. “I did it all through high school, and it was fun,” Larry says. "And then I got out of high school, and I was still having fun, but I was getting paid for it. How many people can say that?”

It’s a few minutes before eight. Larry disappears into the rear of the trailer to change for the opening number of the evening show. Jenifer already has donned her fishnet tights and two-piece white costume, spangled with metallic pink. She’s twenty-five years old. and bearing two children has left no mark on her full firm figure. Her pale blond hair falls in soft curls to her shoulders. Out of costume, she’s a wholesome former cheerleader in the full bloom of womanhood. Adorned with glitter and false eyelashes, she cuts a figure from a modem mythology — the Hollywood Starlet.

She slips into a worn blue bathrobe, then steps outside with Larry to find Bob, the catcher, and Sarah Moore, the fourth Flying Larray. They must march in the show’s spectacular opening parade, the “spec,” in the ubiquitous lingo. Larry and Bob each collect fluttering banners from a prop truck, then wait in the night air, shivering beside the women. Around them, unsmiling clowns hug their arms against the chill; music wells up from within the warm tent, and snatches of the ringmaster’s welcome drift into the night. The flaps open; the parade flows in. Skimpily clad women riding on the backs of elephants each in turn toss off some plain wrap just before rolling into the big top. The Larrays join the moving procession, and a minute or two later they are outside again. All four flyers return to the Gills’ trailer; they have about fifty free minutes.

Larry fiddles with the television controls. Tonight the sixth annual international circus competition (held in Monte Carlo) is airing. The Larrays have friends and acquaintances in the show “There’s Debbie!” Jenifer squeals, spotting a clown friend from Texas. A moment later, the flyers watch a chum with a high-wire act win one of the coveted “Silver Clown” awards.

“Look at his costumes! They’re beautiful!”

“Yeah, you know what? I heard they cost a grand apiece!”

“It’s like we never saw a circus before.” Bob interjects wryly.

Larry hopes to compete in such international competition one day, but he and Bob will have to master the triple somersault first. What happened to the Cavarettas convinced him of that. “They’re a three-girl flying act with a male catcher, from Las Vegas. They started at the St. Petersburg community circus. They’re really a superb act. They look good; they fly good. They do big tricks.” Larry says the girl flyers went to the European contest and competed against South American flyers. “They didn’t do the tricks and their style wasn’t so good. They had no class. But the South American guy caught his triple and Terry Cavaretta missed hers, and he won the championship. This was last year,” Larry says with disgust. “The Cavarettas were ten times better, everything they did. Their toes were pointed, their legs were straight, the wardrobe was beautiful — ail the little things you work on. It really upset us.”

I’m beginning to grasp the significance of the triple somersault — its prestige; its clout. Larry and Bob have been flying together (with Jenifer and Sarah) for two and a half years. Although Larry and his first catcher, Ray, perfected the trick. Bob and Larry have never done it together. Not once. Now they’re trying it every day, every show, two and even three times a day. And the pressure is building. Larry’s had calls about European jobs, and the agents always ask about the triple. Their interest seems to die when they hear the “not yet. ” Once the Larrays get it, the act will rank indisputably among a handful of the best flyers in the world, along with flyers like the Espahas, who catch it every time and who perform in ring number one during the Larrays’ flight over the third ring. Men have died in the grip of the triple’s breathtaking accelerations, a grim fact that helped build its mystique. It’s a trick that tortures the body and intimidates the mind.

Larry says that’s one reason he welcomed this year with Circus Vargas. He thinks the daily practice with a familiar team will lead to mastery. A job this long and steady is a novel arrangement for the flying act; in the past the Larrays have dabbled in every other shade in the gaudy palette of circus work.

When Larry and his first catcher, Ray, fresh out of high school, flew with the Zacchinis, they worked “spot dates,” limited engagements at fairs, shopping centers, theme parks. Although the average spectator may think of “the circus” as a few permanent collections of traveling performers such as the Ringling Brothers Circus or Circus Vargas, many circuses only materialize temporarily through the spot-date mechanism. When the Shriners, to take the biggest such example, prepare to stage one of their yearly bashes, they work with circus producers who assemble acts which will work together for one to three weeks. At the end of the engagement, the performers go their separate ways. Larry and Ray stuck with the Zacchinis for a year before the military draft intervened.

Ray, two years older than Larry, faced immediate conscription, so the youths volunteered together for the Marines. “We figured that if I waited, I’d be drafted just about when Ray was getting out. That way we would have lost at least four years, which is a lot of time for a flying act. ” And by then the duo had begun to foresee flying in its future. As things worked out, Larry got out of the service in less than two years (a couple of months before Ray), signed up at a Sarasota junior college, and within weeks heard from a luminous name in modem circus history. Fay Alexander, who was then re-forming his act. He’d heard about Larry and Ray from a friend, their high school flying teacher. Alexander. whose stunning flying appeared in the movies Trapeze and The Greatest Show on Earth, invited the Florida boys to join his new team. It was an open door into the world once closed to all but the offspring of circus performers, it’s very hard to take someone with no experience and teach ’em to fly,” explains Larry. “But I had had three years of basics in high school and one with the Zacchinis.” He and Ray joined the Flying Alexanders in June of 1971. For the next two and a half years they improved under the older man’s watchful eyes.

With the Alexanders, Larry and Ray worked for every major circus producer and agent in the country, and learned the business well enough to contemplate striking out on their own. By the end of 1973, as Alexander prepared to retire, the young men were ready. Earlier that year, Larry had married Jenifer, another graduate of Sarasota’s high school circus; Ray was already married to a flyer. That November the two couples got temporary “civilian” jobs in Sarasota; they would work till five, then come home to practice until sunset on their newly purchased equipment. Larry and Ray bought 1500 feet of nylon rope, and after dinner they would talk and plan and weave their net by hand while the women cut and stitched what they hoped would be dazzling costumes. The newborn team of the Flying Larrays got their first job in April, 1974; for two or three years they scrambled for work. Says Jenifer, “Every time we wrote to an agent we’d have to go through everything — tell them we were a four-person flying act, two men and two women; tell them exactly what tricks we could do; everything about us.” But gradually the agents sought them. They were offered a stint with the Garden Brothers Circus, and from February through June of 1979 they worked with that ensemble, mostly in eastern Canada. Last June they appeared in Shrine shows in St. Louis and a few other cities. In mid-July they jetted off to Tokyo to work for six weeks at the Toshimaen Amusement Park, a job so tightly scheduled that they had but one day to see the sights of Japan’s capital. From September through October they worked various Southern fairs, then they returned to Sarasota to practice for the Vargas job.

They were approached, then they auditioned for it way back last March, but they only joined the show January 2, 1980. Now here in San Diego, three weeks into the season, the blemishes of the new routine are fading; the sense of repetition is just beginning to sink in. This commitment will confront the flyers with demands they’ve never faced before. Last year the Circus Vargas performers worked fifty out of fifty-two weeks, and this year’s season promises to be equally long. The Larrays must brace themselves for working every day, seven days a week, three shows on the weekends, through bad weather, through the torn nerves and strained muscles which plague flyers, through all but the gravest illness which might befall them. The second week on the new job, a vicious strain of influenza infected all of them and all worked with high fevers. Today they tell me cheerfully that they’re just beginning to feel well again. It’s time for the first of their two numbers.

Larry quickly changes into a different set of tights, these pale green. He slips into the battered robe and heads for the tent. In the deep shadow of some bleachers near one exit he finds Sarah, clad in matching colors, and Bob, in a black suit and ruffled orange dress shirt. Bob stays on the ground for this number and Jenifer isn’t in it at all. Larry and Sarah even use a different name for it, the Venturas, and they work in ring number one, more than a football field removed from where they will soon fly over ring number three. Most of the audience won’t notice the duplication; it is a way of stretching the talent. Larry says nowadays a big supplier of such versatile performers, ones furthermore willing to work cheaply, is Mexico. “These Mexican families will have nine or ten kids and they’ll put together a whole package for what we get for the flying act alone.” In fact, the other flying trapeze act in the Circus Vargas is part of a large Mexican family. The oldest boy and two oldest girls perform in the Espanas flying act; a younger daughter does an aerial number with the fiancee of her brother the flyer; that daughter also performs a solo aerial routine on a high, velvety swing; the children’s father coaches them all; and the mother cooks for the troupe and makes costumes.

The big top goes dark and the ringmaster’s rounded tones announce the “aerial daredevils.” When the spotlight hits, Larry and Sarah bow like royalty, shed their gold capes, then climb a rope ladder to within a few feet of the top of the canvas. In circus jargon, this is a “cradle act,” because Larry hooks his knees over one metal bar and extends his toes straight out in front of him, tucked under a second bar (the cradle). The music shifts and Larry dangles Sarah first by her arms, then by her legs, as the petite woman moves gracefully through a series of controlled contortions. They pause briefly while Larry, upside down, hangs a wide plastic strap around the back of his neck, then suspends a large hoop from the strap. Sarah eases her weight onto the round frame and sits in it like a swing, then hangs by her knees from it, then by her heels.

The first time Larry used the strap, the pain was so fierce he couldn’t endure it. He only built up time gradually, a few minutes a day. Now he makes it look effortless, although while he wears it he completely loses his hearing, something the audience would never suspect. Now it’s time for the finale; Sarah’s turn to don the neck strap and suspend it from Larry, then to spin her body through the air until she’s revolving, perfectly horizontal. She shares the applause with the aerialists in the other two rings, all whirling like centrifuges, and then it stops. They all descend.

Afterward, Sarah tells me that the cradle act never varies. Its movements require constant caution, but they’re very familiar. Jenifer used to do the cradle, and it bored her, but Sarah likes it. “Sometimes it’s nice to do something calm and repetitive, ” she says. She, Larry, and Bob rush off to change for the upcoming flying act.

Crews already have moved into the dark end rings to set up the flying apparatus even as the “Million Dollar Carlos Twins,” sister gymnasts, each balance on one finger in the middle of the tent. When the house lights come up, signaling intermission, the complex poles and wires and nets for the flying act stand in place. A few minutes later, Larry and Bob, disguised in their nondescript bathrobes, stride into the ring to double-check the frame from which their lives will hang. They pace as nervously as the caged tigers out back. Bob, whose chest bulges and whose hairline is fast receding, wears a tan turtleneck and a blue bathrobe. He reminds me of some middle-aged executive stuck somehow with the wrong pair of legs, sturdy legs sheathed in white tights and sprinkled with pink baubles.

The tent goes black; the ringmaster’s whistle screams. “Breathtaking feats on the flying trapeze! Circus Vargas is proud to present the most honored ensembles of trapeze artists in the world today. Over ring number one, the magnificent Es-panas! Over ring number three, the fabulous Flying Larrays!”

They look like young gods, shining and vigorous. Larry, Sarah, and Jenifer scale the ladder to the pedestal board; Bob, meanwhile, pulls himself up a rope to perch on his catcher’s trapeze. A beat or two later, Jenifer pushes off. She swings out and returns to the ledge, a warm-up which Larry repeats; but people in the audience catch their breath at the sight of those bodies soaring long and fast and boldly. Sarah performs the first trick, a simple vault over the top of the trapeze into Bob’s waiting hands, but it draws cries of wonder from the grown-ups in the bleachers.

Larry is next, and as he shoves off, the two women stand beside him, each holding one arm up, slightly outstretched. He shoots forward to modified strains of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” and leaps toward the catcher, who catches him. Then the music bounces into a jazzy refrain as Jenifer slices forward through space. At the farthest point back in the swing, she is weightless, her shapely legs bent at the waist and pointed straight forward, her glowing yellow hair flowing straight out behind her. Then she descends, wheels through the air, is successfully caught. The band maintains the tempo as Sarah mounts a supplemental bar about four feet above the pedestal. Her last trick forces her to marshal every possible ounce of forward thrust.

The flyers call Sarah’s trick a “two-and-a-half,” and the audience seems to sense how dangerous it is. When Sarah’s fingers leave the trapeze bar, she curls up, whips through two and a half somersaults; then Bob stops her, grabbing her by the feet. The flyers say that like all foot-catching tricks, it’s not too hard, but it’s twice as hazardous as any trick in which the hands are caught. When Bob catches her. Sarah’s head dangles just five or six feet above the net. If the two should miss each other, she must instantly move through an extra forward somersault and a half twist — or else the net will likely snap her neck.

Now it’s time for Larry’s crack at the legendary triple. It’s over so quickly I can’t even register what goes wrong; Larry’s just there, bouncing in the net, smiling and throwing his hand downward in exaggerated chagrin. The Wednesday-night audience is generous with its applause, but the spectators reward Ramon Espana with the biggest hand of the night a moment later when he succeeds with his triple at the other end of the tent. The people have just had a glimpse at the proximity of failure. The flyers say it’s always there — hovering over every trick. They can perform a trick a hundred times, a thousand times, and miss it the thousand and first, unavoidably. But the goal is so simple: to face the audience and reproduce a series of actions. Of course, the flyers say no one can ever do that; every show is unique.

The next day I find Larry in his trailer with a large ledger spread open on his lap. “In this work you’ve got to be as much businessman as anything else,” he says. He contracts with Vargas and in turn subcontracts with Bob and Sarah, which means he must record every single road expense. Last year he racked up more than $34,000 in deductions alone.

Today the flyer once again wears sloppy old clothes, a stark contrast with the theatrical garb. He has a candid, friendly face, storybook handsome at the ring’s great distances, but up close it shows a certain toughness which is due not to a life on the streets, but to flying. When the ten-pound flying trapeze bar accidentally hit him between the eyes one day, the gash took seven stitches and left a scar that looks like the ghost of a frown. Another jagged, smaller scar is the souvenir of a rude encounter with a tent spike. And those are just two small items on the formidable list of ways in which a flyer can get hurt.

“Everyone says, ‘You’ve got a net, ’ but they don’t realize that hitting the net can be as bad as hitting the ground,” Larry says. Repeatedly smashing into the stiff, scratchy (now seven-year-old) nylon causes the endless parade of minor rope burns and abrasions. If a flyer’s feet meet the net, he has a good chance of being bounced out; the impact can also jolt his frame and inflict severe whiplash. Merely landing the wrong way in the net can kill a flyer. Larry’s worst accident occurred when he hit the net wrong. It was two and a half years ago in East St. Louis. “The platform wasn’t positioned quite right and during one of the tricks I hit it with my rear end. That knocked me out of position. I was doing a two-and-a-half somersault like Sarah does, being caught by the legs. When I came out of the turn I was out of position and I lost track of exactly where my body was. There’s a term for that. The old flyers use it more than people do now. It’s called ‘getting cast.’ Anyway, when I came out I should have been able to see the net, but I was looking at the stars. Timing is very strange, you know — your time up there. We do some tricks and I’ll see the catcher and I ’ll see the net; usually I see it all just at catch point. Usually it’s less than a second but it seems like a very long time up there.” In East St. Louis, however, it wasn’t long enough for Larry to respond. He smashed down on the back of his neck, with his feet and legs overhead. “I knew I was hurt. I just didn’t know how bad. I knew I could move both legs, but I couldn’t get down. They had to take the net down to get me.”

Mercifully, he had only pulled all his back muscles. He couldn’t fly, but the producer wanted the show to proceed, so the next day Larry turned out in a lounge chair to call out the critical timing, the seconds and the fractions of seconds, for the women in the act, and to help them judge when the catcher’s swing length had reached the precise period necessary to give their tricks a prayer of succeeding. Larry didn’t fly again for three and a half weeks, and when he did, he pinched some nerves almost immediately, which kept him out of the trapeze for two more weeks. He says the accident also robbed him for more than a year of the limbemess so crucial to a flyer. Equipment failures and bad encounters with the net aren’t the only major dangers. Flyers can miss the net altogether, the way Bob did once.

As if on cue, Bob knocks on the trailer door. He wears jeans, a flannel work shirt, and boots. If flyers face the most difficult of all the circus's challenges, then catchers like Bob shoulder an extra burden. The flyers look spectacular, like fantastic birds who gracefully come to roost after turbulent flight. But the catcher is the roost, unobtrusive and unglamorous. “When a trick goes right, everyone cheers the flyer,” Larry says. “When it doesn’t, they blame the catcher.” But says Bob, “There’s a philosophy which was explained to me early and which I catch by. It says a good catcher should make a bad flyer — or a good flyer on a bad day — look good.” The ability to do that thrusts the catcher into the realm of split-second decision-making. “It’s the flyer’s job to do the trick and position our hands. And then we’re committed,” Larry says. “We can’t swim through the air to get to the catcher. When Bob sees a trick coming at him, he has to decide at that instant if it’s safe enough to take. ” Ironically, Bob had decided to duck at the trick that almost killed him.

He blames his training for what happened that day. He attended Sarasota High School with Jenifer, and then Florida State University, which has a circus, and none of his teachers were catchers, he says. They taught him that when a flyer comes too fast and too close to be caught, the catcher (hanging by his knees) should sit up and go up the cables, if necessary, to get out of the way. So a little more than two years ago, when Sarah one day threw a long version of her two-and-a-half. Bob reacted automatically — he sat up. Sarah’s foot coming at him at sixty miles an hour caught him behind the right shoulder, and the 170-pound catcher flew out of his seat sideways, hitting the cement floor to one side of the nine-foot-wide net. From the moment he was hit. Bob remembers nothing. He woke up four days later in the hospital, miraculously having sustained only a severe concussion, internal injuries, and a hairline fracture of one arm.

He felt it was crucial to return to the ring quickly, and he did so just five and a half weeks later, although it would be a year before the pain in his back subsided. Given the constant shock of stopping human bodies at high velocity, he worried that he might never heal, that he might suffer the same fate as Ray, Larry’s first catcher. Ray first caught Larry’s triple in 1976, and the Flying Larrays incorporated it into their public performances that winter. By April they were on the road to glory, catching it sixty-five percent of the time. But Ray’s catching career was already doomed. That winter he had helped a friend roof his house and had damaged two discs in his back. For months he said nothing as the pain built steadily, but by the summer of 1977 he desperately turned to medical specialists. Nothing worked, and in September he couldn’t tolerate any more agony. After a Thursday-night performance in Miami, he told Larry he had to quit. Sarah knew Bob from the Florida State University circus and knew that he was then student-teaching. The group telephoned him and Bob agreed to drive the 300 miles to Miami the next day after his classes, to help the Larrays finish the weekend shows. The rest of that fall he joined Larry, Jenifer, Sue (Ray’s wife), and Sarah for weekend spot dates, and by spring he teamed up with the group full time.

Bob fell in April of 1978. and that hindered him from speedily acquiring the triple. Since then Larry says he’s been readjusting to the difference between Bob’s and Ray's heights. Ray was taller, and Larry has been coming up short, still programmed for the older catcher’s arm span. But they’ll get it, Larry vows. It will come.

The scanty crowd for the last performance at University Towne Centre couldn't inspire a cat to catch a mouse. Before the flyers even enter for their act, circus hands begin dismantling unoccupied bleacher sections. “It’s kind of hard when they take half your audience away,’’ whispers Jenifer's mother, Ann Taylor. The tricks go well except for the triple, and Mrs. Taylor points out a flaw I hadn’t noticed in , the Esparia’s execution of the last trick, the “Perilous Passing Leap. “The Latin flyers require two swings to return to their pedestal board, “but our kids always get it the first time,” the mother says. “So that kind of evens things out.”

She’s very friendly and young looking; she and her husband Pete were just in Las Vegas for a banking convention, and couldn't resist the chance to see their traveling offspring. “When Jenifer married Larry, we were really thrilled that they found each other,” she says. “We think the world of Larry.” The Taylors had learned something of the circus through following his career, and when their daughter joined him, she admits, “We were a little concerned before we knew what it was all about. Like we’d ask how they would get by when they aren’t able to work anymore. But that doesn’t worry them. They say, ‘By then we’ll have the money and we won’t have to work.’ And Larry is terrific about saving every penny.” She adds, “And of course you just can’t think about the possibility of their getting hurt.”

After the act, the flyers hurry back to the Gills’ trailer to gobble some Square Pan pizza. This is a “tear-down” night; right after the show the whole enormous assembly must pack up and move to Parkway Plaza in El Cajon. Since Circus Vargas performs every day, it always travels during the midnight hours. The flyers say this thirty-mile ride will be a snap. They’ve heard stories about 300-mile nocturnal moves last year.

“Bob,” Jenifer says suddenly between bites, “Why did you walk straight into the ring when the spotlight hit us, instead of stopping and waiting with the rest of us?” The catcher looks sheepish. He replies that as he moved forward he had begun daydreaming about the triple. He was at the point in his fantasy where he had just caught Larry. He could feel the flyer’s muscular arms held firmly in his grasp. The two were coupled under the spotlight and the crowd was going wild! When the mental applause died. Bob found himself alone — ten steps ahead of the others.

Before the audience has even finished funneling out of one end of the big top at 10:20, the flaps at the other end open up and circus trucks barrel in. Within seconds, the night resounds with clanking pipes and grumbling motors. Vargas has a permanent tent crew of twenty-five hands who travel with the troupe, plus the circus always hires ten or so locals for tear-down nights; now the team swings into action. A young boy stuffs litter into plastic bags. In ring number three an older man painstakingly unlashes the canvas floor coverings. Men swing the bleacher boards onto giant flatbed trucks. A miniature forklift scurries about like a spastic terrier and frantically yanks stakes from the asphalt.

Larry and Bob, in work clothes, strain at cables to lower their metal superstructure. Larry owns all the flying gear and it’s his sole responsibility, although one assistant prop manager helps dismantle it. After the trapeze platform collapses into a skeletal pile of ropes and sticks, Larry and Bob undo shackles, pull apart metal tubing, untangle pulleys. Gradually, the coiled electric lights, stakes, cables, metal boxes, flags — all migrate toward Larry’s white van parked beside the ring. Finally, Larry, Bob, and Sarah load the hardware into the vehicle as economically as a hiker stocking a backpack. By 11:07 Larry slams the van doors. A half hour later he pulls onto the freeway.

By 10:30 the next morning, the bright blue tent canvas spreads neatly over the parking lot just northwest of Sears in the El Cajon shopping center. The sun warms an azure sky, and I find Larry basking on a curb, watching the tent-raising. The crew has been at this since eight and Larry already has attached the first part of his equipment as he must coordinate the erection of the flying equipment with the ascent of the tent. All this bustle gives the suburban mall a festival air. Shoppers stroll by and gape at the proceedings; a class of preschoolers plops down nearby and chatters, entranced.

Although Clifford Vargas travels with the show, lie’s nowhere in sight at the moment. The press releases say that the former Fuller Brush man bought and renamed this circus seven years ago (he sold forty-two acres of northern California property for the down payment on the $250,000 purchase price) because he wanted to restore the big-top tradition he adored in his youth. They say he’s made it succeed (he now boasts more than five million dollars in assets and 250-plus employees) with inventive strokes such as convincing the slick suburban shopping centers that a circus can be a valuable promotion. They also say he works ninety hours a week, scrutinizing his show's every detail; he himself drives one of the six semi-trucks.

Even though I’ve never cared much for circuses in the past, I find myself grateful to Vargas for this spectacle. Hydraulic winches have begun to lift the $150,000 canvas up the biggest central poles; four blue cones slowly grow along the spine of the flattened big top. Soon the intrepid little forklift props up the tent's outer rim with twelve-foot poles tied at the top to the canvas. Finally, grooms lead in the Asian elephants, Hattie and Colonel, to pull the fifty-two interior poles into place. Larry says the forklifts could do the job, but the elephants are traditional — plus they save energy.

Larry, Bob, and Sarah can tear down their equipment in forty or fifty minutes, but it takes three hours to reconstruct it. Now they get to work, 'it’s one thing to get hurt from missing a trick, Bob explains, “but I’d hate to get hurt from something breaking, or the rigging not being set up right. Then you kind of feel like it’s your fault.” Since this is an opening night, the only show is at eight, and this East County audience amply rewards the laborious effort. Men, women, and children jam the big top to the bursting point and transform it into a steamy, electrified cauldron. The ground trembles with the roar of their approval.

Saturday dawns cloudy, but when the first of three shows starts at 12:30 p.m., thousands of people are sitting in the tent. After the parade, Jenifer mentions that tomorrow all the flyers will feel one particular physical effect of the extra performance; they call the phenomenon “hot hands.” “In the morning you wake up and they just burn,” she says. “Pins and needles. Sometimes I can’t even pick up a washrag to do the kids! faces.” She takes advantage of her time today to complete some work that “hot hands” may prevent tomorrow. She stitches slender rhinestone chains onto a silver cap.

Jenifer designs and sews all the costumes for the group; the flying act alone has seven different sets with them on the road. She even makes the men’s tights and dyes them to the necessary colors. The couch in her trailer living room has two big drawers built under it and both are filled with glittering costume ornaments, almost all special-ordered from New York. The woman shows me one meager pile of diamond rhinestones which cost twenty-five dollars. “But rhinestones are great. The backs eventually rust, but they never wear out. ” She learned the art of costume design the same way she became a flying trapeze artist — drifting into it almost unconsciously. “I don’t remember ever going to a circus when I was little. But I went to Sarasota High School and when I was in tenth grade I had a shy girlfriend who wanted to try out for the circus. She dragged me along.” Jenifer tried out, too, and learned a variety of aerial routines, but the notion of working professionally never crossed her mind. She thought vaguely of becoming a teacher or a nurse. In her junior year she met Larry, freshly discharged from the Marines and preparing to join the Alexanders. They fell in love almost immediately and Jenifer incorporated the circus into her future.

They were married in 1973, and for a year she traveled with Larry and the Flying Alexanders, not performing, just studying the flyers. When she finally took to the trapeze with the Flying Larrays that winter, it was easy. And even though she’d had one serious accident in high school (she broke both her elbows in a fifteen-foot fall), she says flying didn’t frighten her at all — in the beginning. She was startled, in fact, the first time fear crept into her mind. That was right after her first pregnancy.

Lany and she had carefully planned that first baby, even scheduling its arrival for the off-season. A substitute flyer took over at the end of Jenifer’s third month. Jenifer did pull-ups right up to the day she delivered Beth, and she started practicing again three weeks later. In six weeks she rejoined the show and ignored her new nervousness; it wasn’t too bad. Then four months later she unexpectedly found herself pregnant again. Around July Sarah joined the team as a six-month substitute. The birth of her second child, Katie, was slightly more complicated and kept Jenifer out of the show for four months. On her return she realized she was genuinely afraid.

She says it’s not so much a fear for her own safety as an irrepressible worry about who would care for her children if something happened. “I’m not what you would call really terrified when 1 get up there. It’s not like I’m going to freeze. ” She shrugs. “But I’m not so free of fear that I can enjoy flying any more.” Now she does only one simple trick, but quitting entirely would be troublesome for everyone. Besides, Jenifer seems reluctant to cut flying out of her life forever. “I’m keeping myself at a stage where I can start up again if I want to.” She doesn’t know whether she will, but the steady Circus Vargas routine already has helped calm her nerves.

If the statuesque blond woman has to discipline herself to ascend to the platform, however, she revels in the circus lifestyle. She and Larry and the two little girls share an abundant amount of time together. Jenifer says they’ve sampled the so-called normal life in Sarasota — and they detest it. Last year they bought a house, but she says she’s not really comfortable even there. “The kids are always off playing somewhere, and Larry’s usually out at work. When he’s working some-nine-to-five job, the girls barely get to see him. ” In contrast, her neat, cheerful trailer is a cozy nest in which her loved ones are safe and close. Also, here Beth and Katie have dozens of playmates, and the Gills say the circus folk form an extended family — everyone keeps an eye on the little ones. When the girls reach school age, Jenifer and Larry plan to follow the example of most circus parents and teach their children with the aid of the Calvert Correspondence School. The mother says if her daughters are like most circus kids, they’ll far outshine their conventional peers academically. Certainly the Gill children now seem strikingly outgoing and mature. I ask Jenifer if she’d want them to work in the circus. She wants that to be their choice. Three-year-old Beth has already been helped up to the pedestal board, and at home both girls are allowed to play in the net. Jenifer makes Larry watch them; she doesn’t want her submerged nervousness to infect the youngsters.

Undaunted by dense showers, a modest crowd shows up for Monday’s farewell East County performance. The tent keeps out the downpour, but there are leaks, and the asphalt shines with rainwater. During the intermission, children gleefully dash through the puddles. Jenifer’s jitters are tangible. “Our feet are wet,” she complains. “We’re going to have a hard time just holding on tonight. We’ll be lucky to catch anything. ” Larry and Bob are forced to readjust all the rigging, and the act starts late. The moisture has slackened the ropes so much that a flyer falling into the unadjusted net would actually sag down and hit the ground. Both sets of flyers seem to barely get through their routines, and they make a hasty exit. A messy sludge of disintegrating peanut shells and garbage and water covers everything, and the flyers must tear down tonight. “Huh, you think this is bad,” Bob says dourly. “They’re saying that the next lot isn’t even paved!”

They’re right. The broad field between the Volkswagen and Toyota dealerships at Carlsbad Car Country is a soggy mud sea. But something else forces the cancellation of Tuesday’s opening-night performance. The weather bureau has forecast winds gusting up to fifty miles an hour, and wind is the big top’s one implacable enemy. A gale could conceivably tear apart the four-ton tent. So that night the performers sit in their trailers, some of them with neither water nor electricity due to problems created by the quagmire. The Encina Power plant directly across Interstate 5 winks at them.

To add insult, the high winds never build; in fact, the rain only begins to beat down on Wednesday. The mud is like quicksand; people sink in some spots up to their knees, but somehow, the crews succeed in getting all the equipment up. By 3:30 Wednesday the path from the tent’s main entrance to the concrete road is an unrelieved mire. The first show is supposed to start in one hour, and by 4:15 the circus hands have performed another miracle, spreading enough fresh straw on the mud paths inside and out so that a sizable crowd can make its way to the bleachers.

The straw and the newly churned mud fill the tent interior with a sweet, warm smell, although walking is less than romantic. In places the straw provides a firm footing, but other spots give way underfoot like soft paraffin. The flyers have to wear rubber boots and wade up to the rigging in the dark. Then they kick off the footgear and climb up to where the spotlights finally greet them. They’re not the only ones with problems. The unfamiliar scents of the ring bewitch the Samoyed dogs and half of them abandon all their tricks, throwing themselves in the mud, racing about, and sniffing the ground with wild delight. Periodically, I catch glimpses of Clifford Vargas, stomping around in a foul-tempered fury.

Up in the catcher’s trapeze. Bob Bangs has a sickening vision. In his mind’s eye, he can see a shadowy figure in the crowd below, a man with a rifle, who shoulders the high-powered weapon and aims it at the catcher. Bob is totally vulnerable, a lame bird on an unprotected branch. He can see himself slammed by the impact, shoved off his swinging perch, down, down past the net and into the mud. It is a grisly and recurrent image. Bob’s not sure where it springs from. When he was small, he once shot and killed a bird and he felt so bad that he recovered the corpse and buried it.

Usually the vision is the only thing that scares Bob, but after the performances this day he confesses to a general jumpiness. “We didn’t have a chance to test out anything. We didn’t even get to put any rosin on our hands!’’ He’s a soft-spoken man, twenty-five years old, and although his manner is calm, I can hear the tension in his voice when he talks about the triple. “Sure it bothers me. It’d bother anyone when you’re missing it day after day and you’ve got eighteen people saying you blew it, saying that you’re no good. ’’ I tell him how Larry says Bob has caught other tricks so malformed that no one should have been able to catch them. When he hears this his face relaxes. “The only people I need to appreciate me are those three [the other Larrays],” he says emphatically. “There have been times when they’ve gotten out of the rigging and come up to me and said Thank you. ’ I feel that’s what I get paid for. . . . And I know I can catch the triple; I’ve done it before.” (He was practicing with another flyer, a great one named Tommy Edelston. “He threw three at me, and I caught him the third time. I said, ‘Thanks Tommy. Let’s stop right there. That’s all I need.’ ”)

Bob figures he’d like to continue catching as long as the act holds together and he’s physically able to do so. He has another option, however, whenever he quits. After graduating from high school, he thought he wanted to be a marine biologist, but the studies were too grueling, so he switched his college major to education. Now he's certified to teach physical education to kindergartners through twelfth graders, and to teach high school students natural science. He says every time he goes back to Sarasota the high school offers him a contract. But as an aerialist he’s making three times as much money as the district’s last offer — a mere $8100 a year — plus, other aspects of circus life appeal to Bob. “Here, I have to admit that my basic laziness comes in. Usually we only do two shows a day. And after about nine at night I can do absolutely anything I want until about four the next afternoon.” At the moment, he’s reading two textbooks, one on meteorology and another on the biomechanical aspects of sports. But often he does very little, he says with an impish grin. “I’m never pressed for things to do. I watch TV; listen to music; sometimes I work on my trailer. It’s a calmer life. When I’m at home I just spend money. On the road sometimes I just lie outside in the sun. I like to sleep a lot.” There’s a knock at the door of Bob’s small camper; it’s Sarah, seeking an extension cord. Stranded in the mud far from all the other trailers, she still lacks electricity and water. With combined borrowed cords, she finally gets some power. As we talk inside her camper, she has her television set switched on, the volume turned down to the faintest hum. More than any other of the Larrays, circus work was a childhood love for Sarah.

St. Petersburg, where she grew up, had a community circus. She remembers seeing it at age five. “You had to be five years and nine months old to be in it and I bugged my mom practically every day until the day came. ” She worked with that circus until she was twelve, when the city ended the program. After finishing junior college, she chose to attend Florida State University at Tallahassee for two reasons: because it had the second best criminology department in the country, and because it had a circus.

In contrast with Jenifer's theatrical good looks, Sarah is pertly pretty. She only stands five foot two, but the other flyers say her body is solid muscle; they say she flies superbly. However, she got her degree in criminology and was planning to work with law-breaking juveniles as soon as she finished a summer job flying with Marriott’s Great America, a Chicago-area theme park. That summer she longed to join a circus, “but not being from a circus family, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any connections or anything. ” That’s when Larry and Jenifer, visiting Chicago, caught her act; Jenifer had just discovered her second pregnancy and the Gills invited Sarah to be Jenifer’s substitute. During the six-month stint, Larry and Ray’s partnership dissolved because of Ray’s bad back, robbing the Larrays of a second female flyer, so Sarah joined the permanent team.

The circus’s last day in San Diego County dawns clear. Scattered clouds are dispersing, but the tent floor hasn’t improved much — moisture can’t evaporate in the closed quarters. Fleas also have invaded, and the straw is soggier, but the flyers’ spirits have lifted. After their act in the first show, they emerge from the tent still spellbound by the concentration which always releases its grip on them slowly. Larry is ebullient. He’s finally throwing the triple longer, at last, coming well within Bob’s shorter reach. Now if he can only modify his timing. . . .

Because of the mud, Vargas has cancelled all the “specs” in Carlsbad, so the Gills have almost four hours until their next appearance. I ask Larry if any challenges will remain after he perfects the elusive trick. “The triple is what the people have been programmed to want, have been brainwashed about,” he says. “But a lot of other tricks are harder.” At least one flyer has thrown a quadruple, though no one has caught it. Then there are also a number of murderous tricks based on twisting. Larry will take them one at a time. “I know there’ll always be people better than me, and I feel I’m better than some. I feel I can fly better than I’m flying now,” he says mildly. He seems to lack a ruthless ambition — or ego — to crave dominion of the flying world. If he can defy gravity and create these fleeting body sculptures for a few seconds, high up under the lights, and make it pure as the art of a ballet dancer, simple as a child’s swing, he’ll be happy.

If everything goes exactly right, the twenty-nine-year-old flyer might work through his late forties. Many flyers do, he says. “It depends on how often you get hurt. But I personally would like to quit sooner than that.” He’s seen too many older flyers hang on while their work deteriorates. Also, some day it might just be nice not to fly so much.

Jenifer comments, “We don’t know why we’ll stop flying. We don’t know if it’ll be because we’ve gotten hurt, or whether we’ll get tired of moving around all the time. We might consider going into some kind of a ground act. But if we get tired of the whole life, then we might have enough money to buy some business, and settle down with that.”

In the dark tent the night of the last show, the flyers wear flaming red costumes and the men sport dashing silver belts. I watch them closely when it comes time for the triple. Larry's attempt at it blurs past me for the ninth time in the last week and I wonder if I can yet see anything that he talks about. Can 1 really tell that it’s “longer?” That he’s coming out of the somersault early now? An usher sidles up to me as Larry bounces in the net. “You should be down there,” he whispers as he motions to the Espanas’ side of the tent. “Those guys are really good. Watch.” At that moment, Ramon Espana completes his triple and grabs the hands of his upside-down catcher. “See, they get it all the time.”

That night Circus Vargas packed up and the caravan drove the sixty-five miles to Riverside. From there they went north. I haven’t heard whether the Larrays have made it yet, but I imagine one afternoon they will catch the triple. And I can imagine what will happen at that moment. When Larry’s hands lock onto Bob’s and hold, and the flyer sweeps back up triumphantly to the pedestal board. I’ll bet the band will stop playing midphrase, and cheer. I ’ll bet the ushers will spring to their feet and word will race through the Vargas community. And people in the audience that day will turn to each other and shrug. They’ll wonder what just happened.

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On the night of January 21, the first day Circus Vargas came to town, Larry Gill stood on a Plexiglas platform high above the University Towne Centre parking lot. With his right hand, he grasped one end of the short metal bar of his trapeze. His body leaned forward, and his muscles molded his leotard into relief. Concentration masked his face.

Larry Gill: “Some places we have a lot of room, but here it took hours to park everyone.”

He nodded almost imperceptibly to Bob Bangs, his “catcher,” a short, stocky man hanging by his knees and swinging back and forth on a shorter trapeze suspended about fifty feet in front of the flyer’s platform. Gill turned the trapeze bar to a horizontal position, then clutched it with both hands and launched himself forward into space. He flashed smoothly through the arc of the swing, kicking at the zenith, then whipping backward to a point far higher than his original perch, to a point so high that his golden hair brushed the tent top.

Jennifer Gill: “Every time we wrote to an agent we’d have to go through everything — tell them we were a four-person flying act, two men and two women."

He dropped again, and this time, just before the peak of his swing, his fingers uncurled from the metal. In some uncountable fraction of a second, his knees snapped to his chest, contracting his body into a ball and spinning it. head down, into a forward somersault. As he dropped, incredibly, he picked up speed, hurtling through a second turn and blurring through a third.

Bob Bangs is totally vulnerable, a lame bird on an unprotected branch.

Bangs, still upside down, swung back to meet the falling flyer as Gill’s arms shot out and his body began to straighten. The two men’s arms strained toward each other, their fingertips just millimeters apart — too far apart. Less than a second later. Gill dropped into the net.

As if the net wanted to see the flyer try the triple somersault again, it threw him back up into the air. In a moment. Gill scrambled to his feet and the spotlight glared at his rueful face. He made his way to the ladder, climbed it, and executed a different — successful — trick.

Sarah Moore, the fourth Flying Larray.

Then the four performers, the Flying Larrays, took their bows and disappeared. The audience had just seen the essence of Larry Gill’s life, the fruition of fifteen years of practice and planning and pain. They clapped for about five seconds. Then their eyes refocused on the lions and tigers in the center ring.

I met Larry Gill on Wednesday morning, the circus’s third day in La Jolla, and then it was one of the show’s publicity men who gave me my first real insight into flyers and flying. Charles Burden is a marketing director for Circus Vargas, one of about ten employees who travel four or five weeks ahead of the circus to prepare for the coming event.

(Each takes a different town, obtaining the government permits, arranging all the animal food supplies, water hook-ups, local clean-up crews, saturating each area with publicity.)

That morning Burden led me to an area in back of Robinson’s and the Mingei Gallery, where the big top was located. Burden is a lean man, six-foot-four, and he wore a brown leather jacket. A thick, dark beard and tinted glasses covered a face that was drawn and irritable; he was working fourteen-hour days. When I asked when he got a vacation, he stopped in his tracks and peered at me with distaste. “My dear, the circus is not a job,” he said with scorn. “It’s a way of life.“

Inside the empty tent, he pointed out the flyer’s catch trap, the fly bar. . . .

“What’s a fly bar?” I interrupted.

Another pause. “Have you ever been to a circus before?” he demanded. “Do you know anything about the circus? You know, most professionals, whether they’re grammarians or statisticians or whatever, tend to use a certain jargon, and it’s generally a good idea to do some reading ahead of time so that you don’t look like a complete fool.” He left me and strode off to find the flying trapeze artist.

But Burden returned transformed. His face was respectful when he introduced me to the blond, well-formed flyer, and then Burden shyly confessed that he himself had wanted to soar through the air on the trapeze. As a child he’d studied with a retired flyer named Billy Scholl, an irascible tyrant who had enthralled a dozen schoolkids in a New York gym class. “He beat the act into you,” Burden said with a chuckle. “But when he saw you getting depressed, he would pull out a picture of someone really good and say. This is what you could be. He’s there because he endured the pain and the discipline and the work!’ Burden looked at Gill with grave admiration. “Oh. everybody in the circus wants to be a flyer. You might think it would be fun to be the ringmaster for a while, but there’s nothing like the moment when the tent is quiet and the ringmaster announces, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen — the legendary triple!”

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“Why didn’t you become a flyer?” I asked the publicist.

He stared down at the blacktop. “I was never any good. Clumsy. Too tall." He still idolized the memory of the great Alfredo Cadona, the legendary flyer who first perfected the triple somersault in the Twenties. “I have all the films ever taken of him. Oh. of course! How could I live without them?” Burden said seriously. “What else could you do in the world that would be better than flying?” He suggested that I return that evening to follow the flying act through its paces. Gill agreed.

So a little after seven I knocked on the door of a twenty-nine-foot trailer squeezed in among a herd of similar vehicles. “This is a tight lot,” Gill explained. “Some places we have a lot of room, but here it took hours to park everyone.” He wore faded jeans and an old green robe. Inside, his two tow-headed children, their grandparents (visiting from Sarasota), and his wife, Jenifer, all crowded into a compact living room. Jenifer is one of the two women who fly in the act. She rose to turn down the volume of the television set.

Larry told me he never cared about the circus as a child — his brother did. “For some reason, the circus got to Ron. When we were little, I would play with my Army men and he had his circus men. He read about the circus. He’d make me practice tricks with him in the back yard.” Every time a circus visited Philadelphia, near their home, the two brothers went together. When Larry was thirteen, his father, a building contractor, decided to flee the harsh winters. “My parents wanted to move to Florida, but they didn’t care where. It was Ron who chose Sarasota. He wanted to go there because it was the winter home of the circus.”

Sarasota had first attracted the vacationing Ringling Brothers Circus back in the Twenties. One smaller circus after another had flocked to the town since then, and by the Forties the Sarasota citizenry included all manner of circus retirees. So it wasn’t surprising for the Sarasota High School in 1948 to institute an extracurricular circus program. A few years later the school acquired a huge canvas tent, and by the time the Gill boys reached high school, the circus program attracted children from all the schools in the county. Every year the youngsters auditioned, learned acts, and practiced for a series of spring performances. Larry signed up, following his brother. “It was just something that you did after school,” he says. “It was very much like a varsity sport.”

In ninth grade he learned clowning. In senior high he worked on highwire, the teeter board, and the flying trapeze. By the time he was a senior, when he still lacked career or academic plans, he got an unexpected offer. Hugo Zacchini, a pro from an old circus family known for its human cannonball stunts, invited Larry and his high school catcher, Ray, to join his flying trapeze act. The pair agreed instantly. “I did it all through high school, and it was fun,” Larry says. "And then I got out of high school, and I was still having fun, but I was getting paid for it. How many people can say that?”

It’s a few minutes before eight. Larry disappears into the rear of the trailer to change for the opening number of the evening show. Jenifer already has donned her fishnet tights and two-piece white costume, spangled with metallic pink. She’s twenty-five years old. and bearing two children has left no mark on her full firm figure. Her pale blond hair falls in soft curls to her shoulders. Out of costume, she’s a wholesome former cheerleader in the full bloom of womanhood. Adorned with glitter and false eyelashes, she cuts a figure from a modem mythology — the Hollywood Starlet.

She slips into a worn blue bathrobe, then steps outside with Larry to find Bob, the catcher, and Sarah Moore, the fourth Flying Larray. They must march in the show’s spectacular opening parade, the “spec,” in the ubiquitous lingo. Larry and Bob each collect fluttering banners from a prop truck, then wait in the night air, shivering beside the women. Around them, unsmiling clowns hug their arms against the chill; music wells up from within the warm tent, and snatches of the ringmaster’s welcome drift into the night. The flaps open; the parade flows in. Skimpily clad women riding on the backs of elephants each in turn toss off some plain wrap just before rolling into the big top. The Larrays join the moving procession, and a minute or two later they are outside again. All four flyers return to the Gills’ trailer; they have about fifty free minutes.

Larry fiddles with the television controls. Tonight the sixth annual international circus competition (held in Monte Carlo) is airing. The Larrays have friends and acquaintances in the show “There’s Debbie!” Jenifer squeals, spotting a clown friend from Texas. A moment later, the flyers watch a chum with a high-wire act win one of the coveted “Silver Clown” awards.

“Look at his costumes! They’re beautiful!”

“Yeah, you know what? I heard they cost a grand apiece!”

“It’s like we never saw a circus before.” Bob interjects wryly.

Larry hopes to compete in such international competition one day, but he and Bob will have to master the triple somersault first. What happened to the Cavarettas convinced him of that. “They’re a three-girl flying act with a male catcher, from Las Vegas. They started at the St. Petersburg community circus. They’re really a superb act. They look good; they fly good. They do big tricks.” Larry says the girl flyers went to the European contest and competed against South American flyers. “They didn’t do the tricks and their style wasn’t so good. They had no class. But the South American guy caught his triple and Terry Cavaretta missed hers, and he won the championship. This was last year,” Larry says with disgust. “The Cavarettas were ten times better, everything they did. Their toes were pointed, their legs were straight, the wardrobe was beautiful — ail the little things you work on. It really upset us.”

I’m beginning to grasp the significance of the triple somersault — its prestige; its clout. Larry and Bob have been flying together (with Jenifer and Sarah) for two and a half years. Although Larry and his first catcher, Ray, perfected the trick. Bob and Larry have never done it together. Not once. Now they’re trying it every day, every show, two and even three times a day. And the pressure is building. Larry’s had calls about European jobs, and the agents always ask about the triple. Their interest seems to die when they hear the “not yet. ” Once the Larrays get it, the act will rank indisputably among a handful of the best flyers in the world, along with flyers like the Espahas, who catch it every time and who perform in ring number one during the Larrays’ flight over the third ring. Men have died in the grip of the triple’s breathtaking accelerations, a grim fact that helped build its mystique. It’s a trick that tortures the body and intimidates the mind.

Larry says that’s one reason he welcomed this year with Circus Vargas. He thinks the daily practice with a familiar team will lead to mastery. A job this long and steady is a novel arrangement for the flying act; in the past the Larrays have dabbled in every other shade in the gaudy palette of circus work.

When Larry and his first catcher, Ray, fresh out of high school, flew with the Zacchinis, they worked “spot dates,” limited engagements at fairs, shopping centers, theme parks. Although the average spectator may think of “the circus” as a few permanent collections of traveling performers such as the Ringling Brothers Circus or Circus Vargas, many circuses only materialize temporarily through the spot-date mechanism. When the Shriners, to take the biggest such example, prepare to stage one of their yearly bashes, they work with circus producers who assemble acts which will work together for one to three weeks. At the end of the engagement, the performers go their separate ways. Larry and Ray stuck with the Zacchinis for a year before the military draft intervened.

Ray, two years older than Larry, faced immediate conscription, so the youths volunteered together for the Marines. “We figured that if I waited, I’d be drafted just about when Ray was getting out. That way we would have lost at least four years, which is a lot of time for a flying act. ” And by then the duo had begun to foresee flying in its future. As things worked out, Larry got out of the service in less than two years (a couple of months before Ray), signed up at a Sarasota junior college, and within weeks heard from a luminous name in modem circus history. Fay Alexander, who was then re-forming his act. He’d heard about Larry and Ray from a friend, their high school flying teacher. Alexander. whose stunning flying appeared in the movies Trapeze and The Greatest Show on Earth, invited the Florida boys to join his new team. It was an open door into the world once closed to all but the offspring of circus performers, it’s very hard to take someone with no experience and teach ’em to fly,” explains Larry. “But I had had three years of basics in high school and one with the Zacchinis.” He and Ray joined the Flying Alexanders in June of 1971. For the next two and a half years they improved under the older man’s watchful eyes.

With the Alexanders, Larry and Ray worked for every major circus producer and agent in the country, and learned the business well enough to contemplate striking out on their own. By the end of 1973, as Alexander prepared to retire, the young men were ready. Earlier that year, Larry had married Jenifer, another graduate of Sarasota’s high school circus; Ray was already married to a flyer. That November the two couples got temporary “civilian” jobs in Sarasota; they would work till five, then come home to practice until sunset on their newly purchased equipment. Larry and Ray bought 1500 feet of nylon rope, and after dinner they would talk and plan and weave their net by hand while the women cut and stitched what they hoped would be dazzling costumes. The newborn team of the Flying Larrays got their first job in April, 1974; for two or three years they scrambled for work. Says Jenifer, “Every time we wrote to an agent we’d have to go through everything — tell them we were a four-person flying act, two men and two women; tell them exactly what tricks we could do; everything about us.” But gradually the agents sought them. They were offered a stint with the Garden Brothers Circus, and from February through June of 1979 they worked with that ensemble, mostly in eastern Canada. Last June they appeared in Shrine shows in St. Louis and a few other cities. In mid-July they jetted off to Tokyo to work for six weeks at the Toshimaen Amusement Park, a job so tightly scheduled that they had but one day to see the sights of Japan’s capital. From September through October they worked various Southern fairs, then they returned to Sarasota to practice for the Vargas job.

They were approached, then they auditioned for it way back last March, but they only joined the show January 2, 1980. Now here in San Diego, three weeks into the season, the blemishes of the new routine are fading; the sense of repetition is just beginning to sink in. This commitment will confront the flyers with demands they’ve never faced before. Last year the Circus Vargas performers worked fifty out of fifty-two weeks, and this year’s season promises to be equally long. The Larrays must brace themselves for working every day, seven days a week, three shows on the weekends, through bad weather, through the torn nerves and strained muscles which plague flyers, through all but the gravest illness which might befall them. The second week on the new job, a vicious strain of influenza infected all of them and all worked with high fevers. Today they tell me cheerfully that they’re just beginning to feel well again. It’s time for the first of their two numbers.

Larry quickly changes into a different set of tights, these pale green. He slips into the battered robe and heads for the tent. In the deep shadow of some bleachers near one exit he finds Sarah, clad in matching colors, and Bob, in a black suit and ruffled orange dress shirt. Bob stays on the ground for this number and Jenifer isn’t in it at all. Larry and Sarah even use a different name for it, the Venturas, and they work in ring number one, more than a football field removed from where they will soon fly over ring number three. Most of the audience won’t notice the duplication; it is a way of stretching the talent. Larry says nowadays a big supplier of such versatile performers, ones furthermore willing to work cheaply, is Mexico. “These Mexican families will have nine or ten kids and they’ll put together a whole package for what we get for the flying act alone.” In fact, the other flying trapeze act in the Circus Vargas is part of a large Mexican family. The oldest boy and two oldest girls perform in the Espanas flying act; a younger daughter does an aerial number with the fiancee of her brother the flyer; that daughter also performs a solo aerial routine on a high, velvety swing; the children’s father coaches them all; and the mother cooks for the troupe and makes costumes.

The big top goes dark and the ringmaster’s rounded tones announce the “aerial daredevils.” When the spotlight hits, Larry and Sarah bow like royalty, shed their gold capes, then climb a rope ladder to within a few feet of the top of the canvas. In circus jargon, this is a “cradle act,” because Larry hooks his knees over one metal bar and extends his toes straight out in front of him, tucked under a second bar (the cradle). The music shifts and Larry dangles Sarah first by her arms, then by her legs, as the petite woman moves gracefully through a series of controlled contortions. They pause briefly while Larry, upside down, hangs a wide plastic strap around the back of his neck, then suspends a large hoop from the strap. Sarah eases her weight onto the round frame and sits in it like a swing, then hangs by her knees from it, then by her heels.

The first time Larry used the strap, the pain was so fierce he couldn’t endure it. He only built up time gradually, a few minutes a day. Now he makes it look effortless, although while he wears it he completely loses his hearing, something the audience would never suspect. Now it’s time for the finale; Sarah’s turn to don the neck strap and suspend it from Larry, then to spin her body through the air until she’s revolving, perfectly horizontal. She shares the applause with the aerialists in the other two rings, all whirling like centrifuges, and then it stops. They all descend.

Afterward, Sarah tells me that the cradle act never varies. Its movements require constant caution, but they’re very familiar. Jenifer used to do the cradle, and it bored her, but Sarah likes it. “Sometimes it’s nice to do something calm and repetitive, ” she says. She, Larry, and Bob rush off to change for the upcoming flying act.

Crews already have moved into the dark end rings to set up the flying apparatus even as the “Million Dollar Carlos Twins,” sister gymnasts, each balance on one finger in the middle of the tent. When the house lights come up, signaling intermission, the complex poles and wires and nets for the flying act stand in place. A few minutes later, Larry and Bob, disguised in their nondescript bathrobes, stride into the ring to double-check the frame from which their lives will hang. They pace as nervously as the caged tigers out back. Bob, whose chest bulges and whose hairline is fast receding, wears a tan turtleneck and a blue bathrobe. He reminds me of some middle-aged executive stuck somehow with the wrong pair of legs, sturdy legs sheathed in white tights and sprinkled with pink baubles.

The tent goes black; the ringmaster’s whistle screams. “Breathtaking feats on the flying trapeze! Circus Vargas is proud to present the most honored ensembles of trapeze artists in the world today. Over ring number one, the magnificent Es-panas! Over ring number three, the fabulous Flying Larrays!”

They look like young gods, shining and vigorous. Larry, Sarah, and Jenifer scale the ladder to the pedestal board; Bob, meanwhile, pulls himself up a rope to perch on his catcher’s trapeze. A beat or two later, Jenifer pushes off. She swings out and returns to the ledge, a warm-up which Larry repeats; but people in the audience catch their breath at the sight of those bodies soaring long and fast and boldly. Sarah performs the first trick, a simple vault over the top of the trapeze into Bob’s waiting hands, but it draws cries of wonder from the grown-ups in the bleachers.

Larry is next, and as he shoves off, the two women stand beside him, each holding one arm up, slightly outstretched. He shoots forward to modified strains of “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” and leaps toward the catcher, who catches him. Then the music bounces into a jazzy refrain as Jenifer slices forward through space. At the farthest point back in the swing, she is weightless, her shapely legs bent at the waist and pointed straight forward, her glowing yellow hair flowing straight out behind her. Then she descends, wheels through the air, is successfully caught. The band maintains the tempo as Sarah mounts a supplemental bar about four feet above the pedestal. Her last trick forces her to marshal every possible ounce of forward thrust.

The flyers call Sarah’s trick a “two-and-a-half,” and the audience seems to sense how dangerous it is. When Sarah’s fingers leave the trapeze bar, she curls up, whips through two and a half somersaults; then Bob stops her, grabbing her by the feet. The flyers say that like all foot-catching tricks, it’s not too hard, but it’s twice as hazardous as any trick in which the hands are caught. When Bob catches her. Sarah’s head dangles just five or six feet above the net. If the two should miss each other, she must instantly move through an extra forward somersault and a half twist — or else the net will likely snap her neck.

Now it’s time for Larry’s crack at the legendary triple. It’s over so quickly I can’t even register what goes wrong; Larry’s just there, bouncing in the net, smiling and throwing his hand downward in exaggerated chagrin. The Wednesday-night audience is generous with its applause, but the spectators reward Ramon Espana with the biggest hand of the night a moment later when he succeeds with his triple at the other end of the tent. The people have just had a glimpse at the proximity of failure. The flyers say it’s always there — hovering over every trick. They can perform a trick a hundred times, a thousand times, and miss it the thousand and first, unavoidably. But the goal is so simple: to face the audience and reproduce a series of actions. Of course, the flyers say no one can ever do that; every show is unique.

The next day I find Larry in his trailer with a large ledger spread open on his lap. “In this work you’ve got to be as much businessman as anything else,” he says. He contracts with Vargas and in turn subcontracts with Bob and Sarah, which means he must record every single road expense. Last year he racked up more than $34,000 in deductions alone.

Today the flyer once again wears sloppy old clothes, a stark contrast with the theatrical garb. He has a candid, friendly face, storybook handsome at the ring’s great distances, but up close it shows a certain toughness which is due not to a life on the streets, but to flying. When the ten-pound flying trapeze bar accidentally hit him between the eyes one day, the gash took seven stitches and left a scar that looks like the ghost of a frown. Another jagged, smaller scar is the souvenir of a rude encounter with a tent spike. And those are just two small items on the formidable list of ways in which a flyer can get hurt.

“Everyone says, ‘You’ve got a net, ’ but they don’t realize that hitting the net can be as bad as hitting the ground,” Larry says. Repeatedly smashing into the stiff, scratchy (now seven-year-old) nylon causes the endless parade of minor rope burns and abrasions. If a flyer’s feet meet the net, he has a good chance of being bounced out; the impact can also jolt his frame and inflict severe whiplash. Merely landing the wrong way in the net can kill a flyer. Larry’s worst accident occurred when he hit the net wrong. It was two and a half years ago in East St. Louis. “The platform wasn’t positioned quite right and during one of the tricks I hit it with my rear end. That knocked me out of position. I was doing a two-and-a-half somersault like Sarah does, being caught by the legs. When I came out of the turn I was out of position and I lost track of exactly where my body was. There’s a term for that. The old flyers use it more than people do now. It’s called ‘getting cast.’ Anyway, when I came out I should have been able to see the net, but I was looking at the stars. Timing is very strange, you know — your time up there. We do some tricks and I’ll see the catcher and I ’ll see the net; usually I see it all just at catch point. Usually it’s less than a second but it seems like a very long time up there.” In East St. Louis, however, it wasn’t long enough for Larry to respond. He smashed down on the back of his neck, with his feet and legs overhead. “I knew I was hurt. I just didn’t know how bad. I knew I could move both legs, but I couldn’t get down. They had to take the net down to get me.”

Mercifully, he had only pulled all his back muscles. He couldn’t fly, but the producer wanted the show to proceed, so the next day Larry turned out in a lounge chair to call out the critical timing, the seconds and the fractions of seconds, for the women in the act, and to help them judge when the catcher’s swing length had reached the precise period necessary to give their tricks a prayer of succeeding. Larry didn’t fly again for three and a half weeks, and when he did, he pinched some nerves almost immediately, which kept him out of the trapeze for two more weeks. He says the accident also robbed him for more than a year of the limbemess so crucial to a flyer. Equipment failures and bad encounters with the net aren’t the only major dangers. Flyers can miss the net altogether, the way Bob did once.

As if on cue, Bob knocks on the trailer door. He wears jeans, a flannel work shirt, and boots. If flyers face the most difficult of all the circus's challenges, then catchers like Bob shoulder an extra burden. The flyers look spectacular, like fantastic birds who gracefully come to roost after turbulent flight. But the catcher is the roost, unobtrusive and unglamorous. “When a trick goes right, everyone cheers the flyer,” Larry says. “When it doesn’t, they blame the catcher.” But says Bob, “There’s a philosophy which was explained to me early and which I catch by. It says a good catcher should make a bad flyer — or a good flyer on a bad day — look good.” The ability to do that thrusts the catcher into the realm of split-second decision-making. “It’s the flyer’s job to do the trick and position our hands. And then we’re committed,” Larry says. “We can’t swim through the air to get to the catcher. When Bob sees a trick coming at him, he has to decide at that instant if it’s safe enough to take. ” Ironically, Bob had decided to duck at the trick that almost killed him.

He blames his training for what happened that day. He attended Sarasota High School with Jenifer, and then Florida State University, which has a circus, and none of his teachers were catchers, he says. They taught him that when a flyer comes too fast and too close to be caught, the catcher (hanging by his knees) should sit up and go up the cables, if necessary, to get out of the way. So a little more than two years ago, when Sarah one day threw a long version of her two-and-a-half. Bob reacted automatically — he sat up. Sarah’s foot coming at him at sixty miles an hour caught him behind the right shoulder, and the 170-pound catcher flew out of his seat sideways, hitting the cement floor to one side of the nine-foot-wide net. From the moment he was hit. Bob remembers nothing. He woke up four days later in the hospital, miraculously having sustained only a severe concussion, internal injuries, and a hairline fracture of one arm.

He felt it was crucial to return to the ring quickly, and he did so just five and a half weeks later, although it would be a year before the pain in his back subsided. Given the constant shock of stopping human bodies at high velocity, he worried that he might never heal, that he might suffer the same fate as Ray, Larry’s first catcher. Ray first caught Larry’s triple in 1976, and the Flying Larrays incorporated it into their public performances that winter. By April they were on the road to glory, catching it sixty-five percent of the time. But Ray’s catching career was already doomed. That winter he had helped a friend roof his house and had damaged two discs in his back. For months he said nothing as the pain built steadily, but by the summer of 1977 he desperately turned to medical specialists. Nothing worked, and in September he couldn’t tolerate any more agony. After a Thursday-night performance in Miami, he told Larry he had to quit. Sarah knew Bob from the Florida State University circus and knew that he was then student-teaching. The group telephoned him and Bob agreed to drive the 300 miles to Miami the next day after his classes, to help the Larrays finish the weekend shows. The rest of that fall he joined Larry, Jenifer, Sue (Ray’s wife), and Sarah for weekend spot dates, and by spring he teamed up with the group full time.

Bob fell in April of 1978. and that hindered him from speedily acquiring the triple. Since then Larry says he’s been readjusting to the difference between Bob’s and Ray's heights. Ray was taller, and Larry has been coming up short, still programmed for the older catcher’s arm span. But they’ll get it, Larry vows. It will come.

The scanty crowd for the last performance at University Towne Centre couldn't inspire a cat to catch a mouse. Before the flyers even enter for their act, circus hands begin dismantling unoccupied bleacher sections. “It’s kind of hard when they take half your audience away,’’ whispers Jenifer's mother, Ann Taylor. The tricks go well except for the triple, and Mrs. Taylor points out a flaw I hadn’t noticed in , the Esparia’s execution of the last trick, the “Perilous Passing Leap. “The Latin flyers require two swings to return to their pedestal board, “but our kids always get it the first time,” the mother says. “So that kind of evens things out.”

She’s very friendly and young looking; she and her husband Pete were just in Las Vegas for a banking convention, and couldn't resist the chance to see their traveling offspring. “When Jenifer married Larry, we were really thrilled that they found each other,” she says. “We think the world of Larry.” The Taylors had learned something of the circus through following his career, and when their daughter joined him, she admits, “We were a little concerned before we knew what it was all about. Like we’d ask how they would get by when they aren’t able to work anymore. But that doesn’t worry them. They say, ‘By then we’ll have the money and we won’t have to work.’ And Larry is terrific about saving every penny.” She adds, “And of course you just can’t think about the possibility of their getting hurt.”

After the act, the flyers hurry back to the Gills’ trailer to gobble some Square Pan pizza. This is a “tear-down” night; right after the show the whole enormous assembly must pack up and move to Parkway Plaza in El Cajon. Since Circus Vargas performs every day, it always travels during the midnight hours. The flyers say this thirty-mile ride will be a snap. They’ve heard stories about 300-mile nocturnal moves last year.

“Bob,” Jenifer says suddenly between bites, “Why did you walk straight into the ring when the spotlight hit us, instead of stopping and waiting with the rest of us?” The catcher looks sheepish. He replies that as he moved forward he had begun daydreaming about the triple. He was at the point in his fantasy where he had just caught Larry. He could feel the flyer’s muscular arms held firmly in his grasp. The two were coupled under the spotlight and the crowd was going wild! When the mental applause died. Bob found himself alone — ten steps ahead of the others.

Before the audience has even finished funneling out of one end of the big top at 10:20, the flaps at the other end open up and circus trucks barrel in. Within seconds, the night resounds with clanking pipes and grumbling motors. Vargas has a permanent tent crew of twenty-five hands who travel with the troupe, plus the circus always hires ten or so locals for tear-down nights; now the team swings into action. A young boy stuffs litter into plastic bags. In ring number three an older man painstakingly unlashes the canvas floor coverings. Men swing the bleacher boards onto giant flatbed trucks. A miniature forklift scurries about like a spastic terrier and frantically yanks stakes from the asphalt.

Larry and Bob, in work clothes, strain at cables to lower their metal superstructure. Larry owns all the flying gear and it’s his sole responsibility, although one assistant prop manager helps dismantle it. After the trapeze platform collapses into a skeletal pile of ropes and sticks, Larry and Bob undo shackles, pull apart metal tubing, untangle pulleys. Gradually, the coiled electric lights, stakes, cables, metal boxes, flags — all migrate toward Larry’s white van parked beside the ring. Finally, Larry, Bob, and Sarah load the hardware into the vehicle as economically as a hiker stocking a backpack. By 11:07 Larry slams the van doors. A half hour later he pulls onto the freeway.

By 10:30 the next morning, the bright blue tent canvas spreads neatly over the parking lot just northwest of Sears in the El Cajon shopping center. The sun warms an azure sky, and I find Larry basking on a curb, watching the tent-raising. The crew has been at this since eight and Larry already has attached the first part of his equipment as he must coordinate the erection of the flying equipment with the ascent of the tent. All this bustle gives the suburban mall a festival air. Shoppers stroll by and gape at the proceedings; a class of preschoolers plops down nearby and chatters, entranced.

Although Clifford Vargas travels with the show, lie’s nowhere in sight at the moment. The press releases say that the former Fuller Brush man bought and renamed this circus seven years ago (he sold forty-two acres of northern California property for the down payment on the $250,000 purchase price) because he wanted to restore the big-top tradition he adored in his youth. They say he’s made it succeed (he now boasts more than five million dollars in assets and 250-plus employees) with inventive strokes such as convincing the slick suburban shopping centers that a circus can be a valuable promotion. They also say he works ninety hours a week, scrutinizing his show's every detail; he himself drives one of the six semi-trucks.

Even though I’ve never cared much for circuses in the past, I find myself grateful to Vargas for this spectacle. Hydraulic winches have begun to lift the $150,000 canvas up the biggest central poles; four blue cones slowly grow along the spine of the flattened big top. Soon the intrepid little forklift props up the tent's outer rim with twelve-foot poles tied at the top to the canvas. Finally, grooms lead in the Asian elephants, Hattie and Colonel, to pull the fifty-two interior poles into place. Larry says the forklifts could do the job, but the elephants are traditional — plus they save energy.

Larry, Bob, and Sarah can tear down their equipment in forty or fifty minutes, but it takes three hours to reconstruct it. Now they get to work, 'it’s one thing to get hurt from missing a trick, Bob explains, “but I’d hate to get hurt from something breaking, or the rigging not being set up right. Then you kind of feel like it’s your fault.” Since this is an opening night, the only show is at eight, and this East County audience amply rewards the laborious effort. Men, women, and children jam the big top to the bursting point and transform it into a steamy, electrified cauldron. The ground trembles with the roar of their approval.

Saturday dawns cloudy, but when the first of three shows starts at 12:30 p.m., thousands of people are sitting in the tent. After the parade, Jenifer mentions that tomorrow all the flyers will feel one particular physical effect of the extra performance; they call the phenomenon “hot hands.” “In the morning you wake up and they just burn,” she says. “Pins and needles. Sometimes I can’t even pick up a washrag to do the kids! faces.” She takes advantage of her time today to complete some work that “hot hands” may prevent tomorrow. She stitches slender rhinestone chains onto a silver cap.

Jenifer designs and sews all the costumes for the group; the flying act alone has seven different sets with them on the road. She even makes the men’s tights and dyes them to the necessary colors. The couch in her trailer living room has two big drawers built under it and both are filled with glittering costume ornaments, almost all special-ordered from New York. The woman shows me one meager pile of diamond rhinestones which cost twenty-five dollars. “But rhinestones are great. The backs eventually rust, but they never wear out. ” She learned the art of costume design the same way she became a flying trapeze artist — drifting into it almost unconsciously. “I don’t remember ever going to a circus when I was little. But I went to Sarasota High School and when I was in tenth grade I had a shy girlfriend who wanted to try out for the circus. She dragged me along.” Jenifer tried out, too, and learned a variety of aerial routines, but the notion of working professionally never crossed her mind. She thought vaguely of becoming a teacher or a nurse. In her junior year she met Larry, freshly discharged from the Marines and preparing to join the Alexanders. They fell in love almost immediately and Jenifer incorporated the circus into her future.

They were married in 1973, and for a year she traveled with Larry and the Flying Alexanders, not performing, just studying the flyers. When she finally took to the trapeze with the Flying Larrays that winter, it was easy. And even though she’d had one serious accident in high school (she broke both her elbows in a fifteen-foot fall), she says flying didn’t frighten her at all — in the beginning. She was startled, in fact, the first time fear crept into her mind. That was right after her first pregnancy.

Lany and she had carefully planned that first baby, even scheduling its arrival for the off-season. A substitute flyer took over at the end of Jenifer’s third month. Jenifer did pull-ups right up to the day she delivered Beth, and she started practicing again three weeks later. In six weeks she rejoined the show and ignored her new nervousness; it wasn’t too bad. Then four months later she unexpectedly found herself pregnant again. Around July Sarah joined the team as a six-month substitute. The birth of her second child, Katie, was slightly more complicated and kept Jenifer out of the show for four months. On her return she realized she was genuinely afraid.

She says it’s not so much a fear for her own safety as an irrepressible worry about who would care for her children if something happened. “I’m not what you would call really terrified when 1 get up there. It’s not like I’m going to freeze. ” She shrugs. “But I’m not so free of fear that I can enjoy flying any more.” Now she does only one simple trick, but quitting entirely would be troublesome for everyone. Besides, Jenifer seems reluctant to cut flying out of her life forever. “I’m keeping myself at a stage where I can start up again if I want to.” She doesn’t know whether she will, but the steady Circus Vargas routine already has helped calm her nerves.

If the statuesque blond woman has to discipline herself to ascend to the platform, however, she revels in the circus lifestyle. She and Larry and the two little girls share an abundant amount of time together. Jenifer says they’ve sampled the so-called normal life in Sarasota — and they detest it. Last year they bought a house, but she says she’s not really comfortable even there. “The kids are always off playing somewhere, and Larry’s usually out at work. When he’s working some-nine-to-five job, the girls barely get to see him. ” In contrast, her neat, cheerful trailer is a cozy nest in which her loved ones are safe and close. Also, here Beth and Katie have dozens of playmates, and the Gills say the circus folk form an extended family — everyone keeps an eye on the little ones. When the girls reach school age, Jenifer and Larry plan to follow the example of most circus parents and teach their children with the aid of the Calvert Correspondence School. The mother says if her daughters are like most circus kids, they’ll far outshine their conventional peers academically. Certainly the Gill children now seem strikingly outgoing and mature. I ask Jenifer if she’d want them to work in the circus. She wants that to be their choice. Three-year-old Beth has already been helped up to the pedestal board, and at home both girls are allowed to play in the net. Jenifer makes Larry watch them; she doesn’t want her submerged nervousness to infect the youngsters.

Undaunted by dense showers, a modest crowd shows up for Monday’s farewell East County performance. The tent keeps out the downpour, but there are leaks, and the asphalt shines with rainwater. During the intermission, children gleefully dash through the puddles. Jenifer’s jitters are tangible. “Our feet are wet,” she complains. “We’re going to have a hard time just holding on tonight. We’ll be lucky to catch anything. ” Larry and Bob are forced to readjust all the rigging, and the act starts late. The moisture has slackened the ropes so much that a flyer falling into the unadjusted net would actually sag down and hit the ground. Both sets of flyers seem to barely get through their routines, and they make a hasty exit. A messy sludge of disintegrating peanut shells and garbage and water covers everything, and the flyers must tear down tonight. “Huh, you think this is bad,” Bob says dourly. “They’re saying that the next lot isn’t even paved!”

They’re right. The broad field between the Volkswagen and Toyota dealerships at Carlsbad Car Country is a soggy mud sea. But something else forces the cancellation of Tuesday’s opening-night performance. The weather bureau has forecast winds gusting up to fifty miles an hour, and wind is the big top’s one implacable enemy. A gale could conceivably tear apart the four-ton tent. So that night the performers sit in their trailers, some of them with neither water nor electricity due to problems created by the quagmire. The Encina Power plant directly across Interstate 5 winks at them.

To add insult, the high winds never build; in fact, the rain only begins to beat down on Wednesday. The mud is like quicksand; people sink in some spots up to their knees, but somehow, the crews succeed in getting all the equipment up. By 3:30 Wednesday the path from the tent’s main entrance to the concrete road is an unrelieved mire. The first show is supposed to start in one hour, and by 4:15 the circus hands have performed another miracle, spreading enough fresh straw on the mud paths inside and out so that a sizable crowd can make its way to the bleachers.

The straw and the newly churned mud fill the tent interior with a sweet, warm smell, although walking is less than romantic. In places the straw provides a firm footing, but other spots give way underfoot like soft paraffin. The flyers have to wear rubber boots and wade up to the rigging in the dark. Then they kick off the footgear and climb up to where the spotlights finally greet them. They’re not the only ones with problems. The unfamiliar scents of the ring bewitch the Samoyed dogs and half of them abandon all their tricks, throwing themselves in the mud, racing about, and sniffing the ground with wild delight. Periodically, I catch glimpses of Clifford Vargas, stomping around in a foul-tempered fury.

Up in the catcher’s trapeze. Bob Bangs has a sickening vision. In his mind’s eye, he can see a shadowy figure in the crowd below, a man with a rifle, who shoulders the high-powered weapon and aims it at the catcher. Bob is totally vulnerable, a lame bird on an unprotected branch. He can see himself slammed by the impact, shoved off his swinging perch, down, down past the net and into the mud. It is a grisly and recurrent image. Bob’s not sure where it springs from. When he was small, he once shot and killed a bird and he felt so bad that he recovered the corpse and buried it.

Usually the vision is the only thing that scares Bob, but after the performances this day he confesses to a general jumpiness. “We didn’t have a chance to test out anything. We didn’t even get to put any rosin on our hands!’’ He’s a soft-spoken man, twenty-five years old, and although his manner is calm, I can hear the tension in his voice when he talks about the triple. “Sure it bothers me. It’d bother anyone when you’re missing it day after day and you’ve got eighteen people saying you blew it, saying that you’re no good. ’’ I tell him how Larry says Bob has caught other tricks so malformed that no one should have been able to catch them. When he hears this his face relaxes. “The only people I need to appreciate me are those three [the other Larrays],” he says emphatically. “There have been times when they’ve gotten out of the rigging and come up to me and said Thank you. ’ I feel that’s what I get paid for. . . . And I know I can catch the triple; I’ve done it before.” (He was practicing with another flyer, a great one named Tommy Edelston. “He threw three at me, and I caught him the third time. I said, ‘Thanks Tommy. Let’s stop right there. That’s all I need.’ ”)

Bob figures he’d like to continue catching as long as the act holds together and he’s physically able to do so. He has another option, however, whenever he quits. After graduating from high school, he thought he wanted to be a marine biologist, but the studies were too grueling, so he switched his college major to education. Now he's certified to teach physical education to kindergartners through twelfth graders, and to teach high school students natural science. He says every time he goes back to Sarasota the high school offers him a contract. But as an aerialist he’s making three times as much money as the district’s last offer — a mere $8100 a year — plus, other aspects of circus life appeal to Bob. “Here, I have to admit that my basic laziness comes in. Usually we only do two shows a day. And after about nine at night I can do absolutely anything I want until about four the next afternoon.” At the moment, he’s reading two textbooks, one on meteorology and another on the biomechanical aspects of sports. But often he does very little, he says with an impish grin. “I’m never pressed for things to do. I watch TV; listen to music; sometimes I work on my trailer. It’s a calmer life. When I’m at home I just spend money. On the road sometimes I just lie outside in the sun. I like to sleep a lot.” There’s a knock at the door of Bob’s small camper; it’s Sarah, seeking an extension cord. Stranded in the mud far from all the other trailers, she still lacks electricity and water. With combined borrowed cords, she finally gets some power. As we talk inside her camper, she has her television set switched on, the volume turned down to the faintest hum. More than any other of the Larrays, circus work was a childhood love for Sarah.

St. Petersburg, where she grew up, had a community circus. She remembers seeing it at age five. “You had to be five years and nine months old to be in it and I bugged my mom practically every day until the day came. ” She worked with that circus until she was twelve, when the city ended the program. After finishing junior college, she chose to attend Florida State University at Tallahassee for two reasons: because it had the second best criminology department in the country, and because it had a circus.

In contrast with Jenifer's theatrical good looks, Sarah is pertly pretty. She only stands five foot two, but the other flyers say her body is solid muscle; they say she flies superbly. However, she got her degree in criminology and was planning to work with law-breaking juveniles as soon as she finished a summer job flying with Marriott’s Great America, a Chicago-area theme park. That summer she longed to join a circus, “but not being from a circus family, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any connections or anything. ” That’s when Larry and Jenifer, visiting Chicago, caught her act; Jenifer had just discovered her second pregnancy and the Gills invited Sarah to be Jenifer’s substitute. During the six-month stint, Larry and Ray’s partnership dissolved because of Ray’s bad back, robbing the Larrays of a second female flyer, so Sarah joined the permanent team.

The circus’s last day in San Diego County dawns clear. Scattered clouds are dispersing, but the tent floor hasn’t improved much — moisture can’t evaporate in the closed quarters. Fleas also have invaded, and the straw is soggier, but the flyers’ spirits have lifted. After their act in the first show, they emerge from the tent still spellbound by the concentration which always releases its grip on them slowly. Larry is ebullient. He’s finally throwing the triple longer, at last, coming well within Bob’s shorter reach. Now if he can only modify his timing. . . .

Because of the mud, Vargas has cancelled all the “specs” in Carlsbad, so the Gills have almost four hours until their next appearance. I ask Larry if any challenges will remain after he perfects the elusive trick. “The triple is what the people have been programmed to want, have been brainwashed about,” he says. “But a lot of other tricks are harder.” At least one flyer has thrown a quadruple, though no one has caught it. Then there are also a number of murderous tricks based on twisting. Larry will take them one at a time. “I know there’ll always be people better than me, and I feel I’m better than some. I feel I can fly better than I’m flying now,” he says mildly. He seems to lack a ruthless ambition — or ego — to crave dominion of the flying world. If he can defy gravity and create these fleeting body sculptures for a few seconds, high up under the lights, and make it pure as the art of a ballet dancer, simple as a child’s swing, he’ll be happy.

If everything goes exactly right, the twenty-nine-year-old flyer might work through his late forties. Many flyers do, he says. “It depends on how often you get hurt. But I personally would like to quit sooner than that.” He’s seen too many older flyers hang on while their work deteriorates. Also, some day it might just be nice not to fly so much.

Jenifer comments, “We don’t know why we’ll stop flying. We don’t know if it’ll be because we’ve gotten hurt, or whether we’ll get tired of moving around all the time. We might consider going into some kind of a ground act. But if we get tired of the whole life, then we might have enough money to buy some business, and settle down with that.”

In the dark tent the night of the last show, the flyers wear flaming red costumes and the men sport dashing silver belts. I watch them closely when it comes time for the triple. Larry's attempt at it blurs past me for the ninth time in the last week and I wonder if I can yet see anything that he talks about. Can 1 really tell that it’s “longer?” That he’s coming out of the somersault early now? An usher sidles up to me as Larry bounces in the net. “You should be down there,” he whispers as he motions to the Espanas’ side of the tent. “Those guys are really good. Watch.” At that moment, Ramon Espana completes his triple and grabs the hands of his upside-down catcher. “See, they get it all the time.”

That night Circus Vargas packed up and the caravan drove the sixty-five miles to Riverside. From there they went north. I haven’t heard whether the Larrays have made it yet, but I imagine one afternoon they will catch the triple. And I can imagine what will happen at that moment. When Larry’s hands lock onto Bob’s and hold, and the flyer sweeps back up triumphantly to the pedestal board. I’ll bet the band will stop playing midphrase, and cheer. I ’ll bet the ushers will spring to their feet and word will race through the Vargas community. And people in the audience that day will turn to each other and shrug. They’ll wonder what just happened.

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