Surrounded by 360 degrees of distraction every waking moment, my eyes constantly focus and refocus, dependent upon where my attention lands. For instance, as I write these words, I’m aware, peripherally, that I’m sitting at a round table in front of a round window. There’s a floor beneath my feet and a ceiling over my head. The table is cluttered with papers, books, and a bronze lamp with a green shade, from which dangles an assemblage of elephant pendants. They bump together and tinkle like tiny wind chimes each time the table jiggles. Behind the lamp are framed photographs of elephants. Thumb-tacked to the wall is a postcard from the Circus World Museum labeled “Cheerful Gardner, the Human Pendulum, c. 1930.”
Cheerful’s head is encased in the mouth of a female Asian elephant. His face looks only slightly squashed, mouthed between a soft elephant tongue and a hard upper palate, carefully positioned between the giant nutcrackers of her molars. His feet are off the ground and bent out of sight up behind him. The lower part of his body is a blur.
Cheerful is doing the swinging; the elephant is motionless except for her ears and tail, the only two body parts always in motion on an elephant. Her trunk is curled onto her forehead, out of the way, resting between her eyes. The tip of it is open, because she is breathing through it instead of her mouth. Her cheeks are sunken with age.
Something about her pose is stiff, uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because her lower lip is pushed down as far as it will go against Cheerful’s neck, all the way to his clavicle. Maybe she’s about to gag because the taste of his hair oil is rancid.
To her right is a glimpse of the Big Top – a tent held down by thick ropes and large stakes. Behind her is a circus wagon with wooden wheels, sunburst spokes radiating from their centers. A painted sign reads “75¢”.
Cheerful the Human Pendulum is dressed in a cuffed shirt, short vest, and loose balloon pants probably fastened at the ankles. He wears a tie and a knotted cummerbund – a vaguely Oriental costume. For safety’s sake a second handler stands just behind the elephant, only one leg and a hand visible. The hand holds a white-shafted ankus, an elephant prod with a sharp point. The head-carry is one of the most dangerous circus stunt invented.
Curious about Cheerful’s odd name, I spend a couple of hours researching it, moving back and forth from one website to another. Frank “Cheerful” Gardner (1884-1952) worked for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which joined with Ringling Brothers in 1939. As herd boss, he once had 29 elephants under his control and was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame in 1982. According to those who knew him, Cheerful was a dour man who never smiled. He trained only one elephant for the head-carry stunt and her name was Blanche. Born in the wild, age unknown, Blanche could also stand on her hind legs while carrying Cheerful. She died in 1941 soon after she was unloaded from the Ringling circus train. Eleven other elephants from the train dropped dead that same day, poisoned by DDT sprayed on the foliage alongside the railroad tracks.
Every day, for as long as I’m in front of my computer, the Human Pendulum dangles in front of me, part of my peripheral visual world. But now that I know his story, I’m not distracted by his daredevil stunt anymore. It is Blanche, the tolerant elephant with a mouthful of human head, who sets my mind in motion.