In his indefatigable, and thus far lamentably successful, effort to remain 12 years old, Senior Writer Curry Kirkpatrick ran away with the circus this summer, ostensibly to observe the daily life of animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams (page 82).
Kirkpatrick, who is really 34, was well prepared for the animals, being the nephew of television's Marlin Perkins, as well as the owner of the late and great Sonny Williams, a dog named after a character in the movie Putney Swope. "When I was young, Uncle Marlin used to take me to the St. Louis zoo and drape snakes on me," Kirkpatrick recalls. There is no record of how the snakes felt, but Curry says, "I loved it." Chimps and elephants are now his favorite animals, he says, adding, "It is a well-known fact that an elephant is more intelligent than the average magazine editor." His one bad childhood memory of the circus is that his parents forbade him to eat cotton candy, but he and his 7-year-old daughter, Sage, finally had some recently. "I hated it and so did she," Kirkpatrick says. "Maybe when we grow up...."
The week-long stint with the circus was spent at the Los Angeles Forum, which is also one of Kirkpatrick's haunts on the pro-basketball beat. "I never thought of it as The Forum," he says. "I felt I had run away with the circus, and was living out a fantasy. The circus is one of the few things in life that does not disappoint me. I had expected the illusion to end when I went backstage, but it didn't."
The last time Kirkpatrick had been in The Forum was a few months earlier, to cover a matchup of Centers Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in which the eventual NBA champion, Portland, eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs. That confrontation was no more dramatic, he found, than any performance of the two, sometimes three, daily circus shows. "Before every one there is a feeling of anticipation that transcends anything I have experienced at an athletic event," Kirkpatrick says. "And I am talking about circus shows performed before even a half-full house. It is the continuous excitement of being on stage."
September 25, 1977
Kirkpatrick's fantasizing did not include excitement of another order. Although he has seen Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors snarl at the press, Kirkpatrick was not prepared for the tiger whose swipe at Gebel-Williams' shoulder and arm resulted in a wound that required 40 stitches to close. "That happened during a morning show, but after a trip to the hospital Gunther did both the afternoon and evening performances," he says. "So did the tiger."
Kirkpatrick feels that circus people are the best athletes he has ever seen. "They do impossible stunts two and three times daily," he says, "and are, by current salary standards for athletes, grossly underpaid. As Los Angeles King Goalie Rogie Vachon says, for what Gebel-Williams does, 'He makes peanuts.' And the circus people are far more interesting."