by Vina Vroom
July, 1977. A young Vina Vroom and her Brownie Troop are dragged to Peru (that's PEE-roo), Indiana, the "Circus Capital of the World." As little Vina stands in the blistering heat watching the circus parade, she is suddenly grabbed from behind and lifted into the air. As her assailant spins her around, she takes one look at his brightly-painted face and passes out. This, friends, marks the naissance of Vina's fear of clowns.
If there is one thing of which I am most afraid, it's clowns. And cicadas, but mostly clowns. This July, Grace Delcano offered me the opportunity to confront my demons while simultaneously enjoying a scooter ride in the Chicago's near southwest suburbs. Grace told me the horrific true story which unfolded on the night of the twenty-second of July, 1918
During the wee hours of the night, a Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was traveling west through Indiana, toward Hammond. It stopped near Ivanhoe with an overheated axle-box. As the circus train sat on the tracks, a second train, piloted by engineer Alonzo Sargent, appeared on the same track. Sargent failed to heed signal flares, warning lights, and the screams of his fellow crew members because he was dead asleep.
After plowing through the rear three sleeper cars and killing 56 of the nearly 400 performers and roustabouts, Sargent's train came to rest. Then the whole mess caught fire.
The Showmen's League of America bought a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, in which to lay the victims to rest. Unfortunately, due to the transient nature of circus performers, may of the victims remain unidentified e.g. "Unknown Male 46"or were known only by nicknames"Baldy," "4-Horse Driver."
After getting lost several times and disturbing the peace at several dead-clownless cemeteries, we came acrossWoodlawn. I must say that I expected the site to be much creepier. The Showmen's League plot now contains more than 750 graves, dating from 1918 to present. Five elephant statues mark off the area, each with their trunk pointed down, a circus symbol of mourning or sadness.
It is said that sometimes, when it's quiet, you can hear trumpeting elephants in the cemetery. My friend Aimee's roommate, Gwen, whose dad is a minister, so you know this isn't a lie, said that when she lived near the cemetery, all kinds of crazy stuff happened. The creepiest thing happened when her family was driving west on Cermak and had to skid to a stop to avoid hitting something crossing the road from the entrance of the cemetery It was a balloon! Eek!
As a result of our scooter ride, I've begun to make peace with my clown demons. Bryan even took a picture of me fondling the "Baldy" headstone, but, eerily, that one didn't come out. I must admit, though, that Gwen's story still freaks me out.
Surf Roadside America to find out more about the Showmen's Rest.
Check back in 2007 to see if Vina rides her scooter during the Cicada invasion.
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