The Tale of the Tail Post-WWII was a pretty good period in America, but there was still plenty of stuff to scare a kid. Alfred Hitchcock, the Twilight Zone, communism, polio, and nuclear annihilation immediately spring to mind. One thing I wasn’t afraid of was dogs because my brother, three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of big, friendly Newfoundland dogs.
My mother’s love for Newfoundland and my father’s enthusiastic support provided me with many canine adventures. There were always eight or more of the friendly 150-pound giants around our 6-acre rural farm on Long Island, and it wasn’t unusual to also have a couple litters of puppies in whelping boxes in the kitchen.
My parents traveled the dog show circuit throughout the Northeast and three or four of the Drury kids were always in tow. If a kid growing up in a gym is a gym rat, then we were show rats.
My father was the classic Long Island Railroad commuter who read the New York Times on his way into town. One day he was struck by an advertisement for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It featured a beautiful female trapeze artist and next to her was a Newfie. My parents couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet another Newfie owner, so they contacted the circus and got the artist’s name. Then, before we knew it, we met Nina Karpova. Nina was born in Russia and escaped during the Russian Revolution. After World War II, she escaped from East Germany to the West. In 1953, Nina, her daughter Lily, and her Newfoundland came to visit us.
Nina did a trapeze act with a fixed (not swinging) trapeze. Two men held cables to keep her from swinging. She had special boots that attached to the trapeze. When the audience least expected it, she let go, swung forward and became a human pinwheel. It was a real crowd pleaser. She was going to perform “Big top,” a popular television show that ran from 1950 to 1957. I remember sitting in front of the TV on Saturday waiting for his act to come on, but it never happened and we didn’t find out why until later that day.
During rehearsal, a man held one of the cables at the wrong angle and when Nina began to swing she hit the cable, causing her boots to come loose from the trapeze and her to fall 40 feet onto a cement floor. Miraculously, she didn’t break a bone. She and Lily stayed at our house that night. When I saw her shuffling out of the bedroom the next morning, she was bruised from head to toe.
Nina’s daughter Lily had an impressive cartwheel routine that she eventually turned into a nightclub act. After her mother retired, Lily traveled the world performing in nightclubs.
Lily also had an equestrian act. She had a wonderful horse, Kasback, who performed a form of dressage in which she executed complex maneuvers in response to imperceptible commands communicated through a slight shift in Lily’s weight, the pressure exerted by her knees and legs, and her handling of the legs. reins.
Kasback was a handsome 17-foot-tall horse with a glossy dark brown coat and a lusciously braided mane. The piece de resistance was his tail. It was a perfectly groomed 5 foot long tail that he brandished proudly as he performed his routine.
Kasback traveled in a railway car with some of the wild animals on the circus train and once rode alongside a camel. Camels can be cantankerous creatures. Do you want proof? An irritated camel bit off its owner’s head in India a few years ago after the owner left the camel in the sun for hours without water.
The animal picked up the owner by the neck and threw him to the ground, chewed the body and cut off the head. You don’t want to mess with Camels. In hindsight, I think we shouldn’t have been surprised when a camel ate all but 6 inches of Kasback’s previously alluring tail, a mere snack. Dommage C’est.
In the mid-1950s, whenever Nina and Lily were in the Northeast with a circus, we would visit or spend a few nights with us. I’m not sure how many times they visited, but it was enough for my dad, at Nina’s request, to buy 50 feet of 2-inch manila rope to hang high up in a tree for climbing practice. Her athletic ability made a tremendous impression on me as he watched this beautiful blond woman climb the rope hand over hand, her legs spread out horizontally.
When Nina’s Newfoundland died, she asked my parents where she could find a taxidermist to put it together. Although my parents found it a bit shocking, they found one. But alas, the taxidermist’s building burned down and the dog’s fur was lost.
After a few visits, Nina asked my parents for help with a complicated legal situation. Nina and Lily wanted to leave Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They were told they couldn’t because they owed the circus too much money. It turns out that Ringling Brothers had a form of indentured servitude. They paid the performers but charged them for transporting their equipment from the train station to the performance venue. They also charged for the transportation of the artists themselves. Because performers were charged numerous such fees, it was nearly impossible to leave the circus. Nina understood this, so she dragged her own equipment and walked towards the places. She kept track of how much money she was saving and when she found out they didn’t owe Ringling Brothers anything, she quit. Ringling Brothers did not believe them and would not release them from their contract. My parents found them a well-known lawyer from New York City who, with a threatening letter, managed to get them released.
From that point on, Nina and Lily worked for a variety of circuses in North America in the summer and South America in the winter. The last time we saw them in America was around 1960, but we kept in touch.
I last saw Nina in 1972. I had just graduated from university and traveled around Europe for three months. I landed in Hamburg, where Nina and Lily lived. Lily was on the Asian clubbing circuit. I had a wonderful visit with Nina, but one thing stood out.
Nina had a nice little house with a loft that I slept in. The morning after I arrived, I woke up jet lagged and disoriented. I rolled over and felt a tan animal skin that I had been sleeping on.
Was it a deer? No, it was too big and the color was wrong.
Was it a bear or a moose? No, the coat was too thin.
Was it a zebra or another exotic animal? No, the color pattern was wrong.
I looked at it carefully but couldn’t figure it out. I ran my hands up and down the dark brown fur and since there was no head there was no help from that side.
Then I ran both hands down the animal’s back and suddenly something clicked. I saw and felt the animal’s tail. Or should I say I felt the lack of tail. Where there was 5 feet of lustrous hair, there was now only 6 inches. Surely only one animal on this planet, heck in this solar system, was that big, with a tail that small.
That’s right, you guessed it. She had been sleeping on Kasback’s mortal remains.