A vibrant backyard circus scene under the Arizona sun, complete with a variety of performances and a festive atmosphere.

The Greatest Show on Earth

In a Phoenix summer, a ten-year-old’s vision transformed a backyard into a circus, blending childhood imagination with a philanthropic cause. This narrative captures the essence of innovation, teamwork, and community spirit as friends come together to entertain and raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

During one blazing Phoenix summer, when I was ten, I hatched an idea that would transform our backyard into a bustling circus arena. The swelter of Arizona didn’t offer much in the way of outdoor entertainment—I was too hydrophobic for the Big Surf waterpark and too introverted for the Legend City amusement park. I had also already read my ten books for the week—the maximum number of books a kid could check out from the Saguaro Public Library; Encyclopedia Brown, The Three Investigators, The Great Brain, The Hardy Boys, and the Boxcar Children were some of my favorite series. But having recently witnessed the marvel of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus—featuring the intrepid animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams and his elephants and tigers—I was inspired. The thought struck me during a particularly stifling afternoon, the kind where the heat seemed to press down from the sky like an invisible foot, forcing everything to slow down, to take shelter. Yet, in that slowness, my mind raced with possibilities.

“Why not here?” I thought, imagining the empty space behind our house filled with laughter, applause, and the thrill of performance. The idea wasn’t just to mimic the circus but to create something uniquely ours, a spectacle where my friends and I were the stars, and where our efforts could contribute to something bigger than ourselves. I envisioned it as a fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a cause close to my heart after watching the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon with my family.

I wasted no time in rallying my troops. My friends from school and church, each with their unique talents and quirks, were intrigued by the proposal. With the earnestness only ten-year-olds can muster, I explained my vision: a circus with all of us as performers, from acrobats and clowns to tightrope walkers and magicians. The enthusiasm was infectious, and before long, we had a troupe ready to transform my daydream into reality. There weren’t many of us, so we each had to train ourselves in how to perform different acts.

We faced our first significant challenge in creating a space that could host our circus. The Arizona sun was unforgiving, and the idea of performing under its relentless gaze was daunting. Innovation led us to repurpose an old 35-foot military cargo parachute as our big top, providing much-needed shade for performers and audience alike. Securing it posed a puzzle, solved by employing a towering center pole and a network of nylon ropes tied to the roof and trees. This makeshift canopy not only offered respite from the sun but also lent an air of authenticity to our endeavor. Our backyard was no longer just a patch of grass, but a stage set for adventure.

Preparation for the event was a whirlwind of activity. Each morning, before the day’s heat had begun to melt everything, we gathered to practice our acts. I had appointed myself the ringmaster and the magician of the troupe. My magic repertoire wasn’t sophisticated by any stretch—my audience was to be younger children, after all. The tricks were simple: coins pulled from behind ears, cards guessed correctly, and objects made to disappear and reappear. They were not enough to fool the older folks, but I hoped to spark a sense of wonder in the younger ones.

As D-day approached, our anticipation grew. We had distributed handmade fliers around the neighborhood and posted them up at the local Circle K convenience store as well as the Tastee Freez ice cream shop, inviting everyone to our backyard circus. We would sell concessions such as homemade cupcakes, cookies, and iced lemonade. The word spread, and the buzz grew; we even erected the parachute big top the day before, ensuring everything was ready. That night, I barely slept, running through my act in my head, hoping everything would go as planned.

The Saturday morning of the circus dawned clear and hot, the sun already promising another scorching day. Yet, under the shade of our big top, it felt like another world. As the ringmaster, I donned a makeshift costume, feeling every bit the part despite the nerves bubbling under the surface. My friends looked to me for reassurance, and I gave them a confident nod. Today, we were more than just kids; we were performers about to put on the greatest show of our young lives.

As the gates—so to speak—opened, our makeshift circus welcomed a small but eager crowd, their faces alight with curiosity and excitement. The air buzzed with anticipation, the kind that precedes any great performance, amplified by the charm of our youthful endeavor. I stepped into the ring first, my heart racing, not from nerves, but from the sheer thrill of seeing our vision come to life. My role as ringmaster had me introducing each act with a flourish, my voice steady despite the butterflies in my stomach.

Our circus was a smorgasbord of talents: from acrobatics that had us holding our breath as friends flipped and tumbled across the grass, to clowning that drew laughter so hearty it echoed beyond our yard. One of my friends stood atop an empty 50-gallon oil drum lying on its side and walked it through the yard while another strapped on a pair of homemade wooden stilts and desperately tried not to fall. Our high-wire act was actually just a 2×4 rigged about four feet above the ground, but the crowd politely oohed and aahed when my friend went from walking the 4-inch side to the more perilous 2-inch sided. Each act was met with applause, the sound like fuel, driving us to pour even more of ourselves into our performances. I watched, pride swelling in my chest, as my friends shone under the proverbial spotlight, their hours of practice manifesting in near flawless execution—well, as good as you could expect from 10 year olds with three weeks of playful rehearsal.

Then came my turn. As the magician, I had crafted a series of illusions designed to dazzle our younger audience. The adults, in the know, watched with indulgent smiles, but the children’s eyes were wide with wonder. Coins vanished and reappeared with a flick of my wrist, cards shifted and changed in impossible ways, and objects disappeared from under their very noses, only to be found again in the most unexpected places. The magic, simple though it was, captivated them, their laughter and gasps of surprise made for the sweetest accolades.

The day wasn’t without its hiccups—a loose trapeze here, a toppled fish pond there, a leak in the ring toss tank, running out iced lemonade and cookies in our concession stand, a fortune teller with a wig that kept sliding around—but these challenges were met with the same spirit of collaboration and ingenuity that had brought our circus to life. Each obstacle was a lesson in teamwork and problem-solving, skills that, unbeknownst to us then, would serve us well beyond the confines of our backyard circus.

As the sun reached its zenith, all of the performers gathered for the grand finale. It was a moment of unity, a culmination of our efforts, as we bowed to the sound of applause, the warmth of the community’s embrace palpable in the air. We had set out to entertain, to bring a slice of magic to our neighborhood, but what we achieved was something far greater. We had created a moment of pure joy, a memory that would linger long after the parachute tent was packed away and the crowd had dispersed.

In the days that followed, the buzz of our circus didn’t fade. Kind words came from all corners—family, neighbors, schoolmates, church leaders—each congratulating us on a job well done. But beyond the accolades, there was a deeper sense of accomplishment, a realization that even as children, we had the power to make a difference, to bring people together for a cause greater than ourselves—for kids who couldn’t walk or run, much less tumble and flip. That summer, under the Arizona sun, we learned the value of vision, leadership, and community. It was a lesson in the power of dreams, however small, and the incredible things that can be achieved when we dare to bring them to life.

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