As I hear the reports of the on-going massacres occurring almost daily in Afghanistan and Iraq, I am reminded of the catastrophe that I personally experienced as a child as WWII was beginning to wind down — the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6, 1944:

— and of my friend, David.

I wonder what the long-term impact will be on the kids over there — seeing too much in the way of screaming bodies and shattered corpses?

I know what happened to David and me.

To give some background here, David and I lived about a half mile apart in the lee of Avon mountain to the west of Hartford, Connecticut and its immediate suburbs.  We met by chance and became fast friends for several years until I moved to another school and other summer activities.

David’s parents — he a Vermont farmer and she and an English nurse — ran a gentleman’s farm and did the cooking and cleaning for this prosperous WASP family with its two teenage daughters — the father later ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for governor.

The living situation was a bit odd with the master-servant patterns of work, privilege, and responsibility.  However, I learned how to do all the things that one does with farms from milking cows to bringing in the hay.  And David and I would go swimming or hunt frogs in a pond about an 1/8 of a mile up a side road still on the property of the farm — I think such ponds were originally designed to provide a water supply in case of fires.  David was later banned by the owners from swimming there.

On the day of the fire the teenage daughters of the family had offered to take David and me to the Barnum and Bailey circus a mile or so north of Hartford.  We traveled by bus in those days of strict gas rationing.

The day was scorching hot and, as we waited in line, I think we bought some cokes — I got a chameleon in a box which one could pin to one’s shirt.  There was a caged gorilla to distract us as we waited at the main entrance which led into Section A in the tent.  We were located in C — about an 1/8 of the way around the tent and across from the only other entrance (for the caged animals and performers).

As the aerialists were mounting to begin their high wire acts and the animals were being led in through cage lines to where they would be performing, the thought occurred to me as to what would I do were there to be a fire?  I saw that with a massive crowd trying to make an escape through the main entrance, we would have little chance to squeeze through, so I looked backwards and noticed that there was a gap between the walls and the roof of the tent, that the better way to get out would be to climb up the stairs and grab one of the free swinging ropes to slide down outside the tent wall.

I had barely had that thought when I noticed what looked to be a flashing circus attraction moving up the inner tent roof roughly over the main entrance.  Probably we all realized virtually at once that this was no planned entertainment, but rather flames rushing up the flammable paraffin coated surface of the tent towards the roof — panic and turmoil!

I grabbed David.  We rushed up the steps.  Slid down the ropes to the ground, made it to a snow fence set up to block people from sneaking into the tent which was eventually pushed aside.  Then I lost David.  I was shortly found by a neighbor mother, Mrs. Grey, who grabbed me away from the tent to walk back in a daze the mile or so to Hartford.  We had found David sitting on a post looking stunned — he had seen what I had not — 168 burned bodies — and hundreds of severely wounded.

Not to over extend this sad story, I only learned a year or two later that David had sunk into deep depression and had been moved into a local mental hospital where he remained in a catatonic state for several decades.  I felt badly not to have tried to visit him there, as his mother had at one point urged us to remain friends for life.  David was extremely bright and, I would assume, was a victim of post traumatic stress.  My only aftereffects were some bad nightmares and an impulse to sit near exits of large rooms filled with people.

I wonder what the long term costs will be of our wars over there now with so much killing and so much violence — on their children and our own young troops?

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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