Seeing a living unicorn

Twenty-two years ago, television advertisements by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus promised children an opportunity to see a unicorn at the Richfield Coliseum. How could anyone pass up that opportunity?
In 1985, I truly became country. My family moved our trailer out of the trailer park and onto a piece of land just outside the tiny village of Apple Creek, near Wooster. Our new home was about 15 feet away from corn and soybean fields that were, in the spring, sprayed with liquid fertilizer. The smell of manure, not surprisingly, soaked into everything we owned: our curtains, our furniture, our clothes.

Aside from the smell we carried with us throughout the summer, the new land was wonderful. We had a great bike path, and we were also close enough to town to ride our bikes there from time to time; to the Golden Bear Dariette for ice cream or the Apple Creek Town and Country for a candy bar or a pack of baseball cards.

This was also the year I lost faith in promises of the fantastic.

As a member of the school Safety Patrol, I got to stand in the middle of state Route 250 holding an impotent stick with a red flag that pleaded “stop” to the semis that barreled through town. Safety Patrol had two main benefits: We got out of class early, and we were treated to a trip each year.

In 1985, we had all agreed to go to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was a very special year for that circus. At a time when all the girls’ Trapper Keepers were plastered with rainbows and unicorns, the circus promised what we had always been told was imaginary: Ringling Brothers promised to show us the world’s only living unicorn.

As a boy, my desire to see the unicorn did not lie in how pretty the animal might be, or what magical abilities its horn possessed. I didn’t care about how silky soft the tail would be, nor was I excited to see the unicorn’s blinding whiteness. No. What I was interested in seeing was the impossible. I had long given up hope on Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I didn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. And I sure as heck didn’t believe in unicorns, until Ringling Bros. promised me it was possible. They offered a world where the mythical was real, and I believed them.

We filed to our seats when we got to Richfield. We were pretty high up in the arena, but the circus, in all its largeness, had filled the empty space below with purples and reds and oranges, colors that dazzled my eyes. The circus began, and I was riveted to my seat. The clowns were funny. The acrobats were acrobatic. There were elephants and the usual circus fare. I recall guys riding motorcycles in a spherical cage, but that memory could be coming from some other event I attended. Twenty-two-year-old memories tend to blend together.

We all were waiting, it seemed, for the star of the circus’s marketing campaign. Like a television show dragging out the climax until the final minutes, the circus offered no glimpse of the magical creature for what seemed like hours. It tainted the night. I could not focus on the clowns or the trapezes or the cotton candy or the elephants or the music or anything else. But then, the ringmaster announced that we were about to see what we had all come to see.

A unicorn, according to the fairy tales, was a horse with a horn sprouting from its forehead. I trained my eyes on the spot where the unicorn was to appear. The colors hung in the air. The smells, cotton candy, hot dogs, elephant dung, floated to the ceiling. Slowly, an animal rose through the stage. I looked at my friends to see their reaction.

This creature had the long hair, but the face was less than equine. There was a long, single horn protruding from its head, but the animal seemed too small and not at all magnificent.

Something was askew.

And then it clicked. The circus may have been able to fool the kids from Cleveland, the ones who grew up believing cows to be every bit as mythical as a unicorn, but it was clear to those of us from Apple Creek, to those of us whose clothes frequently smelled of manure, that we were not looking at the mythical unicorn at all.

I don’t know if the horn was fake, a prosthetic, perhaps, or if it was some mean genetic engineering project. But I did know I wasn’t looking at something that was elusive, something that was magical, something that I had never seen before.

This animal, the one the circus held up to such high esteem, the one that had buoyed hope in my young heart that there was magic in this world, was nothing more than a goat.
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