Bella Brothers Circus Train Disaster

By the time little Harold “Cheesy” Cravedon, joined Bella Brothers Traveling Circus at age fourteen, the poor kid had experienced more misery in his relatively brief life than most people endure in a lifetime. Born to a single mother who struggled to feed her children by working as a house cleaner in Stamford Connecticut. Growing up, Cheesy was always well-behaved, attentive, and he loved his mother very much. So needless to say, Cheesy was utterly shattered when, at the tender age of nine, he suffered the misfortune of discovering his mother’s lifeless, strangled, body upon returning home late one April evening.

The bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of Cheesy’s mother, and an even stranger set of clues left for investigators, eventually led nowhere and the case of her murder was closed by the authorities within a few years. Police interviewed Cheesy more than once, but little attention was paid to what the nine-year-old had to say. During the years that followed, as Cheesy was shuffled from one miserable foster home to the next, he carried with him the gnawing feeling that he was ultimately somehow responsible for his mother’s untimely death.

Cheesy began his circus career tending to Bella’s exotic animals which, aside from the infamous Demented Boys Clown Troupe, seemed to be the customer’s favorites. The job was mundane and exhausting, but Cheesy was likable, took good care of the animals, and quickly earned a reputation as a trustworthy member of the Bella crew. With a few notable exceptions, Cheesy got along with, and was well respected by the rest of the crew and performers. Unfortunately, the Demented Boys Clown Troupe, true to its name, had a few rotten apples among its ranks. By far the worst of the lot was Drupo the Clown. Cheesy always assumed the Demented Boy shtick was just part of the act, but Drupo and a few of the other clowns were downright mean and sometimes actually went out of their way to be cruel.

Cheesy tried his best to focus on his animals and steer clear of trouble, but he couldn’t help notice the abuse Drupo and his sometimes brutal minions occasionally doled out on Bella’s other hapless clowns. Cheesy tried his best not to think about and was relieved it didn’t impact him directly. Unfortunately, that all changed abruptly one afternoon when Mr. Ferick, Bella’s ringmaster extraordinaire came calling. It seemed Twig, the troupe’s lone dwarf clown, had vanished from the train somewhere between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Cheesy couldn’t help but think Twig’s sudden disappearance seemed strange since payday was always the day the circus made it to the next show town, but the show needed a new “little” clown and Cheesy was the only crew member who fit the bill.

For some reason, fans seemed to love the shenanigans of the Demented Boys. Of course, during performances, Drupo and company’s bad behavior appeared to be just part of the show. Fans had no way of knowing why all of the tripping, shoving, and hitting, looked so real. And let’s face it, who really minds bullies so long as it’s somebody else being tormented? Even though Cheesy has witnessed plenty of it, he didn’t fully grasp the extent of the torment until his first night as Twig’s replacement.

While Cheesy readied for his debut performance in Make-Up, he suddenly realized that his chair was surrounded by the most demented of the Demented Boys. Drupo, Dak, Punky, Taddler, and Clyde just stood and glared at Cheesy for a moment before Drupo got to the reason for their little visit. “Now dat yous part of dis troupe, yous gonna have to choose tween us and dem.” Cheesy was too scared to answer honestly, but he knew in his heart he didn’t have it in him to be cruel to anyone, especially the likes of Clappy, Gizmo, Fluffer, Smiley, Walnut, and Sammy aka “Poopy Pants.” Cheesy just sat silently. When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to respond, one by one, the Demented Boys turned in disgust and walked away.

For better or worse, Cheesy had cast his lot with the Bella clowns he would be proud to call his friends. Whatever concerns Cheesy might have had, he was reasonably confident that he would be okay. After all, what could Drupo and his zany band of wannabe gangsters possibly do to him that was any worse than the some of the sadistic foster parents he had endured? In any case, any apprehension or fear Cheesy might have felt was quickly shuffled to the back of his mind the moment Ringmaster Ferick burst into the dressing room and bellowed “SHOW TIME” at the top of his lungs.

As if the occupants were expecting the room to explode at any moment, a flurry of frantic make-up brush strokes, frenzied giant bow tie adjustments, and primping of crazy clown hair ensued. Seconds later, a wild stream of polka-dots, white gloves, and over-sized shoes came pouring out the front of the troupe tent. In an over-exaggerated parade of bizarre high-stepping, skipping, and cart-wheeling commotion, the 20 or so clowns swiftly found their way to the back entrance of the Big Top and crammed into the small aisleway leading to the performance rings. Bella Brothers Traveling Circus was about to bring out the clowns and Cheesy couldn’t have been more excited to be part of it.

As the pulsating kaleidoscope music grew louder, drawing excited customers to their feet, the mad swirling of color spotlights coasted to a stop giving way to a brilliant white floodlight illuminating the opening between two sections at the far end of the Big Top. Posing strategically in the middle of the aisleway, one hand propped on his hip, and the other holding three bowling pins above his head, was Drupo basking in the light. Drupo was clearly pleased to be the star attraction, something Twig should have realized before allowing himself to be a fan favorite and boasting about it when he had a few drinks too many. Like in Hollywood, stars of the circus enjoy the fattest paychecks, and nobody, but nobody took money out of Drupo’s hilariously over-sized clown pockets.

Like Twig before him, Cheesy had just one job each performance – get chased around the ring by the Demented Boys, be stuffed in the cannon into which only he would fit, and hope like hell the safety net was positioned correctly. Unfortunately, the lack of information can make even the simplest tasks more difficult, sometimes even dangerous. Like Drupo and his minions failing to tell Cheesy to place both arms safely at his side as they stuffed him down into the cannon barrel using the ridiculously huge toilet plunger for effect. The instant Cheesy blasted forth from the barrel of the cannon with a violent and painful thrust, he knew something was terribly wrong. Sailing through the air, Cheesy felt an intense searing pain in his right arm and watched helplessly as it flailed aimlessly behind him. When he landed on the safety net with a springy thud, an agonizing pain hit Cheesy like a ton of bricks. He didn’t realize it at the time, but Cheesy had just been initiated into Drupo’s demented little circus world.

Not by chance, Drupo just happened to be the first clown to climb up to the edge of the net and extend his hand to Cheesy. Apparently unmoved by the tears of pain streaming down Cheesy’s face, the grinning Drupo yanked him to his feet and held Cheesy’s unbroken arm quite firmly as the pair jumped in tandem down from the net down onto the ring surface below. Once on the ground, Drupo grabbed Cheesy tightly around the shoulders and forced him to do way more excruciatingly painful audience bows than necessary. As Drupo and Cheesy were making their way out of the ring to thunderous audience applause, Drupo pulled Cheesy in close and said in a soft ghastly voice: “That was just a warning. Don’t ever forget who’s in charge!” At that moment, Cheesy not only realized that Drupo was sick and cruel, he was quite possibly insane. Even worse, something about Drupo’s warning triggered a memory in Cheesy about his mother’s murder that, until that moment, Cheesy had completely blocked. Something about the phrase “don’t ever forget who’s in charge” had a horrible familiarity to it.

Growing up, Cheesy was always home for dinner by six o’clock sharp. His mother insisted on it. She had exactly one and a half hours between her day job and her night job, which was just enough time to make dinner, catch up with little Cheesy, and ensure he was safely home before she went back to work. It was a small measure of comfort to know that her Cheesy was fed and ready for bed by the time she left for the night. Between the Timex display in the front window of the Five & Dime and the chimes of the courthouse clock tower, Cheesy NEVER missed dinner. At least not until the Tambuzi Circus train rolled into town that April afternoon in 1972.

Walking home along the railroad tracks, Cheesy heard the familiar blare of a train whistle and, as he had countless times before, quickly stepped clear of the tracks to let it pass. To his delight, instead of the normal boring freight train, the dazzling art-work and vibrant colors of the Tambuzi Circus train suddenly popped into his peripheral vision. Cheesy stopped walking, turned toward the train, and stood mesmerized as the train rolled past. It was like an out-of-body experience for the nine-year-old. Lions, tigers, bears, elephants, bearded lady, strongman, trapeze artists, and brightly animated clown faces clanged and clacked by like a giant beautiful undulating billboard. The final car in the train said it best proclaiming the Tambuzi Circus to be the “WORLD’S GREATEST.”

It was quite a thrill for Cheesy to see such a spectacle up close. In fact, he was so excited that he didn’t even realize that the train was slowing as it passed. Once he realized that train was stopping just past the railroad bridge on the outskirts of town, Cheesy was so happy that he seemed to float across the tracks for the ten minutes it took him to reach the bridge himself. As marvelous and unexpected as it was, the circus was in town and Cheesy was the first to see it!

Sitting on the edge of the railroad bridge, Cheesy watched in amazement as one by one each of the train cars came alive with activity. Bales of hay and large buckets of water were hauled up to some of the ramps while elephants and gear were coming down others. At first Cheesy assumed the elephants were simply stretching their legs after a long train ride, but as workers unrolled the giant red and white tent and muscled the long poles into position, he soon realized that they had a job to do.

Over the next few hours, Cheesy watched a perfectly-choreographed feat of engineering. Many tents were erected, but nothing could prepare Cheesy for the sheer size of the Big Top. It took three elephants to raise each of the massive support poles holding up the center. By the time is was complete, the structure had to be eighty feet tall and two hundred feet long. Surely the show inside had to be incredible.

Shortly after the workers finished the Big Top, and about the time the other work was winding down too, Cheesy noticed a ragged-looking man staggering into view from the direction of town. The man obviously knew where he was headed, yet he seemed to sneak onto one of the train cars as soon as he reached it. Cheesy surveyed the amazing scene that had unfolded in front of his very eyes and slowly exhaled a great sigh of contentment at his good fortune. Suddenly, to his horror, Cheesy realized that he had lost track of time. As if shot from a cannon, he jumped to his feet, and raced home as fast as his legs would carry him.

By the time Cheesy arrived home, it was nearly 7:30, and he knew he was in BIG trouble. He quietly opened the back door, crept into the kitchen with his head hung in shame. He felt slightly relieved that his mother wasn’t waiting behind the door for him. Still focused on his tardiness, Cheesy didn’t notice that the kitchen was in a state of disarray as he passed through. He was even more surprised that his mother wasn’t sitting in the front room when he turned the corner, but something strange did catch his eye. Scrawled on the wall in dark red paint was “DONT FORGIT WHOS IN CHARGE!” By now seriously concerned about his mother, Cheesy bolted up the stairs, turned toward her bedroom, and saw his mother’s battered lifeless body lying on her bed.

Cheesy tried as hard as he could to recall exactly what the disheveled circus train returnee had looked like but, the shock, pain, and years of heartache had wiped clean the finer details of that day on the railroad bridge. Even so, Cheesy couldn’t help but suspect that Drupo, or one of his “friends,” might have had something to do with his mother’s murder. Now, nearly a decade later, Cheesy lies awake in his bunk, struggling with the realization that he could be sharing a train car with the very person who killed his mother and caused him SO MUCH PAIN.

As he swayed back and forth in his bunk to the gentle rolling of the railroad tracks, Cheesy contemplated his options. Should he contact the authorities? Should he confront Drupo? Should he take matters into his own hands? To complicate matters, the train was crossing the international border into Canada sometime overnight on its way to Montreal. He remembered overhearing one of the engineers earlier in the day bragging that the circus wouldn’t even have to stop at customs. Apparently, he knew of a rarely used, and unmonitored, bridge crossing that would cut four hours off the trip. If Cheesy was going to turn to the police, he’d have to wait until they reached Montreal.

The Bella Brothers train groaned under the strain of hauling thousands of tons of animals, people, and circus gear deep into the Adirondack Mountains. The roaring of the locomotive and the rhythmic creaking of the sleeper car, while deafening at times, were sounds to which Cheesy was accustomed. Each time the train made level ground, and the ride became smoother, the relative quiet would coax Cheesy toward sleep. On the downward slopes however, the squeal of near constant braking would wake everyone up, including Cheesy. Despite that, a few hours later, the mentally and physically exhausted Cheesy drifted off to sleep.

Sometime during the night, Cheesy was awakened by a violent shudder and an unearthly squealing of train brakes. He instantly noticed the downward trajectory of the train. His sense of imbalance was quickly confirmed as everything not nailed down began rattling or rolling toward the front of the car with each subsequent shudder. Cheesy wasn’t overly worried about the rough ride at first. The circus train was notorious for its hair-raising rides, especially when they were running late. With their next performance scheduled to open in Montreal in just three days, the engineers were probably just trying to take full advantage of the downhill runs while they were in the Adirondacks. Cheesy did his best to ease concerns by telling the kid in the adjacent bunk “relax kid, they’re just in a hurry to get to Canada.” They both laughed nervously as the train seemed to speed up with every curve.

Despite trying his best to remain outwardly calm, Cheesy knew right away they were in trouble the moment the ear-piercing squeal of the brakes fell silent. Obviously still headed downhill, the train was now moving at an alarming rate of speed. With the brakes out of commission, the rhythmic clanking of the wheels on the tracks increased in momentum with every second the hurdled down the mountain. To make matters worse, since it was pitch dark outside, no one could tell what was coming next. All Cheesy and his fellow circus-mates could do was hold on for dear life.

For a fleeting moment, Cheesy considered jumping from the train but, between the rocky terrain and the heart-stopping speed, surviving the jump didn’t seem very likely. By this point, every poor soul on the train, performers and workers alike, were white-knuckled and terrified. Suddenly, as if from out of nowhere, Fluffer galloped past, wearing only red long johns and bright green suspenders, screaming “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” Just then, the train lunged hard to the left so violently that the wheels on that side of the train car started screaming and sparking. Peering out between the slats, Cheesy could see the shower of sparks illuminating the gravel of the track bed. It took a moment to register, but Cheesy suddenly realized that the car was leaning perilously, two wheels on the track. When the train straightened, and the right side of the car slammed back to the track, the wheel assembly crashed through the wooden floor with a sickening thud. The last thing Cheesy remembered was the train car shuddering and grinding ninety degrees to the direction of travel, and debris, luggage, and people flying through the air.

When Cheesy regained consciousness, it took a second for him to realize where he was. The relative order of rows of bunks, hammocks, and stowed luggage was replaced by broken pieces of jagged lumber, clothing and personal belongings scattered about and, strangely, a clear view of rock, trees, and broken branches out the side of the now demolished train car. Most bizarre was the near silence. Except for the chirping of tree frogs and the rustling of leaves, there was virtually no sound. As Cheesy looked around more carefully, the horror of what had happened began to sink in. Just a few feet away, Cheesy began to make out what at first glance bore no resemblance to a human body. The grotesque and distorted remains of Fluffer, still wearing his red pajamas and suspenders, lie wedged between a set of bunks and the splintered remains of the train car’s floor. Fluffer’s right arm had been ripped from his shoulder and his legs were folded up in front of his body so tightly that one of his knees was bent sideways around what remained of his caved-in skull. Cheesy felt queasy and quickly turned away, but when he tried to pull his legs in front of his body to stand up, he instead felt an excruciating pain in his leg. When he examined it more closely, he discovered that a piece of broken wood about the size of a broomstick was impaled through his calf. Cheesy breathed heavy with agony and slowly lost consciousness again.

Sometime later, Cheesy was jolted awake by a loud, horrifying shriek of pain and agony that, best he could tell, was coming from several train cars ahead. When he tried to pull himself up to investigate, he was again met by his own jolt of pain caused by the wood protruding from his leg. Desperate to help whoever it was Cheesy heard, he reached down and yanked out the wood in one swift and agonizing motion. He slowly and painfully pulled himself upright and began to stagger toward a gaping opening in the side of the sleeper car.

The moment Cheesy stumbled out into the open, he saw the full scope of the disaster. Laying adjacent to the tracks were two elephants, both dead. Disfigured and dismembered bodies, all manner of dead or dying circus animal, train wheels, clothes, broken pieces of train cars, and bent and twisted metal of demolished train tracks littered the track bed for as far as the eye could see. So shocked by what he saw, that for a moment, Cheesy forgot why he had dragged himself out into the middle of the grisly scene. After a while, he managed to compose himself and slowly began to make his way down the tracks toward the horrible screams he had heard.

Stepping over all sorts of unspeakable carnage, Cheesy slowly and painfully made his way up the tracks, past twisted metal, shattered train cars, and countless bent and broken bodies and body parts. Eventually, he saw several figures ahead hunkered down around a smoky campfire. As he got closer, and the figures began to come into focus through the smoke, he realized that the three figures with their backs to him were Drupo, Clyde, and Dak. All three were hunched over, sitting on a piece of debris, and appeared to be eating. When Cheesy was within thirty feet of the trio, and about the time he was going to call out to them, he spotted a fourth person curled up in the fetal position, twitching and writhing in pain. Cheesy quickly recognized that the fourth pitiful figure on the ground was his friend Gizmo and, to his horror, that he was missing arms from the elbow down.

At precisely that moment, as if sensing his presence, Drupo slowly twisted his head around in a clockwise motion and glared menacingly at Cheesy. As if he’d been interrupted slurping a big spoonful of tomato soup, a slimy red ooze dripped down Drupo’s chin. Drupo purposefully flashed Cheesy an exaggerated creepy smile and asked matter-of-factly “are ya hungry?” Without thinking, and simply looking for comfort from any survivors of the train wreck, Cheesy continued toward the group with his eyes fixed on Gizmo. When Cheesy was within a few feet of the campfire, Gizmo’s eyes suddenly flew open widely and he loudly moaned “RUN CHEESY RUN” mustering every ounce of energy he could.

Just then, standing just a few feet away, Clyde hauled off and kicked Gizmo in the face as hard as he could, knocking out teeth and causing a stream of blood to pour from his mouth. In the same instant, Drupo and Dak spun around revealing, to Cheesy’s shock and horror, the unholy meal they held in their hands. Each held one of Gizmo’s charred and white-gloved arms. There was no mistaking what the chewed flesh dangling of the severed forearms and the blood-soaked grins on Drupo and Dak’s faces meant. As Cheesy turned to run, he was tackled from behind and he passed out from the agonizing pain in his leg.

When Cheesy drifted slowly back to consciousness he was sitting propped up against a tree, bound hands and feet, a few yards from the campfire. Lying to the side was what remained of Gizmo’s dismembered body. One of his legs, giant red shoe still on its foot, hung over the fire in a ghastly haphazard fashion. The large pool of blood around Gizmo’s lifeless body left no doubt in Cheesy’s mind that he was gone. Within a couple of minutes, Drupo noticed that Cheesy was awake and staggered over to him in a way that indicated the Demented Boys had probably washed down their unthinkable meal with more than a little whisky. And, to add another layer of horror to the unimaginable, Cheesy recognized Drupo’s unforgettable staggering motion from the day his mother was murdered.

As the days passed without any sign of rescue, Drupo and his band of cannibal clowns continued to prey on hapless survivors. Fortunately for Cheesy, his friends Walnut and Clappy, who had escaped into the woods, freed him and led him to the relatively safety of a nearby cave. Sammy wasn’t so lucky. Within a week of the crash, Drupo and his gang freed him from the wreckage and forced him to watch as they tortured, dismembered, and ate all manner of flesh, human or animal, dead or alive. For some reason, probably the abundance of other meat, the Demented Boys kept Sammy alive. Maybe it was to satisfy their sick fondness for torture, or as bait to lure Cheesy and his friends out of the woods, or simply because they found humor in Sammy’s habit of soiling himself whenever he was scared.

Rescue never came for the Bella Brothers Circus train crash survivors. Of the few who were able to elude Drupo and his lot, none were physically capable of escaping the deep mountain canyon where the wreckage came to rest and the ensuing carnage was inflicted. As it turned out, the show promoter in Montreal vanished with the advance ticket money, so local authorities assumed the circus was never actually booked in the first place. The remote rail line used to try and bypass customs and save the circus some time and money had been abandoned long ago. While most of the circus performers and workers were loners with no family to speak of, some reports of missing loved ones were filed around the country, unfortunately, no one pieced those reports together and realized that an entire circus train had vanished into thin air.

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