By Norris Chambers

              When I was small I didn’t know very much. I got a beautiful little banjo for Christmas. I knew what a banjo was and had probably indicated that I would like to have one. When I opened the box and examined the instruction book I still didn’t know what to do. I knew that the strings had to be tight and in some order. My mother tried to help me but after a few minutes of banjo plunking she suggested that we secure the aid of Uncle John. He could play any instrument and would be glad to help.

`           Uncle John moved his thumb across the strings, producing an unmelodic sound, and said “Each string has to have a certain tone before the instrument is in tune. You must remember this little phrase when you start to tune. ‘My dog has fleas! Each word represents the tone of a string. Start tuning on the bottom string.”  He started tightening the bottom string and plucking it with his thumb. The tightening continued until the sound from the string sounded similar to the “my” that he was repeating each time he plucked the string. He then moved up to the second string and repeated the performance using “dog” instead of just “my.” He then adjusted the string until it also sounded similar to the word he was singing. He performed the same operation with the two upper strings, completing the “my dog has fleas” tuning aid.

            “The banjo is in tune now.” He announced. He played a short rendition of Old Joe Clark and handed the instrument to me. “Play ‘my dog has fleas’ and sing with it until you can do it in your sleep, then you will know how to tune a banjo – or any other musical instrument!”

            I knew about fleas but this was the first time I knew they were used in banjo tuning. I had heard of dogs and cats that had fleas living in their wooly skin and dining on their nourishing blood.

            I knew that fleas sometimes chose people for the entree of the day and were capable of causing a lot of itching connected with the dining process. I had even seen fleas on scrawny cows and horses.

            Once we were ‘possum hunting and Clifton pulled a grouchy, snarly one out of a shallow hollow in an old oak tree. He seemed to be in a very angry mood. I suggested that he might have been in the middle of a good dream and didn’t appreciate being disturbed. Clifton agreed and handed him down to me, holding the tail and letting him snap his sharp teeth too close to my face. I held him by the tail and when he calmed down I saw that he was covered by dozens of large, black fleas. At the same time I noticed many of them had crawled up my arm. I could also feel them crawling around under my shirt. Clifton had collected his fair share and we had to spend considerable time removing the little pests. We had a lot of flea removing to do on our ‘possum before skinning him. 

            One thing I had never seen or read about was a “Flea Circus”.  Clifton and I saw our first flea circus when, at an early age, we attended the State Fair of Texas. It was the first year we were old enough to ride the school bus to this big fair that so many had described as the greatest thing on earth. The school sponsored the trip every year, offering free transportation to the community as well as school students. The fair admission price was very reasonable on this special day and all who had gone reported a great trip!

            After an early start we arrived in Dallas about eleven o’clock and settled into the special lot prepared for school bus parking. The bus driver, after a hurried conference with a few of the adults, said that everyone should be back at the bus by 5:00 P.M. The group moved into the fair grounds and separated.

            Clifton and I could hardly believe the things we saw. Although our spending money was very scarce we managed to try a few of the thrilling rides, attend a show, sample a little of the fine food that was so highly advertised and pay for admission into a wide tent with a big sign identifying it as FLEA CIRCUS! There were some large pictures of smiling fleas riding bicycles, playing baseball and pushing carts.

            There were apparently several shows in progress. Each stage was enclosed, except for the glass front, on the rear and each end. The stage was about three feet from front to back and from side to side. It was equipped with small models of what would be found on a circus site. We spent at least a half hour going from one flea performance to another.

            The little fleas were actually performing like circus actors. They were walking threads high in the cage that looked like real wire walking! Some were swinging on thread ropes. A few acts featured a tiny flea fighting a vicious spider or scorpion.

            As the bus found its way out of the lot I ask Clifton if he thought we ought to try training some fleas. He answered, “If I could train them to leave me alone I wouldn’t bother them!” We were never guilty of fine tuning a flea circus!