June 18, 2020REGION — With Father's Day coming up this weekend, I thought it would be fun to share a story that involved, my father, lions, tigers, a leopard and the state of New Jersey.
For the back story, my twin brother and I were raised by my father since we were very young. We were born in Atlantic City, N.J. and lived there until we made the big move to New Hampshire in 1988. Fortunately, my father had several friends and family members willing to help him in his new role as a single father of toddler twins.
With that being said, being raised by my adventurous father left us with a large collection of unique and hilarious stories. My brother and I think the lions take the cake. After my father's passing in 2001, we have relied on these stories often to lift us up and without fail, they always leave us laughing and smiling. To say my father made sure that our childhood was magical would be an understatement.
It was the summer of 1982. My brother and I were seven years old, living on the outskirts of Atlantic City. It was right around dinner time when my father called out to my brother Joey and I to hop into the truck for a quick trip to McDonalds. We grabbed our food (I always ordered chicken McNuggets with honey) and sat at the table, our legs still too short to hit the floor.
Nonchalantly, my father said, "Oh, by the way there's going to be some people staying with us for a while."
We didn't ask many questions, and didn't think much of it.
As we pulled into our long driveway that led to ten acres of land surrounding our house, hidden from the road by a row of thick trees, we noticed huge white trucks and people we had never seen before, speaking a different language. It was a hot sunny evening, so I remember having to squint my eyes to make sure that what I was seeing was real.
There were about five men, complete with 1980's hair (one wearing a sweatband around his head), tube socks and short shorts unloading cages from the back of a truck.
I remember my father walking up to a man who was introduced as Yarda with an out stretched hand, saying "Hey, doctor! Welcome, how can I help?"
My Dad began to help unload the truck while my brother and I just looked at each other, still very confused.
Things grew more interesting when we found out what exactly was going on. Turned out, the show called Steppin' Out, run by the Fercos Brothers, was having a run at a nearby casino in Atlantic City. They had nowhere to keep the animals for the show, so my Aunt Tish, a realtor offered up my dad's property. Of course, my father being the type of guy he was, was on board, no questions asked.
Joey and I still didn't understand just how different that summer would be until one of the men walked over to my father and said in a kind accent, "the kids need to be inside while we unload the animals." The house was a split level, so the couch we sat on top of to look outside the big window was on the second floor, leaving us to look down in awe as these big majestic cats exited the trucks. I remember our eyes getting really big as we looked at each other and just smiled. It was fun being seven, and having no fear. There were rules however. We could not be outside while the animals were being trained, and we could not go near the cages without an adult.
As the days passed, more campers arrived with more crew. That summer, we had roughly 20 people staying with us. Yarda took the spare room in the house. The entire crew including Sasha, Tony, Vlastic, Arianna, Martin, Vallas, and Dasha to name a few, became like an extended family. Every night after dinner, my brother and I would run down to a woman named Ana's camper where she would make us a second dinner. We joked that my father was not the best chef, famous for putting orange juice in mashed potatoes instead of milk.
Some neighbors did complain that the roaring was too loud at night, and from what I remember, the only friend whose parents allowed them over that summer was my friend Mandy Esposito. But it was of no loss, as the gains made were priceless. We learned so much that summer and fall having been exposed to other cultures. One game we learned was nohejbal, which is essentially volleyball with no hands.
Joey and I would often go to the shows, usually with a friend in tow. I remember watching a woman from France, named Martin put on her stage make up, as she looked into the mirror, surrounded with the quintessential big bulbs. Chin resting in my hands, I dreamed of growing to be beautiful and wise one day, just like her. She would look over at me, and lean in armed with a tube of red lipstick. Before I knew it, I was looking at myself in the mirror, my smile now matching hers.
I would watch as Yarda practiced walking on stilts in the front yard, and Vlastic on his unicycle. To note, the scene at the end of the movie Annie, features Vlastic riding on his unicycle after Daddy Warbucks makes the adoption official.
As I write this so many years later, my feelings on animals being raised in captivity of course has changed. I can appreciate however, this group's passion and love for those animals, and their talent when it came to magic.
To capture that summer into a few paragraphs is impossible, however the real treasure is realizing and appreciating what an amazing father my brother and I had. My father wasn't only saying yes to hosting a slew of strangers with wild animals to be nice, he said yes to offer my brother and I a life changing experience. Even so many years later, I can say he gave us enough love and guidance to last a lifetime and a childhood packed with cherished memories only a father like Joe Barton could deliver.