Come one, come all

Amid the flashing spotlights of “The Big Top,” and adding to the roar of an excited crowd, sits a cheering Elkins resident: John Zirbs.

He’s balanced on the edge of his seat, eyes aglow in anticipation of the opening night of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This year’s show, “DRAGONS” is on tap at Charleston Civic Center, where performances will run through Sunday.

Zirbs, however, is one of the first in line for Thursday’s debut. He views the circus as he does so much of the world around him – with childlike wonder and a keen ability to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.

“The circus makes people feel happy,” Zirbs says while waiting for the action to get underway in the three rings before him on the arena floor.

While the magic of make believe will end when the performance does for nearly all those attending Thursday’s show, Zirbs will carry the vibrant colors and electrifying sounds of the circus with him for days and even years to come. Now 55, he has faced a life filled with physical, emotional and developmental challenges he says have been gifts.

To outsiders, Zirbs seems different and maybe even a bit imposing. At a glance, his 6-foot-plus frame is easily identifiable in the queues of those waiting to enter the circus. But looks can be deceiving.

On the inside, Zirbs is as soft as the stuffed animals that decorate his home. Among them is a collection of tigers that keep watch at night and make the dark seem “less scary,” he says.

Zirbs is well-known throughout Randolph County and often is seen smiling and singing to himself. He enjoys telling stories, usually ones related to music or sports – and his beloved Tigers. For years, he has been the No. 1 supporter of Elkins High School athletics, the mascot for which is a tiger. In fact, it’s the live tigers he’s most interested in seeing at the circus. The closest he’s come to date is the taxidermied one that adorns the main hallway at EHS.

Thursday night, Zirbs rocks in his chair as the cages are set for the tigers’ debut.

“These live tigers are going to be really awesome. They were born in the jungles of Africa and Asia, and there are few of them around in the world anymore,” he says as the animal trainer comes into view.

For Zirbs, this is the crowning moment of the show. And that’s fitting for someone who is known as the EHS Tigers’ “Superfan.” That’s Zirbs’ spelling for the alter ego he created in the 1970s and portrayed until his self-imposed retirement in 2010.

Zirbs came forward that same year to reveal his identity to the community. He was awarded a football at the end of the season. He also received a plaque during the EHS rivalry game against Buckhannon-Upshur High School.

“And the cheerleaders gave me a little stuffed tiger,” he recalls, his hands moving in a rocking motion as though he is petting the toy.

Zirbs, who is an independent contractor, delivers newspapers for The Inter-Mountain. Day in and day out, regardless of weather conditions or his health, Zirbs walks the multi-mile path that brings him to the doorsteps of his dozens of customers. He has the distinct honor of consecutively delivering the paper for more years than anyone, and he has made many friends along his routes.

Among them is a close-knit group of residents who have supported John – and his ability to live independently in the region. His parents, Rudolph and Bernice Zirbs, passed away years ago. His only sibling, Carol Zirbs Murphy, lives out of state and says she is grateful for everything that is done to help her brother.

“I appreciate Elkins for adopting John after our parents died. Without the benevolent assistance John has been given for over 30 years, it would have been impossible for him to live on his own since there is no public transportation that comes in and out of Elkins on a regular basis,” she says.

Though some transit is offered through the Randolph County Senior Center, if can be difficult for Zirbs to travel for anything other than quick trips for medical care locally.

“It is very infrequent that John leaves the city. Over the years I have taken him with our family on vacation, but so many in the community have allowed John to attend events in the city and beyond, and I want to say a special thank-you to all those who have included him in outings both inside and out of town.”

For the circus, The Inter-Mountain arranged for Zirbs to attend the show. New experiences are important to him, and they are few and far between.

He sits with staff members from the newspaper, and they watch him enjoy each act. Zirbs waves his arms and clenches his fists when the Torres family from Paraguay rolls into the arena on their signature motorcycles. He shouts words of encouragement as the daredevils perform their world-record stunt of eight riders traveling 65 miles per hour inside a 16-foot steel sphere. Round and round the bikes fly, moving so fast they look like a blurry unicolor neon rainbow.

The extra riders and their bikes slowly are added one at a time. The ringmaster asks whether the crowd wants more.

“Go, go,” Zirbs screams, as he works to balance a bag of popcorn and his event program on his lap. “This is great.”

He’s so excited his hands shake. He says he can’t take pictures. His friends at The Inter-Mountain offer to create a photo scrapbook to chronicle the experience, and Zirbs turns his attention back to the show.

The acts continue to dazzle. From aerialists dangling from inside suspended plastic bubbles to trapeze artists athletically somersaulting through the air, Zirbs remains rapt. The dragon theme has him intrigued as well. Hints throughout the tightly choreographed production keep him guessing as to what’s coming next. The show also asks whether those in attendance believe dragons are real.

Zirbs says he does, but he will have to wait to find out if a dragon does, indeed, appear. For now, he’s mesmerized by the Shaolin warriors from the Shandong Province in China. These elite martial artists dominate the stage and captivate Zirbs’ attention. He watches as they perform feats of strength that range from bending steel around one’s neck to balancing their bodies upon the tips of spears. At one point a warrior leaps through a flaming ring of spears while blindfolded.

“Oh my!” Zirbs exclaims.

Just when he thinks the circus is almost over, the mystery of the dragon is revealed. The mechanized display emerges from a cloud of smoke and makes its way around the arena. Fire flares from its mouth, and Zirbs claps wildly.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Zirbs says.

The night ends with Zirbs walking out of the civic center, a bag of souvenirs in his hand. Included among the trinkets is a stuffed tiger, of course.

“Wow, just wow!” he says of the circus. “I won’t ever forget that.”

And neither will those who accompanied Zirbs on his special journey. It truly was tiger’riffic – not because of the show, but because of being able to see it through Zirbs’ eyes. It’s a view where the magic of make believe lives on and on.