The large classroom in the hospital for crippled children is full of children and laughter and clowns with rainbow-colored wigs and giant smiles.
The children have already laughed and shouted through exploding balloons and fun games. Now it’s time for clown bowling. The clowns are the bowling pins. A nurse is invited to bowl. She successfully aims a large ball at the clowns. But it never makes contact because the clowns jump and twist out of the way.
Now a little girl tries. Sitting in her wheelchair, she pushes the ball at the clowns as hard as she can, but it dribbles weakly off her lap and barely reaches the human bowling pins. The little bowler sighs, underestimating clown magic. As the ball gently nudges the foremost clown he hurls backwards as if struck by a truck, knocking down a second clown who ricochets into a third. The whole clown pile explodes like a grenade and falls apart, vanquished. The children cheer. When clowns are present, children always win.
With this wild bunch of clowns, it’s one crazy thing after another. They’re the young men of Explorer Scout unit 207 of the Riverside Ward, Colville Washington Stake. If laughter is the best medicine, these young men are physicians. They can cure sadness with smiles and cure tears with giggles. Children they visit enjoy a period of time free of thinking about operations or hypodermic needles or pain.
When this day’s performance ends, the clowns move among the patients, making balloon animals and objects—dogs, cats, swords, giraffes, airplanes. They’ll try anything the children request, and even the failures are good fun. They also draw clown stars on the children’s faces.
All too soon the good times must end. The nurses who have laughed and cheered right along with their patients begin taking them away for medical treatment. The children devise delaying tactics, stretching out the farewell moment as long as they can. One little girl hugs a clown tight, then looks into his eyes. “I love you, clown,” she says. Finally, all the good-byes are said. The children go back to their rooms, feeling as if they have been touched by some special magic.
The clowns are still full of the spirit of what they’ve been doing. So they keep their costumes and their funny faces on as they leave the hospital, pack into two cars, and drive off for a hamburger. Motorists along the way, especially little ones, gape in wonder as they see the two cars full of smiling and waving clowns.
While they eat at a hamburger restaurant, the clowns share experiences from their hospital performance. They have made many such visits.
Clown Unit 207 began when the ward youth planned a visit to the hospital. The Explorer Scouts decided to present a clown act as their part on the program. Their adviser, Ron Buchanan, asked the help of his next-door neighbor Howard Pressy, who just happened to be a professional clown. With Howard’s help the scouts prepared an act and presented it at the hospital. Brother Buchanan (also known as “Classy Clown”) recalls, “It gave us all a new perspective. Those young patients weren’t worried about social activities. They were worried about whether they were ever going to be able to walk! You can’t be the same after that experience. You come out of there changed.
“We talked afterward about the words of King Benjamin, ‘When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God’. (Mosiah 2:17.) We decided that we were going to keep right on clowning. We would serve through laughter.”
There followed a period of training in which they worked hard to learn their art. They spent hours designing their faces and costumes and learning how to put them on perfectly. They practiced comedies and learned to twist long, thin balloons into animal shapes. Then they used their talents to bless the lives of children in hospitals, orphanages, and through other worthwhile causes. Each of the young men developed some special talent. “Painter” (Donald Anderson) could fall and stop himself only centimeters from the ground. “Jasper” (Karl Watts) became spokesman for the group. “Giggles” (Aaron Griffith) developed a great Charlie Chaplin walk.
Meanwhile, Howard (also known as “Bungles”) helped them understand what it meant to be a clown. He emphasized right from the start that being a clown is very serious business.
“Anybody can paint his face and put on a silly looking costume, but that does not make you a clown. When a real clown puts on his makeup and his costume, he also assumes certain character traits which he has a moral obligation to uphold. A good professional clown doesn’t smoke, drink, or use profanity at all in costume. It just isn’t done. He doesn’t pay any attention to whether a child is black, green, yellow, or purple. He treats them all the same.
“He doesn’t ruin the impression, no matter what happens. If a child walks up and kicks you, you still love that kid—because you’re a clown.”
As the fame of the clowns spread, the younger boys in the ward began looking forward to their sixteenth birthdays when they would enter the Explorer phase of Scouting. By the time Tony Romish and Bryan McGinty came of age, they already had names waiting for them. Tony became “Digger,” and Bryan was “Doctor Funnybones.” They practiced hard and soon were full-fledged clowns.
Not content with merely being very good, the boys gets together every Wednesday to practice their routines and become even better. There is a camaraderie here, a warmth and love, but there is also a serious sense of taking care of business. The young men have often prayed that they can make a difference in the lives of those they clown for. Now they are working hard to become part of the answer to their own prayers.
Howard and Ron have always emphasized to the members of the unit that when they put on their clown outfits and makeup, they are themselves no longer. They can no longer allow their own personal fears and inhibitions to keep them from doing their duty as clowns. “When you’re in costume you have no identity of your own. You’re not yourself; you’re a clown. And you owe it to the people to make them happy.”
The Explorers soon realized that they could do things as clowns, good things, that it was hard to do as themselves.
“When I perform as a clown,” Don says, “I’m no longer Donald Anderson. I’m ‘Painter’. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I like people more because of ‘Painter’s’ influence. I’m definitely going on a mission. I used to wonder about that, but I see that ‘Painter’ helps people a lot, and I want to be able to do that as Donald Anderson too.”
All of Painter’s wonderful qualities are, of course, really Don’s own. They have merely been waiting inside for a good excuse to come out and shine.
In addition to personal growth, the clowns have been rewarded for their hard work with wonderful memories. “The first time we visited the hospital, we were all scared to death. We weren’t sure how we were going to work with crippled children. But they really responded, and it was a wonderful experience. When we finished we asked the nurse if there were any children who hadn’t been able to come.
“She took us to the room of a boy who had literally had his face ripped off in a car wreck. It looked like his face had been run through a meat grinder. He was so self-conscious that he wouldn’t come out of his room.
“So we were very careful. We walked in and said ‘Hi, we missed you. We wanted to give you a special balloon.’ At first he was really timid. But then he started to respond. And I was so proud of the clowns. They didn’t look away from him. They looked right at him and let him know that they cared about him.
“By the time they were finished, that boy was talking. He was friendly. He knew that he was somebody important, and that there were three or four clowns in that room who cared about him. He told us about his upcoming surgery, and we all wished him the best. It was one of the most giving experiences of our lives.”
Once at a baseball game for handicapped and retarded youth, the clowns adopted a team that was losing by an impossible margin. The team members had given up—until they found themselves with a real clown cheerleading squad. “We’d find out the name of the boy up to bat and then we’d start calling, ‘Come on, Charlie, you can do it. Come on, Fred!’ In that one part of the game they more than doubled their score. They still lost, because it was the last part of the game, but when they left they were so excited that someone had cheered for them.”
Sometimes it can take so little to make a difference, but to a clown that little is not optional—it is a duty. For example, at one hospital there were two Spanish-speaking boys in the audience. They were feeling a little neglected because they couldn’t understand the English jokes. The clowns combined their meager knowledge of Spanish and started some bilingual clowning. The result? “Those boys seemed to come to life.”
Working with those less fortunate than themselves has given the clowns a sensitivity and love for all of God’s children. Tony Romish reports, “As a clown, you want to help other people who are different from you. You feel a unity with everyone. We all seem to divide ourselves into different groups—the able-bodied and the handicapped, black and white, young and old, rich and poor. As clowns we feel close to everybody. We feel less separate. At school people often tease those who are mentally or physically handicapped. Before, I’d just walk on past, but now I can’t. I have to stop and defend whoever is being hurt.”
One of the secrets of the clowns’ success is Brother Buchanan. He loves these young men with all his heart. He sacrifices most of his Saturdays and many week nights for them, and considers it no sacrifice. “They’re very very special to me,” he says. “They’re wonderful young men. They give of themselves continually. And they have fun doing it. They’re my second family.”
Clowning is a uniquely unselfish form of entertainment and service. The clown receives applause, but the people applauding him don’t know who he is. They know his clown name, but they will never know his real name. There is no personal fame—only the wonderful feeling of making people happy.
But the love these clowns feel for the children they serve is far sweeter than any fame. Several of them have gotten up when they have been sick in bed to perform rather than miss that good feeling.
Clowning is hard work. But it may also be the most enjoyable form of service ever invented. “I mentioned to one of the boys that it was fun doing service projects. He said, ‘This is service, isn’t it? I’m having so much fun that I never stop to think about it.’”
Fun and service. Service and fun. And brotherhood and love and the sweet, healing joy of pure laughter. The Explorer Scouts of unit 207 specialize in lifting hearts, and you can’t lift hearts without lifting yourself.