Not clowning around

Thursday, July 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

He stood in what little shade he could find. Around him were six children, eagerly watching his every move. His weathered hands worked nimbly, twisting, stretching and squeezing a light-blue balloon.

His face wasn’t painted, he didn’t have a red nose, and he wore New Balance sneakers instead of those goofy, oversized shoes. Yet, to Boone County fairgoers, Gail Bank is known as Whiskers the Clown. Bank, though, does not view himself as a clown.

“A clown is usually someone in a traditional clown outfit who paints his face and does comic things,” he said. “I engage with children but not in that kind of fashion.”

Bank is 78 years old, retired and for 10 years balloon sculpting has been a hobby.

“I wouldn’t say I’m fantastic, but I sure do have fun at it,” he said.

Bank wore a faded, multi-colored shirt and yellow pants, supported with red suspenders. A white beard and a balloon hat veiled his earnest, sun-beaten face. His eyes were intense. His face reflected every inflection of his voice. He was comfortable, friendly, gentle.

Around his waist was a pouch full of size 260 balloons of assorted colors – orange, pink, white, blue, green, red, black, gray. The balloons inflate to two inches in diameter and out to 60 inches in length. He made hats and animals, including cats, dogs and elephants. He used red, green, black, blue or white permanent markers to draw faces on his finished products.

When asked to make a sword or a gun he politely denied the request, because he says, “there’s already enough violence in the world.”

He had been at the fair for about 15 minutes, and the crowd of children had grown to 10, ranging in age and size. Sweat dripped down their brows as temperatures soared above 100 degrees.

“Are you giving those balloons to kids?” five-year-old Mackenzie Thomas asked.

“Are you a kid?” Bank countered.

“Yeah,” Mackenzie said. “Is that a dog?”

“Nope, it’s an elephant, see the trunk?” Bank responded.

Mackenzie lifted her eyebrows, turned to her friend, Natalie, 6, and they excitedly discussed what they were going to have made. Mackenzie’s sister, Shelby, 2, shyly offered her input as well. After several minutes a decision is finally reached.

“Me and Shelby are getting a hat,” said Mackenzie to their father Mike who was standing several feet away.

Natalie decided she wanted a deer. And what color? Pink, of course.

“This guy’s got some hard work to do if he’s going to satisfy every child,” Mike Thomas said.

Meanwhile, a young boy in line asks Bank the question he is always asked, “Where’d you learn to do this?”

“You know,” Bank said, “I read a book. You know, you can learn a lot from a book.”

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