Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Carnies

When the carnival came to town — Part 3

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, summers were always a time for picnics, outdoor barbecues, fishing along the Little Vermilion River, riding one’s bike to the local A&W, playing whiffle ball until late in the evening and carnivals.

We spent the rest of the afternoon setting up the booth, which wasn’t really much of a booth compared to the other ones going up around us. It was comprised of two-by-fours to form a square with four more two-by-fours to support it at each corner which were used to string a strand of light bulbs along the perimeter of the booth with two more strands of light bulbs criss-crossing the booth overhead. 

At this point Rick and I were wondering what kind of game of chance we were going to be running when the tall carny yelled for us to help him carry some boxes from a van. 

“Glasses?” I inquired when I looked at one of the boxes. 

“That’s right,” said the carny, “and you kids be careful not to break any or it comes out of your pay.” 

When we got back to the booth, the carny opened one of the boxes that was filled with schooner-like beer glasses with Pabst Blue Ribbon embossed on the side. Other boxes contained Michelob, Miller High Life, Falstaff, and Budweiser schooners. 

We opened up more of the boxes that contained bowls of various sizes as well as candy dishes. 

In the center of the booth some of the boxes were stacked upon which was laid a piece of plywood. Then another level was created and finally another one. Finally, after the three levels had been formed, the glasses, dishes, and bowls were set out on the three different levels. 

Then the tall carny told us the object of the game. 

“A customer stands outside the booth and tosses a nickel into one of the schooners or dishes,” he said. “If the coin stays inside, the customer wins that glass or dish.” 

Simple enough. 

Then he told us that we had to say something to attract customers. 

“A nickel to play, a nickel to win,” he said, “you get it in, you’re gonna win.” 

It sure didn’t sound like much. Not like the other more interesting games like knocking over milk bottles or throwing darts at balloons. Those games had really cool prizes like huge stuffed teddy bears. We just had beer glasses. 

“Now what you want to do is try to give customers shiny new nickels,” said the carny. “When they’re new, they slide out of the glass or dish easily.” 

Wow, a trick of the trade. How many more we would learn by hanging out with the other carnies? (We never did.)  

After we set up the booth and put out all the glasses, Rick and I went back home to tell our moms that we had jobs at the carnival. My mom wasn’t too keen on it and for a moment I feared that Rick and I wouldn’t be allowed to work. I pleaded with my mom until she finally acquiesced. I could imagine Rick going through the same pleading with his mom. 

Back at the carnival, Rick and I were ready to try out the “a nickel to play, a nickel to win” spiel and have some fun. And it was a lot of fun working at the carnival that ran from Thursday night to late Sunday afternoon. Some of our friends stopped by and I let Linda Ferenchek win a few dishes (even though her nickels slipped out). I had crush on her the year before and still liked her. Maybe I was hoping for some insurance in case things didn’t work out with Janie Arkins. 

Nonetheless, Rick and I were definitely making an impression and scoring big with our friends and the ladies. Even my kid brother, who had previously, until the carnival had come to town, hated my guts, started to look up to me.  

The last night, some guy nearly wiped us out. For one thing, he knew all about the shiny nickels and had enough to play all night. And that’s pretty much what he did. He couldn’t lose. Every nickel he tossed landed inside the schooners, dishes, and bowls. He was on a winning streak and was on his way to winning practically everything had it not been for his girlfriend getting bored and wanting some other kind of action. 

Sunday was the last day for the carnival and it closed early. After we had put everything away and taken down the booth, the “Octopus” operator gave us a very long ride on it. Usually a ride lasts just a few minutes, but he let it go for almost twenty minutes. I thought I was going to sick on all those corn dogs I had eaten earlier in the day. 

When it came time to get paid, the carny said that he would pay us in the morning when the banks opened. “I will have to write you a check but I can’t until the banks open in the morning,” he said. 

And we believed him. 

The next day, when Rick and I rode our bikes back to the park, you can imagine our surprise when the rest of the carnival had packed up and left. When Rick told his mom that we had not been paid, she freaked and called the police. A state trooper was radioed and the convoy was stopped a few miles outside of town. After a quick search of all the carnies, the ones Rick and I had worked for were located and, from what he heard later, “were told to pay up or else.” 

At this point I wasn’t even worried about the money but worried that I would end up on some carnival blacklist and who knows, maybe at some point in the future when I visited a carnival I might have some problems. We got the money, which wasn’t very much considering what everyone had to do to get it for us. We also got the “I told you so” lecture from both of our mothers. 

None of this would have been so bad if Janie Arkins had come to the carnival. She never did show up on any of the nights that Rick and I worked and I would not see her the rest of that summer.

When the carnival came to town — Part 2

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, summers were always a time for picnics, outdoor barbecues, fishing along the Little Vermilion River, riding one’s bike to the local A&W, playing whiffle ball until late in the evening and carnivals.

When we knew that the carnival was coming, there were some kids who would keep an eye out for the first sign of the carnival convoy coming into town—sort of like a carnival DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. The first sight of that convoy, which had to travel down Walnut Street, the main thoroughfare through town, word got out that the carnival had arrived and soon, a drove of kids on bikes would be racing down Walnut to Lehigh Park (named after the one of town’s closed cement mills) to watch the carnival set up. 

I say it was a race to Lehigh Park because what many of us wanted was to see if we could help out with the promise of free ride tickets once the carnival was operational. We’d hop on our bikes and head east on Walnut Street (I was lucky because I lived on the east side of town), flying over the “dry bridge” (which went over a trunk train line for Marquette Cement) past the decaying Lehigh Cement Mill on the left, past the new swimming pool, a subdivision and finally, the park itself. 

On the other hand, if one was lucky enough one might even get a chance to help out at one of the midway games and make a little money; not to mention impress your friends (and for me, Janie Arkins a girl whom I had a crush on ever since sixth grade). 

That’s what my friend Rick Crickman and I thought when we raced down to Lehigh Park at the end of the school year in 1972. We had just graduated from Washington Grade School and for Rick and I, it would be one of the last chances for us to hang out that summer because we would be going to different high schools in the fall (Rick was moving away to a different county, but when you are 14 it could have been a different state). 

By the time we got down to Lehigh Park, most of the kids who had followed the carnival convoy to the park where content with just watching the carnies spring into action and bring this traveling show to life. Older kids, with a little more muscle got to help with some of the heavier, sweatier work and, when the day was done, would be rewarded with free passes for the few days the carnival was in town. 

Rick and I really wanted to work on the midway. That’s where all the action was and a good place to impress our friends and the ladies, and yes, Janie Arkins. She lived right next to the park and the chances of her coming to the carnival were very, very good in my “guest-imation”.  

And once she saw me—if I did find something on the midway—she would most definitely be impressed. 

We walked up and down the evolving midway of games of chance, corn dog stands and ticket booths; some of them where set up out of the backs and sides of small trailers, others were quickly being erected in three rows.  We spotted some kids already helping out some carnies and knew that we would have to find something quick if we wanted to work on the midway. 

That’s when we came up to this game of chance near the end of the midway and next to the “Octopus” ride. A tall, thin carny wearing a Led Zeppelin T-shirt was working with another carny setting up the booth. 

“Would you like some help?” I asked, after some cajoling by Rick to say something first. 

“Nah, we don’t need any help,” said the carny in the Led Zeppelin T-shirt. 

“Oh, give the kids a chance,” said the other carny. 

“Well, they look rather young.” The carny in the Zeppelin T-shirt scratched his chin and then put his hands on his hips. He worked a toothpick from side to side of his mouth with his tongue. “Can you guys work every night?” 

“Yeah, yeah we can work every night,” I said. When do we start?” 

“How about now?” 

I was so excited I forgot to ask about the pay. 

Rick jabbed me in the ribs.  “Ask them about the pay.” 

“How much do we get paid?” 

“Hmm…let’s see. How about twenty-five bucks?” replied the tall carny still working that toothpick with his tongue from one side of his mouth to the other. “Apiece.” 

Rick and I looked at each other and smiled. That was more than we had expected for the three days we would work. 

And just like that, Rick and I were working for the carnival.

When the carnival came to town — Part 1

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Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, summers were always a time for picnics, outdoor barbecues, fishing along the Little Vermilion River, riding one’s bike to the local A&W, playing whiffle ball until late in the evening and carnivals. 

It was usually in June or the middle of August when the carnival pulled into town. Sometimes it was some local operation; other times it was some larger amusement company, which spent the summers traveling from one town to the next. Most of the carnivals that came to Oglesby, Illinois that the town I grew up in until I went to high school were usually not too big. Nonetheless, as soon as the flyers and posters went up announcing that the carnival was coming to town, the days until it arrived were spent with much anticipation. 

When you are young, whenever the carnival came to town was always one of the highlights of the summer next to the Fourth of July. There’s something almost magical and surreal about a carnival midway glowing with red and yellow neon with scruffy-looking carnies calling out to visitors to test their luck and skill; the smell of corn dogs, lemonade and fluffy, ethereal wisps of pink cotton candy; rock and roll blasting from “The Tilt-a-Whirl,” “The Octopus,” and Ferris Wheel—just an octave or two above the rumble and whir of motors and generators giving life to this living, breathing, vibrant traveling show. 

For myself and the other kids in Oglesby who grew up during the late 60s and early 70s going to the carnival was in many ways one of those rites of passages that fueled prepubescent and teenage angst: from the time we could go to the carnival on our own to junior high school when we suddenly—hormonally and physically—became aware of the opposite sex (the other two times at the swimming pool and gym class).  

It also fed our imaginations of another world unbeknownst to those of us in towns of manicured lawns, household chores, weekly allowances, and summer camp. The carnival with its bizarre assortment of seemingly shady characters—tattooed, dirty, greasy, and scruffy—played on our fears, curiosities and perhaps even our fascination of a different world outside of the one we knew. 

One could also imagine hearing a choir of mothers singing, “You don’t want to end up being a carny, do you?”—if a child wasn’t hitting the books enough or showing tell tale signs of some juvenile delinquency. (Sometimes carny was replaced by ”gypsy” and vice versa.) 

Unfortunately for carnies they were all lopped together with the rest of society’s dross: ex-cons, bums, con artists and the like and stood no chance at escaping their plight (and misfortune in some cases) had they been given the chance. Even if a carny was honest and just trying to eke out a substantial existence while traveling from town to town and enjoying life on the road, there always seemed to be a bad reputation associated with them and one that followed them no matter where they went as well as the traveling amusement show that employed them. 

At the same time, there was that lure of something strange and exotic with life on the road and of “running away and joining the circus.” It was something that fueled our imaginations of life outside of the small worlds we lived in at the time. Although we might not have entertained the notion of working for a carnival, visiting the carnival or circus was for us a chance to see a different side of life than the insular one that protected us and kept us safe. 

And then there was the bizarre. I mean the real bizarre which pushed the envelope of our imaginations not to mention our gullibility.  One year, when the carnival came to town it had—along with its amusement rides and midway—a sideshow that featured everything from an illustrated man, bearded lady, and a sword swallower to its very special and bizarre attraction “a frog woman”. Born without human legs but instead frog-shaped legs and flipper feet this “frog woman” was the main attraction of the sideshow.  

Before entering the small, dimly lit tent to view her inside a large glass jar-like tank (there were shows every thirty minutes) we got to hear the carny in charge of the sideshow explain how she was an unfortunate freak of nature, found during an expedition of the Amazon and brought back to America. There was a large painting of her on the side of the tent which depicted her as this ravishing beauty with huge, heaving breasts and long blonde hair partially covering those huge, heaving breasts and of course her frog legs and flipper-like feet. 

We paid our twenty-five cents and entered the tent and filed slowly past the tank of murky water. It was really hard to tell if she was real or not if she had indeed been born with frog legs or if it were a costume. One thing for certain, she didn’t have huge, heaving breasts and her dishwater blonde hair was long and stringy. A few brave kids tapped or banged on the glass to see what she would do. We couldn’t tell if she was bored, angry, indifferent, or disinterested. It made no difference to us. It was bizarre to us no matter what.

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