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.