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.