Breaking Down Carnivals

Terry Mulcahy

© Copyright 2022 by Terry Mulcahy

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Sometimes you immerse yourself in something and you may not understand what it is until you back up and look at it from a distant perspective. And, yes, that’s my lead-in to a story, a story about joining a carnival.

Now, first off, a carnival is not a circus. No live animals, no rings, no ringmaster or clowns. But both a circus and a carnival have a vibrance in the air, a cacophony of sound, bright lights and garish colors. Both have children. Each child has a candy-apple blush on their cheeks and a dripping swirly cone.

But a circus is a static experience. People tend to sit on their asses, watching, laughing and generally being entertained entirely stationary, just as one watches television. There are staged animal acts, professional acrobats, and clowns. Except for the smells, the experience is a lot like TV. Carnivals are a walkabout experience, with funhouses, rides and games.

I joined a carnival when I was 23 years old. I had been traveling across the United States on my bicycle. I had been very unlucky in love. I had quit my full-time job in order to attend college, but the part-time job I still worked made keeping up my grades difficult. As well, I also joined many of the protests against the war in Vietnam. I attended a long trial of the Black Panther group in Baltimore, learning a lot about them, their cause, and criminal law. I joined protests outside the Baltimore City jail to support them and other prisoners in there. Conditions there were awful.

I had also been part of a month-long protest outside the White House and got arrested by the Secret Service one day for not leaving when I was asked to. The protest had been organized by the Berrigan Brothers, two Catholic priests who had poured blood and homemade napalm on draft files in Catonsville, MD. Dick Gregory also did a hunger fast, and spoke on the White House lawn. Often, I also attended meetings, conferences and other events dedicated to stopping the war, as well as addressing world hunger. These things seemed very important to me, but as my grade-point average suffered, I was suspended from college for six months. At that point, I decided not to wait around anymore. I wanted a change of scenery. I gave away a few possessions, left some things with my brother, and split that town. I had a bicycle, 5 pounds of brown rice, 5 pounds of soybeans, and five pounds of granola.

On the road, after quite a bit of sightseeing and camping, I decided to visit an old roommate in Canada, as well as a nice woman who had helped me organize an anti-war teach-in at my college. She was now working in Canada as a counselor in a youth camp. However, I experienced problems when crossing into Canada. The border guards brought in a detective who said the knife in my backpack was considered a deadly weapon and almost arrested me for “smuggling a deadly weapon across the border”. But, after a careful search of my body, clothes, and food, they let me go. I was banned from entering Canada. A friendly agent told me to try the next border crossing to the west, while he held up the paperwork for a few days. It was a time of great unrest in the United States, draft resistance, race riots, gas shortages, high crime, and unemployment. He must have decided I needed a chance to start a new life. I did as he said, and did enter Canada, visited my friends, and then headed west again. Along the way I met some great friendly people. A trio of young U.S. women were hitchhiking across Canada with a tent. After spending some time getting to know them, they invited me to visit the farm they lived on in West Virginia, if I ever found my way there. A farmer’s wife, out picking blueberries, invited me in for fresh blueberry pie, and fed me sandwiches while it cooked. When her husband came home, he invited me to the sauna he’d built in his yard. I had dinner with the whole family, and stayed the night.

I was near Sioux Saint Marie, and found a hostel to bunk in while I explored the city. The hostel didn’t allow travelers to stay during the day. I met two guys in a park along Lake Superior. The guys were very friendly, but were drinking beer. They offered me one. We all drank several, and then they pulled out a bottle of wine, while I told them of my travels. I drank too much, and I hadn’t eaten breakfast. They took me to a greasy spoon in town for coffee. The coffee triggered vomiting, and I could not get up from the toilet I’d ended up kneeling in front of. The café owner told me I’d have to clean up the mess I’d made, or he would have to call the police. I couldn’t even move, so I told him to go ahead. So the police came. They were very nice, and told me all I had to do was clean up the mess. I couldn’t even stand up. They said, if I didn’t clean it up, they’d have to arrest me. I told them to go ahead. They half-carried me to their car.

After a sleepless night in jail, and a visit to a somewhat unfriendly judge, I was fined. I had left my bicycle and gear at the hostel, so I asked him if I could go back there to get my money. He agreed to let me do that. They are very trusting in Canada. I got my gear and headed to the Michigan part of Sioux Saint Marie as fast as I could pedal. I couldn’t afford to pay a fine, as I had very little money left. Back in the States, I continued heading west. As my limited cash ran out, I looked for work, which is how I learned of a carnival shutting down. They would need to hire locals for the breakdown. At first, I was only looking to make a few bucks by helping take everything down, in preparation for the move to the next town. I helped disassemble a Ferris wheel.

The first “Ferris” wheel, was actually called Ferris’s wheel, after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an engineer, part of a group charged with inspecting all the steel to be used in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair was officially called The World's Columbian Exposition, in honor of the 400th Anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Back then, that original Ferris wheel consisted of over 100,000 parts, including an 89,320-pound axle that had to be hoisted up 140 feet onto the two support towers. Launched on June 21, 1893, it was a success. Over the next 19 weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride. 20 minutes! Can you imagine any carnival ride lasting twenty minutes today? Three years later, Ferris was bankrupt and died of typhoid fever. His wheel was sold, and later dynamited for scrap metal. However, the Ferris wheel lives on, and not only because of George Ferris’s design. At the time, a carpenter named William Somers had been building 50-foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Coney Island. He called them roundabouts, and his design was patented, long before Ferris’s wheel.

Ever since then, people have gotten used to giant spinning mechanical rides, climbing and falling, twirling, zipping, and bobbing up and down (are you getting nauseous yet?). People love the sensation of “...revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage,” as the reporter Robert Graves wrote in 1893.

In modern times, all those rides have pneumatic cylinders to raise and lower the ride on the flatbed trucks that haul them all over the countryside. First the lights have to be disconnected, and some removed for transport. All of the “cars” people ride in have to be removed and transported in another huge trailer. More importantly though, is that all of this pneumatic lifting and lowering, all those lights, and the motors driving the ride, need power. Since the carnival is often set up on empty land outside of town, carnivals provide their own electricity, in the form of generators the size of a truck trailer, or two half-sized ones per trailer. After I had finished with the Ferris wheel, I was put to work for the carnival’s electrician.

Spreading out from each generator is a vast network of power cables, connected every hundred feet to a junction box, from where another set of cables continues on from the opposite side, on to the next junction box, and so on. Each junction box has outlets for standard power outlets, for lights and small appliances. The rides, however, have to be hooked directly up to the tall terminal bolts that the power cables are already attached to via 1" diameter crimped terminators (lugs) held in place by a screw-on nut. In order to attach the wires from the rides, that nut must be removed from the upright bolts, the ride wires must be placed over the lugs, and the nut replaced, tightly.

My job, at the time, was to disconnect the power cables while the carnival was shutting down. Note that I said, while, not, after. For, what the electrician needed were lights for everyone to see at night, which is when the carnival shuts down, as soon as the last towny leaves. There are bright towers on top of each generator truck, lighting the miniature city that is a carnival. So, I could not turn each generator off before starting to disconnect the power cables. As soon as all the rides, joints (game booths) and poppers (popcorn, corn dogs, cotton candy, etc.) had been removed from the last junction box in the line, and then the next, and the next, all the way to the generator, those now useless lines had to be pulled off their terminals, hauled off and stored in yet another large truck trailer. However, the power was still on, and those wires were still connected to the main terminal block, which was still hot.

So, I had to disconnect the live cables, and then pull them through the metal sides of the junction box. There were holes in the sides for this purpose, each hole protected by a plastic ring, so that a hot cable lug would not touch the bare metal. In theory. However, as I was successfully performing this somewhat delicate operation, I unscrewed the locking nut on a terminal, lifted the power cable and lug up and off of the terminal, and started pulling it slowly to and through the hole. It wasn’t until the lug approached the hole that I noticed the hole had no plastic ring protecting it.

I tried to back the cable up before it could make contact, but it was too late. The power running through the cables was such that it could easily bridge a small gap, and that one did. Hoo boy, did it. BANG, a blinding flash, a shower of burning sparks, and the generator whined loudly before it shut down. Darkness. Pure darkness. Not only because the lights were off everywhere near me, but my eyes needed time to recover from that flash. Couldn’t see a damn thing.

Shortly, because something like that really attracts attention, the electrician showed up. He asked me if I was alright. I said I was, and explained that the plastic ring was missing and the cable had been torn right from my grip as it welded itself to the box. My eyes slowly calmed down. Since there was no power yet, he reached down and yanked hard on the cable, breaking the impromptu weld. He said, “Don’t do that again,” and walked off. I got the other cables out just before he restarted the generator. I had expected to be fired or something, but with power restored and everyone working, I just went back to work. It took me the rest of the night to remove all of the cables, and then carry them and the junction boxes to the electrical truck.

By daylight, I was exhausted, as were the carnies. I couldn’t think of myself as a carny yet. You had to spend a whole season wrapping yourself in your job, and then come back to do it all over again for another season. Would I? I didn’t know yet. I saw people sprawled across car hoods, feet sticking out car windows, and people propped against trailer tires and overflowing trash cans. There were empty spots where people had already pulled out. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Soon enough though, I had been paid for my work, and prepared to head off myself into the morning, happy that I had money for food.

The electrician found me and asked me if I would stay on. I wasn’t expecting that. Seeing as I had no other means of support, and no clear idea where I was going, I agreed. Much later, I found out that I might have been recruited because I hadn’t died. Rumor was the last guy had died. After that way-too-short rest, we were all on the road again. Sleep wouldn’t come for us until we arrived at the next location.

Once there, after a good long nap, we reversed everything we’d done the night before to get the carnival up and running again. I had to haul all of the 100-foot long, thickly insulated copper cables out of the truck, and get them hooked up to junction boxes. Rides, poppers and joints had to be plugged in. There was always some troubleshooting until everyone had power. All the rides had to be tested, run forwards and backwards while being inspected. Every nut and bolt had to be tightened, and every ride car checked. I still had lots to do. The generators needed oil and water. Since they were in open view, placed in the center of the midway, they also had to be cleaned, and occasionally painted as well. That was also my job. Sometimes the cables needed new terminators. Sometimes the junction boxes needed new protecting rings over the access holes. Yes they did.

Once I finished all of that, after breaks for meals, it was time to shut everything down for the night. I had to wait until the townspeople were long gone, and everyone cleaned up and shuttered their equipment. Once that was done, I could shut the generators off. In the morning, I had to be up before everyone else to get the power back on.

Ten days. Then we’d be off again, criss-crossing the country, selling dreams while the rides turned under bright rainbow lights, surrounded by the smells of cotton candy, corn dogs and popcorn. The marks would gamble, buying cheap toys for the price of many chances to spin a wheel, shoot out the stars, pop some balloons, or knock over some bottles.

In Minot, North Dakota, I met a local young woman; I never knew her age. We walked around a bit at first, but she was more interested in me. We kissed a lot, snuggled, and made out. At the end of each day, she’d go home. Soon, the carnival would leave town. So, one day, she asked me to stay. She said there were lots of jobs in the coal mine nearby. She hoped I would come live with her and her mom while I worked in the mine. Her mom had already approved. Now, that was an interesting idea. She was very pretty, and our kissing had aroused me no end. The thought of settling down with her was appealing. But, in the end, I couldn’t bear the idea of working in a coal mine on purpose, raising children at that point in my young life, or ending my travels. On our last day in Minot, she pleaded with me to stay. I told her that I wanted to stay with the carnival. I asked her to join us. She said no. She left and never came back. I thought I might see her later that night as we tore everything down, but she had been husband hunting, it seemed, and I disappointed her dream.

As the carnival moved around, usually near large cities, I found that there were circus-like tents full of semi-legal card games and crazy peep shows at night. Some real money changed hands there. There had to be a balance between cleaning out the marks for every dollar, and letting them win sometimes, or the cops and sheriffs could shut the whole carnival down, forcing us to move on sooner than expected. The vulgarity of the peep shows was extraordinary, and sometimes they could get raided, but most often not.

There are dreams and then there are other dreams. My dream had been to travel the country. I had done some of that. Some of the traveling was with the carnival, but because of all of the work I was doing I had no time to explore. I was often needed for electrical repairs, so I saw very little, besides the same carnival rides, the same food, the same crowds. We were a moveable town, and that’s pretty much all I saw, except the passing highway scenery while I rode or drove a rig.

When that year’s carnival season ended, before I left, I was invited to come back the following season. I wasn’t finished traveling just yet, but the whole experience had been memorable. I had met some really interesting and very nice people with the carnival. It was a lifestyle. I had already met several women. The carnival could provide a trailer for me, with financing to pay off. Work part of the year. Travel part of the year. That might work. And it is hard work, work that people do that we never see. Save my money. Marry a carny. Buy or build a few game booths. Use the money to buy a small ride, etc. A new dream.

Contact Terry

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Terry's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher