Get This Show On The Road
by Lee Kolozsy
It had been the hellish jump, a
nightmarish journey, and a truly miserable ordeal. The Donner
may have had a worse trip, or possibly not.
I’m driving an antique.
It runs, but never quite right. Things fail unexpectedly. I move
as much of the Midway on this old Chevrolet pickup as most Carnies
do in a semi truck. Once at a weigh station the scale officer told
me that if a canary landed on my hood, I would need a CDL.
Overloaded and underpowered, it seems
to be my fate to travel almost exclusively in mountainous
territory. Uphill is agonizingly slow ( she don’t wanna go ), and
downhill is terrifyingly fast ( she don’t wanna stop ).
I must have been stoned when I made
this booking, or maybe I hadn’t been able to find my atlas, or
perhaps my cheaters were lost again. It was way too far and there
weren’t enough days. Not to mention that it was damn near vertical
at times. I was hopscotching,
this jump had crossed three mountain ranges. The Appalachians. The
Allegany’s. The Adirondacks. Now we were in the Pocono’s.
At one point, as I was toiling up this
steep interminable hill at a swift crawl, I heard an unfamiliar
sound. I thought, “oh shit, hell of a place to give up the ghost
old pal” the sound kept getting louder. It didn’t sound like any
malfunction I’d ever heard before. It was a steady rhythmic
hammering sound. Now I’d blown motors before and this wasn’t a rod
knocking or any transmission sound and it was driving me nuts
trying to diagnose it as I was creeping up crucifixion hill at a
crippled snails pace hoping I could make the next exit. It was
coming from behind and to the left of me and was getting louder
above the roar of the old 454 soaking up $1.88 unleaded at a most
That’s when the family of Amish in the
buckboard passed me like I was standing still and the clip clop of
the horse’s hooves started to diminish as they got smaller and
smaller in the windshield. Every one of them including each of the
nine kids flipped me off and even the horse gave me a dirty look.
So there I am within a mile or two
from the lot, and as I’m trying to pick up speed down this hill in
order to make the next one which I can see rising up to the sky in
front of me, dead at the bottom, here comes some idiot in a
uniform stepping out into the narrow two lane with oncoming
traffic and no way to get around him, and he’s waving me into the
gravel lot of a bowling alley that looks like a treacherous place
I hit the binders and as I’m standing
on the brakes with both feet, I’m saying Hail Marys back to back
and holding the wheel in a two handed death grip with my fingers
crossed and I know the end is near. It was like running downhill
handcuffed to a wheelbarrow full of manure.
By the time I had it stopped, the
brakes were on fire, I was out of runway, had pissed my pants, and
everything in the back was now in the front, the ratshit had
slopped over the side of the tank, and the giant snake had shed
his skin by sliding right out of it, and I was being desperately
cool and trying to look nonchalant and wishing I had smoked the
rest of that bag.
trap… revenue roadblock… write violations till we have the funds
we need… get them carnies… profiling is illegal, so stop an
occasional trucker just to keep up appearances… but make sure we
stop every show truck… they never fight the fines, they pay ‘cause
they have to keep moving, can’t afford to lose that license. The
shakedown has always been a part of life for show people.
“Afternoon Officer, what seems to be
“License and registration for the
truck and the trailer and your logbook please.”
“Log book? Jeez Officer, I aint
hauling no logs…”
“This license has an expiration date
“Yes Officer, it does “
“Do you have a valid drivers license?”
“Yes Officer I do”
“May I see it?”
“It’s in your hand Officer”
“This license has an expiration date
“Yes Officer, it does “
“Do you have a valid drivers
“Yes Officer I do”
“May I see it?”
“It’s in your hand Officer”
I was starting to experience déjà vu
all over again here.
“Get out of the truck please” as he
was reaching for the cuffs…
It was time to regain control of this
scene or it was going to pass the point of no recovery.
“Officer, there seems to be a bit of
confusion here and I believe that I see now how it can be cleared
up. If you simply turn the license over and look on the back,
you’ll see that there is a stick on validation that indicates the
license is currently in effect. Florida is now doing mail in
renewals so that the folks at the examination office won’t have to
be bothered with actually doing their job, and the additional
revenue enables them to receive a pay increase and extra benefits
with more time off.
He looked at me real hard for a good
long time… Then he turned the license over and read every word,
maybe twice… Then he looked at me for an even longer time…
“ I’m going to have to run this
license,” he said with a certain degree of skepticism.
I sat in the truck and waited about a
decade. Meanwhile the rest of the task force was filling the
gravel lot with show trucks and arresting drivers with gleeful
enthusiasm on charges ranging from statutory body odor, to weaving
with intent to bob. (He wasn’t actually weaving and bobbing, they
simply assumed he was going to bob, because he had been observed
weaving.) Some of the drivers looked relieved to be going to
Now don’t get me wrong, I have a great
deal of respect for real police officers, and have many
friends on the force, but these guys weren’t really cops. More
like tax collectors with badges. I mean, eat a donut, write a
ticket, eat another donut, write another ticket. Law
enforcement, gimmee a break. Charge me with contempt of cop, for
cryin’ out loud.
Don’t these morons know better than to
try to stop a carnie truck? Once when I was younger, a quarter
century or so in the past, I had been conscripted to work as
billposter for the show. Part of my job was to go ahead of the
show and put up the show paper.
On the way back, I was to arrow the route.
This involved quite a few stops at many intersections and was
tiring work. It was slough night,
about eleven or so, and I was headed back to the lot to tear down
my shows and move to the next one. I was tired and not really
looking forward to all the chinese
waiting for me. There was a diner in town so I stopped for a cup
of coffee and a bowl of what had once been chili. The place was
deserted except for two of the local constabulary sitting at the
counter drinking coffee. I sat at a booth where I could see the
highway and keep an eye on the door. Stirring my coffee and
waiting for my bowl of beans, I saw the Gypsy rig careering past.
The mitt camp.
A fifties vintage Chevrolet Apache panel truck with joints loaded
on the roof and a Spartan trailer swinging wildly behind. It was
probably full of plush. The truck had only one headlight, not much
of a muffler, was dragging a chain with sparks flying from under
the hitch, and had maybe a total of three working marker lights.
It sounded like a collection of jackhammers. Water, or maybe
sewage, was draining from the trailer and leaving a trail in its
wake. A dense gray smoke was settling on everything it passed.
There was a “for sale” sign in the back window of the Spartan.
The younger cop spilled his coffee
bolting for the door. He stopped short. The older cop had a firm
grip on his arm. “ Hold it Junior, where you headed?” the younger
cop, Junior, was sputtering… “ Didn’t you see that thing, I
spotted a dozen violations from here.” , The older cop said….
“Sit down, you don’t want nothing to do with that old carnie rig,
let it go, finish your coffee and I’ll tell you why.”
Here’s what I heard the old policeman
tell the rookie cop…
“Back when I was about your age, I
made the mistake of pulling over a show truck. I found so many
things wrong and wrote so many violations that I ran out of
tickets. When I looked up there were dozens of these rattletrap
rigs behind me all over the highway. There were dogs running
loose, women with babies, a drunk getting belligerent with a
couple of guys trying to stuff him back into a trailer. It was a
mess. The whole damn highway was blocked and some of these things
needed jumper cables to get going again. They had hoods up,
wrenches out, were laying under these things, radiators boiling
over…it was hours before I got it all untangled and the road
clear… none of them ever paid a damn ticket and it’s a lucky thing
that no one was killed on that highway. My advice to you son, is
never, and I mean never ever pull over a carnie truck. Let
it go and just hope it keeps moving until it’s out of your
jurisdiction and becomes someone else’s problem.”
BACK TO THE PRESENT…
“Your license came back clean, but
this registration doesn’t match the tag on the truck, which is
“That’s because the new tag just
caught up to me, Officer, I have it right here on the dash.” I
him the Fed Ex bag with the tag in it.
Man, was he ever disappointed…
“I need you to open the doors on this
rig, what’s in the trailer?”
“A giant snake.”
He stopped dead in his tracks and
looked at me a good long time again…
“A giant snake?”
“A live giant snake?”
“Open the door.”
“Sure thing Officer, just leave me
room to jump back just in case she’s out of her cage again, she’s
probably real pissed after that sudden stop I had to make here.”
“Leave the door closed. How big is
Now I had him, he was on my turf now,
I went into my pitch… “A snake so big, so huge, that it could
easily swallow an entire human being, over twenty feet in length,
approaching four hundred pounds, it’s body is as big around as a
tree trunk. Easily the biggest snake you’ll ever see, possibly the
biggest snake on earth, certainly the biggest snake in captivity.”
“So this would be what category, would
you say, like a livestock trailer?”
“Sounds right Officer.”
“You’ve been here what, about half an
“Seems longer Officer”
“OK, we’re not supposed to delay
livestock shipments any longer than necessary, listen, you sure
everything on this rig works, all the
lights, trailer brakes, all that?”
“The trailer brakes are like brand new
There were beads of perspiration under
the rim of his Smokey the Bear hat and he looked agitated. Some
people have powerful phobias when it
comes to snakes. He looked as though he was filled with revulsion.
had seen this before.
“I’m going to write you a notice of
violation concerning the unattached tag, you have fifteen working
days to send in this notice of compliance, there’s no fine if you
return it within that time.”
Then he handed me my paperwork and
wasted no time getting the hell away from my rig.
“You’re free to go.”
I was whistling a happy tune as I
cranked old rusty…
I was buckling up my seatbelt and
almost out of there when Buddy, the show fixer,
came tearing in driving a private non-commercial pickup, and
raising hell accusing these guys of selective enforcement,
profiling, and violating the constitutional rights of hard working
I saw his wife in the right seat
talking on the cell phone and copped to the play…
As the DOT fuzz were gaping slack
jawed in astonishment listening to this civil rights lecture with
their backs to the road, here come a dozen show trucks coasting
down the hill behind their backs at well over the speed limit.
I’ll bet the carnies driving couldn’t have come up with even a
fishing license between them. The last rig in this convoy was the
dunk tank and the clown was high fiving the front man as they tore
by. One of the trap fuzz caught on but it was too late, the trucks
were making the turn into the fairgrounds as he snapped.
“ Some of these carnie trucks aren’t
safe…” One of them said rather lamely.
“I agree officer, we can’t have these
things running down the road with the tags on the dashboard.”
This was my parting shot as I let out
the clutch and made the last two miles to what turned out to be
best money spot of the season so far.
Buddy was smiling as he climbed into
Apparently, the only thing that saves
us from the dreaded bureaucracy is its vast and hopeless
“The Donner Party” during the American
migration to the west, before the construction of the continental
railroad, a wagon train of settlers who came to be known as the
Donner party had the misfortune to become stranded in the
mountains through a particularly harsh winter. Most perished, and
the few who survived were forced to resort to cannibalism in order
to do so. Mountain travel is the most perilous and unpredictable
The Giant Rat Show is hauled on a 1979 model
truck, which also carries two climb the ladder games and pulls
the trailer, which hauls the Giant Snake Show.
“ CDL” commercial drivers license
“Hopscotch”… jumping from show to show, not
moving with the same carnival, coming in for the big ones. A
great way to visit all my old friends on various shows. Instead
of hearing it on the grapevine, I am the grapevine.
“ DOT” dept
of transportation… the U.S. version of the Gestapo
I am given to understand that the Outdoor
Amusement Business Association (OABA), a member supported lobby
for our industry, plans to fight this type of oppression by
continuing to provide prostitutes free of charge to Congressmen.
“ Show paper” posters heralding the upcoming
event, in that era we were still using pole sheets. Today there
are stiff fines for posting on the right of way, this is why
most shows use coupons in stores and restaurants.
“ Arrow the route” posting convoy arrows. Shows
of that era each had distinctive show arrow posters to mark the
turns and lead the drivers to the next lot. Arrow up meant go
straight, three arrows right meant turn right at the third
“Slough” Carnie show lingo-meaning tear down and
“chinese” Show Lingo for hard labor. An
expression dating from the early days of railroad shows. The
western portion of the trans continental railroad was built by
Chinese immigrant labor.
“Mitt Camp” Fortune telling joint. Palmistry
Gypsy trailers always have a for sale sign in the
window…the gypsies don’t actually want to sell the trailer, they
really just want to know who’s got a few grand to throw around.
They have never been connected.
“Fixer” also “Patch” Show lingo for the
show’s legal adjuster. Serves as liaison to officialdom.
Pulls permits, bribes or intimidates authorities, squares
beefs, arranges bail for important personnel, (“You don’t
understand Sheriff, this guy moves our tilt!”) etc.
“Copped to the play” show lingo for
catching on to the scam or situation that is developing.
The scary thing here is that precisely
this type of over regulation and a massive centralized
government is what bankrupted and brought about the
collapse of the former Soviet Union, destabilizing the
East. It is the opinion of Dr. Laurence Peter that
reasonably competent people when presented with a
clearly defined goal can usually achieve this with a
minimum of interference. Circuses and carnivals have
traveled for centuries before the coming of government
inspectors. If we cannot meet the stringent and
frequently unreasonable requirements, we must resort to
trickery. The show must go on.
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