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 Party[1] may have had a worse trip, or possibly not.


I’m driving an antique[2]. 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[3].


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,[4] 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 discouraging rate.


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 for traction.


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.


D.O.T. [5]checkpoint… truck 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 the problem?”

“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 of 1996…”

“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 of 1996…”

“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”


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 jail.[6]


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[7]. On the way back, I was to arrow the route[8]. This involved quite a few stops at many intersections and was tiring work. It was slough night[9], 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[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]


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.”




“Your license came back clean, but this registration doesn’t match the tag on the truck, which is expired.”

“That’s because the new tag just caught up to me, Officer, I have it right here on the dash.” I said, handing

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?”

“Yes sir.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No sir.”

“A live giant snake?”

“Yes sir.”

“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 this snake?”


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 hour?”

“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 officer.”[13]


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. I

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[14], 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 show people…


I saw his wife in the right seat talking on the cell phone and copped to the play[15]


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 the

best money spot of the season so far.


Buddy was smiling as he climbed into his pickup…


Apparently, the only thing that saves us from the dreaded bureaucracy is its vast and hopeless




[1] “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 even today.

[2] 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.

[3] “ CDL” commercial drivers license

[4] “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.


[5] “ DOT”  dept of transportation… the U.S. version of the Gestapo

[6] 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.

[7] “ 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.

[8] “ 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 intersection etc.

[9] “Slough” Carnie show lingo-meaning tear down and move.

[10] “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.

[11] “Mitt Camp” Fortune telling joint. Palmistry

[12] 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.

[13] They have never been connected.

[14] “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.

[15] “Copped to the play” show lingo for catching on to the scam or situation that is developing.

[16] 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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