Grandpa’s Adventure


by Slim Price


Carnival life is different. I don’t know how it is now since it's been almost a half-century since I lived that life, but traveling to a new town several times a month used to be considered normal.  Sometimes a carnival would be in a town for as long as two weeks, but far more often we’d set up on Friday and tear down on Sunday night.  No matter how long the stand was you were always traveling in between spots.


It’s amazing to think that everything was temporary. It takes an astonishing amount of equipment and an embarrassingly small amount of manpower to put together the carnival you see as a full-blown entity. From the smallest cotton candy stand to the huge traveling stage shows, everything is in pieces, and needs to be assembled. Some of the rides are made of brutally heavy parts moved mostly by muscle power. The degree of co-operation between the roughies, and the discipline required, is impressive. Remember that the next time you see a carnival bum. He works very hard for his pay!


Traveling would be by train with the bigger shows, by truck for the smaller ones, and even by car for hanky-panks and joints. When this all comes together in a town, and the work starts, it’s like constructing a small city.


One of the memories that sticks with me was riding the World of Mirth train and looking at the homes as we passed seeing the warm lights of families through the windows and wondering what THEY were doing.  Our show was a Ten in One, which means ten acts, (more or less) and was a top (under canvas) ninety feet long and thirty feet wide. The canvas roof comes in six thirty-foot square sections, and the sections are laced together. When the canvas was dry, which was seldom, each section weighed about three hundred pounds and was carried on our shoulders. The sidewalls, two hundred and forty feet worth, were each in thirty-foot bags. There were three center poles, each thirty feet long and made of pine, and forty side poles eight feet long.  All of this made our home away from home.

What did I do? Everything! At that time unless you were a "Strange Person” or a show's talker you did whatever needed to be done. In the course of a day, I might be a "Stick" (shill), The Fire-Eater, the Sword Swallower, the Snake Handler (at that time we had a 21 foot boa), the "Human Dynamo", a ride operator, a ticket grinder, painter, carpenter, or the "Funny Old Magician", which was funny in itself as I was only 17 then.


On the Buttermilk Circuit, which covered most of the eastern US, I was most of the above.  For this particular circuit though I also acted as the show's electrician, soundman, canvas man (eventually Boss canvas man) and trouble shooter.  Versatility was my middle name!  At the end of the season I turned "Lab Technician".  We had a "Bottle Show" too, and I spent time changing the formaldehyde on all the specimens, even the rubber ones, and spruced up the props and banners for the next season.


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