Grace, 8, and me on Carnes Avenue behind the Mighty Midway of the Minnesota State Fair and in front of my bunkhouse. In my hands are pictures of a watercolor dog, a postcard lion and a coloring of a rainbow.
During my year writing “Eyes Like Carnivals” I look for connections. The Baum connection is a doozy and got me thinking about creative inspiration.
Frank Baum was a financially struggling newspaper reporter when he lived in Humbolt Park, Chicago and visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
It’s impossible to know what inspired him to write, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” but it’s a fair guess that Burnham’s “White City” inspired Oz in some way.
My daughter Grace, 8, (Dorothy) came to visit this old newspaperman at the Minnesota State Fair and Exposition on Labor Day weekend.
Grace came up via Amtrak from Chicago with my parents. No yellow brick road but it was a great adventure and she made new friends along the way. She was thrilled to see wonderful sights like the mighty Mississippi and a fantasyland, America’s biggest state fair.
When she saw me at the gate, we ran to each other. I got on a knee and we hugged. I thought she was going to cry but she was brave.
“It feels like four years .. since I saw you,” she said and kissed me.
We ate at O’Gara’s and I told her the words on the wall, “Cead Mile Failte” in Gaelic mean “One Hundred Thousand Welcomes.”
It was her introduction into the fantastical world of her first state fair.
At breakfast, she showed me her gifts to me. A watercolor of a dog (Toto), a postcard lion from her visit to the Brookfield Zoo and a coloring of a rainbow. She draws lots of rainbows for some reason.
We walked the Mighty Midway and saw giant rides, a couple house of horrors and a freak show called the World of Wonders. This “world” bills itself as the last traveling sideshows in America. A woman outside the tent said, “Children in strollers get in free because we all know how kids love freak shows.”
If there had been munchkins the symmetry would have been unbelievable.
Eventually, we got to the pool table tent where I work, and I introduced her to my supervisor whose carny name is “Oz.”
I told her she would remember this trip for the rest of her life, she should write about it in her diary.
Who knows what inspires people, influences the rest of their lives.
I only saw her and my parents for breakfast and during two breaks. Carnies worked 9 am to midnight every sweltering 12 days of the fair.
I was on break when I ran away from my mother and daughter on the midway to get back to the pool tent on time.
Feeling their eyes on my back, I disappeared into America’s most crowded state fair I thought about my words to Grace, “you’ll remember this trip for the rest of your life.”
It was then I knew it. This visit by ones I love so deeply may have been more important to me.
That 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the inspiration for so many. Walt Disney’s father worked with the fair. Traveling carnivals call it the birthplace of American carnivals, with their midways, Ferris wheels, games and thrill rides.
Walt Disney grew up and called his fantasyland “Disney World.”
I believe traveling carnivals are worthy of study because they operate so close to the heartbeat of local epicenters – neighborhoods, churches, commercial hubs. At that spot they increase the pulse with sights, sounds, tastes and thrills.
At the right moment, they can also appeal to the intangible that pops to the mind like a bright, electric flash people call creative inspiration.
Aha. Eureka. Blink. Nobody knows where it comes from or where it leads.
My theory is it might be cellular, we’re a long way from finding out how it works but we know it has outside triggers.
People are always trying to figure out ways to summon that flash but history and myth are so full of outside stimuli – of Archimedes’ public bath, Newton’s apple and Decartes’ bed fly.
People come at creative inspiration in so many ways and traveling carnivals create such strong impressions and connections they are at work deep in our minds.
I believe Disney and Baum were just a couple of those kids who got those mysterious messages from somewhere inside, inspired by traveling shows.
If Disney and Baum, what then my little girl carrying her pictures of a dog, a lion and a rainbow to see a carny writer father.
I know what part of me brought, what is she taking away.
I’m on my eighth month of a year spent working and living in traveling carnivals coast to coast. I’ve been living on carnival wages and hitchhiking between jumps, about 12,000 miles. It’s now state fair season. A former “ride jockey,” I’m working the traveling carnival portions as a “jointee” on games.