Showing off a full Giant Wheel tattoo on his back, this carny told me he was paid by an owner to beat another carny. Beatings are still a form of discipline in some traveling carnivals.
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
A circle of carnies stood in the a parking lot of Saint Timothy Catholic Church in San Mateo, California, and began telling “ooh that hurts” stories.
We were setting up the carnival and somehow people started telling stories about how much it hurts to be shot, stabbed and to lose an ear and an eye.
After each story, people chimed in, “ooh that hurts.”
Which as a great man once said is, “both sad and ironic” because the Bible tells us St. Timothy was circumcised as an adult by St. Paul.
I tell this circle of pain story because it reminded me of how traveling carnivals are so violence prone.
More than a dozen times I came within a second of becoming a star in that “ooh that hurts” circle.
In Alaska, a huge 20-something Samoan carny didn’t like it when I said he wasn’t the boss of me.
“How about if I smash all your teeth out,” he said.
I was angry at first but looked at reality, about 300 pounds of angry reality.
“Then I won’t come over to help you,” I said, “I don’t want my teeth smashed out.”
I walked away but for another couple weeks he and his friends kept saying he was going “to eat” me.
A hot Rose Dog
On my first all-night teardown of a traveling carnival, a former Grambling defensive back by the name of Rose Dog threatened to “f*ck” me up if I smashed his finger a third time. When I did, he screamed, danced in pain and turned to me like a bull. I stood ready for an onslaught from a younger, bigger man.
I’m about six-foot-five, 200-plus pounds but I was 53 years old, he was in his 30s. I spent my adult life as a journalist. If I throw a punch my knuckles will snap, crackle, pop. My teeth might too if he ever landed a punch. But that night nobody “ate” anybody.
Once, after an angry exchange, he vowed to “visit me” in my bunkhouse that night. It was a less-than-veiled threat to attack me in my sleep. I slept with a knife under the pillow.
Carnivals have always had trouble finding workers so foremen go down to the homeless shelters or the churches to get the drug addicts and alcoholics.
These poor men on the road to recovery, nevertheless, threatened to fight me at the state fairs of Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas. In Texas, that group included a 400-pound man.
In Chicago, after a 30-hour “slough,” a carnival term for tear down, I went nose-to-nose with a New Orleans carny over nothing.
Violence is a traditional conflict resolution solution on carnival midways but I never once threw a punch or was hit.
Rose Dog threatened to fight me several times in the two months I worked at Butler Amusements but when I left I believe he was genuinely sad to see me leave.
I was genuinely sad I wasn’t 30 years younger.
I seemed to constantly be walking on to the scene just moments after a violent encounter.
I watched Rose Dog get up after a new hire clobbered him in his left eye, leaving a multi-colored Easter egg-sized shiner. Witnesses said Rose Dog flew backward through the carousel gates like a WWF jobber.
I saw a couple men in Chicago Heights walking their separate ways after one broke a two-by-four over the back of the other.
The most serious injury was to a girl in her teens in New Milford, New Jersey. After a night of arguing with her carnival boyfriend, she showed up to work with a face smashed to a pulp. She and the boyfriend denied his guilt.
The only person who really was in danger that morning was me, who suggested we report the incident to the police.
My idea was greeted with a unanimous New Jersey, “Oooh! Never call the cops. Are you stupid?”
My most vivid carnival fight stories are the ones that involve me, but the most violent stories I heard second and third hand.
There was the story of Ghost who someone said was shot for waving his money around too much on payday in New Jersey. Another Ghost was the dunk clown in Tennessee when he was shot by a local man angry at his taunts.
A souvenir saleswoman in Chicago pointed to the midway we were working on in Gage Park and said she shot her husband four times in the legs on that very spot. She did it in front of cops, she said, and they turned a blind eye to it because they believed he was guilty of child molestation.
“I can prove it,” she said, “He still walks with a limp. But he’s in jail now.”
In one van ride from the hotel to the state fairgrounds in Minnesota, Oz showed us all how “Mexicans” slit his throat from his left ear across his jugular and larynx. Then crew chief Chango showed us the bullet wound on his head and the knife wound on his bulbous stomach that weaved around like a question mark, with a belly button dot.
Of course, everyone is proud of their scars.
Hitchhiking in British Columbia, an old man picked me up and told about the tradition of Cree carnies in that part of Canada. Probably 50 years past between now and when he worked the kiddy rides but he remembers why he was nicknamed Fast Eddie.
He once knocked a man down so fast, nobody remembers seeing him throw a punch. He proved it by showing them the flesh on his knuckles, a townie’s tooth still embedded.
If you want to hear carny fight stories, go to the Annual Trade Show of the International Independent Showmen’s Association in Gibsonton, Florida next year, it’s the national convention of traveling carnivals in Carnytown USA.
When told around the carnival bar in Carnytown USA, carnival fight stories are practically an art form.
As with so many trades, the past glorifies the truth. People say times were tougher in the old days and carnies weren’t just fighting each other.
Carnival games owner Adam West calls it the “pussification” of the midway. West claims there are far fewer fights and acts of violence.
His father’s carnival brought boxing gloves for carnies to fight each other and any comers. (Australian carnivals still often feature boxing sideshows with paying customers.)
Carnies still box. I found this Internet link, you can clearly see a Ring of Fire ride in the background. The fight lacks the “sweet science” aspect I remember when I boxed and accidentally won the heavyweight championship at the University of College Cork, in Ireland. But this is a genuine boxing brawl.
When there’s a knock-out punch, the videographer yells out “Winner, winner, chicken dinner!”
Millionaire Carnie Lee in California loved telling stories about fights with townies. In one fight, a townie was harassing a girl working a game.
He promptly broke the townie’s jaw and later married, impregnated and divorced the girl.
Fighting was the reason Millionaire Carny Lee said he doesn’t like Mexican carnies. He surmises they can’t be counted on in a fight.
There may have been some truth in that, given that a single fight could result in a Mexican carny being deported.
Fast Eddie said if a carny ever fought a townie, the local cops usually locked up the carny. Often that was the end of the line for the carny, the carnival would leave without paying bail.
Tensions between townies and carnies are understandable given most games in the past were rigged, many still are. Sideshows, not as common today, might show burlesque or black magic.
Daniel Pratt Mannix was college educated, as I am, and spent three years in traveling carnival sideshows. He wrote a seminal book on his three years in carnivals, called “Step Right Up,” Harper & Brothers, 1950. (I highly recommend both the book and looking up the life of Mr. Mannix).
He describes a “clem,” a fight with locals in a small rural town. A sage older carny named Captain Billy told him why they occur.
“They (townies who attack carnies) are either saving the country from the jiggs or Jews or something. In this case they’ve got a moral duty to run a lot of foreigners like us out of town,”
In the book, the carnies charge the hostile townies with wood boards, iron tent stakes and a whip, setting the locals to flee in a blind panic.
I love the storyteller Mannix’s description of how the underdog misfits win.
The modern day version of a clem is when a carnival sets up in a big city ghetto and carnies have to fight back against gangs.
I can’t say if things were tougher in the old days but I can vouch that traveling carnivals are still macho zones with landmines for the working man.
I worked at one carnival where I witnessed an owner threaten savage beatings to those of us he thought deserving. At another carnival, I didn’t hear the owner threaten anyone first-hand but we all knew the score. I knew a carny who said he was paid by an owner to gang up on a fellow carny. I met a carny who said his assailant backed out at the last minute but asked him to lie about it so he could keep the carnival owner’s money.
How widely practiced this kind of carny discipline is, I don’t know. I can say, it exists and I believe I will be a target if I step on the wrong midway in the future.
Tempers flare for millions of reasons, because people are too hot or too cold, hungry or thirsty, hung over or just ornery and sometimes because so little means so much.
We all fight for our bit of colored ribbon, for what we want however small or grand. How strange is it then that people who work with their hands, fight with their fists.
I recently completed “my time,” a year in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking around America. I worked in traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I hitchhiked or drove more than 20,000 miles, across 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I’m seeking a publisher for a book.