The era of tent circuses was nearly over when I was a child, on their way to big-business consolidation in roofed arenas, but where I lived there was still a solid tradition of carnivals, the more compact cousin of the circus. During the summer, each local fire department would have a weeklong carnival as a fundraiser. The food, bingo, chuckaluck and beer garden would be handled locally, but there would also be contracts for fireworks and a truck troupe that provided rides, games and prizes of pink stuffed gorillas, short-lived goldfish and junk "jewelry."
The carnivals were usually referred to by the name of the sponsoring fire department or town: Crabtree, Midway-St. Clair, Carbon, Harold's. The exception was Red Devil, and to this day I don't get the name.
My favorite of all these was the Carbon Carnival, held on my uncle's land and full of familiar faces. It had wonderful kielbasa sandwiches (though terrible cardboard pizza); rides ranging from a wicked Merry Mixer to a just-this-side-of-safe Ferris wheel (stories of it getting stuck abounded); and a cigar-chomping fireman who would cheat the chuckaluck wheel so that I could win three dimes.
What I won there would soon be lost at the carny booths, impossible games of chance that required hooking and standing up a Coke bottle, knocking down heavy stacked "milk bottles" or tossing Ping-Pong balls to win goldfish.
I knew even then that the games were rigged, but I was fascinated by the people who ran them: bored, greasy-haired men with tattoos; hard-edged women in tight T-shirts and studded jeans who would surprisingly slip you a beaded necklace even when you lost; and the kids, visibly dirty and poor but wearing expressions of superiority. "I belong to the carnival. You're just another stooge."
I tried to imagine their lives, traveling from town to town in a caravan of trucks, putting together and breaking down these rides and booths over and over, camping out in this field and bathing in a bucket (yes, I peeked around their vehicles to see). No wonder they all had greasy hair ... the worst possible thing, to my 1960s pre-teen mind.
I would have loved to talk with them, to discover this life beyond my tidy world, but I lacked the courage to ask questions.
That would eventually change. I would grow into someone who is always asking questions, always curious about what's going on in the other mind and on the other side.
It was just a carnival. Or maybe not. Maybe the essence of illusion, of magic. Of writing.