When the carnival came to town every fall, it was usually sponsored by the Waldron Volunteer Fire Department. Every volunteer fireman got a packet of tickets to carnival rides that they were responsible for trying to sell, and since Daddy was Fire Chief at that time, he always carried his packet of tickets around with him. I used to eye that packet of tickets with anticipation, because there were enough tickets there to ride the Ferris Wheel, the Merry-Go-Round, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and even the Hammer probably forever if you wanted to. The only problem was, they weren’t really our tickets, and Daddy was careful to make sure that the Waldron Fire Department didn’t lose any money on unaccounted-for tickets. The tickets were in sheets of six, and my sister Janet and I were usually lucky to get to split a sheet of tickets between us. So basically, that was three rides apiece. But that really wasn’t that bad, because after all, I was much too chicken to ride the Hammer, and the Ferris Wheel kind of freaked me out too (scared of heights!), so the Merry-Go-Round and the Tilt-A-Whirl were right about my speed, and maybe that third ticket could get me in to one of the sideshows or maybe a game.
I suppose there was probably a Fair in association with the carnival, but I was oblivious to that fact. I was a town kid, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to raise a calf or lamb or pig, and the only chicken I was interested in was the one that Mama would be cooking on Sunday. So the carnival midway was where I spent my time. There were all kinds of interesting little enterprises set up along the midway. One of the most fascinating to me was the guy who sold you a little ring or bracelet and then engraved your name on it. I found the concept of having your name etched in metal to be quite unique, but the price was out of my range so all I could do was watch. There were all kinds of games to consider playing, and if you happened to pass one by, the helpful attendant would shout at you to encourage you to try your luck. I was usually pretty good at the one where you picked up a little rubber duck and got whatever prize was listed on the bottom. Didn’t have much luck at Ring-Toss, and popping those balloons with a dart was practically impossible for me.
The best part of walking through the midway was smelling the food. The cotton candy booth was a particular favorite. Cotton candy has to be one of the all time great smells. And talk about portion size; you got an unbelievable amount of cotton candy on that little cardboard tube! If you wanted a more nutritious alternative, then you went to the candy apple booth. There, you got a wholesome apple, smothered in a hard shell that tasted like melted red hots. None of that caramel topping for us; these were real HARD-SHELL candy apples. They were delicious. And boy, those carnival hot dogs were good too.
I never could get up enough nerve to ride the Hammer. My brothers always rode it, and some of my more adventuresome friends from school had ridden it and told amazing tales of overcoming the sheer terror as it plummeted to earth. Every year, I resolved that this would be the year that I rode the Hammer, and that resolve lasted right up until I walked on to the midway and saw that monstrous contraption, whereupon my resolve withered away like the last of the cotton candy.
The best part of the carnival was seeing how everyone was having such a good time. It was just a happy place. At least for the visitors; some of the carnival workers did look a little glum though. One time I went to see a sideshow that advertised on giant signs outside the tent that inside, you would encounter a true Wild Man. I gave the man at the booth my last ticket, and went inside the tent along with the rest of the crowd. Inside the tent, safely secured inside a cage that I took to be iron, was indeed a Wild Man. He sat rather forlornly in a chair in the middle of the cage, occasionally emitting an animal-like snarl that was less than enthusiastic. However, should anyone doubt his Wildness, he suddenly picked up a cigarette butt from the floor of the cage and proceeded to eat it. Yes, he was a true Wild Man. I didn’t tell Mama about going to that one.
Years later, the lure of the sideshow overcame me as I was walking around at the Fort Smith Fair. It was those giant signs again, this time beckoning me to come inside the tent to see The Lobster Boy. I couldn’t pass this up, half-man, half-entrée. So, I paid my money and went inside the tent, whereupon I found myself to be in the rather awkward position of being the only spectator. It was me and the Lobster Boy, all alone. He was actually an older man with that particular birth defect in which the fingers are fused together to form two distinct stubs, which did have a certain claw-like appearance. The Lobster Boy gave a short talk, and then looked at me and said, “Do you have any questions.” I did, indeed, have questions, but the moment just didn’t seem right to ask any of them, so I just mumbled something and beat an awkward retreat. Now, you would think that that’s probably the last I ever heard of The Lobster Boy, but you would be wrong. I actually found a book about him one time, and read his story and it was quite fascinating. Then, incredibly, I was watching the news one night and they had the story of how The Lobster Boy had been brutally murdered by his ex-wife and her son. He evidently had amassed some cash over the years, and became a victim of greed.
The carnival coming to town was a BIG deal back in the 1960’s. It was truly one of the highlights of the year.