Wednesday, August 29, 2007
We’ll continue the story in just a moment. However, because of something my Mom said in a comment on the first part of this story, I need to give you (and her) an explanation. Here’s what she said:
"Don't forget that your mom put a lot of sweat equity into dear old Charlie. I can remember being in the car pulling that trailer up some mountain pass when it would start swaying from side to side and nearly dump us over the edge."
Well, as much as this might be disheartening to my Mom, I have to be honest and say that, if anything, I only vaguely remember her being on the road with us that summer. I can conjure no concrete memories of this adventure other than those where I am solely in the company of my Dad. She’s probably more correct in her general memories than I am in mine. For instance, the brochure pictured at the top of this page was no doubt saved by her, not me or my Dad.
The time period from around the advent of Walking Charlie, until a couple of years after I graduated high school, was an extended period of generally low mental health for me. I was having a tough go of it at school for the first time ever, I really did NOT want to be on the road with the carnival, and not too long after this story, my Mom and Dad got divorced, which in turn led to my having to take care of my father’s mental health, for a year or so, as he descended into a period of almost suicidal funk.
Don’t get me wrong. There certainly were a lot of good times in these years – I’ve chronicled quite a few of them here already, and more will follow – but the point is that I might have a lot of blank spots in my memory from then. We tend to reconstruct some of our more painful times, in memory, and build up a past that seems extremely true to us, but may not be so to the others who were with us. And I fear that this is one of those times. I do have some very distinct memories, and those are what I intended to write up, but when confronted with something such as my Mom’s assertion that she was there for a major part of this, I have to be honest and say that I’m drawing mostly a blank.
To further elucidate concerning my Mom's probable correctness in memory and my lack of same, I'll tell you that, for most of the stories from this time period of the early 70's, I have had to consult many sources outside of my head to confirm dates and whatnot. I was completely at a loss, for instance, as to the year of Walking Charlie. Seeing the brochure, and some other small bits of memorabilia (again, most likely saved by my Mom) was the only way for me to know for sure that it was 1972 and that I was 15.
Having said all of this, I don’t know how to easily segue back into the story I had planned to tell. The only thing to do is just hop back into it, I suppose, and ask my Mom to forgive me if she finds that I’ve inadvertently left her out of any scene she was actually a part of. Please feel free to fill in the blanks, Mom, in the comments, as you see fit.
(If it’s any consolation - and I’m certainly hoping it is – I’m awfully glad you’re here NOW, Mom. It's better than just having memories of you then. How’s that?)
When last we left Walking Charlie, my Dad was ready to hook the 28-foot trailer up to his station wagon and take it on the road with the carnival. First, though, he had to hire a barker.
That’s me! WOOF! WOOF!
I have to be totally honest with you – as much as my now-admittedly-faulty memory allows – and tell you that I wasn’t the only barker my Dad had during the life of Walking Charlie. I was the principal one, doing about 2/3 of the dates, but there were others. The carnival season ran from late spring to mid-autumn in New England. I wasn’t available to go on the road until school let out, and I had to leave the road when school resumed.
More honesty: I had little desire to be a barker. I trot the experience out into conversation now, spiffing it up all nice and shiny, and it makes a good story, but all I wanted to do that summer was what I did every summer of my life up to that point – loaf. I wanted to hang out in the neighborhood with my friends, play some ball, sleep late, watch TV, maybe read a book or two. I didn’t want to be working long hours on the road, for my father or anybody else.
(I look back now, at the amazing amount of work he put into this endeavor, and I’m fairly ashamed at my lack of spark. I was nowhere near the worker I should have been. I was there physically, but mentally I was AWOL much of the time. He really poured his heart into this scheme and he deserved better than my half-assed effort.)
So, between the two parts of this story, we’ve now gone through about 3,000 words without my explaining just what in hell a barker actually is or does. Time to rectify that situation.
A barker is a pitchman. He is the person who tries to entice the mark to part with his money. It was my job to stand out in front of Walking Charlie, juggling a couple of baseballs, and saying the following:
“Three balls for a quarter! Break ONE cup and win a prize! Break three and take home the GIANT panda! Three for a quarter! Step right up!”
If I felt particularly brave, I might improvise something like the following:
“YOU look like a ballplayer, Chief! Come on, three balls, just 25 cents! All you have to do is break ONE mug! Come on, pal, show your pretty girlfriend what you’re made of!”
Often, my barking was met with the bane of all barkers’ existences…
“Lemme see YOU do it.”
Well, you can’t antagonize the customers, no matter how little respect you have for them, so I couldn’t say what I always wanted to say, which was…
“You stupid asshole! This is an HONEST game. You get a better chance for your money here than at most of the other gaffes you’ve been playing. It’s simple – so simple even a stupid shit like you should be able to comprehend it. You buy three balls and take your best shot. If you’re successful, I give you a very nice prize, worth way more than the measly quarter I’m asking you to part with. If I could bust a mug every time a jerk like you asked me to do it, I’d be pitching for the Red Sox, not barking for a Walking Charlie. Now, go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut and let me get back to work.”
It’s a good thing I didn’t have a gun.
So, I stood in the baking sun and the pouring rain, amid the wrath of the passing unwashed masses, hawking baseballs for people to throw at coffee mugs hanging off of a dummy’s ear. Who says America isn’t the land of opportunity?
(Mom, are you absolutely sure you want to be in these memories?)
There were more bad dates for Walking Charlie than good ones. The good ones, though, were fairly spectacular – and sometimes freakish. I’ll relate the story of one, to give you an idea of how strong a game it could be, and of the vision my Dad had in the first place.
There was a festival happening in New Bedford, Massachusetts. If you’re local, you know that New Bedford has an extremely large Portuguese population. Thus, it should come as no surprise that this was a Portuguese festival. The carnival set up some games and rides, and Walking Charlie was one of the games.
Now, I won’t cast any blanket assertions concerning the character of the Portuguese. I’ve known many very nice, gentle Portuguese people. I have a small bit of Portuguese blood, myself. However, the particular Portuguese who were at this festival were as bloodthirsty as the villagers who chased Frankenstein’s monster.
Remember that the point of buying the baseballs – three for a quarter – was to break the coffee mugs hanging from the dummies ears. That was how you won a prize. However, the folks at this festival were not interested in taking home teddy bears. As quick as my Dad (and my Aunt, who was his assistant at this date) could hand out the baseballs, these guys would throw them at the dummies. Not at the mugs. Just at the dummies.
They kept handing over quarters, taking three baseballs, firing them as hard as they could and screaming, “Keel Him! Keel Him!”
Whenever one of them hit one of the dummies in the head, a huge cheer went up. They were standing four and five deep, straining to buy baseballs, and not caring a whit if they got anything in return other than the thrill of crushing a department store dummy’s head. A couple of times, folks broke cups and REFUSED a prize. They just plain didn’t give a damn about anything except “killing” the dummies.
It was easily the best night in the existence of Walking Charlie. There was no letdown in business for hours. They had to actually empty their change aprons to make room for more money, more than once.
My Dad said, some time afterward, that he was actually scared that night – and he didn’t scare easily. He said it was some sort of mass hysteria that took over the crowd and he was afraid that, if Walking Charlie broke down that night, they might just as easily have started pelting HIM with the baseballs.
Well, that was the high point. Tomorrow, I’ll relate a few of the more numerous other types of stories that led to the demise of Walking Charlie. See you then.