Thursday, August 30, 2007
Step right up! THREE parts to the story, but all you have to do is read just ONE to be a WINNER! Read Part One and learn what a Walking Charlie is! Read Part Two and learn what a barker does! Then read Part Three (Right here in front of you – No travel necessary!) and learn the fate of Walking Charlie! You, pal! Yes, I’m talking to YOU! You look like an EXCELLENT reader! I bet you can knock off all THREE parts in no time flat! And, today only – JUST FOR YOU – no admission is required! Step right up!
It was called a Walking Charlie, but it went all over New England via the wheels of my Dad’s 1968 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon. Open highway, local streets, dirt roads, cow paths, uphill, downhill – nothing stopped Walking Charlie.
Especially going downhill.
If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to buy a 1968 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon, you should do so. That car was an absolute beast. It hauled that 28-foot trailer everywhere and lived to tell the tale. The only recommendation I’d make is, if you intend to haul around a 28-foot trailer, you have the brakes fully rebuilt before taking to the road. Otherwise, you may find yourself traveling on the downhill through Franconia Notch with no way to stop.
I don’t remember what fair we were coming from (Littleton?) or what fair we were traveling towards (Plymouth?) but there we were traveling through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. If you’re not familiar with the region, I’ll tell you that it’s one of the highest elevations in the state. It’s situated smack dab in the middle of the White Mountains, boasting some magnificent scenery, and it’s a wonderful place to take a pleasure drive. Hauling a 28-foot trailer uphill with a 1968 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon? Not as pleasurable.
My Dad was one of the world’s greatest drivers, no lie. Give him a starting point and a destination, equip him with any sort of a motor vehicle, and then get out of his way. He would get there or die trying. Snow, rain, hail, plagues of frogs falling from the skies – he didn’t care. No actual road? Not a problem. Given a clear day and an actual stretch of state highway, he considered the laws of physics no impediment, either.
The Ford strained and groaned, and the transmission may have shed a few tears, but Walking Charlie was successfully transported up to the top of The Notch. It was all downhill from there.
As we cleared the top and headed down, my Dad found that Walking Charlie was pushing him down the hill, rather than he pulling it. We were picking up speed way too fast. My Dad lightly applied the brakes. No difference. He put his foot down a bit harder. Nothing. He put the brakes to the floor. We slowed to about 40 miles per hour, but that was it. We could smell the brake lining smoking. He downshifted, keeping the brake pedal to the floor, ready to apply the emergency brake as a last resort.
There was enough reduction in speed, and enough steering control overall, to make application of the emergency brake unnecessary, but it was a close call. For a good five minutes, Walking Charlie was RUNNING down a mountain with us in front, praying. The prayers were answered, but it probably cost my Dad a couple of years off of his life.
Most of the other bad times with Charlie happened when it was parked. I’ll tell you about a couple of the more memorable ones.
You’ll recall that the marks had to break a coffee mug in order to win a prize. It was a fair and honest game, albeit a tough one. We never considered what would happen if a baseball thrown by a customer actually hit one of the mugs and the mug didn’t break. We just assumed a baseball HAD to break a mug if it hit it.
One day, at a very crowded venue, this big burly guy strode up to the game and bought three baseballs for a quarter. He wound up and fired a fastball that would have made Roger Clemens envious. I mean, it was a fireball, and thrown just 30 feet or so from his target, remember. Well, the ball struck a coffee mug square on the bottom of the mug – the thickest part of the mug – and the mug just spun around wildly on the hook in the dummy’s ear, not even cracking.
The guy started yelling, “What the fuck? This game is impossible to win! I couldn’t have hit that thing any harder if I walked up to it and swung a bat at it. What the fuck!”
Well, we were just as amazed as he was. A small crowd had gathered in response to his yelling and they were now wondering just what the hell kind of con this game was. Sizing up the situation in a flash, My Dad quickly assured the guy that hitting the mug counted, even if the mug didn’t break.
That calmed him down and seemed to satisfy the crowd, too. The guy wound up and fired the next ball. SMASH! He splintered a mug. Then he threw the third, thankfully missing the mark and only costing us a teddy bear instead of a Giant Panda. I congratulated him and handed him the bear. He asked me to hold onto it for now, and he bought three more balls. He wanted the panda, not a teddy bear.
He missed three times. He bought three more, and now so did a couple of other people. The crowd was growing. His having hit the mug and NOT broken it was turning into a good thing for us.
Long story short – he ended up buying about five dollars worth of baseballs and didn’t hit another cup with even ONE of them. He sheepishly claimed his teddy bear and walked away. We made a good buck that day.
You know, I’ve told you about a couple of good days, and you might be getting the idea – as my Dad had in the beginning – that this was relatively easy money waiting to be earned. It wasn’t. The life of a carnie, even a successful one, isn’t easy. The guys who own the games and depend on them for a living, year in and year out, deprive themselves of many things my Dad just wasn’t willing to do without.
For instance, many carnies don’t pay for lodging. They camp out in their rigs, or in their games. My Dad might have thought about that, but I don’t think he would have done it for long, even if I wasn’t with him. What with my being there, we always slept in real beds. He always tried to get us a room in an inexpensive motel, but a motel it was, not a sleeping bag in the back of a truck.
And many carnies subsist on carnie food. They eat hot dogs, pizza, fried dough and not much else. This is because the folks who run the food stands will always give a free one to their fellow carnies. Many times, I went over to the slush stand on a hot day and got an ice-cold one to enjoy. But, my Dad? He liked good food, well-prepared. He wasn’t averse to junk occasionally, but he wouldn’t spend a whole summer eating nothing but crap. We ate at decent restaurants many times.
Well, those things add up. DON’T sleep in a motel and DON’T eat a decent supper? That’ll save you $30 in those days and that meant $150 - $200 a week to a carnie. And that meant one less day until he made back his nut.
As hard as my Dad worked at it - and he worked tremendously hard – he just wasn’t cut out to be a carnie. And that’s basically why Walking Charlie died. My Dad was willing to work hard, but he wasn’t willing to change his personality.
The fellow who ran the muffin pan game had talked him into this. But that guy had the gorilla gag, the Monte Carlo nights, and other barely-reputable activities to fall back on if any ONE of them failed. What my Dad didn’t realize going in was that he would have just the one – Walking Charlie – and, if he didn’t make a go of that, he'd be dead in the water.
Glub, glub, glub.
Carnies can be funny, albeit roughly so. Their humor tends to run to the ribald side of things. Hey, so does mine, sometimes. Anyway, I’ll tell you about one funny stunt they pulled on my Dad, but I have to set the scene.
Aside from barking, there were two other duties I had. One was retrieving the baseballs that had been thrown and then bringing them back up to the front to be purchased again. The other was to hang new cups on the dummies ears after a few had been broken.
In order to hang the new cups, I had to go around to the other side of the game – the back of the trailer – where my Dad had installed a small door for access. I would step through that door and be inside of Walking Charlie.
There was a divider between the front of the game and the back, so I didn’t have to worry about being hit by the thrown baseballs. Also, the person working the front of the game couldn’t see his partner when he was in the back. The dummies were still traveling by, perched on the poles by which they were attached to the turntable. You had to be careful when inside because a bit of daydreaming meant you’d get whacked very hard on the legs by one of the dummies. I got so I could time it well. I’d wait for a dummy to come, hop over his pole, then reach out and hang the cup on his ear, wait to jump the next pole, and so on.
Anyway, one time I’m back there hanging cups when a couple of ride operators showed up at the little door. These guys ran the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Ferris Wheel. They were friendly enough and I knew them pretty well, so I thought nothing much of it. However, when I made eye contact with them, they were both smiling broadly. Each held an upraised finger to his lips, signaling that I should be quiet. They were each holding a brown paper bag in their other hand.
I stepped outside of the machine and one of them said, “We’re gonna play a little joke. Don’t let on.”
I said, “You’re not going to screw with the machinery or anything, right?”
“God, no, nothing like that, kid. Go back out front. You’ll laugh.”
So, I went back out front and resumed barking and selling baseballs. A minute later, while my Dad and I were facing the midway and trying to draw customers, a mother came by shepherding her three kids along. She looked our way and her eyes went wide for a moment, then she let out a little shriek and hurried her kids away, trying to shield their eyes.
My Dad and I looked at each other. We saw nothing out of the ordinary. We weren’t matinee idols, but we weren’t ugly enough to make a woman want to hide her children from us, either. Then we both turned and looked at Walking Charlie.
Every one of the dummies was sporting a huge dildo in the appropriate spot of their anatomy.
My father said, “Holy shit!” and scrambled around to the back of the machine. He performed radical surgery on Walking Charlie, removing all six dicks in about twenty seconds. Meanwhile, I was on the ground out front, laughing.
The guys who had “improved” the dummies then came out of hiding and started laughing, too. My Dad came back around to the front. At first, he was totally pissed off, but then he quickly realized that he had been had, so HE started laughing, too.
The only one not laughing was the lady who had shrieked. She was now coming back up the midway accompanied by a cop.
We all clammed up, stifling any impulse to laugh. We tried to appear as though nothing was out of the ordinary. The lady and the cop stopped a few feet from Walking Charlie – she had left her kids in a place safe from inadvertent rubber penis sightings, I guess – and they both just stared at the now completely sexless dummies. After seeing all of the dummies go by two or three times, the cop looked at her, shrugged his shoulders, and turned to go back from wherever he came. She followed, bewildered.
Little did she know: If she had asked the cop to check the BACK of the game, he would have found a pile of six schlongs by the door, which is where my Dad had dropped them after making eunuchs out of the dummies.
This is getting pretty long, and I want to wrap up the history of Walking Charlie, but I can’t stop without telling you about Barton, Vermont.
Barton is only about ten miles from the Canadian border and was, at that time anyway, stupefyingly rural. It was easily the most backwater stop of our journeys. There were – no exaggeration – people riding into this fair on muleback, toting jugs of moonshine.
Our spot was right across the midway from the biggest attraction at this fair, the girlie show. It was raw stuff, populated by women who couldn’t quite make it as either dancers or hookers. They did the next best thing, combining their inadequacies in both fields and coming up with an amalgam that neither titillated nor entertained, all for two bucks.
In order to draw the perverts, loudspeakers blared out Gary Glitter’s Rock And Roll, Part Two, which was relatively new at the time. I loved that song at home. And I really dug it in Barton, too - the first 150 times I heard it. By the end of the engagement, I could have gone the rest of my life never hearing it again and been a marvelously happy man. I still shudder a tiny bit whenever some of it creeps into my hearing from a televised sporting event.
Out in front, before the show, the girls writhed slowly, chewing gum and otherwise looking completely bored, as the barker made his pitch.
“Come on, all you Frenchmens! This is what you been waiting for all year. Two dollars, two measly dollars, and vwolah, sexy sexy girls, girls, girls! We pallee-voo, you Frenchmens! Whoop-de-doo! Come on, all you Frenchmens!”
And the damned French Canadians ate it up by the bucket. They streamed over the border in droves to witness this godforsaken spectacle. The tent was jammed, day in and day out. And, I’ve got to admit, I didn’t see too many of those “Frenchmens” leaving the tent without a smile. Not too many of them interested in taking a shot at winning a Giant Panda, though.
Walking Charlie was a noble failure. My Dad ended up selling the whole rig – the trailer, lights, plush, baseballs, leftover mugs, signs, and the heartache – to a fellow who planned on installing it on the boardwalk at Nantasket beach, so it wasn’t a total loss. However, my Mom and Dad, as I mentioned previously, were divorced not too long after Charlie came off the road. Walking Charlie wasn’t the fellow who broke them up, but he certainly hadn’t helped matters.
Soon, with more better stuff.