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 and tell you 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 when 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 my Dad 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.)
Between the two parts of this story, we’ve now gone through about 2,400 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 shouting the following at folks passing by:
“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?
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, with Walking Charlie being 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. 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 we 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 a dummy in the head, a huge cheer went up. They were standing four and five deep, straining to buy baseballs, 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 “keeling” the dummies.
It was easily the best night in the existence of Walking Charlie. There was no letdown in business for hours. My Dad had to actually empty the change aprons to make room for more money, more than once.
My Dad said, some days 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.
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, as you’ll recall, thrown just 30 feet or so from his target. 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 told me to hold onto it and he bought three more balls. He wanted the Giant Panda, not a teddy bear.
He missed three times. He bought three more and missed. Then three more, and now other people were stepping up and buying them, too. 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.
Well, those were Walking Charlie’s high points. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you a few tales about his downfall. See you then.