Since joining the carnival in mid-June, I’ve been consistently surprised by just how safe the rides are. Unsurprisingly, most accidents are caused by rider mishaps or a failure to follow directions, like the kid in Waukasha who ignored the rule about going down the Fun Slide head first. Going over the last hump, he caught a little air, then smashed his face upon landing. Lots of tears were shed over that one. If only he had listened.
Unlike fixed amusement parks like Six Flags, carnival rides, at least those owned by the Wenzlows, are inspected twice weekly – once during set up, then again during tear down. In addition to several built-in safeguards that prevent catastrophic failures, the rides, via their weekly assembly and dismantling, remain structurally sound, their integrity intact.
A first line of defense regarding safety is the Carnie’s love for the ride he or she operates. For Carnies, a sense of ownership over their rides takes shape, especially among the older guys who’ve been running the same rides for several years or more. They know every pin, R-key, diaper clip, every dent or ding or trick in fitting together fussy parts. For them, a ride is like a big erector set. David, who has run the Rock-O-Plane for nine years, knows almost everything about the machine. I say almost because no one knows everything about the rides. They are dynamic machines, and no one, not even the Wenzlows, can say they know everything about every ride, but the cumulative knowledge between them and their dedicated help comes close.
In the off hours, considerable time is spent discussing the rides, things observed, problems encountered, etc. These discussions, from which everyone learns, reinforce the sense among the younger and newer guys what is expected when handling the rides. Mark, for example, is the only person to operate the Monkeys in the nine years since the Wenzlows added it to their roster of rides. No one but him washes the Monkeys, nor does anyone set them up or tear them down without his guidance. Same goes with Jimmy on the Hurricane, Hale on the Scrambler and Carl on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Once the rides are assembled, Corina does her dry runs, watching to ensure they’re leveled, balanced and that everything is working correctly.
This week we’re in Darlington for the Lafayette County Fair. It’s a five-day event which means we’re on week two without a day off. Yesterday, the heat was absolutely brutal. Work call wasn’t until 4 p.m., but everyone spent the day trying to stay cool in their bunks. One of the guys was hit with heatstroke the day before during set-up. With the heat index approaching 100 degrees by midday, no one was taking any chances. Plus, it was just too hot to do anything.
At four, we ventured to the fair grounds, which are a stone’s throw from our camp. Everyone looked miserable as we sweated, sat in the shade by the games and waited for the ice to arrive. Corina was sweet and bought us all ice cream cones, which we ate eagerly. Everyone keeps telling me how much more laid back it is this year compared to years past. Harley, the Wenzlow patriarch, cooked us brats and burgers on Monday. When someone mused that “he’s starting to like us,” Harley snorted, “I don’t like any of you fuckers. I’m just trying to be nice.”
Being Wednesday and wretchedly muggy, the fair was dead. Next door the drag races revved their engines as they sped around the track. Working the Fun Slide, I had the best seat in the house. I’d climb to the top to watch the races and slide down when the occasional kid came to the gate. Jasmine, an 8-year-old whose mother works the Dozer game, loves to race on the slide so we raced a few times. Before long, the Carnies were so bored we began riding the rides. By the end of the night, the rides had been ridden more by Carnies than kids and teeny-boppers.
One of the new helpers is this fat kid, Mack, 16, who does nothing but talk shit. A lippy kid, he’s managed to piss off just about everyone here. He’ll walk by your ride, call you a faggot or something, then get all pouty when you dish it back to him. The other night Mack wanted to build a fire, but wanted everyone else to gather the wood. Finally, he left to do it himself, bringing back a few branches he ripped fresh from a tree.
Last night, he took a 27 minute break, almost double what we’re given. When we got on him about it because it then delays our breaks, he begins mouthing off. Jeremy told him, “You’re lucky you’re not 18.”
“Why?” Mack asked, “so you can hit me?”
He’s a lazy shit, too. During set-up this week he earned the nickname “Hotwheels,” as in “either lift steel or go home and play with your Hotwheels.”
Somehow I’ve been drug into the pissing match with this little prick. Yesterday he walks by me and says, “What’s up bitch? I can smell the shit on your dick.”
It’s only a matter of time before something happens to this kid. When it does, I won’t feel sorry for him.
I’m now officially known as “White Nate,” since there is now a black Nate. Upon black Nate’s arrival, several attempts were made to distinguish one from the other. First, I was Nathan and he was Nate. Then I was Nate and he was Nate Dawg. Now he’s Nate and I’m White Nate. I’ll be chilling and suddenly I’ll hear, “Hey, White Nate…”
Or someone will ask, “Where’s Nate?”
For a while, we had two Scotts, two Jeremys and two Jims.
Things are simpler now.