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Fair Minded

When I was a carny kid growing up in the 1960s, I was the only one on our little Massachusetts midway who looked forward to evenings when the show was rained out. Then my mother would let me get out her collection of photos and postcards from the road. While the rain drummed on the roof of our travel-trailer and rolled down the canvas slope of our tents, Mom would fall into a reverie and take me along: “This is me, riding the Chair-O-Plane with the Cetlin and Wilson Shows…. That’s my dog, Penny, sitting on the shelf of my Guess Your Age and Weight…. And here’s the Grandstand at the Great Allentown Fair….”

I longed to make the big fairs that my mother and her first husband had played in the ‘40s. Twenty-five years after leaving the carnival behind for college, I get my wish.

Looking for a spot in a carnival, I phone Jacqueline Swika, co-owner of Pennsylvania’s S & S Amusements, Inc., at the urging of mutual friends. “Still got a little sawdust, huh?” she answers. Since my concessionaire-parents had gone to “that great midway in the sky,” the world of my childhood had receded into the distant past. I yearned to go on the road again. Jackie could understand the pull that the carnival exerted. She had been lured into the business in the ‘70s, leaving behind an office job in the computer industry. A stint in a game at the Allentown Fair had shown her there was no glass ceiling on the midway.

“I gave my notice, got rid of 99 percent of my possessions, and off I went on the road,” she says. “I felt as if I were born here.” Jackie and her husband, Stephen Swika, Jr., preside over the 35-ride show that Stephen and his father began in 1957. Today, S & S Amusements is ranked by Amusement Business among the top 20 American carnivals.

Before joining S & S in mid-July, I wrap up my writing assignments and enlist a neighbor to look after my apartment and feed the cat. Running away with the carnival is easy, but sticking with it through the end of the season is hard work. Once upon a time, it was a rite of passage for American kids who yearned to see the world beyond their hometowns. Nowadays, the “outdoor amusement business” still recruits high-school grads and college students with merry-go-round memories and itchy feet seeking a fun summer job. A “Help Wanted” sign displayed in an S & S ticket-booth window sums up the working conditions: “THE GOOD NEWS: Start Immediately—Good Pay—Heated & Air-Conditioned Rooms—Career Opportunities—Travel—Bonuses. THE BAD NEWS: 7 Days A Week—Inclement Weather.

When I arrive in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, the population of our motorized city is about 100. “We have a lot of greenies this year,” Jackie says, referring to the newcomers as we near Dan Figura’s cookhouse, the social center of the midway. On the rows of red stools, old-timers and newcomers companionably ear a late breakfast of French toast.

One of the youngest showmen (as carnival workers often prefer to be called) is the Swikas’ grandson, Adam, who grew up on the midway. The kiddy ride, Adam’s Happy Wheel, was named after him because, as Stevie likes to say, “When Adam saw it he was happy.” Today, this recent high school grad is happy to be the co-owner/operator/deejay of a half-million-dollar thrill ride, the Spin Out, and the sole owner of Rainbow Rock, an obstacle course for kids.

The oldest person with the show, “Uncle” Dougie Ford, 71, came aboard 34 years ago as a popcorn vendor. “They like to keep me around,” he says, fingering an 18-karat gold popcorn-kernel charm that he wears on a chain under his shirt. The Swikas gave it to him when he “retired” at age 65. The pendant is a keeper, but the retirement didn’t last. About five years ago, he got tired of staying at home and rejoined the show. Now he’s a fun-house ticket seller. His forte is “fun safety,” i.e. keeping overly exuberant kids from turning cartwheels in the rolling barrel.

At first, my midway moniker is “Reporter Lady.” Pretty soon I’m also known as the newest member of Jon & Dee Ketcham’s crew of concessionaires (“jointees” in the carny lexicon). With a bright-red S & S T-shirt on my back and a toy fishing rod in hand, I help Krystal, 19, reel youngsters into the Snag-A-Shark. It’s not a whole lot different from working with my mom in her dart store and Balloon Dart game. We hand out plenty of prizes, and instead of dodging darts or blowing up balloons, we untangle snagged lines and mop water off the counter.

In the carnival community a “How are you doing today?” is likely to elicit the reply “I’m waiting for the big one.” Every day is supposed to be the big day. The next fair on our itinerary, Wayne Country in the Pocono Mountains resort town of Honesdale, hits the jackpot. A $6 pay-one-price admission for all rides and most attractions leaves plenty of spending money in people’s pockets. A monster-truck pull and a demolition derby draw a tri-state crowd. Even the heat wave that has thermometers topping 100 degrees all over the Northeast won’t keep the masses away.

Stevie brings in misting machines and beach umbrellas. The fair provides free bottles of water. The rumor that the heat measured 130 degrees off the macadam isn’t about to slow us down. I shuttle among a trio of games, with a money apron and a water pistol tucked under my arm. We walk fast, talk fast and eat fast. We squeeze two 45-minute breaks into 12-, even 16-hour days.

Halfway through the nine-day run of the Wayne County Fair, I begin to hit my stride. I’m working relief on a high-tech version of the High-Striker, the turn-of-the-19th-century classic test of strength where you use a giant hammer to propel a cylinder to the top of a post to ring the bell. An electronic tantara signals for me to pipe up, “OK, honey, hit it right in the middle.” When the hammer hits the metallic striker, a computer triggers the strobe atop the 24-foot tower of power to flash the score. And, yessir, it really can be won. George, who works in the Mini-Basketball, hits a perfect 150. So does a burly lumberjack of a customer. Meanwhile, I’m still figuring out how to play second banana to a sound-effects package that blares “Cowabunga, dude!” and “Wheaties eater!”

By the time we get to the Harford Fair in Kingsley, enough ride jocks and jointees have come and gone that those of us who remain begin to feel like a family. We watch out for each other, and help each other get through the grueling round of setups, teardowns and moves to the next town. We crack jokes and pull pranks during the interminable waiting around.

When everyone starts referring to me as “The High-Striker Girl,” I know that the role will carry me through the season. My first challenge is finding a town kid who can blow up the squeaky inflatable hammers as fast as I give them away for prizes. Evan, the Swikas’ 5-year-old grandson, comes to my rescue. Sitting cross-legged on the grass, he gleefully rips open packages of Aliens, Smiley Faces and 1001 Dalmatians while I toil away at the compressor. I’m reminded of a time when I thought carnival work was child’s play. Perhaps it still is: During a slow stretch, a lithe-looking gal from Michaels’ food stand saunters over to show off her Pippi Longstocking-like strength. 120! 126! 131! Back home in Pottstown, Christy, 20, is a college student. Here at the fair, she is the High-Striker Queen of the Midway, as well as my steady supplier of French fries.

Round about midnight, an anonymous voice yells “Wheel’s out!” When the digitally synchronized lights of the Century Wheel are turned off, it’s time to call it a night. But in the Floating Bowl Ping Pong across the way, Dan, 28, is just starting to restock his joint. A first of May’er (or newcomer) from Reading, he is newly enthralled with the idea of using flashy color combinations to create an eye-catching display that will pull in the marks (or customers). My assistance is strictly limited to sticking curtain hooks into 14 different species of plush (stuffed animals). I work my way none too deftly through lions and tigers and three different kinds of bears—oh my! To borrow a phrase from G.M. Caldwell, an early-20th- century painter of carnival banners: “It’s the front of the show that gets the dough!” Only tomorrow’s gross will tell whether it was worth the trouble.

When it’s time to move on to “The Big One,” as Jackie refers to Allentown, I travel in high style. Instead of driving truck No. 85, I ride with Stevie in the big rig that pulls the office trailer. As we pull onto the fairgrounds, the image from my Mom’s old postcard, “Grandstand—Allentown Fairgrounds during Fair Week” looms into sight. In my mind’s eye, the long wooden bleachers are already teeming with people, the infield jammed with cars.

This urban fairgrounds is more vast than I ever imagined, taking up five square blocks. Steve has brought in 40 percent more equipment. “I’m not gonna leave any holes,” he says as we drive past a row of independently owned sideshows as well as another carnival that boasts almost as many rides and games as S & S.

Incorporated in 1852 as the Lehigh County Agricultural Society, Allentown’s Labor Day shindig has evolved into one of America’s top 50 fairs. By the end of the week, the landmark grandstand has packed in 45,000 fans of Brooks and Dunn, Blink-182 and other big-name entertainers. More than 600,000 people have passed through the fair’s five gates. My voice is gone from competing with the shouting of the other jointees and the demolition derby. My feet are killing me from standing on the macadamed midway from noon ‘til midnight. I’ve walked the fairgrounds from end to end in search of (in no particular order): goop wrestling in Jello, Barb’s lemonade stand, the radio talent contest, the root-beer truck, the tiniest horse and pedal-push tractor racing. I can’t say that I saw one-tenth of the fair, though I took it all in from the dizzying heights of the Parabounce, which sends you into the air attached to a huge kite.

I finish up the season with S & S at the Luzerne County Fair in tiny Dallas, Pennsylvania, where all of the familiar faces and food stands that I couldn’t find at “The Big One” are reassuringly close by. Since we don’t open until 5 p.m., I have all day, every day, to say my goodbyes.

Rob aka “Slim,” 34, is a cook at an upstate New York college who has spent the past 10 summers working carnival games with S & S. He ventures a prediction: “We’ll see you next year.”

I’m not so sure. Heading into Allentown, the thought that after a couple of weeks I’d no longer be a part of this world makes me fantasize about extending the season by going south with another show.. But after Labor Day, the weather turns chilly. The moment I picture myself luxuriating in a hot bath, I’m a goner. I can’t wait to be in my cozy apartment, with my cat warming my feet, which aren’t the least bit itchy anymore.

As Ryan, who runs Dee’s dart game, says, “The best thing about being on the road is going home again.” There’s a second part to his observation, but something tells me I won’t get around to mulling it over until next summer approaches: “The best thing about being home is going on the road again.”

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