In 1963, when I was fourteen, barely into my teen years, I had an inside look at the carny world at the Central Washington Fair. I aim to share my story here.
I had a friend named Jake, who lived in a profoundly rundown house by Bachelor Creek, the popular trout-fishing hole where (mostly) young people fished. I met Jake on a hot, Yakima, Washington summer day, circa 1961, while I was attempting to lure a fish onto my line — something I loved to do, even though I was rarely successful. I loved being outdoors, fishing pole in hand, fantasizing about catching a lunker. – Actually, I had never seen anyone pull a sizable fish out of the creek. — But I figured there always a first time!
Jake was probably seventeen or eighteen, so he was three or four years older than me. He was a fairly tall, slightly chubby adolescent. And, he had a very distinguishing feature. A piece of his left ear was missing! It looked like someone had taken a bite out of it. If having a chunk of ear missing bothered him, Jake never let it show. I don’t know if he was actually bitten or not, because I certainly wasn’t going to ask him, and he didn’t volunteer the information.
Jake came from a dirt-poor family. The old house they called home near the creek looked like it hadn’t been painted in 30 years. It had no yard, no fence, few trees. It was simply a crummy, run-down house, just sitting there, looking like it was engaged in a battle to not collapse under its own weight — reminiscent of Stuart Hamblin’s song, “This Old House”. But Jake seemed quite happy with his lot in life – he was never fashionably dressed; but his clothes were clean. And he was good-natured, always kind to me, and generous with what he had.
Since we weren’t classmates, and didn’t live near each other, we didn’t socialize on a regular basis. We managed by happenstance to occasionally bump into each other. We were glad when this occurred; we seemed to just take up where we left off, regardless of how long it had been between visits. — I had close friends whom I saw every day; but Jake and I had a special bond in spite of not having that daily contact. He was very countrified; he reminded me of a character right out of the “Grapes of Wrath” . My Daddy had been a country preacher, as well as a country radio DJ (I know: odd combination!), and I was very comfortable around country people. Plus, I spent my early childhood living in the idyllic hamlet of Lower Naches, WA. Perhaps this is why Jake and I were simpatico.
In the fall of 1963, the Central Washington Fair was the big attraction. I so loved the fair! I never visited for just one day. I always went three or four days, every year. I either made the round trip via my red bicycle which I had won on the “Uncle Jimmy Show”; or I caught the bus marked “Fair Special”. — I remember being at the ‘63 fair on the last night of its run. Darkness had just fallen on Yakima; I was meandering around, caught up in the sights, sounds and smells of the Meeker carnival midway. (The Meeker family ran the fair’s carnival for years.) – I loved it all: the sawdust covering the ground, the smell of hamburgers frying, the music of the merry-go-round, and especially, the ballyhoo of the carnies, who would do or say anything, making all manner of promises, to lure visitors to their particular attraction.
Well, I happened to run into Jake that evening. We happily greeted each other; then he asked me to accompany him to a special tent. He said he was working at the fair, and he was on his way to the carnival cookhouse, a place set aside exclusively for hungry carnies. So we walked over to the tent and chose a little oilcloth-draped table. The cook, a middle-aged, stern-looking woman, came right over. She and Jake were apparently well-acquainted. Because the moment we sat down, she lit into him.
It turned out my pal was working as a “jointee”; that is, Jake was employed at one of the carnival games. And he had just up and quit. — I learned this from listening to their back-and-forth. Jake had decided he was too tuckered out from working the game during the fair’s run, to stay and help tear down the joints (game tents and other temporary structures put up for the fair). Instead, he decided to pack it in, and head to the cookhouse for some victuals.
Well, the cook asked him, “How can you quit on slough-out night?” (Slough rhymes with cow. It means “tear down time”.) She said, “You can’t quit on slough-out night”. But Jake insisted he was too tired to do another lick of work. He was going to get his pay; and he was hoping for, maybe, a bite to eat. So the cook said, in a very matter-of fact way, “You will never, ever work this carnival again, because you quit on slough-out night. You’re finished with this outfit. Done.” I mean, she was dead serious, and she read him the riot act.
Then, having said her piece, she proceeded to retrieve a huge plate of fried chicken from the kitchen, place it on the table, turn and walk quickly away. Jake, ever the generous fellow, said, “Have some, Randy!” It was the best fried chicken I ever ate.
Disclaimers: 1) Truth is, 51 years have passed, and I can’t recall my friend’s name! So I called him “Jake”. 2) I became a vegetarian in 1974, and have not tasted chicken since. And no, I don’t miss it. 3) Normally, tear-down night is simply called slough night; the cook referred to it as slough-out night. 4) Carney is sometimes spelled Carney. 5) Jointee can also be spelled Jointy.
Funny: I never saw Jake again, after that night. Who knows? Maybe he changed his mind, and ran away with the carnival!
By coincidence, I had a very interesting encounter with Louisa Meeker, daughter of the carnival owners. Had things gone my way, I would have gotten her to fall in love…. I wrote about that, right here on the ole’ blog: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/i-had-a-coke-with-a-cover-girl-the-whole-story/
I met Stuart Hamblin, writer of the song, This Old House, aka This Ole House, when I was a very little boy. I remember walking down the aisle of his huge canvas revival tent in Yakima, and hearing him call out, “Now here comes a beautiful lady with her two little angels!” He was friends with our family, so he recognized us, and thought he’d embarrass my poor mom, the preacher’s wife. — Stuart went from being an early rockabilly singer to being a gospel singer/evangelist. — A lot like my Daddy being a preacher and a DJ.
Would you like to learn more about carny lingo? Go here! http://goodmagic.com/carny/car_a-c.htm