The carnival is gone almost before you know it was here. Every year, it rolls into town at the beginning of the week like a band of gypsies in the night. By the next evening, the rides and games are set up, and the flashing neon lights beckon. As you get closer, the pop music acts as a siren’s song, an audio preview of the prizes, food and fun. The carnival always means one of two things: Summer is finally here, or it’s on its way out.
This summer’s end is being heralded by Mississippi Delta Shows’ back-to-school carnival, which is in full force behind Leigh Mall through Saturday. On Thursday, however, fair-goes overcame a few early evening sprinkles to enjoy the atmosphere.
“That was awesome!” said Daniel Skelton, 7, as he got off the Octopus, an eight-armed twirling ride. “The spinning took my stomach away!”
Daniel and his sisters, Daphne, 8, and Gabby, 11, are from North Carolina and were visiting their father, Rob Skelton, who works as an instructor pilot at Columbus Air Force Base.
“It’s a nice end to the summer before school starts for them,” Skelton said. “We’re giving Mom a break.”
One of the main attractions at any fun-fair is the carousel, which Steve Young calls the “key to the midway.”
“If you go to a carnival, and there’s no carousel, it’s not a real carnival,” he said.
A carny’s life
Young, 30, joined the show four months ago as a way to get out of his hometown, Sikeston, Mo.
“I’m from the Show Me State,” he said. “Show me the way out.”
After a few weeks working the carousel, Young’s coworkers started calling him Pony Boy.
“It stuck with me ever since,” Pony boy said.
When you’re a carnival worker, real names aren’t that important. There’s Pappy, Gypsy, Red Dog, Stony and about five Michaels: Big M, Big Mike, Mikey, Mike Mike and Snowball. Then there are those who haven’t been around long enough to be known by anything other than, “Hey, you.”
“My name is Dave,” said the man running the Octopus. “Everybody calls me Pops. This isn’t work; it’s a lifestyle.”
He wore Chuck Taylors, greasy jeans and a gray T-shirt with a box of Mavericks in the pocket. They never stay there long; he goes through two to three packs a day.
Pops laughed, revealing a long single tooth rooted in the middle of his lower gum.
“It’s like this,” he said and told a joke about a carny, a murderer and a thief who die and meet St. Peter at the gates of Heaven.
Peter looks at the thief and asks him what he did with his life.
“I stole from people,” the thief says. Peter tells him to have a seat; he’ll be going down in a few minutes. He looks at the murderer and asks him what he did with his life.
“I killed people,” the murderer says. Peter tells him to have a seat; he’ll be going down in a few minutes. He asks the carny what he did with his life.
“I worked at a carnival,” the carny says.
“Ah, well come right in,” Peter replies.
“Wait,” the thief and the killer protest. “He’s a carny. He’s worse than both of us combined!”
Peter says: “Yeah, but don’t you know? Wherever a carny goes, he’s there for a week, and then he’s gone.”
Pops knows. A fourth generation carnival worker, he’s been on the move most of his life since he helped his father and grandfather take down a carousel when he was 8 years old. He was born in the back of a stock truck at a carnival in Connecticut in 1962. Except for an eight-year stint in the Marines and a couple of years at the University of Alabama, he has been working carnivals ever since.
“My dad was all for me getting out of it,” Pops said. “He said, ‘Once it gets into your blood, it never gets out.'”
After a drunk driver killed his first wife when she was seven months pregnant, Pops went out to the West Coast and worked Butler Amusements. That was one of the few times he can remember trouble coming to visit. Some gang members began harassing some of the female carnival employees.
“A 12- or 15-inch crescent wrench does wonders,” Pops said.
It was also there that he met his second wife, Judy. She showed up looking for work, so he hired her without permission. She did a good job, so the boss let her stay. He noticed the way Judy and Pops got along, and one day he asked how serious their relationship was. Pops said it was serious, so the boss loaded them up in his car and drove them to Reno, Nev., and they got married. They were together 19 years until 2007 when Pops went home one evening and found her lying on the floor. She had died from a brain hemorrhage.
He decided the Lord must have other plans for him, so he went back to what he knew.
“I started drifting and wound up here,” he said. “I’m an oddity out here. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, and I read my Bible every day.”
In winter, carnival workers hole up at the Gateway Mission, a homeless shelter in Jackson. But when February arrives, they come alive for the fair season, which runs until November. Workers sleep and shower in a bunkhouse on wheels. Its rooms are just big enough for a small bed and a few personal items. With only fans to create a breeze, it’s hot and sticky in the summer.
“It’s like living in a cardboard box,” Pony Boy said. “That’s why I ain’t got much hair. Sometimes you want to pull it out or kick somebody’s face in.”
They’re responsible for their own food, so they eat out often. When Pops and Pony Boy walked into the nearby Chevron gas station to buy Powerade, they greeted the attendant, Iris, by name.
There is always maintenance to be done, from painting scenery to repairing broken machines.
“If you ain’t handy, you shouldn’t be out here,” Pony Boy said.
For all of it, Pony Boy gets paid $30 a night. He stays because he gets to see the country and meet new people.
“I don’t like the heat, but I like the work,” Pony Boy said. “Just seeing the kids’ faces — I told the boss the only way I’m leaving is in a body bag.”