Bowling Green, MO —They’re called carnies. But in a sense, theirs are the faces that make up a portrait of America. Black, white and brown. Married, divorced and single. Old, middle-aged and young.
The skilled veterans and the inexperienced apprentices. Few other settings offer such a range of diversity as the melting pot that is a carnival. From a wide range of backgrounds come a few people who spend months living and working side-by-side in all types of weather from coast to coast. The only common thread is to put on the best, safest show possible.
Zeke Shilling calls nearby Ottumwa, Iowa, home, but he’s been on the fair circuit most of his life.
“It’s kind of like one big family,” Shilling said. “Everybody has a job and everybody has to do their job for it to all work.”
Safety first – The work began early Monday for Shilling and other workers for Kenny’s Funland.
The Texas-based carnival is providing 16 rides, 16 games of chance and several food boths for the Pike County Fair from Tuesday to Saturday outside Bowling Green. Though he’s never been in the military, Shilling barks orders like a drill sergeant. Rides are put together one at a time.
“That way, we know it’s done right,” Shilling said as he tightened a bolt on the kiddie motorcycles.
Everything is checked and re-checked. “Only a fool is positive,” Shilling tells a co-worker who questions whether too much attention has been paid to a task. State inspections are done and attractions also are given a thorough check at least once a day using manuals specific to each machine. Rides include The Hurricane, Tornado, Ring of Fire, The Zipper and a merry-go-round. “This carnival is safety first,” Shilling said. “We’re out here to make people happy, not hurt anyone.” Attentiveness and responsibility also are stressed. Workers who treat customers poorly can be issued their walking papers.
“You have to have a good work ethic,” Shilling said. Cleanliness is difficult at any fairgrounds, especially when the temperatures climb or the rain falls. The folks from Kenny’s Funland do all they can to be presentable and keep the rides looking good. “You still have to have hygiene,” said Shilling, who later yelled “Pull your pants up” at a co-worker whose outfit had slipped just far enough to reveal briefs. “You can’t have dirty, nasty people running greasy rides.”
Smiles as paychecks
Quick, name a place other than a carnival where just about everybody wears a smile. Carnies agree that one of the best things about their jobs, other than a steady paycheck, is that look of delight. After all, there aren’t too many frowning faces at a county fair. Greg Rodriguez has spent half of his 40 years operating rides, and doesn’t get tired of it. “I like to see the kids smile,” he said. “When the kids see one of these rides, their eyes light up. They think that’s the coolest stuff in the world.” Rodriguez has four children, who stay with his wife in Texas while he’s on the road for eight to 10 months of the year. “They miss their dad, but my boys know what I do,” Rodriguez said. “My daughter, too. They understand.” Both Rodriguez and Shilling have family ties to fairs. Rodriguez’s uncle was a carnie and Shilling’s father owned a show.
Shilling also has four kids. Unlike during his childhood, however, they stay at home with a grandmother while he and his wife are on the fair circuit. “They’re in one place, so they’re used to the same routine,” Shilling said of the children. Jeremy Henderson has been with Kenny’s Funland for only three weeks. He joined up when the troupe rolled through West Plains. “It ain’t bad,” he said with a smile. “It’s long hours.”
‘Out here is home’
The long hours can be rough. When they’re not working, most carnies retreat to their mobile homes.
Kenny’s Funland provides quarters for workers who don’t have a camper shell over their heads. There are few precious moments for a tour of local attractions or personal down time. Tawnya Mackay and Kristen Brooks spent Monday morning getting a funnel cake booth ready. “Your house is on the road,” said Mackay, who’s from Salt Lake City and has been on the road for three months. “You don’t have the luxury of going where you want when you want. It’s not the life for everybody.” Like Henderson, Brooks joined the carnival in West Plains. “It sounded like something to do,” she said. “This way, I can make money, work and get out of West Plains.” Brooks is 18 and Mackay is 23, while Shilling and Rodriguez are in their 40s.
Henderson, who runs the merry-go-round, is 19. Though he isn’t sure if he’ll make a career out of being a carnie, Henderson has found at least one thing about the road that invigorates him. “I get to go places and see new people,” he said. Rodriguez and Shilling agree. “This is entertainment,” Rodriguez said. “It’s never a dull moment.” “You meet new people, you meet interesting people and you meet —holes,” Shilling said. “It’s just like anywhere else. There are good and bad people everywhere.”
The clanking and lifting continued as Shilling barked out more orders.
By Tuesday evening, the front porch will be ready and the welcome mat will be rolled out.
“Out here is home,” Shilling said. “It’s been home all my life. I enjoy doing this.”