By MARILEE GRIFFIN: St.Augstine Record
John Wright ran away with the carnival when he was 17, nudged there after he got into trouble with the law.
Now 38, he says he’s cleaned up his life, gushes with pride over his 12-year-old identical twin girls and runs the balloon-popping game at the St. Johns County Fair, now going on in the county fairgrounds in Elkton. And, not surprising for someone who is on the road almost all year long, he’s single.
“It’s hard to be married and be out here,” he said. That’s why his daughters are growing up in North Dakota, where they live with their mother.
“Out here” is the carnival circuit, which is yearlong and countrywide. It’s living in motels and trailers and working long days in all kinds of weather. It’s calling the nomads and wanderers in the next booth “family.” It’s a place where it’s hard to earn a consistent income.
But for Wright and many of his fellow carnies, “out here” is the only life many of them know.
“Once this gets in your blood, everything else is temporary,” said John Wingo of Boca Raton. “Is it wanderlust? I don’t know what else to call it. It beats the monotony of the 9-to-5.”
His booth is a coin dozer, where people put in a quarter in hopes of knocking more out. To draw people in, Wingo, 60, offers them a free quarter as they pass by.
If anyone has the carnival in their blood, it’s Wingo. As a boy, he used to work odd jobs when carnival came to his hometown in Indiana. After serving in Vietnam, Wingo joined a friend in the carnival circuit and never looked back.
The carnival was “wild” in the old days, said Wingo. The carnival barkers used any means to separate people from their money, and even had their own language. The term “an easy mark” was coined after the carnival barkers started brushing affluent carnival-goers with chalk, according to Wingo.
“The old days were kind of romantic for some of us,” he said. “It’s completely different now. It’s more family entertainment – now it’s all about the kids, mostly.”
Today the carnival has evolved into something almost unrecognizable. Regulations are much stricter, and most of the games guarantee a prize now, he said. If anything, the tables have turned.
“There’s a lot of people who think the carnival is crooked, so (for them) it’s OK to cheat,” he said.
Wingo is only home one month of the year, otherwise he lives out of a camper. When he’s not working, he likes to fish and visit historical cemeteries, which he intends to do in St. Augustine.
Daisy Chapman, 17, runs her own coin dozer on the opposite side of the carnival, and is excited about visiting the beach. But no matter how much she likes St. Augustine, soon the road will be tempting her back.
“I get stir crazy,” she said. “I can’t stay in any place more than two weeks.”
Chapman is part of a family of carnies. Her parents run a booth next door and her brother is in the house trailer.
“I was born over there,” she says, pointing at a blinking carnival ride. “In the bouncy blue chair.”
She’s joking, but it’s not much of an exaggeration. Her mother, Daffiney Chapman, ran away to the carnival when she was Daisy’s age after seeing an ad in the unemployment office. Since then, her life – and her children’s lives – have revolved around the carnival circuit.
Home base for the Chapmans is Sebring, Fla., where Daisy went to a private school before being home-schooled. She was open about her family, and most of the kids thought it was cool – although the school officials thought she had a social disability because she withdrew from noise and crowds. She just gets plenty of that at work, she said.
Sean O’Connor runs a dart booth at the fair, and wouldn’t let his teenage daughter join him on the carnival circuit when she wanted to three years ago. Now he says he helps pay her college tuition.
Two kids run up to his booth, grandparents trailing. They pay, and when the children are only able to hit one balloon apiece, O’Connor says , “I heard it pop all three times, didn’t you?” and hands them both a small stuffed penguin.
O’Connor, 35, was introduced to carnivals by his father, a Gypsy from North Ireland, when he was 5 years old. He quit school at 14, and joined his father on the road permanently. Despite O’Connor’s plans to retire and do something else, it’s not an easy habit to break.
“I just do it because it’s what I’ve done my whole life,” he said.
His daughter, whom he wants to protect from the same lifestyle, is one of the reasons he wants to retire. “Her whole life, I’ve been gone 11 months out of the year,” he said. “I’m just tired of being away from home,” he said.
Like many of the carnival workers, the Chapman family have made the road their home. And, for now anyway, they’re not ready to give it up.
“That’s why,” said Daisy’s mom, “we have wheels on everything.”
St. Johns County Fair Schedule
4 to 9 p.m. — Family Night: Free admission
4 to 9 p.m. — $1 admission
4 to 9 p.m. — General admission is $5 for ages 15 to 62; $1 for ages 8 to 14; and free for ages 7 and younger, seniors age 62 and older and St. Johns County employees with ID
3 to 10 p.m. — Same prices as Thursday
9 a.m. to 10 p.m. — Same prices as Thursday
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. — Same prices as Thursday