Cheyenne Frontier Days and the weekend I was a ‘Carny’

carny cfd

Carny Anise was my mentor many years ago when I worked at the Bill Hame’s Show during Cheyenne Frontier Days.Cheyenne Frontier Days is again upon us. It happens the last full week in July, and an extra weekend. I’ve been away from Cheyenne for many years, but still manage to make to CFD for at least a few days each July.

Cheyenne Frontier Days happens again next week. I don’t know if I’ve missed one. I’ll be coming back from a job near Thermopolis and will be getting some men and women on the street interviews with CFD volunteers for the Volunteer Crisis Fund tribute I produce each year.

I like to be a part of the action.

There are a bunch of locals who could care less about CFD and leave town during the busiest time of the year.

My mom was big into CFD. She used to sing in a group called the Dearies organized through her women’s club. They sang old time songs and rode in the parade, as did my sister and i. Later, we sold pop at the parade, which I’ll write about later.

Back when I was a newspaper columnist in Lander, I wondered what it was like to work in a carnival and decided to give it a go. I had a pretty good experience and can see how people get addicted to that vagabond lifestyle. Turns out that the TV and movie business is a lot like the carny life. This is my account of that weekend.

Pink Floyd’s “Money” filled the clear, still evening surrounding the double ferris wheel across from the balloon dart game booth at the Frontier Park carnival where I worked for the Bill Hames Show.

Running off to join the carnival was something I’d always wanted to try and there’s no better time than the present. Getting a stranger to hand you their money with the chance nothing will be given in return is entrepreneurship in its purist form.

It’s now 7:30 pm on a busy Saturday night during CFD and I met Wes who had traveled with the show for many years. He finished his supper and escorted me across the Midway where I was introduced to Dozier Simmons.

He and his wife, Angelyn, manage a half dozen games for Kelley’s Concessions out of Alabama and one of several companies affiliated with the Hames Company.

“Here’s a shirt and badge. This is Anice. Just do what she does,” Dozier said as I pulled the blue knit polo shirt over my head.

“The object of the game is to buy a dart for a dollar, bust a balloon for your choice of a small mirror. Five wins for a large mirror,” Anice explained.

“Mirror” is a misnomer since the prizes are non-reflective square pieces of glass with pictures silk-screened on the back.

“I’m just part time – a couple nights a week. I live in Englewood and work at a print shop in Denver. I share a motel room in Cheyenne with one of the other women and her boy friend. I used to work full time, but the guy I was with beat me up and I left the show a couple years ago. Dozier asked if I’d work for him again,” she said while tying a knot in one of the spare balloons.

The game is really rough on the fingers.

Each of the mirrors slips into a cardboard sleeve to protect the paint and prevent patron injuries.

No matter how careful, I still managed to slice little cuts where I never thought had any useful purpose like on the index finger cuticle which gets irritated each time a balloon stem gets tied off.

My hands bled the entire weekend.

Tonight there’s another woman working with us named Amber. “I’m trained as a nurse and working here until something opens up in town,” she said.

Amber was tenderly limping around the area in obvious pain. “It’s not my foot, it’s my back. I was shot in the abdomen and it hit a disc on the way out,” she pulled up her shirt and showed the scars. “I ruptured another disc moving a box of these mirrors and have to have surgery again.”

After I arrived, the counter was divided up into thirds, “Amber takes the first third, I’ll take the middle and you take the other end,” Anice said with authority, since it’s her joint. I was the newbie and was at the end of the lineup.

There’s an infinitely long imaginary line separating each of the sections, sort of like the invisible cylinder above a basketball hoop used to determine goal tending.

Common courtesy is to avoid cross-hawking. Taking a fellow carny’s business is counter productive. Anice advices me, “If you pull that stunt on one of the guys who’s traveling with the show, he’ll knock the hell out of you. I’m just telling this to you for your own good, if you decide to do this again.”

The dart game marks are pretty easy to spot: biker types wearing all black and mirror shades – “Hey buddy, I’ve got an Ozzy mirror that would go great with the Ozzy T-shirt you’re wearing;” pre-adolescent boys minus parents with their fists gripped around several one dollar bills – “Do you play Little League? Then this game is a cinch. Bust one and win a Bon Jovi mirror;” young touchy- feely couples – “Hey pal, why don’t you be a gentleman and win her another one of these cute panda bear mirrors;” grandparents escorting grandchildren too short to see over the counter – “Tell you what, I’ll let him stand on the edge here so he can  be equal to the taller kids.”

The Simmonses stop by to pick our money on their regular rounds. This time, Dozier has a swelled up eye and skinned up elbows. “Some college kid from Colorado punched him out over there. The police took him away,” Angelyn said in a scornful southern drawl.

The carnival business is tough. I didn’t run into any trouble.

Of course the dart game is pretty easy to win, but you’d be surprised at the number of people who miss.

Losers are bad for business.

As soon as someone misses, the crowd disperses as if in mass thinking, “Yes, this game is somehow rigged.”

The hours on your feet are long and the mental intensity high.

At midnight, there’s only one more hour to go and even Anice’s bark is complacent. The smiles become forced.

When you get busy, you have to keep up the endless personal chatter with everyone waiting in line while you’re locating the right mirror or putting up more balloons so they don’t leave. Everyone who plays is a potential return customer.

It’s closing time.

Dozier calls my name, “See you at 10 in the morning. We’re each paid a percentage of our individual take. I inflated 150 balloons today and my jaw aches.

Angelyn hands me $31.00.

It’s now Sunday, the last day of CFD and the crowd is much smaller. When the rodeo lets out, there’s a brief surge. No night show tonight, either. Tomorrow  is a work day for the locals and many of the tourists are either gone or out of money.

Amber called in sick this morning and arrived late in the afternoon. I noticed she’s working another joint across the way and worry that I encroached on her balloon dart game turf.

Anice and I spend the morning chatting between marks. It being Sunday, religion dominates the discussion. Anice is a born again Christian and feels carnival witnessing is part of her calling. There’s a Shroud of Turin mirror which is very popular today – both sizes.

A young drifter asks me if it’s okay to stow his bag under the counter. He’s looking for Dozier to ask him for a job. The next big stop is the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. We hit it off, probably because I didn’t rifle through his stuff.

He turned out to be real hard worker.

The food isn’t very appetizing and I chose to go without, which proved to be a mistake.

By nightfall the marks are getting tired and not as eager to play. Women and kids just ask to buy a mirror.

“No they’re not for sale. There’s more personal satisfaction in throwing the dart.”

Men try to get better terms and ask “How about three darts for a dollar, or two wins for the large mirror?”

At 10:00 pm the place comes to a screeching halt.

The air is finally quiet.

The neon lights stop flashing.

“Let’s get this place cleaned up. I want it to look like we were never here!”, Juanita screams to three kids in charge of sweeping the asphalt parking lot.

Juanita runs the joint across from ours in which softballs are tossed into a milk can to win a Spuds McKenzie stuffed toy.

The women who operate each of the joints are the informal lead workers supervising the “slough” which is the carnival dismantling process.

There are a dozen of us sloughing. All the prize stock is bagged and locked in the water race trailer.

The dart game trailer is hitched to the panel truck and hauled out.

The parking lot is empty.

It’s now 2:15 am.

Dozier hands me $50 and says, “We’ll see you next year.”

I earned enough to make a deal with another CFD vendor and ended up buying a pool cue from him.

Carnival inner circles are tough to break into and I felt like I gained a little respect among my fellow carnies by paying my initiation dues all the way through the slough.

Next time I do this, I’ll remember a pair of gloves – and eat more often!

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