For years, I taught middle and high school in Thornton, Colorado. Then when the school year ended, I joined my husband and traveled on a carnival. That experience shaped who I was as a teacher. The following blog was written as a reflection of those years of being a carnie and getting to know people I might not have encountered in any other parts of my life.
|Stevi back in the day|
August was nearing an end and soon the show would move on: Belen, New Mexico for Burning of the Devil, Santa Domingo for the corn dances, and eventually on to El Paso to wait for winter to end and the spring to begin, but I was heading home. For 13 summers after the school year came to an end, I spent the summer traveling with the Kastl Show, a family carnival that traveled through Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. As always I left before the season came to an end since the school year was about to begin.
Would I recognize them?
And often I recalled those nights that had been long when the locals strolled down the midway, pink cotton candy in one hand and a new but dusty teddy bear in the other. Mornings would come only too soon, and when the heat wasn’t too much, the carnies slept in. Morning was my time to enjoy the quiet and slip into my book.
It was one such morning in Buena Vista when I was sitting on the cold metal steps of the Tilt-a-Whirl, Thorn Birds in hand, when Stretch joined me. Tall and lanky, he could pass for a young Ichabod Crane. Hair a mess and clothes greasy from working on the rides, Stretch sat down beside me. Because his top front teeth were missing and his bottom teeth caked with plaque, he was hard to look at, but his story was one that hooked me. Fresh out of the boys’ reformatory down the street, Stretch was trying to find an entry point into adulthood. The townsfolks wouldn’t hire him, but the carnival offered him a job and a place to sleep. He never mentioned his family nor the reason why he spent two years locked up, but he knew that school hadn’t worked for him and his future was uncertain. When he saw my book, he asked about it and then confessed that he had never read a book until he was in the pen. There he read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance once and then twice and then three times. “Only book I ever read,” he said, “and I know I’ll read it again. It saved my life.”
Many summers Vinnie would stop by to talk when the crowds were slim and the business slow. That particular summer as I filled the shelves of the Guess Your Age game with beanie babies and cute plastic bracelets, I could hear Vinnie teasing me about an over abundance of cheap girlie prizes. It was in Buena Vista one summer when Vinnie took me into his confidence. “You hit 25 and you’re a buzzard. No way am I going to be a buzzard. Not going to make it that long.”
He was right.The next winter well into his 24th year of life, he drank too much and suffocated in his own vomit.
And how many Vinnies will sit in those desks in my classroom? How many students will be certain their lives would be short and their destinies out of their control? And how will I know?
And then I remember Surfer Ray from a few summers back. He had been on the show since he left the army. Only now and then did he drop hints about his life in Vietnam, but often he told who ever would listen: “Not something you want to know about. Not something you want to be a part of.” He too would join me in the morning on the steps of the Tilt-a-Whirl when he wasn’t hung over. We’d talk philosophy and history and he wasn’t showing off when he quoted Kant and believed in the pessimism of Nietzsche.
He earned his nickname Surfer Ray by drinking too much on most nights, passing out, and pissing in his sleeping bag. In winters he’d live in a cave outside of Aspen. “Don’t have to deal with people that way. Just me and my nightmares tucked away in a safe place.”
A few years back, he failed to join us in the spring and no one knew what happened. But I did see him one more time. He was standing on the corner of Speer and Colfax holding a sign: “Anything helps. I served the country in ‘Nam.” I drove on.
And what about those young Surfer Rays? Will they be in my classroom too? Will I recognize them or will I just drive on?