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A Carnival of Oddities

June 4, 2012

With summer fast approaching, I’m starting to sense something strange in the air.

Something manic.  Something queasy.

Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Something that feels like funnel cake-fueled motion sickness.

Something that smells like tobacco-filled funnel cake.

Something that looks like a carnival.

When I was an infant, we lived in Orlando.  My brother was practically raised at Disney World.

Try to imagine spending your after-schools at Uncle Walt’s house.  Try to imagine running across the street to borrow a cup of sugar from Donald Duck.

Try to imagine that for just a second.

Then we moved.

And the closest theme park was a seven-hour drive.  And we drove there twice.  In 15 years.

I’ll pause to give you time to emotionally assess this hardship.

But fortunately for us, a carnival or two would blow in every summer.  You could plan on it.

Sometimes it’d come for a county fair.  Sometimes it’d come for a Rotary club fundraiser.  Sometimes it’d come for no reason at all.

Sometimes you’d drive down the street and see one suddenly appear in a parking lot — a parking lot that just four hours ago had been empty.

Three days later — poof! — gone.  Empty again.  And a confetti of ticket stubs, some sugar-crusted cardboard tubes and a few dirty meth needles were all that was left behind.

It was magical.

Who needs Space Mountain when you can lie in a vat of suspiciously-sticky plastic balls.

Unlike Disney World, the rides of a fly-by-night carnival could never be staffed by lovable, innocuous college kids, the ones wearing bright matching t-shirts and color-coordinated zit cream.

No.  But that’s what made carnivals more interesting.  The ride technicians looked less like the babysitter down the block and more like the characters in a comic book.  Missing fingers, extra fingers, full-body tattoos.  Maybe a second face growing off of a bare shoulder.  Perhaps steel shackles around the ankles.

But yet I’d think nothing of trusting these people with my life.

They’d promise me a good time and flash me a toothless grin, and I’d mindlessly jump inside their cars.  Then they’d throw down the lap bar to prevent any last minute escapes.  For added effect, they’d turn on some head-banging music that hadn’t been heard for half a decade, usually coming from a set of speakers at their stations down below at a decibel level that’d make a jackhammer’s screams seem like a store’s Muzak channel.  And right about then I’d always feel quite safe and satisfied with my decision to get on the ride.

It was not uncommon that I’d notice, upon reaching the peak of a Ferris Wheel, that a few of the spokes were reinforced with duct tape.

It was not uncommon for a person to hurl.

I still recall the disappointment of a temporary ride shutdown — in one case, a kid had thrown up his chili dog inside the Zeplin Zinger.  So we all stood in line for several more minutes as the ride operators — as if it happened every day (because it did) — jumped into action, quickly hosing out each and every car.  Finishing up, they simply cranked up the motor and sent it through a couple of air-dry rotations — cars spinning, water spraying, mouths gaping.

Good as new.

All aboard.

And we did climb aboard.  Gratefully.  Like nothing even happened, residual water still seeping down upon us as we screamed out in mad excitement.   Actually, the seeping water aspect was a welcome reinvention.  Like getting on a roller coaster that turned into a log ride.  Stomach flips and wet clothes — the best of both worlds.  We loved it!  I think?  I don’t really know, to tell you the truth.  Maybe we were sick?  Maybe we were thrilled?  The odd thing about carnivals is the myriad of feelings and the way they all sort of meld together.

Joy mixes with fear mixes with repulsion mixes with I will never do that again mixes with I can’t wait to do that again mixes with I think I need to lie down now mixes with I think I need to take a run inside that giant tube over there.

Which exactly describes all the feelings I’ve encountered after indulging in a wad of cotton candy.


No.  Of course it isn’t.

The food was specially designed to enhance the experience.

74 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2012 6:26 am

    Wonderful. I loved those carnival rides. I can feel that cotton candy I just ate for breakfast a comin’ back.

    • June 5, 2012 7:13 pm

      Mmmm…cotton candy for breakfast. I believe cotton candy is made from sugar that has been genetically modified to stick to the walls of your stomach when you’re swung upside down for ten minutes while 50 feet above the ground. Isn’t science amazing?!

  2. June 4, 2012 6:30 am

    Reblogged this on Pnkhatri21's Blog and commented:
    very nice pic

  3. June 4, 2012 6:40 am

    Yes. You have just described every carnie I have ever encountered especially the second face growing off the shoulder.

    • June 5, 2012 7:16 pm

      In some countries, it’s considered good luck to have a second face growing off your shoulder. I think I heard that on an episode of House, so I’d imagine it’s true.

  4. June 4, 2012 6:45 am

    The year a classmate posed as the Sunshine Girl for the local paper, I also made the paper. It was the summer right before grade 10. It was a yearly event called Klondike Days. I remember the whole world going dark, and then feeling myself raised and lifted out of my seat by helpful and concerned strangers. There are two photos – one of me being lifted semi-conscious off a ride called the Hurricane, and one of me bent over a trash can with my best friend standing behind me in utter disbelief as cameras clicked all around us. The headline, in huge black letters, was Too Much Cotton Candy. I had hoped no one I knew read that paper, but when I got to school it seemed every grade 10 student, those I knew and those I didn’t, read that paper. I’m a little queasy just reminiscing on this. I also still have the clipping. It’s one of those strange bits of nostalgia you want to throw out but for reasons that hardly make sense you can’t bring yourself to destroy the evidence of the past. I do though retain an aversion to carnivals to this today.

    • June 4, 2012 4:41 pm

      Lori-Ann, I feel for you. But what a great story.

      My poor son, in sixth grade had the girl behind him barf on his back. You’d think the girl would be embarrassed. Nope, the bully girl bragged to all the class about how my son was the one she threw up all over.

      Instead of her being embarrassed, my son was totally humiliated all day. As a dad, I told him to shake it off, of course, but that didn’t make “the worst day, ever” any better for him.

      • June 4, 2012 6:15 pm

        Your poor boy! May I apologize on that girl’s behalf, as a kind of penance for my own mishap?I had it on several eye witness accounts that things sprayed outward for quite an astonishing distance, as the ride not only went up and down but also spun in a dizzying circle. Apparently while I was unconscious it was like a scene from Godzilla, with people screaming on the ground, and complete mayhem. There was a stampede to get out the spray circumference. At least I didn’t come to until after all that.

      • June 5, 2012 7:25 pm

        Ahhhh! You’re killing me! It just gets more awful by the minute!

      • June 5, 2012 7:24 pm

        MJ, I want to beat-up bully girl. Please tell me she’s an adult now so I won’t get arrested for this threat. How in the world does someone throw up on another person and then end up socially profiting from it?

    • June 5, 2012 7:21 pm

      Holy smokes, Lori-Ann! That sounds plain awful on so many levels — the strangers having to carry you, the upset stomach, the public shame. I’m so glad I wrote this post as it’s allowed you the opportunity to purge this story and hopefully liberate yourself from that dark chapter of your life.

      Too Much Cotton Candy. Thanks, journalists.

      I think you need to scan that clipping and post it on your blog.

  5. June 4, 2012 6:56 am

    Hi Angie,

    You’re right! It’s time for summer and those carnivals. Why are they so strangely appealing and disappointing? It’s like my memory is erased, and I want to go every time.
    You have great descriptions as usual. Thank you for brightening my day.


    • June 5, 2012 7:27 pm

      Thanks, Amy — you brighten up my blog! The more I think about it, the more I want to go to a carnival now. It does sound appealing, doesn’t it? Yet it sounds so completely revolting at the same time.

  6. June 4, 2012 7:08 am

    Yeah, who needs Disney? I lived in Orlando too and we went exactly one time. Mickey sucks. Psbbbt. (that’s supposed to be a raspberry, Peg told me she thought I was opening a Bud Lite. Okay, I am opening a Bud Lite)

    But you’ve nailed the exhilarating thrills of riding a duct-taped death trap run by escaped convicts! Oh, now there’s a good time!

    P.S. This was so funny, I had to read it again. Then read it to my husband. And now we’re all late for work and school. Thanks, Angie. Thanks.

    • June 5, 2012 7:29 pm

      Yes — I totally forgot about us sharing the Disney cul-de-sac. What years would this have been? Anytime close to 1975? Perhaps we could’ve arranged carpools and such.

      I am not even kidding about the duct tape.

      I pride myself in making people late — just ask my husband.

    • June 5, 2012 7:31 pm

      I am loving the “Psbbbt” now representing someone opening a Bud Lite. Leave it to Peg…

    • June 5, 2012 9:46 pm

      Beer can opening: pssst chk. First, the CO2 escapes, then the tab is popped back. Psst. Chk. I hear the sound often.

      • June 7, 2012 7:48 pm

        I only drink bottles now. I guess I need to go back to drinking beer Old School-style for the sound effects.

  7. June 4, 2012 7:46 am

    You did NOT say extra fingers!!!! Ha ha ha ha!!!

    • June 4, 2012 8:50 am

      I was thinking that same thing…

    • June 5, 2012 7:32 pm

      Just like Anne Boleyn, I believe they wear special concealing gloves that combine several fingers into one. Genius, huh?

  8. June 4, 2012 8:25 am

    We have a small historic amusement park in my hometown, so we went there a lot. When my sister brought her children some years back, she reminisced by saying, “Your Aunt Nancy threw up on that ride.” And over here: “Your Aunt Nancy threw up on that ride.” etc. etc.

    • June 5, 2012 7:35 pm

      Fantastic, Nancy! This inspires me to lead a similar tour of my old college campus.

  9. June 4, 2012 8:28 am

    This brings back my lovely summers working registration in the ER. Those finger loses all came by to see us- no ID, no legal names, just the romantic ‘theys call me Lil Butchy, cuz we gots 3 other Butches…..’ Alright, I’ll run that thru our patient database and see how it goes, have a seat.

    • June 5, 2012 7:37 pm

      You are quickly becoming one of my favorite commenters of All Time. I think WordPress should consider Freshly Press comments.

      • June 5, 2012 9:40 pm

        I agree. Brilliant, prttynpnk. I was going to comment before, but I’d already commented twice on this post (and now, three times). I’ll stop. But wait! Yet another comment begs me to go…

      • June 7, 2012 7:47 pm

        There is no limit on the amount of times you can comment on one blog post. But there is a limit on the amount of times you can go on The Zipper. After three you’re pretty much dead.

  10. June 4, 2012 8:39 am

    We had “The Zipper.” It was THE ride. It was fast, it was dangerous. Ever year some kid fell out and broke their arm or even died (it was rumored…) I refused to go on it. I stuck to those swings that fly up high and go around and around and while I was up there, closer to God, I prayed that my sisters wouldn’t die on The Zipper.

    • June 4, 2012 1:44 pm

      I remember that one. We had a carnival as part of “sidewalk sales” (back when downtowns had actual stores that people actually shopped in) and I went on the Zipper even though I didn’t want to, because my friends were going.

      I had the strength of character (and stomach) not to throw-up until after I got off. Ruined my whole day. That was the LAST time I ever went on a ride like that.

      • June 4, 2012 2:09 pm

        Great story! Peg, you have to read my brother’s story about getting sick at a carnival — the best “getting sick at a carnival” story ever. I’m forcing him over here to post it.

        P.S. I remember Sidewalk Days in my hometown!

      • June 4, 2012 2:25 pm

        Can’t wait to read it, although I am so susceptible that just reading about it might make me hurl.

        I bet I know what he was wearing at the carnival…

      • Tony permalink
        June 4, 2012 3:24 pm

        Well I took a handicapped girl on The Zipper and it was awful.

        She really wanted to ride it and I felt like I was doing a noble thing. However, I could barely lift her over the gate to get to the car. (This was a girl that was wheelchair bound and didn’t have full body control.)

        She loved it, and screamed the entire time. But I thought she was in pain and I had a panic attack trying to keep her body from hitting the car’s cage while I was pummeled!

        Then when the ride was over dizzy and beat up me about dropped her trying to carry her out of there. BRUTAL!

      • June 4, 2012 4:49 pm

        Oh wow. Typically a knight in shining armor comes riding in on a horse, but sounds like the Zipper was the ride of choice here. Good for you for risking back strain AND barfing for that girl.

      • June 4, 2012 4:53 pm

        Seriously awful, huh. But the story I really wanted my brother to tell got posted way down below — and you actually would never guess what he was wearing at the time. (No, not a tan turtleneck.)

    • June 5, 2012 7:41 pm

      I never went on those swings. People riding the swings always looked so relaxed, conscious and healthy — I couldn’t imagine it would be a good time. I always preferred The Zipper types of rides that probably risked my life and caused my kidneys to switch places.

  11. June 4, 2012 8:57 am

    Boy, have times changed. These days, I would hire a 3rd party inspector before letting my kids on any of the more dangerous rides (like the ones involving heights and gravity or fortuitous amounts of centripetal acceleration). My brother runs a traveling carnival and has convinced me that the dangers of the old days no longer apply (yeah, right, Ed).

    Um…is that a dumpster in the background of the picture of your brother with Donald Duck?

    Loved your descriptions of the vomit comet hose-down. I’ve witnessed a few of those myself.

    I grew up near Six Flags of Houston (a huge amusement park). When I was a young teen, it doubled as a full day of babysitting for parents. Mom would drop a group of us off with $10 each when they opened and tell us to “be right here” when the showed up at closing to pick us up. *shudder*

    • June 5, 2012 7:45 pm

      If your brother runs a traveling carnival and you still aren’t convinced that it’s safe, that tells me everything I need to know.

      Yeah, what is up with that dumpster? Disney World generates trash? That just burst my Small World After All bubble.

      Six Flags commercials always hit our local TV airwaves in the summer. I thought people who lived near those were the luckiest people on earth.

  12. June 4, 2012 9:46 am

    This all made perfect, perfect sense when I was a kid. Then when I brought my own children back to experience the nostalgic joy of the summer street carnival, I stopped short. I got a good look at the whole operation with newly-opened, grown-up eyes and I said hell no. I’m going to trust my kids’ lives to the mechanical skills of people who can’t even maintain their OWN TEETH? HELL no.

    • June 5, 2012 7:49 pm

      Yes, as a kid, why didn’t I ever worry about the duct tape-reinforced Ferris wheel spokes? You think that would’ve been enough to keep me away from the next carnival, but nope. Living on the edge.

  13. June 4, 2012 1:25 pm

    we had The Zipper, too. I was pretty cool and always rode, managing to forget to check my pockets and losing my parent’s hard earned change in the process.

    It really is amazing we trusted these people with our lives! My husband and I went up for a concert some time ago, and a carnival event was being set up. Like you, it was always “just there”, so to see it in the process of coming to made the scene less magical. Especially when i saw how they put it together…

    • June 5, 2012 7:52 pm

      I remember losing some stupid plastic game trinket on one of those rides. I was devastated. It probably cost me 5 bucks to win it.

      How do they put it together? Is it like putting up an artificial Christmas tree or does it require more work than that?

  14. Teresa Cleveland Wendel permalink
    June 4, 2012 1:29 pm

    My aunt beat up a carnie when he wouldn’t let us pick up the change that fell out of the Zipper riders. My aunt probably could’ve got hired as a carnie.

  15. June 4, 2012 1:39 pm

    Ha! Fabulous post, Angie. I’ve been thinking a lot about going to an amusement park for the first time in almost a decade, and then it’s like this sudden flash hits me and I think, “What on EARTH would be fun about that? Long lines? Baking in the sun? Annoying people? Rides that give me a headache, if not nausea?” I’m so old. Give me a margarita and a lazy river.

    • June 5, 2012 7:55 pm

      Thanks, Jules. Yeah, I’d rather sloth it by the river any day. The standing in line all day part only to sit on something for four minutes. It’s not worth it unless you’re driven to hurl.

  16. Emily permalink
    June 4, 2012 2:27 pm

    I’m an oddball–I’ve never been to a Disney park, and I’ve never liked land-based thrill rides at amusement parks either–traumatizing experience on the Rudolph roller coaster at Santa’s Village when I was six, wherein I thought I was going to be thrown out of the car when the track twisted sideways, and I haven’t been able to stomach another thrill ride since. However, I love water parks, and I’m crazy about water slides–tall, straight, steep ones, bumpy ones, twisty ones, funnel-y ones, racing slides, slides with built-in waterfalls, you name it. The best was a few summers ago, when I saved up enough points from drinking Diet Coke to get a pair of tickets to Wild Water Kingdom for me and my brother, and we made an afternoon of it, just the two of us. We came back with bruises all over our legs from sliding for hours on end, but it was SO worth it.

    • June 5, 2012 8:25 pm

      I’m an oddball in that I hate swimming. I hate having wet hair, being soaked in chlorine and wearing a wet suit around all day at a water park. I really wish I could Quantum Leap back to when I was a kid and could just enjoy it all without thinking about what might be floating in the pool.

      Rudolph roller coaster at Santa’s Village! I’ve never seen a Santa’s Village quite that crazy.

      • Emily permalink
        June 7, 2012 11:10 am

        Yeah, I was in the front car with the Rudolph head, because I thought the Rudolph head looked cool, which intensified the experience–that, and the fact that it was my FIRST TIME EVER on a roller coaster, so between that, and the fact that I was six, I didn’t know that I wouldn’t be thrown sideways from the moving car when the track tilted sideways. My mom was riding with me, and she was 39 at the time, and she said that it terrified her too, though, so…..maybe it wasn’t just “kid logic” that made the experience scary. Either way, I haven’t been able to ride a roller coaster since then.

  17. Tony permalink
    June 4, 2012 3:40 pm

    The Spiderman story for my beloved superstar blogger, sis:

    I was dressed as Spiderman for a local outdoor charity event. I was spraying the kids with webbing (spray string) and hamming it up. I was surrounded by screaming children. They loved me. And I loved them.

    Then a rental company dropped off a spin ride and my adoring kids pulled me over to one of the seats to ride with them. I cranked the spin lever with all my Spidey strength and immediately knew I was in trouble when the lenses of my mask fogged up. I rode the tornado blind for a full minute. Cold sweat, vertigo… the.. hardest.. minute.. of not trying to puke.. EVER.

    When it was over I had to tell my handlers to get these damn kids off me so Spidey could go vomit in private.


    • June 4, 2012 5:07 pm

      Ha ha! Spidey is supposed to spew from his WRISTS – just a little misunderstanding. And isn’t this a pretty radical wardrobe departure from the tan turtleneck for you?

      • June 5, 2012 8:28 pm

        The tan turtlenecks are what he wears when he’s Peter Parker.

    • June 5, 2012 8:28 pm

      You with a full-on Spidey costume trying not to puke through the holes in the mask while little kids surround you — it gets me every time.

  18. June 4, 2012 5:35 pm

    Is the zipper the one that goes around like a ferris wheel and then the car spins also? Whatever that one is is the one I was on at the time. I had just eaten two or three elephant ears. I spewed on the 8th graders below with barf. My cousin and I still laugh about it. I blamed it on her. She`s still known as the girl who barfed all over the 8th grade.

    • June 5, 2012 8:30 pm

      I think you’re right about The Zippper, Emily. Sort of like a Ferris wheel that someone stepped on. What in the world are elephant’s ears? I think I’m about to spew just thinking of what that weird food item might be.

      If they were 8th graders they probably had it coming.

  19. June 4, 2012 6:03 pm

    I’m with Jules. It’s usually too hot during carnivals, rides are unsafe (questionable, anyway), lines abound, and it’s not relaxing. Okay, I also don’t like to be scared. No horror, no scary rides. Hmm, I’m kind of boring.

    • June 5, 2012 8:33 pm

      Maybe boring but you’ll probably live to be 100. I’m right there with you on that assessment.

  20. June 4, 2012 9:33 pm

    You’ve really managed to bring the magic of a germ-infested carnival to life. Reminds me of my childhood and the first time I ever saw someone literally throw up chunks. It was after riding the knock-off teacups and it was awful. That’s a memory that cannot be erased.

    • June 5, 2012 8:34 pm

      It really is magic, isn’t it! Was the knock-off teacup ride called the Tilt-o-Whirl? I think that ride was at every carnival I ever saw.

  21. June 5, 2012 12:50 am

    I didn’t know they shot up meth! I learned something. Also, those sticky balls have DNA all over them. Yeah.
    I smelled this post a mile away.

    • June 5, 2012 8:36 pm

      You think those ride operators could get through their day with that kind of madness without doing meth? This post probably smells like poop, which thankfully is the one bodily fluid I never saw at a carnival.

  22. John-Paul permalink
    June 5, 2012 5:58 pm

    Firstly, “hurl” is a great American word.

    Secondly, thanks for writing: “a kid had thrown up his chili dog inside the Zeplin Zinger.”

    That is all.

    • June 5, 2012 8:39 pm

      Hurl really is a great word. What do you New Zealanders call it? Tossing the Vegemite?

      I think I’ll name my next dog Zeplin Zinger.

      • John-Paul permalink
        June 6, 2012 12:08 am


        Also evocative.

      • June 7, 2012 7:51 pm

        Puke — that’s so disappointing since we say that word too. I just commented on Jesseeker’s page about picking boogers — and then I immediately fretted that boogers are not the same thing in England, and it might’ve got lost in translation. Which might be a good thing.

        Evocative? You’re kidding.

  23. June 7, 2012 10:16 am


  24. June 7, 2012 2:04 pm

    Something Wicked This Way Comes ruined carnivals for me. I don’t even let my kids on the rides.

    • June 7, 2012 7:41 pm

      That movie still haunts me to this day — I never read the book. Sort of creepy to be talking about it right now so soon after Ray Bradbury died.

  25. June 8, 2012 4:10 pm

    One of the things I remember best about my childhood was the carnival coming every year for 4th of July. Except the year Something Wicked This Way Comes came out, because it was at the local theatre AT THE SAME TIME as the carnival was in the city park. Creeptastic. Didn’t ride the merry go round that year, that’s for sure.

    • June 11, 2012 7:58 pm

      That is ultra-creepy! Yes, that movie is seriously frightening. It was shot at Walt Disney Studios so I believed as a child that it was a run of the mill Disney movie. What could be scary about that? When I later learned as an adult that it was based on a Ray Bradbury novel, it all sort of finally made sense.


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