A ride is like a big erector set.
Madison-native and long-time resident Nathan Comp spent eight weeks this summer working as a carnie for Wenzel Amazements, a Wisconsin-based traveling amusement ride park. It's an experience he writes about in an Isthmus cover story published on August 20.
Comp also filed regular dispatches about the carnival on his website, report he published August 17, Comp discusses the carnival owners' reaction to the story.
Here are excerpts from some of Comp's favorite dispatches over the summer.
Since joining the carnival in mid-June, I've been consistently surprised by just how safe the rides are. Unsurprisingly, most accidents are caused by rider mishaps or a failure to follow directions, like the kid in Waukesha who ignored the rule about going down the Fun Slide head first. Going over the last hump, he caught a little air, then smashed his face upon landing. Lots of tears were shed over that one. If only he had listened.
Unlike fixed amusement parks like Six Flags, carnival rides, at least those owned by the Wenzels, are inspected twice weekly -- once during set up, then again during tear down. In addition to several built-in safeguards that prevent catastrophic failures, the rides, via their weekly assembly and dismantling, remain structurally sound, their integrity intact.
A first line of defense regarding safety is the carny's love for the ride he or she operates. For carnies, a sense of ownership over their rides takes shape, especially among the older guys who've been running the same rides for several years or more. They know every pin, R-key, diaper clip, every dent or ding or trick in fitting together fussy parts.
For them, a ride is like a big erector set. David, who has run the Rock-O-Plane for nine years, knows almost everything about the machine. I say almost because no one knows everything about the rides. They are dynamic machines, and no one, not even the Wenzels, can say they know everything about every ride, but the cumulative knowledge between them and their dedicated help comes close.
In the off hours, considerable time is spent discussing the rides, things observed, problems encountered, etc. These discussions, from which everyone learns, reinforce the sense among the younger and newer guys what is expected when handling the rides.
Mark, for example, is the only person to operate the Monkeys in the nine years since the Wenzels added it to their roster of rides. No one but him washes the Monkeys, nor does anyone set them up or tear them down without his guidance. Same goes with Jimmy on the Hurricane, Hale on the Scrambler and Carl on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Once the rides are assembled, Corina does her dry runs, watching to ensure they're leveled, balanced and that everything is working correctly.
I like that there are carny children. Traveling with us is Peaches, a bright 15-year-old who runs the balloon game with her grandmother, Claire. On weekends, Jasmine, 8, comes with her mother, Danielle. Sometimes, there's a little boy named Nathan, whose father occasionally works another game. Jeff, who is in school to become a cop, brings his 17-year-old son, Jeff, with him on weekends he works. When asked whether it's a good idea to bring children around the carnies, Jeff replies, "It's like an intervention before it gets to that point."
Jeff also says that if he becomes a cop, the bunkhouses will be his first bust. "I'll go from foot patrol to sergeant in a week," he jokes.
Though the children are well watched over, protected, they're not perfectly safe, as evidenced this weekend when a sex offender infiltrated our ranks.
Brian, a pranksta gangsta from Burlington, invited his wife and a family friend to the bunkhouses on Friday. They got drunk and Brian and his wife fought. A lot. Brian was upset that his wife and the friend were going to sleep in the tent together. Brian didn't trust his wife, especially after she screwed Carny Scott after Brian passed out in Monona, days before Scott was fired for reselling tickets.
That night, before the fighting, Brian was trying to get his wife and the friend a job with the carnival. The next morning when Ann came with applications, the friend shied away and wouldn't look at her. Hotwheels, our indolent 16-year-old farm boy, recognized the friend as a guy his mother had once hired for work, who later molested a young girl.
Checking the sex offender registry confirmed this. Immediately, Corina told Brian that his friend had to go, along with his wife. Brian said he understood and left with them. When Black Nate went home on break, he found Brian had moved out his stuff, leaving behind a television and bicycle.
Even more disturbing is that Brian has two young children, a daughter and a son. Putting them in proximity to a sex offender appears not to bother him.
Curiously, there wasn't a whole lot of surprise at or discussion about this, except that the carnies seemed relieved they didn't know the friend was a child molester while he was here. Things would've gotten ugly.
Harley is an interesting character. Though he owns the company, he has no control over it. He's a man at odds with the world around him. He was in a particularly bad mood the other day so I asked, "Bad day, Harley?"
"I've been having a bad day for 50 fucking years," he grumbled.
He'd just been pulled over, in Beaver Dam, accused of backing into a vehicle. He became aggressive with the officer, who cited Harley for disorderly conduct. Whether he backed into the vehicle is the subject of speculation, but none of us would be surprised if he did.
Last year, he forgot to put the emergency brake on in the Tilt-a-Whirl truck and it rolled into a vehicle. He did the same thing with a stock truck this year during set up. At any time the truck could've rolled over the guys lifting parts from the back. Today, he got stuck when his front wheel rolled into a fire pit.
His list of grievances is endless.
At the carnival, he is kind of an attraction in-and-of himself. Several people have asked me if this is the carnival with the "white-haired guy."
On Saturday, in Darlington, Harley asked Carl, our Tilt-a-Whirl operator, to get him a glass of water. Harley watched the ride while Carl was away. When two young boys standing at the Tilt finally asked Harley where the operator was, Harley replies, "He was taking a shit and the hogs got'em!"
When he caught two teens smoking pot behind the fun house, Harley goes, "Where's the crack house in Darlington? I need my fix."
Harley doesn't talk shit to me like he does the others. When one of the carnies passed out drunk beneath the bunkhouse, Harley chortled: Hope you got a picture of that one for your article.
The other morning he came to borrow oatmeal from me. He poured some into a bowl, then returned with water and had me microwave it for him. As he sat outside my bunk eating his breakfast, Hotwheels sat next to him, eating a Nutty Bar.
"You're gonna be an obese little fucker you keep eating that shit," Harley told him.
We all laughed. So did Hotwheels.
"You think I'm fucking with you, well…"
Harley ate bad his whole life and now has diabetes, which he has undoubtedly added to his list of things to be unhappy about.
WaunaFest was busy. It's one of the busiest spots the Wenzel carnival works because unlike the rural county fairs, Waunakee is a fairly affluent community. Everyone was dressed very nicely and the kids wandered the grounds with $60 worth of ride tickets.
But with affluence comes a lot of griping about costs. At the Fun Slide, one father bemoaned the $3 cost after watching his daughter slide down. "That's not much of ride," he complained.
"It's not a ride at all," I replied. "It's a Fun Slide. You walk up and then slide down. That's it. The kids love it, but the parents for some reason always feel cheated."
At the G-Force, Tim 8.1, who earned the name because he drinks cheap, high-octane beer, was covering for Redneck Scott, who had the week off for a concert up north. He had a bunch of pukers on the ride, but for some reason failed to clean it all up.
During setup this week, he caught hell when Liz, who owns the ride, saw dried vomit everywhere. And so in the blazing heat of Black River Falls, Tim 8.1 scrubbed puke off the hot metal steps and steel caging.
We all laughed at his oversight or laziness, whichever you believe, but only because it was on Liz's ride. Next to Harley, Liz, 30, has the fiercest temper of the Wenzels. She is also considered to have the sexiest body of the three girls, though most of the guys covet Corina, who possesses the rare combination of brains, brawn and beauty.
Liz knows she is sexy and flaunts it at every turn. If you stare too long, she'll tell you to stop undressing her with your eyes. She has a sixth sense for the guys staring at her rear. She'll call you dingbat or moron or lazy piece of shit, but for some of the guys the only effect this has is a waking of their inner-masochist. Liz hates carnies, at least most of them, saying they're the worst part of her job.
Yesterday she stormed into our bunk area and screamed, "It smells like dick over here! Fucking dirty carnies. Take a shower!"
Tim's failure to clean the puke off her ride underscores her point about dealing with the help, and reiterates my point about the lackluster initiative the newbies exhibit. Smelling like dick, as Liz puts it, is gross, and so is failing to clean puke off the ride. Mark put it like this, "I don't give a shit if I have a line of kids to Tokyo, if there's puke on my ride, I'm cleaning it up."