When I was 17 the circus came to town and I ran away to join it. Well, it was a carnival actually, one of those mom and pop road shows you never see anymore, a small family run carnival that played weekend dates along the secondary highways, mall parking lots and back roads.
It was called Wood Family Shows.
The owner, Peter Wood and his wife Gerta, were carrying on the tradition of old time carnies that Pete was raised with in England. Pete’s father ran an old fashioned trick pony show and they had a fun house, Ferris wheel, trailer mounted roller coaster and half a dozen game joints.
Each May they hit the road with a handful of other carnie folk who brought along the food joint, kiddie rides and other game joints.
It was 1973. I was fresh out of work and ready for anything.
Pete took a shine to me right off the bat and I was hired to help with the games, the fun house and the roller coaster.
Life as a carnie seemed to fit the restless feeling I moved in back then and the sound of big truck tires humming down the highway late at night became like lullabies to me.
I came to love the life and the work, but it was the Ferris Wheel that attracted my utmost attention.
Back then the Ferris Wheel still had its romantic cachet.
A guy could still get his first kiss from his favorite girl while riding the wheel and there was something about coming over the top of it at night and seeing the lights of the carnie and the town it was playing all spread out before you that made it special somehow. The wheel was a carnival institution and I loved being part of it.
Putting up the wheel was a team effort.
Everyone lent a hand to get it up and down.
It was an old fashioned ground-mounted Ferris Wheel and had to be erected from scratch. Nowadays they have hydraulic wheels that go up at the push of a button, but back then we had to rebuild it every single time.
It took hours.
From leveling the heavy steel plate that was the ride’s foundation, to erecting the twin towers, hauling the axle up and then sliding each spoke into place before hammering the pins in with a ball peen, the work was hard but made easier by the shared effort of that tribe of carnies.
“Let’s get this thing in the air!” they said and bent to the work together.
We’d work hard and fast. There was no room for complaining, no time for grumpiness, no attention paid to whining.
Paul, who was the wheelman, had been on the road for more than 30 years and was one of the last old-time wheelmen in the business.
He’d seen the carnie life change and watched as the simple romance of the wheel was lost to the speed and acrobatic flights of the more popular modern rides.
Dime days, he called them, when the rides were a dime and the world was a slower, simpler place.
He worked us hard like the old-time carnies. There was no room for daredevilry or risk taking on Paul’s crew.
We worked with shouts.
Moving heavy lengths of forged steel through the night was dangerous work and we made each other aware of every move. We worked with humor. The teasing and name calling we did on those setups and teardowns was hilarious and eased the tension of the work.
And we worked with passion.
There was something about creating something from the ground up, watching your sweat and toil take shape in the light of the generators, the top becoming lost in the darkness that filled a special place in you. Pride. Joy. Fulfillment.
I was the spoke puller.
I stood on the steel cylinder of the axle and pulled each spoke into place with a rope, slid each tip into its slot in the hub and then, holding it with one hand, I drove the thick bolts into place to hold it. There was no room for a safety harness, nothing really to hook it to.
While I did the job I stood on the axle with nothing to stop me from tumbling 20 feet except a keen sense of balance.
It was scary.
Anything less than a smoothly delivered spoke would drive you off.
I loved it.
Then, late at night, covered in grease and sweat, I’d stand on the axle after tightening the last of the cables before the seats went on.
I’d put my hand out and clench one of the heavy steel cables and feel the thrum of it in my gloved palm.
It seemed then like the wheel was alive, like it was impatient, eager to take on its riders.
I’d close my eyes and feel the empty space around filled with the smell of sawdust, grease, horse dung and fresh candied apples.
The stuff of old time carnie life.
Standing there, 20 feet in the air, surrounded by steel spokes, I could see the whole carnival lot beneath me.
It always made me feel special, good, content.
Back then I thought it was because working on that wheel made me a carnie, meant I belonged, I fit.
But it was more than that.
It was that particular joy that comes with shared effort, with a common grunt and strain, a shared purpose.
Getting that wheel in the air was my first experience with tribalism. Up to then I had never encountered anything that was close to what I would learn later in life as being aboriginal. I was the only Indian on that crew but working that wheel taught me how to be part of a community, how sweat transcends politics, how common effort removes differences and how a common purpose, when its done for others, brings everyone together.
In that, I suppose, we’re all Indians.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Dream Wheels and Keeper’n Me.