Breaking Down Carnivals by Terry Mulcahy

Breaking Down Carnival

Terry Mulcahy

     Sometimes you immerse yourself in something and you may not understand what it is until you back up and look at it from a distant perspective. And, yes, that’s my lead-in to a story, a story about a carnival.

Now, first off, a carnival is not a circus. No live animals, no rings, no ringmaster or clowns. But, both a circus and a carnival have a vibrance in the air, a cacophony of sound, bright lights and garish colors. Both have children. Each child has a candy-apple blush on their cheeks and a dripping swirly cone.

But a circus is a static experience. People tend to sit on their asses, watching, laughing and generally being entertained entirely stationary, just as one watches television. There are staged animals acts, professional acrobats, and clowns. Except for the smells, the experience is a lot like TV.

I joined a carnival when I was 23 years old. At first, I was only looking to make a few bucks by helping take everything down, in preparation for the move to the next town. I helped disassemble a Ferris wheel.

The first “Ferris” wheel, was actually called Ferris’ wheel, after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an engineer, part of a group charged with inspecting all the steel to be used in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair was officially called: The World’s Columbian Exposition, in honor of the 400th Anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.


Back then, that original Ferris wheel consisted of over 100,000 parts, including an 89,320-pound axle that had to be hoisted up 140 feet onto the two support towers. Launched on June 21, 1893, it was a success. Over the next 19 weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride. 20 minutes! Can you imagine any carnival ride lasting twenty minutes today?

Three years later, Ferris was bankrupt and died of typhoid fever. His wheel was sold, and later dynamited for scrap metal. However, the Ferris wheel lives on, and not only because of George Ferris’ design. At the time, a carpenter named William Somers had been building 50-foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Coney Island. He called them roundabouts, and his design was patented, long before Ferris’ wheel.

Ever since then, people have gotten used to giant spinning mechanical rides, climbing and falling, twirling, zipping, and bobbing up and down (are you getting nauseous yet?). People love the sensation of “…revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage,” as the reporter Robert Graves wrote in 1893.


In modern times, all those rides have pneumatic cylinders to raise the ride up off of the flatbed trucks that haul them all over the countryside. First the lights have to be disconnected, and some removed for transport. All of the “cars” people ride in have to be removed and transported in another huge trailer. More importantly though, is all of this pneumatic lifting and lowering, all those lights, and the motors driving the ride need power. Since the carnival is often set up on empty land outside of town, the carnivals provide their own electricity, in the form of generators the size of a truck trailer, or two half-sized ones per trailer. After I had finished with the Ferris wheel, I was put to work for the carnival’s electrician.

Spreading out from each generator is a vast network of power cables, connected every hundred feet to a junction box, from where another set of cables continues on from the opposite side, on to the next junction box, and so on. Each junction box has outlets for standard power outlets, for lights and small appliances. The rides, however, have to be hooked directly up to the tall terminal bolts that the power cables are already attached to via 1″ diameter crimped terminators (LUGS) held in place by a screw-on nut. In order to attach the wires from the rides, that nut must be removed from the upright bolts, the crimped ends of those wires must be placed over the power cable lugs, and the nut replaced, tightly.

My job, at the time, was to disconnect the power cables while the carnival was shutting down. Note that I said, while, not, after. For what the electrician needed were lights for everyone to see at night, which is when the carnival shuts down, as soon as the last towny leaves. There are bright towers on top of each generator truck, lighting the miniature city that is a carnival. So, I could not turn each generator off before starting to disconnect the power cables. As soon as all the rides, joints (game booths) and poppers (popcorn, corn dogs, cotton candy, etc) had been removed from the last junction box in the line, and then the next, and the next, all the way to the generator, those now useless lines had to be pulled off their terminals, hauled off and stored in yet another large truck trailer.

So, like I said, disconnect the powers cables, which, mind you, are still hot, through the metal sides of the junction box. There were holes in the sides for this purpose, each hole protected by a plastic over-ring, so that a hot cable lug would not touch the bare metal. In theory. However, as I was successfully performing this somewhat delicate operation, I unscrewed the locking nut on a terminal, removed the power cable lug, and stated pulling it slowly through the hole. It wasn’t until the lug approached the hole that I noticed the hole had no plastic ring protecting it.

I tried to back the cable up before it could make contact, but it was too late. The power running through the cables was such that it could easily bridge a small gap, and that one did. Hoo boy, did it. BANG, a blinding flash, a shower of burning sparks, and the generator whined loudly before it shut down. Darkness. Pure darkness. Not only because the lights were off everywhere near me, but my eyes needed time to recover from that flash. Couldn’t see a thing.

Shortly, because something like that really attracts attention, the electrician showed up. He asked me if I was alright. I said I was, and explained that the plastic ring was missing and the cable had been torn right from my grip as it welded itself to the box, as my eyes slowly calmed down. Since there was no power yet, he reached down and yanked hard on the cable, breaking the impromptu weld. He said, “Don’t do that again,” and walked off. I got the other four cables out just before he restarted the generator. I had expected to be fired or something, but with power restored and everyone working, I just went back to work. It took me the rest of the night to remove all of the cables, and then carry them and the junction boxes to the electrical truck.

By daylight, I was exhausted, as were the carnies. I couldn’t think of myself as a carny yet. You had to spend a whole season wrapping yourself in your job, and then come back to do it all over again for another season. Would I? I didn’t know yet. I saw some people sprawled across car hoods, feet sticking out car windows, people propped against trailers. Many people had already pulled out. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Soon enough though, I had been paid for my work, and prepared to head off myself into the morning, happy that I had money for food.

The electrician found me and asked me if I would stay on. Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting that. Seeing as I had no other means of support, and no clear idea where I was going, I agreed. Much later, I found out that I had been recruited because I hadn’t died. Rumor was the last guy had. After that way-too-short rest, we were all on the road again. Sleep wouldn’t come for us until we arrived at the next location.

Once there, after a good long nap, we reversed everything we’d done the night before to get the carnival up and running again. I had to haul all of the heavy, insulated copper cables out of the truck, and get them hooked up to junction boxes. Rides, poppers and joints had to be plugged in. There was always some troubleshooting until everyone had power. All the rides had to be tested, run forwards and backwards while being inspected. Every nut and bolt had to be tightened, and every ride car checked. I still had lots to do. The generators needed oil and water. Since they were in open view, placed in the center of the midway, they also had to cleaned, and occasionally painted as well. That was my job. Sometimes the cables needed new terminators. Sometimes the junction boxes needed new protecting rings over the access holes. Yes they did.

Once I finished all of that, after breaks for meals, it was time to shut everything down for the night. I had to wait until the townspeople were long gone, and everyone cleaned up and shuttered their equipment. Once all was done, I could shut the generators off. In the morning, I had to be up before everyone else to get the power back on.

Ten days. Then we’d be off again, criss-crossing the country, selling dreams while the rides turned under bright rainbow lights, surrounded by the smells of cotton candy, corn dogs and popcorn. The marks would gamble, buying cheap toys for the price of many chances to spin a wheel, shoot out the stars, pop some balloons, or knock over some bottles.

At night there were circus-like tents full of illegal card games and crazy peep shows. Some real money changed hands there. There had to be a balance between cleaning out the marks for every dollar, and letting them win sometimes, or the cops and sheriffs could shut the whole carnival down, forcing us to move on sooner than expected. The vulgarity of the peep shows was extraordinary, and sometimes they could get raided, but most often not.

There are dreams and then there are other dreams.


I am Terry Mulcahy, and have lived in Albuquerque since 1976. Although I am retired from my former careers, I currently study acting and occasionally act. I also write writing, and sometimes post writings in my blogs, or write poetry or non-fiction, mostly for myself or for open mics. I also take photographs, mostly on my hikes in the mountains, and occasionally sell a few of those.

This was prompted by Kym Thurman’s oil & canvas piece titled: In the Between.