The end of the season9/25/2013
“Two books of tickets, please.” You shout over the music and through the small hole in the glass. Money passes one direction; tickets slide out the other direction. Vicki Smith looks out at you with a weariness. It’s late, and the season is almost over. You are another one of the thousands of faces she sees every summer. An unending lineup. If she was asked to do a police sketch of you, your nose might appear on the customer’s face immediately before you with the hair color of the man behind you and the ears of some guy last week. So it goes. And that smell of popcorn and cotton candy that makes your eyes almost water with desire? There’s not enough soap to get it out of her clothes. But it’s all winding down for the night, and for the year and for the time. The end is in sight.
When Vicki Smith pulls the trailer into the homeplace near Stratford at 3 a.m. — and doesn’t need to drive on to Fort Dodge, or Boone, or Des Moines, or Marshalltown — the carnival season is over. Thank goodness. Another season is done. But tonight it’s the Beaverdale Fall Fest, and there’s a large crowd in the perfect weather. Tickets need to be sold.
Smith sold her first ticket many years ago when she fell into the carny life just by chance. This was certainly not her dream. Marriage was the snare. And even that was a bit off script.
“I married Steve Smith in 1976. At that time, I didn’t think a thing about working on a carnival,” she says. “Well, first off, I said I’d never marry a Catholic, I would never marry a smoker, and I would never marry a farmer. And I married a smoking Catholic farmer,” She shakes her head and laughs softly to herself.
“I was just a kid. I was 19. I had no money. I was in college. I met Steve. And back then you just got married. That’s what you did,” she says. “Listen, I’ve always been overweight. I had no dates in high school. When Steve showed me attention and affection, it was like, ‘Who else is going to want me? I’d better marry this guy because he’s got money.’ ”
Smith gives a throaty laugh. Again, at herself.
Steve Smith farmed with his brother, Mike. To make ends meet, they bought a foot-long hot dog stand and went on the road. They would run to some fair in Iowa or Missouri or Wisconsin, then rush home to walk beans. A complicated life, but doable.
“When I married Steve, I thought I could handle being a farmwife. And it did work for awhile,” she says.
Then the farm crisis hit. Farming was a dead end. Bankruptcy loomed. Smith and her husband climbed slowly out of that hole of debt by buying carnival rides. Patiently. Carefully. And now they have 14 rides parked in Beaverdale with food stands. An entire carnival.
“I thought I’d be a farmwife, but here I am,” she says, as if she just popped out of a cake, hands raised in the air, and landed on the midway. To her surprise.
Smith’s daughter teaches at DMAAC in Boone but drove down to help at the Beaverdale fair. Smith’s son is at the Clay County Fair where he has multiple food stands. Smith’s brother-in-law, wife and adult children are also at the Beaverdale fair because they own and run all the games. It’s a traveling family reunion that goes on all summer.
But there’s a hard-scrabble feeling about the whole enterprise. They work doggedly at this summer “fun,” always aware that the cold months of winter are coming. And, Smith is ironic about her chosen life.
“Do you know why we own a carnival today? So we have a place to put a popcorn wagon. Isn’t that crazy? But, it’s where the money is,” Smith says.
She pauses, chewing on that thought. “We haul 14 rides around just so we can sell cotton candy,” she says, shaking her head.
“A carny doesn’t retire; they die walking down the midway,” she says, as if I should know this. “We’re still healthy. But still, this is not a normal life. But we really don’t know what the next step will be. It’s the end of the season. I’m tired of living out of a trailer. I’m just ready to go to my home.”
Iowa is full of endings these days. Corn is harvested because it’s dry in the fields. School buses clank to a stop up at the corner because summer vacation is over. The sound of marching bands carries from across football fields to sports bars because baseball is winding down. And the last tickets to the carnival are passed out the window at the Beaverdale Fall Festival. Without a doubt, it’s the end of the season and time to head home. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.