Old South: A visit to the carnival

By Elton Camp

When the warm months of summer returned to North Alabama, a traveling carnival set up on an empty lot near the edge of town. It was a small operation with a handful of rides, a few game tents and three live shows.

“Paw ez gonna tak’ us t’ th’ fair Thursday night,” Belle informed the children. “Jest th’ littl’ uns can ride anythin’ ’n’ then only onst. Y’all kin all buy a bite t’ eat.”

“Somethin’s cookin’,” Albert called out as they approached the fair. “Smells powerful good t’ me.”  He had a number of coins jingling in his pocket.

Among the unwholesome carnival foods, the favorites of the children were the spun sugar known as cotton candy and the salty, greasy popcorn. The hot dogs looked and smelled tempting, but the coins their father had given them wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Hit jest melts on yore tongue,” Leon said after he pulled away a large piece of pink cotton candy and stuffed it into his mouth.

Coca-Cola was available at the carnival, but sales were slow. Few were willing to consume it with others watching, because it originally contained a tiny amount of cocaine. Coke was, for that reason, often called “dope” and the delivery trucks termed “dope wagons.”  Respectable people didn’t drink it, at least not openly.

The local area had been scandalized by an incident at a baseball game. One of the players was knocked unconscious by a thrown bat.

“I gotta have a Coke,” he demanded when he regained consciousness.

He didn’t wait for an opener to remove the cap, but dashed its neck against a rock and greedily drank from the jagged bottle. He cut his upper lip. Blood ran down his chin and dropped on his shirt. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Look!  He’s a dope fiend,” people gasped. They’d seen it with their own eyes.

“Don’t y’u never let me see y’u drankin’ no Coke,” parents sternly warned their children. “There ain’t nothin’ good thet kin com’ from hit.”

The game barkers promoted showy prizes of little value as if they were rare treasures. When Albert spotted the milk bottle game, he was elated. Three bottles across the bottom supported two bottles above and one at the top.

“Now, thar’s something’ I kin win at,” he told Howard. “Jest watch me.”

“Step right up. Simply knock down all the bottles and you win your choice of one of these fine prizes,” coaxed the barker.

Albert paid the nickel charge for playing. He had extra money he’d earned at the gin. If all he had to do was knock down all the bottles, he was certain of a prize. Farm work had given him a powerful arm.

He flung the ball as hard as he could at the base of the pyramid. All the bottles toppled except one. Albert groaned in disappointment.

“That’s all right my friend. You almost did it. Try it again. Only five cents,” the barker said. “Come over and watch, folks,” he added in hope of drawing a crowd.

Albert dug into his pocket for a V-nickel. He did no better than the first time. Under pressure from the carnival employee, he spent fifty cents before he gave up. He didn’t know that one of the milk bottles was heavier than the others. By the way he stacked them, the operator could determine if the player would win. It greatly increased his profit.