By Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald
As a journalist, Christopher A. Walsh has an aversion to pat, overly sunny answers to complicated questions.
So when the 31-year-old Calgarian spent months inside the curious subculture of Maritime’s longest-running travelling carnival, he was initially frustrated with how most carnies’ would answer the most fundamental of questions.
That question, of course, was why do it. Why would someone live the nomadic life of a carny, working the rides and games of the Bill Lynch Shows for an increasingly disinterested public? They travel from town to town, work long hours for lousy pay, suffer the unflattering stigmas attached to the trade and never find a comfortable home.
It seemed an obvious query for Walsh as he researched what would become his debut book, Under the Electric Sky: The Legacy of the Bill Lynch Shows. (Pottersfield Press, 158 pages, $19.95). But one after another, the carnies who travelled the circuit with Walsh said the same thing. They did it for the kids. They did it for the smile on a child’s face. They did it for the satisfaction of knowing they had made a child happy.
To Walsh, this sounded a little too clear-cut for his image of the rough and shady carny. It seemed trite, cheesy and more than a little disingenuous. Then he got to know them.
“After the first 10 times hearing that I thought ‘This is total bullsh—t, there’s no way these guys are out here for the kids’” says Walsh, who is now back in Calgary working as a freelance writer. “But I came to realize after I’d talked to a lot more of them and some of the older guys who have since left the show, a lot of them have something in common. They didn’t have any real childhoods to speak of. Growing up, they were from broken homes, they were abused, forced out of home at an early age. Then the carnival came around and that was their escape.”
“So when they say that about the kids, on some level it’s actually true,” Walsh continues. “They see their own lost childhoods. But I don’t know if they’ve actually grasped that.”
While this all may sound suspiciously like armchair psychology, Walsh spent enough time embedded in their world to come away with at least a partial understanding of what makes a carny tick. In 2008, the Halifax native quit his job as a reporter for the community paper in Stettler and returned to his Maritime roots to do some research. It was initially meant to be for a magazine article about the strange world of the Canadian carny. But Walsh soon found he had far too much material.
The travelling Bill Lynch Shows, which had been criss-crossing Canada’s East for more than half a century, seemed as good an institution as any to base the story on. They began in the 1920s on the mysterious McNabs Island in Halifax Harbour under the rule of the equally mysterious but famously charitable Bill Lynch. Walsh traces the history of the show, introducing us to a gallery of colourful characters with enticing names such as Soggy Reid, the Turtle Woman and the Man with Two Faces.
More importantly, he also went on the road with the modern version of the Bill Lynch Show. He bunked with the carnies, listened to stories and even bought their bootleg beer.
“When I was buying beer from the bootlegger, I knew I was accepted,” Walsh says with a laugh.
Along the way, Walsh got to know a another generation of seemingly rough customers. There’s “Popeye,” a 50-something carny who says he has 17 children with 15 different women. He joined the show because, as an orphan in Saint John, he had been allowed a free day at the carnival courtesy of Bill Lynch. There’s Ian, a diminutive. hard-drinking and toothless mainstay who became a carny after breaking his teacher’s jaw in Moncton more than 30 years ago. Then there’s Animal, a fierce-looking, old-school carny with a bizarre, unplaceable accent and foggy past.
“I didn’t even want to talk to this guy when I first met him,” Walsh says. “He took off with them when he was about 16 but he says he doesn’t know how old he is now. It was interesting how tough he was and how mean he seemed on the exterior. But if you sit down and talk to the guy, if you can understand what he’s saying, you realize he’s probably the guy with the biggest heart.”
Which, Walsh soon realized, was the real centre of the story. While it certainly presents a history of the Bill Lynch Shows and investigates the peculiar subculture of those who worked them, Under the Electric Sky is essentially about troubled people whose lives were changed, or saved, by the carnival. The author doesn’t whitewash the dizzy weeks he spent on the road. The carny life is one of after-hours drinking, drugs, promiscuous sex and the odd fist-fight. But it’s also protected by a sense of surrogate family and loyalty. And, Walsh fears, it’s a way of life that is starting to fade. Carnivals are not exactly in vogue with today’s public. Many of the new carnies, he says. don’t possess the savvy industrious attitudes of the old-school or their work ethic. The new “boys” shave. They bathe. They dress in golf shirts with logos on them. The romance of the life is dying, Walsh says. He wanted to capture it before it was too late.
“That’s what the carnival is, it becomes their life,” he says. “It wasn’t a job in any sense. This is what you do, you become a carny. Everyone thinks it’s a derogatory word. But they proudly declare themselves carnies. . . . There’s a sense of family and belonging. Here are people who didn’t fit in anywhere else.”
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