05 Joe Johnson
I didn’t sleep much that night. In a way it was my first job interview. I tossed and turned all night excited about what I would learn about my future. Scenes played out in my head of being given an official job title where I followed Mr. Johnson around and learned from his tutelage. This wasn’t the case.
I actually didn’t meet Joe Johnson that day. They were filled with building structures, moving merchandise to its proper location, staging costumes for shows, and helping clean up after the animals.
It was a couple hours into the setup on Wednesday that Smiley realized I was being utilized for less strenuous tasks. Instead of erecting tent poles, I was getting clown makeup for the dressing rooms. He spent the rest of that day stuck to my side almost as if he was my guardian.
It was nice to spend the day with a familiar face, but I was constantly looking around and asking people about Joe Johnson. I was received with constant looks of confusion. It appeared no one knew who the man was.
About half way through the day the man with the broken hat noticed me organizing braziers in a small side tent. “You came back? Glad to hear see it. Nothing warms my heart more than a boy putting in a day’s work and becoming a man.”
The hairy man stood as tall as he could while pulling down the sides of his lapels showing pride in me. I found it odd and at least a little disconcerting as I was a strange child in his eyes. But it did not matter this was my chance to meet Joe Johnson. I quickly hung the last of the braziers and stood at my full stature which was not even as big as the man in front of me.
“I was hoping to meet Joe Johnson today. Do you know where I can find him?” My breath was out of match with my speech. I couldn’t help but let the nerves sound in my voice.
“Sorry. He is feeling ill. I have a feeling he had a bit of a bash last night. But he brings in enough that I can overlook that. Find him in the morning over by the dining tent. He will be performing tomorrow ill or not.” He started to walk away, but I reached out accidentally looking like a child pulling on his dad’s sports coat.
Trying to regain some stature and respect I choked out, “I just want to thank you for this.” I put my hand forward looking for a handshake, what I thought to be the sign masculine maturity.
The man laughed to himself, “What’s your name?” His demeanor softened as if he was dropping the act he had been putting on for my benefit.
I looked up and felt the urge to be as honest as I could. “My name is John Malone, but that is a life that I am leaving behind. I’d prefer if you call me Squirt.”
The man with the broken top hat smiled at the idea that I had left something behind. “I think you are going to fit in here, Squirt. My name is Radisson. Many say that I was the son of a rat, but that is nothing but a tale to help me make some scratch.”
Everything he said went over my head, but I tried to play it off. “Are you in charge of this whole show?”
He knelt down to look me eye to eye. “I am the showman, that is true. You have a lot to learn to keep from being a gazooney, but I think you have it in you. Find Joe tomorrow and give him an aligazam. It may take a while before he can speak to you away from the marks, but just hold tight.”
And he stood back up and sauntered away. I watched him as he walked away having destroyed my dreams for the day. I tried to make sense of the things he told me, but the words had no meaning to me. Aligazam, gazooney, scratch… It was as if he was speaking gibberish.
I didn’t mean for it to get to me, but when I turned around Smiley could see the distress on my face. He walked over to me and laid a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. These carny people have their own way of talking. Kind of like tut in my neighborhood. If anyone we don’t trust is around we only speak in tut. Gugeetut eyetut?”
I looked up into his eyes pleading for something to make sense, but he was speaking in sentences that didn’t make sense to me either.
He read the anguish on my face, “He was speaking in some kind of code. He said, ‘when you find Joe give him an aligazam’. So, when you find this Joe Johnson guy, say aligazam.”
When you look back at life it is funny to realize what you are grateful for and what you let slip by. If it weren’t for Smiley and that reassurance, I don’t know that my life would have turned out the way it did. I wish I had the opportunity to thank that man. In the short period of time I knew him he may have helped me more than anyone else I’ve ever known.
The next day it took me a while to find my way to the carnival. I sat on Smiley’s porch until the sun rose, but when he emerged he explained to me that since the fair had started there wasn’t any more work for the locals. He said they wouldn’t be back over there until it was time to shut down and it was time to reload the train.
I spent most of that morning back in downtown, checking out of my room and saying goodbye to the few people that I met over the last week. With no horse and no friends, I had to make the walk back to the fair park area. By the time I had everything wrapped up it was afternoon and I was starving. I ended up with some of the best chili I would ever taste.
I finally made my way over to the dining tent where Joe was supposed to be. And very similar to how Andrew Slate had done it, Joe Johnson was standing in the center of a small dirt circle with just over a dozen boys and young men surrounding him. Joe was a tree of a man. He wasn’t quite six feet tall, but appeared to be as wide as a wardrobe. He had thick arms and legs that plainly were not made of fat. His abdominals were not well defined, but as he stood there shirtless in boots and a pair of jeans there was no doubt that there was too much man to be trifled with.
He saw me as I walked up behind a group of boys. He peered at me with an odd charm. His hair was jet black and slicked backwards. He had a large nose and ears that seemed appropriate near his sunken in eyes. He kicked a bit of dust towards me causing the boys in front to move to the side opening up a walkway for me.
His voice boomed when he called out to me, “Fifty green backs says you can’t stay in this circle with me for more than one minute. It’ll only cost you a buck.”
I recognized the gimmick from when I met Andrew “the farmer”, but I couldn’t get caught up in the carnival act. I took a deep breath to build my confidence taking in the aromas of the food and animals that plagued the carnival. “Aligazam.” I said the word as slowly and carefully as possible. After I felt I had stated it correctly I stood as tall as I could and lifted my chin.
Joe looked perplexed. He glanced at the boys surrounding him, a quick glace to the left followed by one to the right. Then with one eyebrow cocked he responded, “Treazyeazing teazo bleazo meazy ceazoveazer?”
I stood as tall as I could and slowly nodded my head having no idea what in the world he said to me. But, after a few second of me trying to hold my ground Joe spat in the dirt and returned his focus on the people around him.
A kid in his early twenties, probably older than Joe himself, stepped up. The thin frame and gangly limbs showed he would be no match. After he handed over a dollar he lunged at Joe Johnson who sidestepped the boy but put out his arm as the kid passed him. He wrapped that arm around the boy’s neck and brought his other arm in behind.
People in the crowd started laughing and yelling, “Told you he was named The Strangler!”
Joe then started spinning in circles until the boy’s feet were flapping in the air in front of him, then Joe let loose and the boy went careening out of the dirt circle.
I watched him beat another dozen young men that day as I waited for a chance to talk with him. It eventually came, but when the crowds had left and Joe was alone with me all he said before he went into the dining tent was “Don’t say things when you don’t know what they mean.” After that he was gone for the day and I had nothing to show for it.
I spent that night sleeping between a couple tents back in the corner of the fair. The number of carnival workers that were passed out around the premises made it easy for me to blend in. There was no one to verify that you were a part of the carnival, no one to usher out any guests that overstayed their welcome. Instead it was a situation where if you didn’t bother anyone, they didn’t bother you. It was an oddly lonely and welcoming environment, but I still slept with my money in my shoe to be sure no would come by and leave me penniless.
The next two days I stood by the ring that Joe was throwing boys out of. I think I was too intimidated by the man to interrupt his show and each day he would grunt at me and walk off. Then I would spend the night somewhere on the fairgrounds trying to build up the courage to make the man talk to me.
The last day of the carnival I got to Joe early, there was only one man standing there talking to him. I knew that my future depended on Joe Johnson talking to me and helping me to become a grappler. I had spent the last sixty hours fretting over what would happen if the carnival left and I was alone in Dallas. My entire future depended on me finding a wrestler to mentor me.
Completely fed up with my situation I walked straight up to Joe and handed him a dollar.
He looked down at it with the intense stare that always accompanied his deep set dark eyes. “Really?” His deep voice lifted in a comical fashion.
“I’ve been trying to speak with you all week.” I started to give him the spiel I had been practicing while I tried to sleep each night. But he grabbed both my shoulders and gave me a hefty shove sending me sailing out of his ring.
He turned his attention back to the other man before I hit the ground. “You look like a strong bloke, but I don’t think you stand a chance in this ring with me. I’ll give you fifty if you last one minute.”
I stood up, brushed myself off and walked back into the ring holding another dollar high in the air. I continued my spiel as Joe took the dollar from my hand. “I am training to be a grappler. I have taken Andrew Slate’s correspondence course.” Joe lunged at me trying to grab my shoulders again, but I ducked under his arms. As I ran around his side I grabbed his left wrist and pulled it behind his back for a hammerlock. Holding his hand up in the small of his back I started to reach for his ankle when he grabbed me with his right hand. He overpowered me and pulled me off of him.
I continued my plea as he hoisted me over one shoulder. “I am a dedicated worker and looking to find a mentor.” He tossed me through the air and back into the dirt outside the ring.
I returned with another dollar, then another and another. I spent somewhere near thirty dollars trying to force the man to hear me out. Near the end when I was knocked silly Joe had me over his shoulder, but before he threw me back out into the dirt he whispered in my ear. “Let me take some money from the rest of these marks. I will talk to you tonight, Radisson vouched for you.”
When I hit the ground that time I didn’t get up. It wasn’t because I was hurt or too exhausted. I stayed down out of celebration. I was finally getting the one on one I had so desperately wanted over the last few days.
Joe beat up on countless men again that day. He never had to payout the money for anyone lasting in the ring with him. After everything was over he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder again. He took me into the catering tent where we had some dinner and discussed wrestling.
I told of my training and how I had run away from home with a stolen horse. I talked about my dreams of being a grappler and traveling the world performing for crowds.
Joe thought it was all very cute but misguided. He told me he would be happy to let me in on his show, but I wasn’t going to live the fantasy I had created for myself. He told me life would be full of swindling people for a buck and a life that smelled like horse manure. He offered to show me the ropes and find a place in his act for me.
I chose to ignore the less than stellar review of carnival life and take him up on his offer to travel and help out. There was no convincing me it wasn’t going to be the perfect life. I was signed on for my dreams no matter how unlikely they were.
Within twenty-four hours we were on the rails headed towards California. As far as I could tell my journey had begun.