06 Life is a Scam
Train rides are a strange experience. Commuter trains and normal passenger trains are probably fine, but when you are traveling with a carnival in boxcars it is far from the luxury component you get along with your paid ticket.
In my experience you are confined to a single boxcar, probably half filled with some sort of supplies, animals if you are particularly unlucky. The only light is what comes in through the cracks around the door or holes in the walls. When it is cold outside it is cold inside, when it is hot outside it is hot inside. You carry the food you will need on the trip and deal with the load clacking of the tracks.
I would later learn that some of the workers would pay to have nicer cars with rooms and beds, but that came at a premium that most wrestlers wouldn’t be interested in paying for.
The route we were on would take us to El Paso for the first weekend of August. Then straight to San Diego where we would spend another weekend. After that we would go north to Los Angeles. There would be a week off then a few weeks doing business in the big city. Half way through September we would head up to San Francisco and spend a few weeks there. The last stop would be Seattle in October.
The first leg was by far the worst. Getting locked into a boxcar with a bit of food and water and a dozen men was terrifying. If you ever need to know if you are claustrophobic, a boxcar for thirty hours will clue you in.
That first leg of the trip Joe talked my ear off. I learned nearly everything there was to know about how to be a strongman at a carnival.
“Alright Squirt. My job at the fair is to push men out of the dirt ring that I stand in. I charge everyone a dollar and promise them fifty if they can stay in the ring for more than a minute with me. So it is very important that I stay strong. I can’t let my muscles whither. Because even though I prefer to grapple, if someone lasts twenty or thirty seconds I better pick that man up and toss him because fifty dollars is two days of earnings for me and Timmy.” Joe waved his hand at one of the random men in the car with us as his way of introducing Timmy Sampson to me.
Before he could continue, I piped up, “Hold your horses. Is Timmy another strongman?”
Timmy walked up behind me putting a hand on my shoulder. Seeing him in the random flashes of sunlight he looked like a very fit and toned man, but no strongman like Joe. Timmy was tall and slender with a mess of curly black hair. But, he just wasn’t as intimidating as Joe.
Billy looked down at me, “I am Joe’s manager. I keep him employed, negotiate his contracts and pay. When the showman tries to clip our pay I step in. If this big lug did he would hit that little rat man and end up unemployed if not in jail.”
Joe jumped back in the conversation. “He also watches for hookers.” My face refused to hide my ignorance about hookers. “It’s another wrestler that shows up to get an easy fifty bucks. Or maybe to hurt the strongman for coming into their territory without notice.”
“Who’s going to hurt you?” I was flabbergasted since I had never seen someone as tough as Joe.
Timmy chuckled as he responded for Joe. “I just sit in the back, nearby somewhere that I can keep a look out for someone that looks tough. I have been around the circuit a few times and I know most of the grapplers, so I would most likely notice them.”
The conversation then turned to how the wrestling world worked. Back then there was no television or radio, there was silent films, books, newspapers, some sports… As far as entertainment went there weren’t that many things that were vying for the average joe’s dollar. Live wrestling was one of the few things that lived off people spending their hard earned money on entertainment.
A wrestling match involved two grapplers and a promoter who would book the venue, get the equipment, get concessions, and promote the event. Because of this he would get the majority of the revenue. He would often split the rest between the wrestlers.
Promoters typically had sort of a stranglehold on specific town or area. That was considered their territory where anyone putting on a show should be doing it through that promoter. Sometimes when people were in town encroaching on their money they would send out a guy to rough up the group that was stealing his money. These territories in those early days were not well defined and rarely would remain under a single promoter for more than a year or so, but it was something that had to understood as a possible danger.
Currently the biggest wrestler in the world was Fred Gottlieb. He was the World Champion and claimed a zero loss record. I had heard stories of his match with Gavrie Stepanchikov just a couple years before and I had played the match in my head over and over since.
In the deal with Radisson Timmy and Joe would get forty percent of what they brought in and Radisson would get the rest. Since Radisson had somewhat hoisted me on them, he upped their take to fifty percent although for the first season at the carnival I would only see half that increase.
They laid out how the carnival worked. It was largely a series of shows and games that were designed to get the patrons to hand over their money one coin at a time. The midway games were very hard to win, the shows were advertised to be sensational, and as far as the strongman gimmick was concerned, he played on men’s emotional attachment to their masculinity to coax them into the ring with him.
They explained how they saw me helping out. My job was to find marks. A mark was a person that was willing to part with their money because they either were gullible or believed they could win it back. Rather than sit in the back of the carnival with Joe and Timmy, my job would be to walk the midway and look for men that were spending money with reckless abandon. Some of them would be wealthy, some of them would be gullible, but I would soon find out that most of them were just drunk.
Once I found someone that I considered to be a mark I would stand near them and root them on. When they lost the game they were playing I would pat them on the back with a glove covered in soot. This would leave an actual mark letting all the carnies know that that man was a mark.
It was not what I hoped I would be doing. I wanted to learn to wrestle. I wanted to be in the spotlight, but this was my path there. Even if I wasn’t going to be doing it right away, I knew in my heart that I would some day.
We spent some time on that first trip talking about the wrestling world and who we admired and who we didn’t. I talked about meeting Andrew Slate and how my training had gone. Joe told me tales of his experiences. He had only been grappling for a couple years, but had stories that could have kept my attention for years. Timmy was a bit more experienced, but was a submission expert. He didn’t rely on the flash, but rather a more tactical approach to wrestling.
The last few hours of the ride was spent with the entire boxcar trying to teach me carny. It was the strange code that all the carnival workers used to communicate in front of guests.
The idea was simple. You would say everything as usual, but add the sound eaz before each vowel. But, it took hours because Timmy and I were the only ones that knew how to read. The boxcar full of men tried to explain this to me without knowing what a vowel was. Timmy laughed in the corner and refused to help.
“Just talk like normal but say eaz before the oohs and aahs.” One man tried to explain.
“Right, go with an eaz when you don’t use your tongue except for errs and was.” Another tried to be helpful.
I eventually understood when I finally tried to translate.
“Jeazust teazalk leazike theazis.” I pieced it together as ‘just talk like this’.
I remember trying to understand Ceazoleazoreazadeazo when the train came to an abrupt stop.
Everyone jumped to their feet and stared at the door while I tried to convince my body that we were no longer moving. The vibration of the train had become so constant over the last thirty hours that the stillness felt aggressive. It was the same with the sound. Thirty hours of clanks, bangs, and wispy sounds from the wind, a quiet boxcar felt strange, it almost felt oddly loud.
Once the door slid open I heard the familiar voice of Radisson the showman barking orders for the locals to start moving tents, stakes, poles, and banners. Just before I reach down to grab some banners and join in the chaos, Timmy grabs me by the shoulder and pulled me back behind some of the cargo.
“Setting up is for suckers. We bring in too much cash to help out with setup.”
We waited in the boxcar for a half hour or so. After everyone had headed towards the location where the carnival would be set up the three of us jumped down from the train and headed towards the huge four and five story buildings of downtown El Paso.
It was a fun time and the first time I felt I wasn’t treated like a child. It was just a few men sitting around telling stories. I will never forget the Silver King Saloon. We stayed there for three days while the rest of the poor carnival folk set up the show.
I instead ate steak, learned to play darts, and even got a kiss on the cheek from a saloon girl. She landed it on my cheek after she got done dancing for Timmy, but it was one of those moments you remember forever. Probably the first time a woman made my heart race.