The Knights of Columbus Barbecue signals the end of summer in Currie Valley. The second weekend in August, the K of C fills several acres around their headquarters with carnival rides, live music, games and food.
It was Saturday night around eleven o’clock and I was feeling good. I’d been hobnobbing with people since eight, catching up with friends, visiting with people I hadn’t seen in a while. I’d just finished off three corn dogs with mustard from the Magnificent Morsels stand and felt like having a funnel cake before heading home. A local band was playing a mediocre but very loud cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” and I was walking down the carnival midway, marveling at the Ferris Wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl and Carousel that would be gone without a trace Monday morning. It was muggy, and there were still a few mosquitos out bothering as many people as they could.
I reached the funnel cake stand, the smell of frying dough and powdered sugar making my mouth water. Just as I was about to order, a voice called out to me from across the grass.
“You, there! Titanosaurus! Care to try your luck?”
I’m seven feet, three hundred and fifty pounds, a size that came in handy when I was a professional wrestler, but isn’t that useful otherwise. I assumed the Titanosaurus the voice was talking to was me.
Where the food stands ended, and the games of chance began, stood the High Striker. Big, colorful signs and flashing lights proclaimed “Test Your Strength” and “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” and “How High Can You Fly?” In front of the blinking, beeping device stood a bearded carny wearing a porkpie hat and red suspenders. He held out a hammer to me that looked like it came out of a cartoon.
“A big fella like you oughta be able to win a prize with little to no struggle.”
I walked over to him and he looked at me closer.
“Didn’t you use to be Buster Bash?”
“I think I still am.”
“You disappeared from the ring without a trace.”
I didn’t feel like explaining to a stranger that I’d left wrestling to come home and open a diner.
“How much?” I asked.
“One chance for two dollars, three for five for a former champion of the squared circle.”
I knew that all carnival games are rigged, but could they fix it against someone my size and weight? It was such a simple principle — swing the hammer, hit the lever, the puck goes up and up and up and, hopefully, rings the bell. I should be able to do it without much effort, even with the game working against me. My carny nemesis had a variety of prizes — colorful water bottles, big sunglasses, fuzzy dice. I figured I’d ring the bell no problem and win one of his big stuffed purple penguins.
“I’ll give it a shot,” I said. I handed him a five-dollar bill and he handed me the hammer. He didn’t offer me change, so I guess that meant I got three tries.
I gripped the hammer with both hands, the end covered with peeling electrical tape. I swung it back and forth to get a feel for the weight and heft.
“From sold out events to our carnival tents,” the carny barked, “watch this former wrestling warrior prove his prodigious power!”
I lifted the hammer over my head and crashed it down on the lever.
The puck made it up to six — “Go To The Gym” was painted next to the number. You needed 10 — “Vigorous Victory!” — to ring the bell.
I moved the hammer from hand to hand, flexing my fingers and rolling my wrists.
“Is it luck? Is it vigor? Is it leverage? Is it a combination of all three?” the carny cried. “Perhaps this bygone bully can show us.” People on the way to their cars stopped and watched.
I gave it another shot.
The puck made it up to eight — “Hope Nobody Was Looking.”
I tried not to get frustrated. I’d known what I was getting into.
My audience had grown bigger, which triggered my performance instinct. I spit into my hands and rubbed them together (even though I’ve never known how that was supposed to help with anything). I planted my feet, relaxed my shoulders and loosened my hips.
“One more chance at everlasting glory,” the carny bellowed. “Will the failed combatant return to his former magnificence, or will this colossal specimen be a colossal failure?”
I took a couple of exaggerated deep breaths, wound up and swung the hammer with every ounce of muscle I could muster.
The puck made it up to three — “You’re Arms Are Wet Noodles.”
“Colossal failure,” someone in the crowd said.
The carny smiled at me. “Care to try again? Only five more dollars.”
The crowd started to disperse.
“Everyone’s a winner,” the carny said. “Even you,” he added with a touch of derision. He handed me a squishy donut keychain, pink with sprinkles, then started looking for another sap to take money from.
Sometimes I felt okay with the choices I’d made, sometimes I didn’t. I considered having a forceful discussion with the sideshow traveler, not because he scammed me out of five dollars, but because he added a level of humiliation that didn’t need to be there. Fortunately, I knew if I said or did anything drastic, I’d regret it later.
“Did you paint the sayings on there,” I asked, pointing at the High Striker.
“’You’re Arms Are Wet Noodles’ should be Y-O-U-R.”
I stepped away from the carny and his contraption to find that, during my indignity, the funnel cake stand had closed.
John Weagly’s work has been called “exuberant” – Chicago Tribune, “charming” – Chicago Reader, “appealingly quirky” – Chicago Sun-Times and Locus Magazine once compared his short fiction to the works of Ray Bradbury and Nina Kiriki Hoffman and called him “a new writer worth reading and following.” As a playwright, over 100 of his plays have received productions by theaters on 4 continents. A collection of his short sci-fi/fantasy scripts, Tiny Flights of Fantasy, has been taught at Columbia College.