Crazy Ball

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When you’re young, you’ll often take a job that probably won’t find its way to your future resumes, but is never forgotten. Michael Ellis has this Perspective.

In the summer of 1971 I was down and out in Miami and I answered an ad. A fellow wanted someone to drive him to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to join up with a traveling carnival. Well, that sounded like a grand adventure to me and much better than flipping burgers. One week later, I am running a carnie joint called The Crazy Ball.

Crazy Ball was pretty straightforward and not rigged. It just had bad odds. And after all these years I can still spout my rap. "Crazy Ball on your color, take your choice, you pick the color, the ball picks the winner. When that ball lands on your color, you take any prize, any prize you see, any prize you like. Right here at the ol' Crazy Ball, largest winner on the Midway!"

The learning curve for this very naive, Tennessee boy was high. Every night the owner came around to each joint to collect "patch" money. This payola went straight to the local police department to help patch things, if anything went wrong. And they often did.

The Wild Man from Borneo (actually Puerto Rico) who swallowed live frogs and chickens in the Geek show, went into town and drank a bit too much and got his hat knocked off. His 3-foot- long ponytail came tumbling out and some locals, thinking he was a dreaded hippie, jumped him and cut off all his hair. He in turn pulled a knife and stabbed three of them.


None of the girls in the Girlie Show were actually female. A fact that I was at first reluctant to believe and that I am quite certain never entered the minds of the fine male citizens of Iowa. There were draft dodgers from the Vietnam War working the rides and some mentally disabled adults who were virtual economic slaves.

On many nights I watched some poor guy (also known as a rube) get conned out of large sums of money in rigged gambling games. And surprise, surprise, these winnings were not reported to the IRS.

When I returned to college I wrote a sociology paper based on my experiences -- "The Carnival: A Marginally Legal Work Activity". I must confess that I learned more about life that summer than I did during the next three years pursuing a higher education at a fine university.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.