Category Archives: Carnival

How a practical joke nearly got me killed

Back in the early eighties, when I lived in the US, I used to work in a travelling Laser Light show that used do the carnival circuit in the summer and the car show circuit in the winter. The Laser show was called “Laser One” and it was transported in a three-wheeled trailer towed by a high cube truck with a tow ball. The trailer had a fold out façade with two revolving-door entrances at either end and it housed the control room with the actual laser in the middle.

The positioning of the entrances meant that the triple axel with the very small wheels were in the middle of the trailer, instead of the end. The mid mounting of the axels and the tow ball hitching system led to a very unpredictable and dangerous ride. The trailer was quite heavy and it used to seesaw up and down over any undulations in the road plus wheels would regularly tear off while we were driving down the highways. The wheels used to tear off because of metal fatigue caused by the forces exerted on the outside wheels as they were dragged around the middle wheels when very tight turns were made during parking. It wasn’t unusual to be travelling down the road and to see one of our wheels passing us and a shower of sparks coming off the dragging hub. I didn’t get my drivers licence until I was 35 so my job in lieu of sharing the driving was to change wheels and tyres when needed. It was needed often and, often it was in the middle of the night in freezing conditions.

Most of the driving was done by our manager, Brian “Buzz” Carlos, and sometimes my other co-worker, Jordan would help out.

Buzz

Buzz was a very levelheaded and intelligent guy who was a pleasure to work with. None of us smoked and it came as a surprise to Jordan and I that Buzz started smoking when we were in Milwaukee. At first it was only one cigarette every couple of days but then of course it turned into one a day and when he starting a couple a day. I thought it would be hilarious to play a practical joke on him. I went to a magic and novelty store and bought some “spikes”.

Spikes are about 1cm (1/3 of an inch) long and about half the thickness of a matchstick. They are pushed into the end of cigarettes to make them explode. So when Buzz put his smokes down one day, I inserted a few spikes into them, while he wasn’t looking, and waited. Lo and behold, Buzz didn’t pick a “spiked” cigarette for over a week. In the meantime, winter was coming and as it was getting colder Buzz went out and bought a very nice parka with wolf fur trim because the heating in the truck wasn’t adequate.

At the end of a “spot” (the place where the show was held) we’d do the “strike” (take down the show) at the end of the last day, which would take about five hours and then we’d jump into the truck and drive through the night, straight to the next spot.

With the show in Milwaukee finished we headed south through Tennessee as it was starting to snow and by the time we reached the Smoky Mountains there was a blizzard. We’d been up all night, and Buzz had been at the wheel without a break, when we started to hear frantic messages over the CB. Things like “if you heading down the mountain at such and such, get out of my way, cause my brakes ain’t working!” or “watch out for such and such a place as there is black ice and two trucks have left the road”, etc. There were smashed cars and trucks all over the place. Buzz took it all in his stride and just drove on through the carnage. After all, we had to get to the next spot on time. The snow just kept on falling and the blizzard winds made the visibility very poor.

During one particularly long steep descent down a mountain road thickly covered with snow; almost no visibility and a bucking and weaving truck, Buzz in his nervousness decides that it would be a good time to light a cigarette. BANG!! The cigarette blew up and hot embers went into Buzz’s eyes, blinding him and also setting his brand new parker on fire! The truck was starting to fishtail because of Buzz’s flinch at the wheel when the spike went off. Jordan grabbed the wheel and helped Buzz regain control. When we got to the bottom of the hill Buzz pulled the truck over and jumped out of the cab to put out this smouldering parka.

Needless to say, I wasn’t a very popular boy that day. I won’t be putting spikes in people’s cigarettes again.

Race relations and me

This article is in response to Robert Krzisnik’s article “Racism immunity?” on his blog. 

Since federation in 1901 and up until the 1960s, Australia had an immigration policy known as the “white Australia policy”.  The white Australia policy was intended to keep the Australian population mainly Anglo-Saxon in race and culture. There was a perception that Australia was such a large country and the population was so small that we would be over run by Asians, who were seen as an inferior race of dubious moral qualities. The “Yellow Peril”.

Although Australia has an indigenous population of dark skinned people collectively known as Aborigines, they were not treated as citizens, until the mid-1960s. The stated aim of the Department of Aboriginal affairs, back in the early 1900s, was that the Aborigines should be assimilated into the general population and their culture forgotten. Any aboriginal children of mixed race were collected by the government; often taken by force from their distraught mothers, and placed in government run institutions, that basically trained them to be servants (these people are now known as the “Stolen Generation”). The so-called “full bloods” were kept in reserves out in the country, where they were treated as little more than children. 

As a consequence of these two government policies, I grew up, not really being very familiar with people of other races. 

I was six years old before I met somebody who was of non-Anglo descent.  Back in the early 60s there was a large influx of migrants from Italy and Greece. To my childish eyes these new kids from the Mediterranean seemed to be a bunch of sooks who didn’t stand up for themselves and who would always run off to get help from their friends or older siblings whenever they got into strife with other kids.  As somebody from an Anglo background I’d grown up with the idea that one had to stand up for themselves and fight their own battles.  I guess that’s a hangover from my ancient Celtic cultural past where the self contained hero is held in high esteem, above all. The Mediterranean kids understood co-operation and strength in numbers which I suppose betrays their ancient cultural past. Time and time again, the organised Greeks and Romans thrashed the heroic but disorganised Celts.  The poor old Greeks and Italians had a hard time in Australia back in the early 1960s.  Here was a bunch of cultured people from the devestated post WWII old world, who had migrated to the savage cultural wasteland that Australia was at that time, and I bet a lot of them thought they’d made the biggest mistake of their lives.

All I’ve got to say is, “thank goodness they came here”, as the English cooking that most of us used to eat was woeful. The Italians and Greeks transformed cuisine here in Australia.

I was seven years old when I first met somebody who I thought was a Negro. In actual fact, he was from Malaya (now known as Malaysia) and had fairly dark skin as Malays do. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember how smart he was. On one occasion, we were sitting together drawing and as I looked across at my Malay classmate’s work I noticed that he wasn’t placing his house on the line that represented the horizon, but actually below the horizon. In that instant, I knew he was more advanced than me. I realised that he was drawing what he saw rather than just repeating the arrangement of symbols (the square house with the triangle roof etc) that we had until then thought of as landscape.

At about the same time, we were receiving our first religious instruction at school. I can still remember the weird dreams triggered in my naive brain as I slept, from all the religious iconography I had been exposed to, and meeting that amazing Malay boy.  I dreamt that I was the first black Pope being transported on large uncovered palanquin being carried by a multitude of priests through a huge crowd of the faithful that I blessed as we passed them.

I envied my Malay classmate so much that I wanted to be him and in my ignorance of geography and the world in general I thought he was a Negro and therefore I wanted to be a Negro.  Sure enough, there were derogatory anti-Negro epithets in Australian culture back then, but they just didn’t make any sense to me because I had never met a black person and I couldn’t figure out why, one would want to say something bad about or to them. 

Back when I was a kid, a lot of things didn’t make sense to me. For instance I thought that when people were referring to Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews, I just assumed the word “Jews” was some sort of Victorian era, anachronistic contraction of the word “jewels”, and it wasn’t until I was about 14 years old and in high school studying the Merchant of Venice in an English class, that I found out what a Jew actually was.  As we were reading Shylock’s speech, and when we came to the part, ” and what’s his reason? I am a Jew”, I turned to my friend sitting next to me at the desk and asked him, “what are these Jews?”  My classmate (John Ryder) who had been a firm friend for the previous two years turned to me and said, “I’m a Jew”.  In hushed tones so the teacher couldn’t hear us, John gave me a quick update and brought me up to speed.

When I got little older I travelled around in Asia for a couple of years and then ended up in North America, which was the first time I’d ever had regular contact with Negroes (which from this point on, in respect cultural of sensitivities, I will call describe as, “African Americans”).  Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I found that in general, North American culture was very segregated.  Not segregated in an official way, but culturally segregated.  There just didn’t seem to be much of an overlap of cultures, whites liked the one thing, blacks liked another.

One time back in about 1979, when I was in Miami working at a car show, there was an after hours party and everyone was invited.  In a large convention room there are lots of white southerners, dressed in their jeans and leather vests with buck knives on their hips and Stetson’s on their heads, and I was being bored to death by their lack of conversational skill (how many times can one talk about sport and car? Sheesh!) and their horrible taste in music (fuck country and western; cry in your beer music!). 

The mood of the room changed when a bunch of African-Americans walked in, wearing flamboyant disco clothing, with a huge ghetto blaster on their shoulder, blaring out the latest disco music. I bet they thought that they were going to just turn the whole place onto something really great and everybody was going to have a good time.

That wasn’t to be.

There was just silence and stares.

The temperature dropped to below zero. 

The white southerners weren’t having any of that disco crap, and they basically stared the newcomers out.  It was the first time I had seen such a clash of cultures. 

It was literally black-and-white.

Another time I was in Philadelphia doing another car show with the laser show, and I had befriended an African American security guard, and we used to shoot the breeze during the slow parts of the day.  On the last day of the car show the security guard was directing the display cars out of the auditorium, when one of the white guys driving his pimped out ride, ignored his direction and sped past him.  As the car went by the security guard banged the roof of the car, to which the car screeched to a halt and a huge white guy got out and punched the security guard in the face, causing his nose to bleed. The white guy got back into his hot rod and sped off.  Meanwhile, somebody had called the police, and I was there when they turned up. The security guard ran over to them, holding his bleeding nose trying to explain what had happened and the two cops got out and threw him against the patrol car and handcuffed him. The security guard was crying out, ” but it was me that they hit!” ” I am the victim here!” The cops ignored him and pushed him into their car making sure that his head hit the roof on the way in, and then they drove off with him.

No I’m not kidding it actually did happen.

In Houston (I was working at the Laser Show in a car show in the Astrohall) I got thrown in jail and when I was in the holding cell I met an old (he looked about 70) impeccably dressed African-American guy. He wasn’t dressed in an overly flash way, but I could see he was a man of quality and style. I went up to him to find out why he was in. He told me that he’d gone into a bar and ordered a cocktail. He was half way through his drink when the manager told him to leave. To this, the old gentleman replied, “I’ll leave when I’ve finished this drink I’ve paid for”. Fair enough I thought. Who’d want to stay in such a place any way? The manager called the police, they arrived within minutes and this lovely, refined old man was arrested for trespassing!

I shit you not!

This guy looks like the old man I met in jail in Houston

Another day in Houston (unfortunately I was there in that shit-hole for about a week), on my way to work at the laser show, I was walking in the pouring rain to the Astrohall (which is part of the Astrodome complex), from my hotel. I was slogging through the mud (there were no pavements around the Astrodome complex at that time) , when a big, beautiful, gleaming white Lincoln Continental Mk III pulled up next to me and the passengers door was flung open by a smiling African-American man, who invited me to get in the car out of the rain. I protested to him that my boots were covered in mud and the I would dirty up his car. To which he just replied, “don’t worry about that, so where are you going?” it turned out that he was also heading towards the Astrohall. A true good Samaritan.

For a while the laser show, I was working for became involved with “Gooding’s million-dollar midway” (that’s the carnival company that was featured in the movie Carney) and as they used to say in the old days in England, ” they were rum lot!” There were quite a few guys working there, who had obviously been in prison and saw themselves as being hard and some of these guys were very hostile and openly racist. Whilst working at Gooding’s I met a well built Negro guy from Puerto Rico, who used to be a professional body builder, and at one stage was Mr Puerto Rico. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember what a nice laid-back guy he was. Mr Puerto Rico love to smoke dope and listen to reggae, which more or less described what I was into at that stage of my life. My co-worker at the time was a guy called Mike, who had been in the army for a few years and had confided in me, that it was in the army that he had learned to hate Negroes.

Strangely enough, for Mike, he found that in comparison to the other dirt bags that we were working with, Mr Puerto Rico, shone like a diamond in a pool of mud. Mr Puerto Rico was such a nice guy, Mike found it very easy to forget his prejudices and all three of this used to hang out together smoking dope and listening to reggae.

One evening we were coming home to our hotel in Mike’s van and we saw Mr Puerto Rico being beset by a group of about six other carnies. It looked like what I imagine an old Bear baiting scene would have. There are in the middle was this huge guy with a pack of other guys trying to take him down. I told Mike to slow down and pull up to the group as I went into the back of the van and opened up the side door. As we pulled alongside, I called out to Mr Puerto Rico, ” quick jump in!” and of course, he dived into the back of a van and we sped off, as his antagonists threw their beer cans at us.

We drove for a few blocks, then slowed down to find out what had happened.  We were told that Mr Puerto Rico had just been walking home when some of his other fellow carnies had seen him and decided that they were going to beat him up. Apparently, it was thought by the trailer trash who were bothering him, that he was a little bit too good-looking for his own good and they thought that some of the white girls in the carnival were interested in having sex with him.

Mr Puerto Rico just wept as he told us this.

I knew some of the guys who had been hassling Mr Puerto Rico, so I went and saw their ringleader the next day. He was a very stocky, well built and very aggro little mother fucker who used to walk around with the thick end of a pool cue, with a large brass ball on the end of it, permanently tied to his wrist.  I was under the mistaken impression that this nasty little prick and I got along, and when I tried to explain to him that Mr Puerto Rico was a great guy and that they should all leave him alone; I got the shock of my life when he said to me that he had, “no time for any nigger lovers” and that if I wasn’t careful, I was going to get my face smashed in, as he waved the end of the pool cue in my face.

Gee, I thought that went well!

When I was in Syracuse, New York after two weeks with a US rail pass on Amtrak I had an experience that showed me very clearly that some people who actually do indulge in “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”. I had basically run out of money but had saved enough change for two phone calls so I could call my workmates who were staying at the Holiday Inn in Syracuse to come and pick me up. Unfortunately at the time there were three Holiday Inns in Syracuse and of course the two Holiday Inns that I called first, weren’t the ones where my co-workers were staying so I was stuck without any money to call the last Holiday Inn. So I went up to you the ticket counter, and as a flamboyantly dressed African American stood to the side counting his change, I asked the teller, if I could use their phone because I had run out of money to call my friends. The white teller just stared at me at in blank non-comprehension, and shook his head in the negetive. Just as I thought I was in a hopeless situation, the guy counting his change next to me, just turned to me with an outstretched hand full of money and said with a kind smile, “here, take what you need”.

Another African-American good Samaritan!

Another time during winter, I was back in Philadelphia again.  It had been snowing heavily all day, and as we were returning to our hotel after being out for the evening, an African American guy came up to us and asked us if we had any jumper cables.

My two co-workers automatically said no. 

This surprised me because I always thought that they were pretty decent guys, and I remonstrated with them, that we should at least have a look in our truck to see if we had some. As it would happen, we didn’t have any jumper cables and we weren’t able to help him start his car. I asked the African American guy why he just didn’t just catch the subway home or call a friend to come and help him and he explained, that he just didn’t have any money on him.  When he said that; my co-workers just rolled their eyes, but since I had been in the same situation myself before (many times) I just put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a handful of change, like the guy in Syracuse who helped me. I said to him, ” here, take what you need”. He just looked at me, dumbfounded with an embarrassed expression on his face and just stood there. I could see he didn’t know what to do, so I just grabbed his hand and put all the money that I had in my hand (which wouldn’t have been more than a few dollars) into his hand.

He burst into tears as he told me that he’d been trying since late afternoon, and well into the night trying to get some help, and nobody would help.  He then said that I’d just given him enough money to phone his family who he knew would be worried about him and to catch the subway home. He thanked me and then he went on his way. 

My co-workers looked at me in astonishment and said, “what the hell did you do that for; you know he just ripped you off!”

I guess some people just don’t get it; “what goes around, comes around”.

I felt it was the least I could do, considering how decently I had been treated by African Americans who didn’t know me. Who helped me despite the fact that many of them were so badly treated in their own society.  In a way, the racist policies of the past Australian governments has served me well, as I’ve grown up without any of the baggage that burden so many people in the US.  In my two years of working in America, I was amazed at how few African-Americans I actually got to meet in social circumstances. Sure, you’ll meet African-Americans in the various service industries one deals with, but it’s almost like there two separate countries in the US.

One white and one black.

It’s quite interesting to me when I watch American television and English television to see the differing ways that those two countries portray Negroes. English television seems to be making a concerted effort to show people of African descent as equals.  Only last night I was watching the TV show, “Hustle” and the main character who leads a group of white people, is black, and talks with an English accent. American TV shows seem to portray African Americans in stereotypical terms. Just like in the movie “Crash”, where the African American director is forced to portray people of his race, speaking in Ebonics, there seems to be some underlying effort in the States to show the differences between the races, rather than the similarities.

Having said all this about the American mass media, there are obviously many conscious and socially aware people in the US who would like to change the staus quo, producing movies like, Three Kings(one of my favourite movies).

Below is the the amazing interrogation scene from “Three Kings” mixed with a history of Wacko Jacko’s face.

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French carnie. Rouen, France. 1982

Unlike the tacky and highly flammable, polystyrene filled, stuffed animals that ones sees as prizes in carnivals here in Australia and in North America, the French carnies offer household goods.

The whole look of the “joints” in France is so different to what I was used from my days in the carnival. Much more old fashioned and that seemed to give them way more character. The only thing that it had in common with what I was familiar with was the tastelessness of prizes. It might’ve been more useful and less flammable, but it was still tat.

I saw this guy at a produce market.

French chocolate wheel

I live in a very small world

When I was in the States and I used to work in the carnival (1978 to 1981), after much tequila one night, I started shooting the breeze about a real character called Ron that I had met when I was in Bangkok, back in the early 70s.  A few minutes into my anecdotes one of my audience, piped up and said “he sounds like a guy I met in Greece six years ago in 72.”

” Did he have long frizzy strawberry-blonde hair and always carry around a greasy Moroccan leather satchel?” I asked.

“Yep he sure did. “He was always crapping on about rubbing mink oil into that shoulder bag of his and how good it was for the leather”.

Back in the late 70s, I used to carry about a box of photographs that I had taken when I was travelling around in South-east Asia. So when the guy started saying that he knew the same guy that I been talking about, I was able to pull out the blurry photograph that you see below and ask him if this was the guy.

Ron and Idiot-san in Manilla

“Yep it sure is and I’d know that face anywhere.”

So there you go, I was talking to a Canadian guy that I had met two months previously at the Calgary stampede and just by chance as we were exchanging traveller’s tales in Phoenix, I found out that he knew somebody that I had met in Bangkok who he had met two years before me, in Greece.  5 billion people on the planet, and I bump into somebody who met someone else and I knew when we were both on the other side of the world.  There are better chances of winning a large lottery or being struck by lightning.

I first met Ron when I was staying at the infamous Malaysia hotel in Bangkok. I say infamous because the Malaysia was where murderer Charles Sobhraj operated out of at the same time. Ron was staying at the Malaysia with his mother who had come over from the States to visit him during his travels and they were both in the process of buying gems for her to take back and re-sell in the States.  I think the thing that I liked about Ron was his enthusiasm for life and that he was just so full of joie de vivre.

When one travels, It’s not uncommon to bump into people, that one has a met on the road in nearby countries.  It’s almost as though there is a well worn rut that travellers follow like they are some kind of slot cars made out of meat. So it came as no surprise to me when I bumped into Ron again in Phnom Penh several months later.

The other person in the photograph above with Ron is a Japanese guy whose name I can’t remember but for the sake of convenience I shall call him “Idiot-san”. The reason why I use such an unflattering appellation as Idiot-san, is because the guy was a brainless, wasted attempt by nature at humanity.

A real oxygen bandit!

The very first time I saw Idiot-san, I was sitting at a sidewalk restaurant when he arrived directly from the airport by cyclo (a three wheeled trishaw). As soon as a cyclo stopped, he jumped out and paid the driver about 10 times more than the going rate, and then looked at the rest of the small denomination bills in his hand like they were nothing other than soiled toilet paper and threw them into the air. This almost caused a riot, as all the beggars (there are about five of them who used to hang around at the cyclo-rank) and other cyclo drivers dived on the falling money and started fighting with each other over it. Idiot-san just grabbed his bags and made his way straight for us and asked us in broken English where would be a good place to stay. I pointed him towards the brothel that doubled as a hotel across the road where I was staying.

I saw Idiot-san the next day, with a black eye and I asked him what had happened. He said that the police had robbed him within about four hours of his arrival in Phnom Penh. It would seem that his theatrics with the small change had marked him out as being too stupid to be in possession of anything valuable. I was told that he walking down the road when about four police just grabbed him and gave him the “bum’s rush” into an alley to administer him with a beating to ensure his cooperation. The cops took everything of value that he had. His money, passport, camera, watch and graduation ring.

In the couple of weeks that it took Idiot-san to get a new passport and funds sent to him, he made the acquaintance and friendship with Ron. With a new passport and money, Idiot-san and Ron flew to Vietnam (this was all during the during the war) for two weeks of whoreing and dope smoking in Saigon. When they came back from Saigon, Ron proudly showed me the scabs on his knees, caused by the non-stop shagging that he and Idiot-san had been wallowing in.

Both Ron and Idiot-san left Phnom Penh after a few more weeks and I didn’t see them again until I bumped into them in Manila when I was on my way to Japan. When Idiot-san, heard that I was going to Japan, he gave me his address in Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku and said that Ron would be staying with him when he got back and that I should look them both up when I was there.

When I got to Tokyo, I was so low on funds I had to look for work straight away and I got a few little jobs teaching English.  Because of the way how the Japanese were giving out visas at the time I had to go to Korea to get a new visa after six months. Since I was hitchhiking from Tokyo across the island of Honshu to Shimonoseki to catch the ferry, I thought I should take a detour to visit Ron in Takamatsu.

I hadn’t been given a telephone number to ring first and warn Ron and Idiot-san that I was coming, so I just lobbed up to the address that I had been given. I found the address easily enough and Ron and Idiot-san’s occupancy of the apartment was confirmed by their names on the mailbox. Rang the buzzer, but no one was home, so I asked some of the neighbours in my frightfully crippled Japanese if they knew where they were, and as best as I could understand, I was told they had gone away.

In Japan everybody’s whereabouts is registered with the police so I knew that if I went to the police station they would be probably able to give me a forwarding address. The consternation I caused in the police station when I asked about Ron and Idiot-san gave me quite a surprise. The policeman at the desk called over two shabbily dressed and rough looking detectives and excitedly jabbered away to them as he was gesturing at me. The two detectives took an immediate interest in me and marched me to their desk in the middle of the station. They then bombarded me with questions about Ron and Idiot-san.

Why was I looking for them?

What was my relationship with them? 

Why was I in Japan?

The grilling just went on and on. The detectives were so serious and steamed up. It just wasn’t making sense to me as all I wanted was the new address of my friend and his idiot friend.

When I tried to put a halt to the proceedings with a few questions like “why are you asking me so many questions?” “Are you ever going to give me the addresses of my friends?” I was subjected to a further barrage of rapid-fire questions.

“So, they are your friends!”

“How long have you known them?”

” Why have you come all the way to Takamatsu to see them?”

“What is your real reason for being in Japan?”

On and on it went. Without explanation, I was asked question after question and I answered them as quickly and truthfully as I could, but the detectives still wouldn’t tell me anything or answer any of my questions.  This went on for about two hours (I’m not kidding) and I was starting to get a bit worried, as it was obvious that they weren’t going to let me go.

I guess after so long, the detectives realised they weren’t really getting anywhere with me.  Which didn’t surprise me because I told them everything that I knew, which was nothing.

So they tried a new tactic.  One of the detectives barked something at a uniformed policeman.  The policeman quickly walked down the stairs in the middle of the office with another officer. I sat there for a few minutes wondering what the heck was going on. I was absolutely stunned and horrified at what I saw next.

Back up the stairs returned the two uniformed policeman, each holding on to the upper arms of a semiconscious, blood splattered and badly beaten Japanese man that they had just dragged (he could hardly stand on his own) up the stairs. Things were starting to turn into a nightmare.  It was all just so intensely shocking. The two policemen dragged the poor unfortunate bastard closer to me and snapped his limp sagging head upwards by the hair, so I could see a face that had been beaten to a pulp. His eyes were so swollen that he could hardly open them. His lips were split and his nose looked broken.

The two detectives then said to me, “do you know this man?” To which I answered, “no”. Then they barked the same question to the punching bag, to which he just whimpered a negative. The two policemen then let go of his hair and his head flopped forward. The poor guy was spent and I’m sure he would have told them anything they wanted to hear if he thought it could get him out of his predicament. From the look of things, he was in very deep shit indeed.

I was starting to get a bit frightened by this point, and I was beginning to wonder if I was going to be subjected to such “aggressive interrogation” as well.

I needn’t have worried because as soon as they took the punching bag downstairs, the older of the detectives he took me by the arm to his car. He said, without any further explanation “get in”. I did as I was told, and he drove me towards the ferry terminal.  During the drive, I tried to ask a few questions about what was going on, only to be ignored.  The detective didn’t say one thing to me until we got to the ferry terminal and that was, ” get out and don’t come back”. I left the island of Shimonoseki with no idea of why, what had just happened, happened.

Fast forward several more years to my conversation at the beginning of this post, with the Canadian carney. As I exchanged anecdotes about Ron with the carney, I said that I would love to know what had happened in Japan with Ron, to which the carney replied that he had Ron’s parent’s address in Pensacola, Florida and that we should visit him.

This was starting to get really freaky.

We had just finished the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, and we were on our way to San Juan in Puerto Rico to do the first really big fair than they’ve ever had down there and we would be passing through Pensacola.

When we got to Pensacola, we found that Ron was living with his parents. Ron still had a long frizzy strawberry blonde hair, but he put on quite a bit of weight, and it was obvious that his mother was feeding him well. After smoking a few joints from Ron’s pillowcase sized stash, he suggested that we go to a local air force watering hole, known as Trader Vic’s.

Trader Vic’s was the perfect context for Ron because it was so crazy in a Vietnam war sort of way. There was camouflage netting hanging from the ceiling, and various military souvenirs all over the corrugated iron walls. All the waitresses seemed to be Vietnamese ex-prostitutes who would take their orders, while kneeling on the knees between the seated men who openly groped them. It was as though I was in a movie about Americans in Vietnam that was being directed by Fellini. It was surreal.

After a few drinks, Ron told us what happened in Japan. Apparently Idiot-san was the younger brother of a minor Yakuza and he suggested that he and Ron could make a lot of money if they took guns and marijuana into Japan. Back in the early 70s Cambodia was awash with firearms and Japan has very strict laws about firearm possession so Ron and Idiot-san bought a number of Chinese pistols when they were in Phnom Penh. Then they bought a bunch of marijuana when they were in the Philippines. Surprisingly, they were able to successfully smuggle the contraband into Japan, but they both got busted in Takamatsu when they were trying to offload it.

Ron and Idiot-san both received three years jail, and the punching bag that I met in the police station at Takamatsu was Idiot-san’s Yakuza brother.

Conversation at the Ekka bar with the man from Ironbark. Brisbane, Qld, Australia. 1988

The Ekka is the nickname for the Queensland Exhibition which is an annual agricultural fair with a midway of games and rides held in Brisbane. The Ekka is a big event for a lot country people (known locally as “cow cockies”) who don’t get to come to the big city very often.

ekka_bar.jpg

The two guys were deep in conversation and I took the shot without asking for permission (which I used to do lot back then) and the smaller guy, who heard the click and noticed what I was doing, got quite angry with me. Fortunately I was with my cousin Andrew who’s bigger than I am (I’m 6ft) and who’s love of fighting (he worked as a bouncer) is obvious to anyone who rubs him the wrong way. When the guy who was getting stroppy saw that Andrew was up for some action, he backed off. Which was a good thing because after I bought them some drinks as a way to apologise for my rudeness, we got to know them and they were good guys.

When I was younger I used to love the sort of photography that used to be seen in Life magazine as practiced by the likes of Cartier Bresson and Alfred Eistenstadt. I loved the way they captured on film, people unaware they were being observed and I used to try and do the same. Now that I’m older, I don’t think it’s right to just take people’s photos without asking them. Sure, it doesn’t lead to the same sort of photography but I think that it can lead to equally interesting images of people engaging with the viewer rather than just being observed.

I took the shot with an 18mm lens which I absolutely loved using. I particually like the way how such a wide angle lens puts the subject into a context rather that isolating them like a telephoto lens does.

One of the reasons why I wanted to take the photo was because of the the fellow on the right with the bushy beard. He has a look that would be familiar to any Australian who’s ever seen a picture of Ned Kelly.

ekka_bar2.jpg

I found that as I was looking at him I was reminded of the famous old Banjo Paterson poem, “The man from Ironbark”.

It was the man from Ironbark who struck the Sydney town,
He wandered over street and park, he wandered up and down.
He loitered here, he loitered there, till he was like to drop,
Until at last in sheer despair he sought a barber’s shop.
“‘Ere! shave my beard and whiskers off, I’ll be a man of mark,
I’ll go and do the Sydney toff up home in Ironbark.”

The barber man was small and flash, as barbers mostly are,
He wore a strike-your-fancy sash, he smoked a huge cigar;
He was a humorist of note and keen at repartee,
He laid the odds and kept a “tote”, whatever that may be,
And when he saw our friend arrive, he whispered, “Here’s a lark!
Just watch me catch him all alive, this man from Ironbark.”

There were some gilded youths that sat along the barber’s wall.
Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all;
To them the barber passed the wink, his dexter eyelid shut,
“I’ll make this bloomin’ yokel think his bloomin’ throat is cut.”
And as he soaped and rubbed it in he made a rude remark:
“I s’pose the flats is pretty green up there in Ironbark.”

A grunt was all reply he got; he shaved the bushman’s chin,
Then made the water boiling hot and dipped the razor in.
He raised his hand, his brow grew black, he paused awhile to gloat,
Then slashed the red-hot razor-back across his victim’s throat:
Upon the newly-shaven skin it made a livid mark –
No doubt it fairly took him in – the man from Ironbark.

He fetched a wild up-country yell might wake the dead to hear,
And though his throat, he knew full well, was cut from ear to ear,
He struggled gamely to his feet, and faced the murd’rous foe:
“You’ve done for me! you dog, I’m beat! one hit before I go!
I only wish I had a knife, you blessed murdering shark!
But you’ll remember all your life the man from Ironbark.”

He lifted up his hairy paw, with one tremendous clout
He landed on the barber’s jaw, and knocked the barber out.
He set to work with nail and tooth, he made the place a wreck;
He grabbed the nearest gilded youth, and tried to break his neck.
And all the while his throat he held to save his vital spark,
And “Murder! Bloody murder!” yelled the man from Ironbark.

A peeler man who heard the din came in to see the show;
He tried to run the bushman in, but he refused to go.
And when at last the barber spoke, and said “‘Twas all in fun—
‘Twas just a little harmless joke, a trifle overdone.”
“A joke!” he cried, “By George, that’s fine; a lively sort of lark;
I’d like to catch that murdering swine some night in Ironbark.”

And now while round the shearing floor the list’ning shearers gape,
He tells the story o’er and o’er, and brags of his escape.
“Them barber chaps what keeps a tote, By George, I’ve had enough,
One tried to cut my bloomin’ throat, but thank the Lord it’s tough.”
And whether he’s believed or no, there’s one thing to remark,
That flowing beards are all the go way up in Ironbark.

THE MAN FROM IRONBARK by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson

Published in the The Bulletin, 17 December 1892.

Donnybrook at a carny wedding. Calgary Stampede, Alberta, Canada. 1978

In 1978, Conklin Amusements, which used to be the largest carnival company in North America, decided that for their 50th anniversary of being in business they would have an antique carnival section on their midway at the Calgary stampede that year.
 
At the time I was living in Toronto when I heard from a friend of my sister’s who used to work in the costume is department of CBC (Canadian Broadcast Company) that Conklin’s were looking for people to work at the Calgary Stampede that year.  I wasn’t enjoying my time in Toronto, so I just hitch hiked out there and got a job.
 
The antique carnival was set up about three weeks before the stampede to iron out any bugs there might be with some of the old games and rides. All the workers were dressed up in period costume from 1928, and all the games and rides were also from that period.  All of us guys even had our hair cut in 1920s style, and treated with hot oil conditioner so it would stay greasy for about two months. 

1928 carny razzbuffnik

When I first got to Calgary, I made friends with one of the maintenance guys from the rides called Barry and I shared a company paid hotel with him for the first couple of weeks I was there for free.  Barry was a hard drinking party animal, who told me once that he chugged a whole bottle of tequila in one go, for a $10 bet and went into a coma for two weeks. 

barry.jpg

My memories of the time that I spent with Barry in his hotel room are a bit of a blur as it was just one long dope, LSD and alcohol fueled party, night after night.  We were young, indestructible and indefatigable. “Ten feet tall and bulletproof” as they say here in Australia. It was all very rock ‘n’ roll, complete with Barry throwing a carton of beer out through the closed window.  The management was pretty cool about that as long as the damage was paid for, they didn’t even hint that they were going to throw us out. The Calgary stampede, at that time, was a fun place for a young single guy like myself.  The other carnies and myself found the people of Calgary to be very hospitable and friendly and it was not uncommon to just gatecrash parties and to be actually welcomed in as a guest.  Everybody was young and looking for a good time, and we had a blast.
 
After a couple of weeks in Calgary, Barry had found himself a girlfriend, so I couldn’t share his hotel room with him any more.  In the meantime I had met a local called Rick. 

Rick

Rick was an ex-con, who stood about 190cm (6 foot three) and weighed about 115kg (250 pounds) and he used to be a professional boxer.  I had seen Rick punch out a few people at parties for no real reason and I was in no doubt about his skills or his willingness to use them.  Rick seemed to like me and we got along, so when he invited me to come and stay at his house for a small fee, I jumped at the chance because it was so easy.
 
Unfortunately, Rick shared his house with a shrew of a girlfriend, whose name I can’t remember, but for convenience, I will call her Kate (as in Shakespeare’s “Taming the Shrew”).

Rick's pet shrew in happier times

Kate was slovenly, lazy and irritable, and for the life of me I can’t understand what Rick saw in her.  Maybe she could suck a golf ball through fifty feet of garden hose. I guess there are people reading this who probably can’t understand what she saw in Rick.  Rick said that the money I paid him for rent included food, but I soon gave up on eating there as Kate only ever heated up pre-made perogies for dinner. I guess that was the secret to her beautiful skin and svelte figure.
 
After I’d been staying with Rick and Kate for about a week and a half Rick told me they were going to get married and asked me if I would be his best man.  I couldn’t believe that somebody who knew me for such a short time would ask me to be his best man.  To be honest, as I got to know Rick I realised he was a bit of a unpredictable, violent lunatic and I didn’t really want to have anything to do with his wedding.  So at the risk of a beating, I begged off with the excuse that I didn’t want to wear a suit and be responsible and sober on the day.  Fortunately for my health and face, Rick wasn’t insulted and he got Barry to be his best man.
 
The workers at the carnival fall into two groups, the real carnies and the blow-ins like myself.  The real carnies were either born into the business or had been working in it for a very long time and they had their traditions.  One of their traditions is the carney wedding, in which the marriage ceremony is performed on a ferris wheel.  Since Rick had been in the carnival for about two weeks, he saw himself as a Carney so he approached Conklin’s management and asked them for a carney wedding on their ferris wheel.  Surprisingly, they said yes. I guess the PR department felt they’d get some good press and free advertising from the event.  The wedding was held a few days later.

By the time Rick’s wedding came around, I’d been in Calgary for over a month and had made quite a few acquaintances which I used to hang out with.  One of these guys is the fellow in the picture below, whose name I also don’t remember but for convenience, I will call him Tim.

hj.jpg

Tim worked in the hammer joint where people used to pay money to see if they could hit a whole nail into a piece of wood with one blow, and if they did so they got a coupon that they could exchange for a prize.  Tim was not very tall and he was a quiet guy. I enjoyed his company because he always had something interesting and thoughtful to say.  Tim seemed a bit damaged and I spoke to him about this and he had said that he had only recently got out of jail in Texas. When I asked him why he been in jail in Texas he told me a horror story about hitch hiking with his girlfriend there.
 
Apparently Tim and his girlfriend were hitchhiking down near Brownsville at night when some police in a police car pulled up to question them.  Tim said that they separated him from his girlfriend and when one of them was questioning him he heard his girlfriend cry out as the other policeman slapped her in the face, so he ran to her aid.  And as Tom Waites would say, “push turned into shove and then biff turned into bam”. 
 
Tim was beaten up on the spot and dragged off into the police car and his girlfriend was left by herself on the highway. Tim never saw her again.  When Tim and the police got to the police station, they beat him up again and threw him into a cell with other prisoners.  Tim said he was kept in a cell for 10 days without charge and he never was before a judge in the whole time he was there. Tim also told me that at nighttime, the police used to come into the cells and force the prisoners to fight each other (in pairs like boxing matches) until one of them couldn’t stand.  I asked him what happened if he if they refused, and he said that the police used to get out their batons and beat them until they did.  After the 10 days, the police drove Tim the edge of town and told him not to come back.
 
I’ve had a few unjustified run-ins with the Texas police as well, and I know how they can be, so I didn’t doubt what Tim had to say for a moment.
 
On the day of Rick and Kate’s wedding, Tim, Rick’s future brother-in-law and I had been out shopping for their wedding present at a shopping mall while we were tripping on LSD. 

Rick's brother in law to be

We bought Rick, a pair of Donald Duck scissors as a joke and a very nice German chef’s knife as the real present. After we bought our presents we spent the rest of the afternoon sitting outside of the department store beauty parlour laughing our asses off at what we saw as a chemically induced grotesque freak show.  We thought it was hilarious to see the blue-rinse set come out of the salon after their make-overs. They just looked ridiculous. We laughed so much that there were tears running down and our faces and our sides hurt.
 
Needless to say we were running late and we missed the wedding, but we did make it to the reception.  We were told that the press had been at the wedding and lots of photographs had been taken and the story would be in the newspaper the next day. The reception of about 250 guests was held in a public hall with a small stage at one end. Tim and I sat at a table off to one side with a few of the women that we knew. The girls knew instantly that we were both off our faces but they didn’t seem to mind though, because we were both in such good moods that our laughter was infectious and before long we were all laughing our heads off, telling jokes and having a generally great time. One of the women at the table was a biker chick and she had a very wicked sense of humour. I remember her telling Kate who was yelling and carrying on about something she had just said, that “if you can’t take a joke, don’t get married”. The wedding was turning out better than I thought it would be.
 
After a few drinks, Rick got up on the stage and then opened the wedding presents in public. He would open up the card, read out who it was from, open the present and then show it to everybody while thanking the person who had given it to them.  Rick looked very happy until he got to the Donald Duck scissors.  He didn’t think it was very funny at all and his smile turned to a scowl as he threw the scissors over his shoulder, shaking his head as he glared at me.  Rick’s mood quickly changed when he saw his real present and his glare turned into a radiant loving smile. I knew he’d like the knife. It’s a guy thing.
 
After the present unwrapping, Rick went back to his table, the music was turned up and every body started dancing.  Everything was going really well until a guy called Spade snuck up, unseen, behind Rick as he was relaxing at the table and dropped a blob of ice cream into the back of one of Rick’s loafers that was hanging off his heel.  As a Rick stood up later to have a dance his heel went back into the loafer and he stood on the ice cream. 
 
That was it, Rick went ballistic, and as quick as a flash there was a riot. Everybody just seemed to go nuts and started to try and kill each other with what ever they could lay their hands on. It was just like in one of those old westerns where everyone in the saloon was smashing each other over the head with chairs. That is everybody except us, in that I mean, Tim and I and the girls. Tim and I were just too happy and full of love.  It was all so surreal and all so full on with violence everywhere we looked. The amazing thing was, that most of these people knew each other and until the wedding I would’ve said that we were all friends. One of the women I was with said I should go over to Rick and try calming him down. 

Tim came with me as we ducked and weaved our way through the brawlers towards the centre of the the storm called Rick. As we approached Rick, he looked like a bear trying to shake off a pack of small dogs.  Barry, with tears streaming down his face came rushing past us with a chair in the air to smash somebody, to our right.  

I pulled a bunch a guys off Rick, who was also in tears and screaming out what a bunch of bastards everybody was and how they had ruined his wedding. I tried to get him to calm down, but he was in a hysterical (and I don’t mean funny) state. In between his hyperventilating blubbering he kept raving on about “that fucking Spade, he put ice cream in my shoe, I’ll kill him!” Rick then turned on Tim and tried to hit him, but Tim was too fast and jumped backwards out of his reach.
 
Rick was about twice Tim’s size.  Tim was amazingly fearless, he stepped back and he lifted his hands into a boxing stance standing his ground as Rick advanced.  Rick took another swing at Tim, but Tim just ducked, stepped back and then kicked him in the balls.  As Rick hit the ground like a sack of potatoes I grabbed Tim by the arm, dragging him out of the hall and we made a run for it.
 
I spoke to Rick the next day and he was full of admiration for how gutsy Tim had been. We also heard about a carney-wedding riot at a public hall on the radio. 

I bet that’s not the sort of publicity that Conklin’s was expecting.

The roller-coaster at Luna Park, St. Kilda, Melbourne, Vic. Australia

On my recent trip to Melbourne I passed Luna Park (an old amusement park opened in 1912) in St. Kilda on the way to Acland Street and I thought it might be good to get a photo of the entrance.

The entrance to Lunar Park in St. Kilda

As I walked through the car park along the side of Luna Park I noticed the wooden roller coaster and how unsafe it looked (to my untrained eyes at least). Quite a few of the upright timbers of the supporting structure looked as though they were beginning to split. The ends of the many of the cross members were rotting and the bolts fastening them to the uprights appeared to be fairly rusty. I took a few pictures and I can assure you that most of the timber work where I stood looked like what  you see in the three photos below.

The timberwork of the Lunar Park roller coaster

I didn’t have to hunt around to get these shots, they were in plain view as there were so many choices of ratty looking timberwork to choose from.

When I was a kid I thought that those old style roller coasters were dangerous and I didn’t like going on them because I feared that they’d fall apart when I was on them. After looking at the roller coaster at Luna Park, I wouldn’t get on one even if a gun was held at my head.

A review of STC’s production of “Blackbird”

Last night, my wife and I went to the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Blackbird”.  As my wife and mother in law had made the selections for this season’s theatre, I had no idea what the show was about until I was filled in with a short synopsis as we were driving into town.  My heart sank when I heard that it was about an affair a 40-year-old man had with a 12 year old girl.  Firstly, I don’t think that paedophilia is suitable subject matter as entertainment.  Secondly as a male I thought it would be another beat up about men and what perverted beasts we are.
 
Before I go on with my review of the production, I’d like to tell you about a few experiences I’ve had with young girls that have left me with mixed feelings whenever I hear about paedophilia cases.
 
When I used to work at the carnival in a laser show, we used to get a lot of young teenage girls hanging around.  Quite a few of these young girls made it very clear that they were interested in experimenting with sex with somebody older from outside of their home town, who would leave without telling any of the locals.  As for my fellow workers and I at the laser show, we just saw these girls for what they were, just kids, and in no way were we going to take part in their sexual education.  We just let them hang around, giggle and carry on.  Our logic was that if they hung around us they would be at least staying out of harm’s way as carnivals are places that young girls can get themselves into trouble very quickly.  That’s not saying that the carnies are naturally depraved people, but carnivals are like the rest of the world, which is populated by not only saints, but also sinners.
 
Another disturbing experience I had with a young adolescent girl (who I was teaching how to make websites) was that as I was sitting at the computer showing her how to lay things out, she stood behind my back, put her arms over my shoulders and started rubbing her breasts in my back.  I immediately got up and told my wife about what had happened and never had contact with that girl ever again.
 
Those two experiences have shown me that sometimes there is more than what is immediately apparent in some of these paedophilia cases that one hears about.  Having just said that, adults should have better judgment than becoming sexually involved with precocious children.
 
Blackbird opens in a shabby and untidy lunchroom in what seems to be a factory as the two main protagonists meet for the first time in 15 years.  We quickly find out that the man, Ray is now approaching 60 and the woman, Una is now in her late 20s. The play begins with the all-too-familiar indignantly righteous victim confronting a cowering and shamed perpetrator.  During the first 15 minutes of the play, I sat there thinking to myself, “here we go over that same old, politically correct, ground”, as Una lambasts the re-educated Ray.
 
Ray was put in jail for six years for what he had done to Una, and in that time, has had to unflinchingly face the reality of his crime through state-administered therapy.  Ray is now a broken man trying to get on with and rebuild his life and as such, is not very pleased to see the seemingly vengeful Una once again.
 
Ray is right to be worried about Una’s motivation in visiting him. After all, Ray was 40 years old and Una was only 12 when he had sex with her.  Ray had to go to jail and publicly face the shame of his crime and as such, he is only too aware of what he did wrong.  Seeing Una again brings Ray face to face with the reality he has been trying to leave behind and forget.
 
Fortunately for the audience, David Harrower, (the playwright) only goes over all the obvious ground in the beginning of the play to establish a departure point from which he explores the various aspects of the unequal relationship that exists between an adult and child who are sexually involved.  To his credit, Harrower is almost Shakespearean in the breadth of his insight, as he examines the various facets of what is an immensely complex and emotional issue.
 
With agonising honesty, Peter Kowitz plays Ray as an open wound with acid being poured over it.  At times it was excruciating to see Ray writhe under the harsh spotlight of Una’s focused anger.
 
Paula Arundell masterfully plays Una as part incandescent avenging angel and part vulnerable bewildered child looking for answers.
 
As the director, Cate Blanchett uses the theatre-in-the-round staging as a small scale Coliseum where the audience looks down on the actors as they warily circle each other while engaged in emotional combat. Blanchett’s sure hand made sure the play did not degenerate into histrionics.
 
As the play progresses, we find out more and more about Ray and Una’s tragic story.  A tragic story it is, because of all the misunderstanding and hurt that was caused by a young girl’s flirtation with an older man and his weakness coupled with stupidity.  I won’t tell much more of the story because I feel that it would subtract from the reader’s enjoyment of the play, other than to say that the use of a child actor at the very end was a masterstroke as it makes the audience aware of how young a 12 year old girl actually is.
 
Child sexual abuse is not a lightweight subject of an easy night’s entertainment, but it is an issue that has many facets that I suspect that most people are totally unaware of.  Perhaps seeing even unpleasant things in new ways is one of the functions of art, and I highly recommend this play.
 
On another note, it was interesting to hear people’s comments in the audience before the show as they were talking about how disappointed they were with some of the Sydney Theatre Company’s productions over the last year.  In particular, “Riflemind” and “The Season At Sarsaparilla”.  As I’ve said before, in a previous post, I didn’t like Riflemind, but it constantly surprises me how many people have seen the show and really hated it.  What concerns me is that the Sydney Theatre Company’s reputation has been so badly damaged by a mediocre season.
 
If Blackbird is anything to judge the Sydney Theatre Company by, I am hopefully optimistic that this year’s productions will be an improvement on last year’s.

How I won a trip to Mexico. Vancover, BC, Canada

The PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) is a yearly carnival held in Vancouver.  In 1983 there was a photographic contest with a prize of a trip for two to Mexico City, complete with a week’s accomodation in a five star hotel. The theme of the contest was “Fun at the fair”.

At the time I was experimenting with slow shutter speeds with flash.  The slow shutterspeed gives a sense of movement whilst the flash freezes motion.