By Eve W. Engle

The dogs rule in our house. They are fed first, allowed in our bed, have their own bed in the guest room and sneak up onto the sofas when we aren't looking. Maxie, short for Maximus, is a Golden Retriever/Great Pyrenes mix, Sammy is a Black Lab/Border Collie mix. His full name is Samuel L. Jackson after one of my favorite actors. Both were abused and rescued from their former owners. They get cookies every morning.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Indiana Farm Boy at 100 - The Carny Next Door

Once upon a time in America carnivals traveled dusty backroads, criss-crossing the rural countryside in order to bring cheap, often crude, and sometimes thrilling amusement to those who were craving a distraction from the drudgery of their lives. They became known as "carnys" and their employees were called the same. Many of these carnivals employed people of "less fortunate" circumstances. Some were talented physically, some were mechanical geniuses or were creative designers, but many were learning or physically disabled, and some were criminals, constantly skirting the law. The worst were predators. Because of their nomadic lives, their physical appearances (either biological or through adornment), their often crude demeanors, and the perception that they were socially unacceptable, many upstanding citizens in the towns through which they traveled mistrusted and were repulsed by them. Parents refused to allow their children to attend the shows and warned that an encounter with a carnival employee would be like crossing the path of a roach or a devouring wild animal. Even the tag "carny" denoted something distasteful by the way it was pronounced, with a hard "k" sound and a sneer.

In the fall of 1925 four boys were warned by their father to stay away from the son of a neighbor. The son was home visiting his mother. The father told the boys the man was a "carny", and not to be trusted. He may even have told his sons the man might steal them away. The father's intention was to strike terror in his son's hearts so they wouldn't be tempted to go down that dark path that lead to a life of wandering debauchery. Instead, he incited an insatiable curiosity. Once out of their father's sight and hearing they plotted a way to visit the neighbor to see this carny up close.

A few hours later they couldn't hide the truth. It was literally etched with ink into their skins. Bravely (and probably defiantly by the two elder brothers) the four boys made their way back home. They knew they would eventually have to face the wrath of their father. After all, they had disobeyed a direct  order. But what was done, was done. The carny was in fact a tattoo artist. After the boys made their presence known he had tattooed each of the boys. The youngest, a tender aged seven, sported a heart.  The third boy, aged nine, was braver. He sported a dagger! The "hilt" of the blade began just below the crook of his inner arm and covered his upper forearm, the "point" protruding beyond a "break" in the design meant to look like it had pierced his prepubescent skin. The other boys, aged 11 and 13, also had tattoos, though where and what they were is now lost to history.

That nine year old boy was my father. When I was a child I was fascinated by his tattoo. As he aged it had stretched, the ink turning a deep green color, dark hair sprouting from the arm making the outline less defined. I used to dream about having one just like it. I know it was a source of embarrassment for him. Few college professors of his era had such branding of a certain social class of that time. And who knows what dreadful punishment he and his brothers must have suffered at the hands of both parents when the truth of that neighborly visit was revealed. But for a few moments those boys must have felt like swashbucklers, or soldiers, or maybe even about the love of their mother as they suffered through the repeating needle stabs delivering the permanent ink into their previously unmarred skin.

I never heard what Norman or Lee chose for their tattoos. Lee, being the most reckless, surely had something even more shocking than that dagger. Morris, the youngest, had the heart. There is something sweet and tender about that to me. Of all the things he could have requested, why a heart? Especially if his brothers had daggers or worse? But maybe he didn't choose it. Maybe the carny himself had a pang of remorse and decided to draw that line with a mere seven year old. We'll never know.

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