Read Under the Electric Sky Online
Authors: Christopher A. Walsh
Tags: #History, #carnivals, #Nova Scotia, #Halifax, #biography, #Maritime provinces
Under the Electric Sky
was a finalist for the 2011 Evelyn Richardson Memorial Literary Prize for Non-Fiction at the Atlantic Book Awards.
“Christopher A. Walsh shines as bright as the Bill Lynch Shows' lights in his first book.”
“If you've ever dreamed of running away and joining the circus... you'll be fascinated by Under the Electric Sky.”
“We could use more writers willing to savage Canadian politeness with bare knuckles and a broken whiskey bottle.”
“...a fascinating and lively account of one of the biggest and longest running carnivals in Canada.”
CKUA Radio Network
“â¦[a] notable bookâ¦”
“The story is a bit like Hunter S. Thompson meets Lucy Maud Montgomery... a fine marriage of creative styles...”
Under The Electric Sky
The Legacy of the Bill Lynch Shows
Christopher A. Walsh
“What's the difference between the carnival and the circus?
The circus locks their animals up at night.”
--Old Showman's proverb
I have to admit now that I never once felt the impulse as a child to run away and join the carnival.
But I have come to understand well the urge to abandon everything when the time seems right and escape in the night to follow something you hear calling, something you can't get out of your head. Those are the kinds of urges nurtured secretly over years, eventually eating away at your soul until you confront them. Everybody has those moments, when you know you had better act on them or forget them forever and settle down to a comfortable existence.
The first urge to run away with the carnival crept up on me as a student reporter at Dalhousie University's campus newspaper, where I first concocted the notion of writing an article about a world all of us have encountered at one time or another but that few of us understand. I was curious about life on the lot, the people who worked the carnival and why they had chosen the transient existence many look down on. I wanted to see for myself if the prejudices were justified, if carnival workers were as scary as urban legend has led a number of people to believe.
So, in 2008, in my late twenties, I quit my job as a reporter at a newspaper in Stettler, Alberta, to write the story I had been contemplating for five years. The timing was good and I knew I had to write it now or never. The life of a freelance journalist is not all that different from the life of a carny, I soon realized. There is no money in it these days, there was probably a glorious past that has long since evaporated, and the sacrifices that need to be made are not likely to be accepted by everybody. I had left a steady paycheque, borrowed money from friends and family and was about to embark on a story I wasn't sure I could even sell to anybody, let alone for the amount that I needed to do it, which it turns out, doesn't exist for freelancers or anyone else who acts on irrational urges in the middle of the night.
I was researching a few different carnivals across the country while deciding which show to travel with when I stumbled across a brief history of the recreational use of McNab's Island in Halifax. That the Bill Lynch Shows had started on the island was enough incentive to draw me home â the place I had felt another, separate urge to leave three years earlier. I had lived almost my entire life in Halifax and Dartmouth and, like many others, was completely ignorant about the history of the island I saw everyday out in the harbour, let alone that the travelling carnival was born there.
I contacted the owner of the current incarnation of the Bill Lynch Shows who agreed to let me write about life on his carnival, indicating that he had “nothing to hide” and that it might give people a better understanding of how difficult the job is. Whether he had anything to hide was inconsequential because he allowed me to write whatever I pleased and never once asked me to ignore some aspect that may have shown the operation in less than a flattering light. I am thankful to Jack Adams for that opportunity. For the first three weeks, I met up with the workers off and on at a few different stops around Halifax, and for the last week of research I travelled to New Minas where I took up residence in a bunk on the lot. I was given full access to everything available and lived as a worker would: up in the morning and down in the wee hours of the next morning and up to do it all over again.
It was there that I met the carnies, those dark souls who, in the end, gave the book a lot of its colour. They accepted me rather quickly and most of them turned out to be down-to-earth, real people without pretense, who were open and honest with me about everything I asked them. I am grateful to them for that.
This book started as a magazine piece but it became clear early on there was no way to fit the unusual story of living on a carnival and the fascinating history of the Bill Lynch Shows into one article. There was just too much to explain, too many human curiosities, as they used to say. The only way to properly tell the story of the travelling carnival in the Maritimes and the carnies who made it up was to show them in as fair a light as possible, even if that meant brutal honesty in exposing the types of social proclivities “polite society” might cringe at initially. The whole story of the travelling carnival in the Maritimes could not be explained without providing the context of the history they were the products of... and what a fascinating one it is. The history of the Bill Lynch Shows is one of the Maritimes' strangest and most compelling yet is often ignored.
Writing about the carnival has rarely consumed the passions or imaginations of Canadian writers or historians and subsequently very few factual documents or even fiction exist about carnivals in this country â especially the Maritimes. I was fortunate to benefit from the writings and private historical collection of the late Fred H. Phillips of Fredericton â the “staid civil servant who would get up every once in a while and run away with a show,” as he once described himself. Phillips was a writer, a man who understood the value of running away, an old showman at heart, and his articles on the Bill Lynch Shows over the decades served as a great resource for this book.
To say that the Bill Lynch Shows was a carnival like no other is difficult to prove, but its devotion to the people of the Maritimes has become legendary. It is hard to imagine any other carnival outfit with a deeper commitment to its home, one that became a part of the culture of its region more than this show. Most of that is due in no small part to the vision of men like Bill Lynch and his successor, Soggy Reid, who saw the potential of the carnival as a vehicle for providing much more than cheap entertainment. Then there were the professional carnies and showmen over the years who gave the show its character, men who heard those electric lights calling and answered: Bill Harroun, George (Twitter) Johnston, Boxer Mercer, Blab Brothers, Jimmy Penny, Ed Waters and John Drummey, to name just a few. I am also grateful to Betty MacLean for her insight into her brother Soggy Reid's life as the boss.
This is not a pretty story at times, but in the end it should provide a better understanding of the people and the carnival that so many of us have grown up enjoying at one time or another. I leave it to readers to draw their own opinions of the nature of carnival workers and the carnival as it is and was in many Maritime towns.
Some names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty, alike.
One Man Show
By George (Twitter) Johnston
The Poet Laureate of the Maritime Carnival
Presented to William P. Lynch
By His Good Friend
Howard (Dooley) Morash
On opening day 1959
In fancy oft I'm turning to a little one-man showâ
The flashy tents, the half-smart gents, the Jenny running slow,
An old doll rack, a bucket joint, the boss in the office tent.
Now who could say in that far day: “This kid's a big show gent.”
Well, time rolled on as roll it must. Few with that show would stick.
Some would blow with all the dough: “We're through with this bum trick.”
But those who strung along with him he helped in every way.
Now view that sight some summer night. It's pretty grand, I'd say.
So many a spring some game I'd bring around that little show.
The boss was kind and didn't mind. He'd never crack for dough.
I spotted good as he knew I would. Why not? The space looked free.
Yet he'd often yell, “Throw that to hell,” and I'd square with a cup of tea.
I'd play the odd date with a Ferris Wheel crate, nail anything I'd see.
I could borrow cash and also the flash. That gent was good to me.
And when I did foldâif the truth were toldâmine was the greater loss.
Things are not the same down Memory Lane since our paths no longer cross.
That small show grew, with faces new, as some sifted through the mesh.
Yet all it took was an honest count â taboo that pound of flesh.
Sure, I know this Gee. Believe you me, he really isn't blind.
If you are with and for that show, no better friend you'll find.
I'll ne'er forget the day we metâto agree to disagree.
A cruel fate that I got the gate. There's nothing else I see.
But that is neither here nor there since there's plenty one must learn.
Yet what seems clear is that every year for that old show I yearn.
Perhaps someday back there I'll stray to gaze around the lot;
To view with pride some flash ride. Some pips he now has bought.
Yes, every year he's added one; some years he's added two.
I know myself I lost the count. Boy, how that small show grew.
And little did the old mob think, as they paid off in the dark,
That that same boy would have a toy to fill a city park.
Yet bigger things were still to come, one hadn't long to waitâ
Circus sideshows, big free acts, and then a ten-cent gate.
Then came a year there would appear a unit neatly planned;
And again we see in Number Three the touch of that master hand.
These smaller shows play smaller spots; for them they're just the thing.
What? Ill advised? Don't be surprised. A circus he could swing.
The years are many since we two/kipped on the cookhouse floor;
Bill dreaming dreams: “There'll come a night I'll sleep in the Commodore.”
And as I close these simple lines not very many know
In all these years he played a few bum steers â and it's still a ONE MAN SHOW.
“You'll know it... if you hit the ground”, Port Hawkesbury, 1976
ne night the sky opened up and swallowed a man whole. Within seconds, his heavy body came whistling hard through the twilight, as if spit out by the gods, crashing into the slick pavement of the mall parking lot.
His son followed a few feet away, screaming the entire twenty-five-foot fall to the ground. The father lay on the pavement motionless, blood silently soaking into his chest cavity from a ruptured aorta. The seven-year-old boy sat up, crying but making no sound now. It was the cruellest shock to the central nervous system imaginable and all the boy could do was quiver and tremble at the sight.
The Paratrooper continued its cycle overhead, the cars swinging out from the main wheel, all of them spinning in unison above the dead father and wounded son, like vultures circling moribund remains in the desert. It had rained earlier in the day, but the clouds had cleared as the cool Cape Breton dusk settled into the fairgrounds in Port Hawkesbury.
The impeccant music played out in the background, the smell of cotton candy, French fries and grease lingered around the lot. There was laughter and talking in every direction, all of life on the carnival swerving around in a grotesque mockery of death.
Joan Isabell Blue had a feeling the ride was unsafe as she and her daughter were fastened into a chair a few minutes earlier. It was more intuition than any mechanical defect she noticed in the structure of the ride, but it was a strong enough impression that she felt obligated to mention it to the operator. Her concerns were quickly dismissed by a man who was tired of listening to people ask whether the rides were safe.
“You'll know it, lady, if you hit the ground,” the attendant responded curtly and started up the Paratrooper.
Blue and her daughter held on tight the entire cycle out of fear and both let out a scream when the man came crashing past them through the sky. It was a troubling scene for a lot of people and one that would be etched into their memories forever. It was not your typical day at the fair to see a man fall from a ride and plunge to his death. This was not a high-priced sideshow, no high-wire act, no daredevil spectacle. This was a regular man who one moment was feeling the air rush over his skin and the next, the blood through his lungs. It was hard to make sense of it all.
The Paratrooper was not high on the list of thrill-seekers looking for the fastest and scariest ride on the midway in 1976. In fact, this particular Paratrooper had been converted from an old 1950s Spitfire ride that most enthusiasts would classify as tame family fun. The Paratrooper spins its riders around a giant wheel that lifts on an angle in umbrella-covered cars that seat two. Not particularly frightening or even fast, as far as rides go, unless the safety gate lock popped open and the hard reality of gravity came rushing up.
To watch an old Paratrooper in action on any carnival is enough to lure one into a mild daze, certainly not a thrilling dizziness or even nervous tension. There were other rides on the Bill Lynch Shows that year that could turn knuckles white and stimulate adrenaline through the bloodstream like the Spider, the Pirate Ship and the Zipper, for instance. Those were the pinnacle rides of thrill and excitement on the lot in those days, not the old-time umbrella ride.
June 29, 1976, marked the first death on the midway in the fifty-one years the Bill Lynch Shows had operated. It was an impressive streak when you consider how many times the machines were set up and torn down over the years. Every summer in countless towns throughout the Maritimes, hundreds of thousands of people were “scared to death in the safest way possible,” as the old pitch used to go.
But the carnival trades in fear â it's their biggest seller. Part of the excitement is the exhilarating rush on a fast ride that seems to spin toward death, but always on the way to the ground or into another machine a near collision is averted at the last minute by a fortuitous twist or flip of the cage. Certain people pay for that kind of thrill and there are enough of them out there to keep ride manufacturers busy inventing terrifying new machines. They have rides out now with names like the Crazy Shake, the Freak Out, Vortex, Shocker and the ominously named Kamikaze.
Watching one cycle of any of these rides would have swelled the bladders of anyone on the lot that day with piss and butterflies. They sound vicious and look deadly and are exactly the edge of excitement people crave from the carnival. It was hard to believe that someone would die on the Paratrooper. It was a safe ride, all things considered, and not one likely to stir the same bowel-shaking gravity as the Zipper.
Of course, there has always been the other kind of ride anxiety often reflected on and never articulated in the quiet moments before engaging one of the machines. Any right-thinking individual concerned with their personal safety must assess the ride, its motions, patterns, time its intervals, feel the rhythms and eventually conclude whether they want to risk it. Risking it, in terms of carnival rides, means accepting on at least some level the possibility that something could happen. The machines play out staid patterns with all the real malice of an egg beater. But the carnal fear is something much heavier, something never discussed among carnies and best left in the minds of the nervous and timid: that death is only a loose pin away. Anyone who has conquered the big rides has done so with the queasy suspicion that the cycling orbit is a quick shot from cage to casket. But in that is the rub, as they say â the incredible feeling of surrendering yourself to the moment, and a fairly good number of thrill seekers from different pursuits believe that in order to experience life fully, you must first come close to death or accept it as a probable and sometimes unavoidable outcome.
That danger was never immediate on the midway. The Bill Lynch Shows' unblemished safety record was grounds for bragging, if anyone was interested in the fatal pastime of tempting fate.
Port Hawkesbury Mayor W. J. MacLean was a serious man, unready to take chances, and ordered the show closed pending the result of an investigation into the fatality. Donna Marie MacEachern and Lorraine MacLean, both from West Bay Road, Nova Scotia, told investigators at the scene that the gate on their seat had popped open and had to be slammed shut on the same ride earlier in the day. Nobody was sure who to blame for what happened and as far as the mayor was concerned, it could very well have been the result of a drunken carny who shirked his responsibilities and didn't properly secure a passenger. Or it could have been one of those long-haired punks with tattoos up his arms who sucked back too much marijuana and forgot to screw in the right bolts when the machine was erected. A magisterial inquiry was ordered into the incident, but before the results were made public the famed Bill Lynch Showsâas Maritimers knew itâwas heading for ruin.
This was the third unit of the Lynch Shows playing the Causeway Shopping Centre. The little show that started with nothing more than an ancient steam-powered Merry-Go-Round had grown into one of the biggest carnival outfits on the continent. It now employed over four hundred, had the newest and biggest rides found anywhere, was running four separate units at times with forty-three trucks, sixty concession stand trailers and forty-five semis, clocking well over 400,000 kilometres in a single season playing the circuit throughout the region. It was bigger now than its founder, the late Bill Lynch, could have imagined when he started it. Despite the massive expansion over the years, it remained loyal to Lynch's ethos of a Maritime-run carnival by and for the people of Atlantic Canada. The Bill Lynch Shows became a beloved institution in Atlantic Canada, at once the centre of cheap thrills and some of the greatest works of charity ever witnessed in the region. Everybody knew the Bill Lynch Shows by the 1970s and everybody wanted them to play their town.
But the great Maritime success story was on its way to being snuffed out and sold to Ontario-based Conklin Shows. Renowned carnival impresario Patty Conklin had built the largest outdoor amusement outfit in the world by this time with his son Jim recently assuming control of the company. The younger Conklin was always looking to expand the business and snapping up the famed Bill Lynch Shows would have been a jewel in Conklin's carny crown.
Within two hectic months, the famed tradition would be within a handshake of changing forever. Lynch's dream would be shattered, small towns everywhere would have a hole shot through their spirit, and four hundred or so malnourished transients would be cast off to return to whatever dark corner of the region they crawled out of. None of this would have happened as a direct result of the Port Hawkesbury death, but because of the implications of it and the terrible feelings of guilt and remorse that would pervade for months on the show. The province would ultimately clear the company of any criminal negligence in the mishap, but the sore feelings, depression and anguish were more difficult to treat.
The whole outfit took it hard, but only a handful of them knew then the significance the event would hold. Current king of the carnies and chief boss Clarence “Soggy” Reid took the death on the Paratrooper to heart and handled it the way men sometimes handle insoluble conundrums: by drinking heavily. Soggy was Lynch's heir after all and he started to feel the burden weighing heavy in his chest. Although he had worked on the show for over twenty years, this was his first full year as sole owner and it was beginning to look more and more like the last. At the very least it was the end, Soggy thought, of whatever it was Lynch was talking about when he called the carnival “escapism, make-believe, the search for relief from the monotony of everyday living.” Well, not anymore. A man was dead and that was
. The innocence seemed to be lost forever. There was no escaping the cold grasp of death.
The final truth is that death has always been an element of the Maritime carnival, even from the beginning. That it had been avoided this long on the show may have only added up to a coincidence. Not because of any carelessness on the part of the workers, but fifty years of hurling people through the air brings its own uncertainties. Carnies are naturally superstitious people and any sign of misfortune would be warded off with a prayer to the great glittery god of amusements. They knew the doomed nature of tempting fate and were content to avoid it at any cost, which meant taking the job seriously enough to be sober and mindful when it came to constructing the rides and completing checks routinely. But the spectre of death has always been lurking around the midway, like a malevolent accomplice in the very celebration of life the carnival created in towns throughout the Maritimes. There is something truly frightening about the magnificence of life as it spins through the sky and it has nothing to do with loose pins or defects in locking devices. This was the first death on the carnival, but it wouldn't be the last.