33: Thank You, Mr. Carny Man

33: Thank You, Mr. Carny Man

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Thank You, Mr. Carny Man

All God’s angels come to us disguised.

~James Russell Lowell

Each year for some 30 years, I took my daughter Laura to a huge county fair. As long as it was physically possible for her to enjoy the fair, we went. Touted as one of the biggest in our county, this fair had acres of farm animals and dozens of buildings the size of aircraft hangars exploding with exhibits. Plus, there were miles of food booths, enough to keep us both stuffed with dreadfully wonderful “fair” foods.

Why do I say “physically possible?” Well, sadly, my daughter had a progressive form of cerebral palsy. In early years, with my help, we walked together after a fashion. Years passed, and too soon the time had arrived to accept that a wheelchair was required for our annual fair trip and eventually for all of Laura’s activities. Our family—Mom and Dad and a brother—were blessed to have Laura in our home for 35 years. Laura gave a radiant smile, love, and joy to everyone who met her. More importantly, she opened doors in the hearts of people that brought forth acts of goodwill and kindness. Laura was a gift, and her stories are never about our time and efforts, but of countless sublime moments of spontaneous human warmth and charity.

County Fair Day was a special day for Laura and me. We visited every animal, every exhibit, and then, finally, the Midway, where we rode screaming, raging, swirling rides together. These wild rides give handicapped people such joyous freedom and escape, and Laura was fearless. They were gravity-defying, looping, twisting, spinning machines, often assembled in the dead of night by road-weary crews possessing unknown mechanical abilities, but Laura and I rode every one.

Then, when I had reassembled my essential body parts, we moved on to the carnival booths to try our luck. One particular year, Barney was at the pinnacle of his popularity. Sure enough, there was a carnival booth with monstrous Barneys lined up across the top of the tent.

Laura’s eyes were fixed on the purple dinosaur. I looked at the difficulty of the “Win the Barney” contest. One needed to throw a ball, striking a complex of standing objects so precisely as to cascade them into specific numbered holes. If you somehow did this, bells went off, and you won—an extremely small, hand-sized stuffed animal, of indeterminate species. I read the posted rules. You had to accomplish this miracle of physics and eye-hand coordination 20 successive times, each time trading up for a larger stuffed toy, and only then did you win the giant purple Barney!

Laura’s eyes were gleaming, her face determined, her confidence overflowing—as always, greatly exceeding her abilities. Laura had always loved the “throw the dart at the balloon” games. Over the years, her limited coordination had resulted in the puncture of several carnival workers, some unwary bystanders, plus one surprised and thoroughly innocent passing dog. Laura had not one possibility in a zillion at this complicated game of “chance” to win the Barney.

I looked at the “carny,” the desperado in the booth running this game. The stereotypical carny seldom reminds one of a teacher or a preacher. It is a wandering, itinerant profession, a calling folks associate more with sinners than saints. This carny’s appearance fulfilled all my worst fears. A novelist might describe his face as “weather-beaten” and miss the mark widely. This man was life-beaten. He was at least 30 years of age, and yet could have been 60. His countenance was a vast continent of worn-down crags and deep canyons, rivers of veins running in diverse directions. His eyes, bleary and semi-focused, resembled the tangled red spiderweb road maps of any great city. His motley clothes clung to a defeated frame, a frame not that of a man of substance, but that of a man who regularly consumed substances, legal and possibly illegal.

His voice, raspy and whining, insistently intoned, “Win Barney! Win the beautiful giant Barney! Give your kids the thrill of a lifetime. One quarter a throw. Step right up! One small quarter. Win the Barney.”

Laura said to me, “Dad, I am going to win Barney. Take me over there!”

So I did, and then I stepped up to the derelict carny man and put down my quarter. “For my daughter,” I said.

I helped her out of her wheelchair and propped her up against the counter. The grizzled ruin of a man growled out the rules of the game and handed the ball to Laura. She wound up and let the spheroid fly! It landed somewhere. All the standing objects miraculously fell, and moreover, fell into the correct places. “A winner!” cried the carny. “Wudja like ta try for a bigger prize, young lady?” he asked.

“Sure, mister,” Laura said. “I’m going to win Barney!”

She threw again. Once more, the complicated set of objects fell exactly as they had to. The carny shouted, “The young lady wins again!” Laura traded up for the bigger stuffed animal. This discarded relic of a hard life handed the ball to Laura. Another mighty flailing heave ensued, and to the amazement of a growing crowd, again the cascade of objects found their mark. Laura grinned in triumph. Another bigger prize!

This went on for several more wins. The raspy voice pouring out from that battered face seemed to get stronger and mellower, gaining depth and character as he announced each step in the victorious march to Barney. A crowd gathered. Laura had not had much of a crowd cheering her on in life. But they were there now. And somehow, the carny made each throw seem a stunning act of athletic prowess by Laura, an achievement by her and her alone. He remained impassive and professional in his duties. How he was involved in Laura’s success, I have no clue. But—he made it clear—it was Laura and her skills and her accomplishment all along.

Finally, he said, “One more perfect throw, and this young lady will win Barney!” Laura was easily several wins shy of the required number. But she made the throw. All the bells rang, horns blew, and lights flashed. The crowd went wild. Laura shone like an angel as the carny placed the six-foot purple Barney in her arms.

As I shook the carny’s hand, saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much,” a transformation flashed before me. For an instant, I looked upon a beautiful face, and into the deepest, clearest, and kindest eyes I have beheld. In a warm, soft voice, he replied, “You’re welcome.”

Folks are entitled to make sense of that as they wish. I believe I had the great fortune to be holding the hands of an angel. Looking back, I would guess maybe Laura knew that, too. Thoughtfully, I pushed the wheelchair away while Laura hugged Barney. Good chance I was standing between two angels. We never seem to get it exactly right—what an angel should look or act like. Thanks again, Mr. Carny Man—wherever you are.

~William Halderson

More stories from our partners