Two For the Show: Carnival Workers Take a Spin on The Marriage Wheel

ferris wheelChris Miller was shirtless, flat on his back at the midway at the Fryeburg Fair. Pretzeled under the platform of the Quake Dance, fitting spinning tubs into their shafts, he looked up.

Sarah Inman was unloading 20-pound bags of onions for her sausage stand. She stopped a moment and lifted her face into a light breeze, then walked around to get more onions. “That’s when I seen her,” says Mill. “I said, who’s that? I want to get to know her.”

It’s four years and a blur of fairs later. On this, the final night of the Yarmouth Clam Festival, July 17, Miller and Inman prepare to say their wedding vows. Their marriage is planned for midnight on the Gondola Ferris Wheel, with 200 other carnival workers – carnies – looking on.

It’s a shining moment for two people whose lives have been spent building and deconstructing homes, marriages and the gaudy midway that in summer turns Maine’s empty lots into whirling villages. This time, they hope, the structure will hold.

The lure of the midway
Inman worked the grill at the food stand on her wedding day, stopping an hour early to clean up and transform herself from “sausage swinger” to bride.

“Oooh, it does look nice,” she says, observing her hair in a trailer mirror. A friend has pinned it up and crowned her with baby’s breath.

The long, white dress is borrowed from her maid of honor, Beverly Huggins, of Oxford. Her mother made the silk bouquet. She pulls earrings and shoes from an assortment of bags stashed in the trailer. It’s the kind of quick turnaround Inman has perfected in her 13 years on the show.

She’s 28. She started with Smokey’s Greater Shows, a Bangor-based carnival, when she was 15. Like many who work the carnivals, Inman started as “green” help – a part-timer – who worked the midway when the carnival was near her hometown of Mechanic Falls. When she turned 18, she signed on full time, traveling throughout New England with Smokey’s from April to October.

“I grew to it,” says Inman. “I grew to the job, the hard work. I never really had the chance, never really took the chance to learn anything else.”

The work is six months of intensive physical labor: a long grind of setting up and tearing down rides and booths, training help in food service, working the grill, traveling to a new town every week. She works seven days a week. Some days she’s on her feet for 16-hour stretches.

“It’s in our blood,” says Inman’s mother, Marilyn Carey of Litchfield. A great uncle owned a small circus in Maine during World War II. “He dove from a big ladder into a pool,” says Carey. “He was a lion tamer, his kids were acrobatic. But he died. What they call the Asiatic flu hit the circus, wiped out a lot of people.”

Inman’s mother works the midway from time to time during the summer, as does her brother. Inman’s father is a maintenance man for Pioneer Plastics in Auburn. Unlike many people who work the carnivals, Inman comes from a close-knit family. Her parents are still together, and she describes her childhood as “definitely stable.”

Little in Inman’s appearance suggests a life of hardship. She has soft, hazel eyes and light-brown hair. Her laugh is husky and free. She looks like a camp counselor in the Smokey’s uniform: shorts and a green polo top.

On her left forearm there is a large tattoo of a unicorn rearing up under the full moon. Her ex-husband’s name, which once emblazoned the moon, has been covered over. Now it’s an inky cloud beside a faded shooting star.

800 pounds of onions
Inman started her career at the duck-pond game, worked her way up to cotton candy, then began her favorite stint – operating the merry-go-round for four years. Now she runs the sausage stand and oversees the rest of food operations.

Each week she cuts an average of 800 pounds of onions. She sells anywhere from 20 to 100 pounds of sausage a night, 30 pounds of hamburger. On the best of nights her till hits $10,000.

There are bad nights, though. Nights when drunk customers swear at the $4 charge for sausages. Some have tried to leap over the counter.

“If people give me a hard time … I have a walkie-talkie, I have to holler for help. The guys always watch out for everybody. I’d be afraid to hit, ’cause I’d be afraid to get hit back. I’m not that type of person. I don’t like blood,” she says.

Until the Harrison fair in early July – when Bud Gilmore, Smokey’s owner, gave full-time staff their annual raise – Inman was making $275 a week. The amount of her raise, which she wouldn’t disclose, “was what I wanted,” she says.
“I don’t have an apartment, I don’t pay rent. What I make out here goes into the bank. To make this kind of money, you got to work in a mill. And I like doing the work. You get to meet a lot of different people. Working in a mill, you’re always sweating, always doing the same old job all the time.”

When she and Miller aren’t together, she sleeps in a small tent at the edge of the fair among a cluster of carnie campers.

“You’re in your own world,” she says, throwing open the flap to her tent, which is pitched near an overflowing dumpster. A wave of heat pours out. A mattress, clothes and tote bags litter the inside.

“You’re in the freedom,” says Inman. “You get to go to bed and smell the fresh air. Stay up at night, you know. Have a few beers. We all have a few beers after work. We all get together and stand on the side of a trailer, listen to music.”

Family Life
Despite the volume of people that pass through her world daily, Inman has dated only four men in her life.

At 21, she married Martin Inman, a man in the carnival. They had two children: Matthew, 5; and Jennifer, 7.
It was, she says, a thorny marriage of fights and silences. She divorced him four years ago.

Raising children on the carnival was difficult, too. When they were babies, the kids came along all summer. Inman had to scramble to find day care at each new town, stopping at churches to get referrals for babysitters.

“It just got too hard,” she said.

Now when she’s on the road, she leaves the children with her ex-husband’s ex-stepmother in Auburn, an alternative that doesn’t wholly satisfy her.

“I know it don’t help with me being out here, being away from them. I do miss them dearly,” she says, her eyes filling. “But I realize I can do it better without them here. I can make my boss happier and I can make myself happier because I don’t have the pressure.”

Her relationship with Miller also suffers from frequent separations, she says. But in the three years they’ve been together, they have weathered the distances, including a period last winter when they split up.

That separation, says Inman, “made me realize my love for him. To realize that he was the right man. I’ll never do it again.

“Chris is totally different from my ex-husband,” she says. “He’s more friendlier, more emotional. He’s got his head together. Someone I could actually sit down and talk to like best friends. I never realized yet what I did to deserve him. Everything is so great between us. It’s been 3 1/2 years and not one fight yet. I think it’s going to be the beginning of a new chapter.”

Saving up
Two weeks before the wedding, Miller, 30, is stationed in Bath, setting up for the July Fourth carnival. He sits on the steel steps that lead to his trailer and squints across the Kennebec River, pulling on the first of a stream of generic-brand cigarettes.

“Her and them two kids mean everything to me,” he says. “That’s why I’m out here doing what I’m doing. Saving money so I can do stuff with the kids this winter.”

For Miller, work sometimes means 48-hour shifts, setting up and tearing down rides, loading the parts into semi-trailers and pickups and heading to the next town. Over the course of the summer he will travel to 30 towns in Maine, Vermont and New York.

He has been working the carnival rides since 1989, when his ex-wife got him a job with Smokey’s.

It was a familiar existence for Miller. He’s been on his own since he was 14.

“My dad was in the Air Force, so I went to 23 different schools by the time I was in 8th grade. You just start to get to know people, then shhoooo – they ship you off. Settling down with Sarah, that will do me some good,” he says.

Despite the moves, things were pretty good at home until his parents divorced, he says. After that, his mother kicked him out.

Along his travels he slept under bridges, worked a landscaping crew in the desert, married, divorced, and got arrested a few times “for stupid things, running my mouth when I was young and arrogant,” he says, grinning.

But things changed when he met Inman. He curtailed his heavy drinking, gave up drugs, even got his high-school equivalency diploma.

“It all come together,” he says. “I love her just as much as the kids. The first (marriage) shouldn’t have happened. This one is going to be different.”

He reaches under his mattress and pulls out a Service Merchandise bag. “Look at this,” he says, opening a crushed velvet box. Inside, two bright gold bands are nestled side by side. “I never had a ring before,” he says. “Oh God, I’m getting butterflies.”

He ponders their life ahead in broad terms. “I’d like to get a decent job to support all of us and just be with the kids,” he says.

There’s the possibility of getting a trucking license. He dreams of taking the kids to Disneyland. Inside his trailer, he shows off a small, heat-curled picture gallery. They are mostly pictures of the children.

Only after many hours does he reveal that he has a child of his own: a 5-year-old son, Christopher Michael, whom he hasn’t seen since the boy was 18 months old.

Miller’s mother – the same one who kicked him out of the house at 14 – has legal custody of his son. She lives in Denver and won’t let Miller see the child, he says.

“She went to court and said we weren’t good parents,” he says. “She doesn’t think this is a good lifestyle for a 5-year-old to be on, which I agree. It’s not. Moving from spot to spot. They should be in one place. Stability. That’s something I never had.”

He clutches a neon necklace of baby charms, a trinket he won on the midway for Matthew the night before. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my mother to death. But I’ll never forgive her for doing that to me. Taking my son away. I’ll never forgive her for that.”

On top of the world
By day, the carnival looks almost two-dimensional, a moveable Fisher-Price village for big children.

At night there is a rougher glamour. Lights and music bend down alleyways, past the Tilt-a-Whirl, the bumper cars and fried dough stands. The midway pushes customers down crowded lanes that eventually spill into echoey pigeon roosts at the edge of town.

People have gathered under the Gondola Wheel since just after the Clam Festival closed. Country music booms from giant speakers: “It’s so sweet, love that you make. Ooooh oooh baby, you’re the best.”

Inside her trailer, Inman is posing for pictures. Her daughter, Jennifer, whirls in a full, pink dress. “Did you see that Mama?” She spreads her dress behind her like a princess.

Outside, Miller paces in the dark in a creamy tuxedo. Inman’s father, Henry is with him looking awkward and sweet in a bowtie and tux.

“Do I have a wish for them?” her father lisps. “Yes I do. That their marriage … how do you say? Lasts a long time. That’s my wish.”

The concessions manager, George Mitford, steps up to the platform under the Gondola. “This is the wedding of Chris and Sarah,” he barks into a microphone. The crowd roars and one voice rises: “It’s about time!”

People cluster on picnic tables on the scorched grass, dressed in leather, jeans, a few skirts. Nearby, in the carnival’s barbecue tent, food is being dropped off by friends, vendors, and family. A pickup truck is filled with ice and beer.

“We’re ready for the groom!” Mitford shouts over the incessant grind of the generators.

Miller emerges from behind a ticket booth and walks up the Gondola ramp. He wavers his hands in exaggerated fear and struts a loopy walk. The crowd surges forward.

“We’re ready for the bride!”

A miniature car – drive by Gilmore, the carnival owner – circles the midway and pulls up in front. Inman is crumpled in back, her white dress spilling almost to the ground.

She climbs out and takes her father’s arm for the procession up the ramp as a lone saxophone wails “The Bridal March.”

Finally, Chris and Sarah are together. Afraid almost to look at each other, they stand glazed in front of the Justice of the Peace.

He takes up the microphone: “We are here to participate in a wedding,” he says. He enumerates the reasons for marriage, lingering a bit too long on possible objections.

Jennifer stands between the bride and groom, waving to the crowd like a contestant in a Junior Miss Pageant.

“I, Sarah …” her lips barely move as she recites the words. “I accept you with your faults and your strengths. I promise to support you when you need support and to turn to you when I need you …”

“I, Christopher …”

Soon they are in the Gondola car, lifted high above the crowd. Their small, ringed hands wave lightly in the air.
Sarah laughs. Chris kisses her.

Below them, 100,000 lights twinkle on Smokey’s show.

Maine Sunday Telegram, July 25, 1993.