Carnies- At home on the road

Saturday, September 13, 2003

At 19, Bryan "Cowboy" Fortney already has been a carny for seven years. He inherited the life.

"When your grandfather dies and he owns a show, that puts you in," he explains.

Fortney is from Austin, Texas, but said, "I don't really, truly have a home."

He blames Billy the Kid.

"He killed some of my people and burned half of my ranch," Fortney said.

Actually, he continued, it wasn't Billy the Kid but the outlaw's son, who took Billy's name so the legend would continue. It's a sore subject for the Fortney family.

Fortney has been out on the road this time for three months. He works for Astro Amusements, the carnival at the SEMO District Fair. At 1:30 p.m., 3 1/2 hours before the midway opens, he is preparing the Bust One You Win balloon game for business. Next he'll open up the joint he runs, the Water Race.

"Joint" is the carny term for a midway game.

Even if you didn't grow up in the business, becoming a carny is simple.

"You walk up on the lot and say you're looking for a job," Fortney said.

Usually new carnies start at the joints. Later on they can become ride jocks if they want, but Fortney doesn't want to move.

"I like joints better," he said. "We see people have fun."

That doesn't mean every customer is nice.

"They'll ask you if it's free," he said. "They say it's a rip-off. It should be free."

In Cape Girardeau, many who play the midway games have stopped off at a beer stand beforehand, he said.

"All they care about is walking away with a prize."

Some carnies live in travel trailers on the road. Fortney stays in motels. One of his traveling companions, Thomas Winters, runs a joint called Gun Ball. The object is to knock cups off a table using an air gun. "It's a pretty easy game if you know how to do it," he said. But he's not telling how.

Winters became a carny 20 years ago.

"I had a big divorce from my wife," he recalled. "I started driving down the road and my car blew up right in front of a carnival."

He quit the business once for a few months but came back. "Once it gets in your blood, it's in your blood," he said.

Carnival work has taken him all around the world, he said: "Manila, Mexico, Jamaica, the Bahamas."

Wherever carnies go, they seek out the local attractions, he said. He hasn't found any in Cape Girardeau yet except the plenitude of Chinese buffets.

"They've got good food," he said.

The life isn't lonely, Winters said. "You can find plenty of women around here. There's plenty of women everywhere."

If there's a downside to his job, it's carnivals that try to rob people. Astro Amusements doesn't do that, he said.

"I'm not here to rob people. I'm here to give them teddy bears."

They travel together, but when asked Winters doesn't know Cowboy's last name.

"I couldn't tell you," he said.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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