Camp Ahltaha was on Fairview Lake, in what William Carlos Williams referred to as “The ribbed north-end of Jersey.” I was the ‘pioneering’
merit badge instructor there during my 16th summer, teaching Boy Scouts useful knots. We also tied sticks together (“lashing”) to build ‘structures,’ which fell apart immediately.
We shared the lake with Camp Nobebosco, where “Friday the 13th” was filmed a few years later. The shitty little town you see at the beginning of the movie was the same shitty little town I would hike to, three miles, on my day off. The diner had western sandwiches.
One morning in early August I arrived in town for my sandwich and there was a carnival in the fairgrounds. Everybody was hung-over. They were hanging up canvas signs for the various ‘acts.’ The tattooed man was woozy, so I hopped on the crate he’d been using for a stepladder and slipped a grommet over the hook. I whacked a few nails and used my stellar knot-tying skills on various dangling ropes and by and by the carny boss gave me five dollars, which the inflation calculator tells me is equivalent to $30 today. He said while he couldn’t offer me a JOB-job, there were usually things to be done if I needed 5 bucks.
I always went to the carnival on my day off after that. But the carnival life wasn’t as glamorous as I’d imagined. I repaired tent flaps with duct tape, and washed dishes, and that was pretty much it. I felt my talents were being wasted. I had no idea what my talents were, but I was sure I had some.
I saw my chance when I heard the fire eater was leaving. (Fire eaters typically have a very short performing season. They need to take time off periodically to regrow their livers).
“I believe,” I told the carny boss, interrupting his lunch, “that you could be looking at your new fire eater.”
His mouth was full of pastrami, but he stopped chewing and gave me a long, pastrami-engorged look before he resumed chewing. He swallowed.
“So you think you could do the fire eating act.”
“Well, I haven’t actually seen it…”
“But I’ve seen the poster…”
He took another bite of his sandwich. It was a thoughtful bite. He took a thoughtful sip of coffee. “Is this a gag?”
“No, no. I feel I have a calling.”
“Hold that thought.” He poked his head out the trailer door. “Hey! Tell Manny I wanna see him.”
“Who’s Manny?” I said.
“The fire eater. I know you got a calling, but you’re a little green. We’ll get Manny in here. He’ll bring you up to speed.”
The fire eater (nothing like his poster), stuck his head in the door.
“This young man would like to learn the mystical art of fire eating,” said the carny boss.
“Go fuck yourselfs,” said Manny, and he was gone.
The carny boss nodded. “Don’t worry. Lemme finish my sammich. We’ll head over to Manny’s tent, and he’ll bring you up to speed.”
“I don’t think he wants to,” I said.
“Nah. Sure he does. Heart of gold,” said the carny boss, and he shoved the rest of his sandwich into his mouth.
THE FIRST LESSON
“This is a fucking stupid idea,” Manny said. “If he doesn’t set himself on fire he’ll poison himself.”
“You never know. Give the kid a chance,” said the carny boss.
“YOU should be in jail. We should both be in jail. You,” he said to me, “should be in a lunatic asylum.” He handed me a glass of clear liquid. “Put this in your mouth. Don’t swallow it.”
“What is it?” I said, watching the magical fluid swirl around the glass.
“It’s WATER. Take a mouthful and don’t swallow.”
I took a mouthful and immediately began choking and coughing.
“Okay, no,” said the fire eater. “Not happening.”
“He’s nervous,” said the carny boss. “I’d be nervous, too, the way you’re talking.”
“Nervous? You oughta be shitting your pants in terror.”
“Let him try again, Manny.”
“Take another mouthful and this time let it sit in your mouth.”
The water sat in my mouth for about 5 seconds. Then I recalled ‘you ought to be shitting your pants in terror’ and found it so amusing that I barked out every drop of water.
“We done here?” said Manny.
“Yeah,” sighed the carny boss.
“No, no. I think I’m getting the hang of it,” I cried.
“I don’t think you are,” said the carny boss.
“I can absolutely do this,” I said, and grabbed another glass of water. This glass of water was not water. I spit it out instantly.
“Goddamn it,” said Manny.
“That was rubbing alcohol,” I sputtered.
“It was vodka. And you just spit it out. Jesus Christ.”
“I never saw that before,” marveled the carny boss.
“Let me try once more,” I said. “Third time’s the charm!”
“Third time was you spitting out the vodka.”
“I can nail it!”
“You know who this kid reminds me of?” said Manny, “Remember that guy couple years back, who walked into a tree and knocked himself out?”
“Jerry O’Brien!” chuckled the carny boss.
“You should never have anything to do with fire,” said Manny. “You shouldn’t even look at fire. Or water. ”
“Yeah, water is not your friend either,” said the carny boss. “Stay away from water. High windows. Anything like that. You should measure your life in dog years. Every day you don’t knock a toaster into the bathtub is a gift from God. No matter what happens, you had a good run.”
We strolled back towards his trailer. He spotted a rip in the mess tent and asked me to take care of it at my earliest convenience. He walked off chortling, probably thinking about somebody walking into a tree.