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Hitching the Patch: Cree Carny on Fights, Women & Childhood

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"If I could save time in a bottle ..."
Lyric by Jim Croce

Hitchhiking the Northern Rockies "Oil Patch" region yesterday, I was picked up by an old Cree Indian with carny stories of the bygone era of his youth.

Now 70 years old, he has a "hole in his heart" and circulation problems in his legs but once he was one of the strongest Cree Indian carnies on the midway, quick with his fists, good with the girls and carrying around a crippling past.

His carny name on British Columbia's West Coast Carnivals was "Fast Eddie."

"They said they named me that because, 'You can knock a guy down and we don't even see you hitting him.'"

I sometimes feel like I can gauge a man's strength by his handshake and his wrapped around mine like a steel hitch.

"I hit a guy so hard one time his tooth stuck in my knuckle."

Did you at least give it back to him Eddie?

"No, I just pulled it out of my knuckle and threw it away."

Fast Eddie didn't like telling the fight story, I had to ask him about the themes I find running through the traveling carnivals I've worked coast to coast in the United States. (I'm currently hitchhiking to an Alaskan traveling carnival).

Fights, romances and childhoods all came up and Fast Eddie answered but there was no bragging about conquests or romanticizing the past. When Fast Eddie talks about himself, he tells the tale of a flawed man.

Dumpster diving across generations

At my second carnival, at Butler Amusements in Oakland, Ca., a carny I named Rabbit could pick up plastic bottles as we walked without breaking a stride. He collected after shows and dove into dumpsters. When he shared beer in the carny quarters, he'd say dumpsters paid for this.

In that way, Rabbit was a younger version of Fast Eddie. He collects plastic bottles and cans at dumpsters along the Alaska Highway between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.

Fast Eddie told me about the life a Cree carny in Canada as he reached in with gloves to tear open trash bags from the public dumpsters. He rolled his own cigarettes as he drove and talked about his health.

He needs heart surgery and says the doctor told him, he is living on borrowed time. He is actually living in what he calls a Fort St. John "old folks home." The old carny still loves to play games but now its bingo at the casino.

I often look at carnies and wonder what carny living will do to them in the years to come, Fast Eddie is a Cree Indian version.

Broke heartbreaker

Fast Eddie spent "five or six years" on the circuit, traveling throughout the Northwest Territories and eastward. He loved the travel.

Conditions were raw. He slept under rides, inside vans and outside. He used a bucket of water to clean in the morning.

He drank with the other carnies and Cree - there were lots of Cree carnies in those days - and "partied all night and come staggering out the next day."

If there was a fight with the townies, and there were many, "everybody looked out for each other."

He knew not to go into town because the cops would throw them in jail on any excuse. If anybody went to jail, the owners would only bail them out "if they needed them."

Otherwise, the carnival would leave town without them.

Long hours, hard work made them feel 'like a family,' he said, though when Fast Eddie talks about 'family' he talks about heartbreak.

No romanticizing his youth, he says so much has happened since those days he rarely thinks about them. The only other carny he kept in touch with is dead.

He says his carnival was filled with wild characters and colorful times but no episodes come to mind as he stoically picks trash.

He got good at the job and got paid more to work as a boss in kiddyland, on kids rides.

There he met young single mothers.

Where did you meet them, if you are sleeping under a ride that night, I asked.

"The girls, if they liked you, they'd drop the kids off and come back after," he said. "We'd go under the truck or into the bushes."

Some of the girls traveled back to Fast Eddie's hometown in Fort Nelson in the off season but it never worked out.

Fast Eddie "barely had money for the bus home at the end" of the season, much less bus fare for the girls.

As he smiled the smile of an old man thinking of young women he had known, a heart-shaped tag hung from his rear view mirror.

"Party With Sluts" on one side, on the other, "Big Booty Bitches"

Booze, Dad, children

Fast Eddie paints a nightmarish picture of his childhood and smiles when he thinks of the irony of trying to make kids happy in a traveling carnival's kiddyland.

"My dad was an alcoholic and didn't work. There was 12 of us kids," he said. "When I was growing up, I never had much fun at all ... because of my drunken dad, I never learned to be young."

Fast Eddie dropped out of school when he was in fourth grade. On his recent drivers license exam, he needed someone to read the questions to him because he can't read or write.

"I got a 93 percent though" he laughs, as if saying - smart, just not enough school.

He went on to work in the Oil Patch's many mining operations. He worked in a gold mine; as a trucker; as a heavy equipment operator; and as a fire fighter. He hated fire fighting, it paid 75 cents an hour.

His drinking got worse after his carnival days. He didn't have to go to A.A., he says, all he had to hear was his daughter say, "Daddy, quit drinking. I want to come home."

He teared up as he told me that line, as if it still makes him sick. But he heard those words almost 30 years ago.

His 'family' is now haunted by additions and most of his grandchildren are in foster care.

Bottles of time

We made about eight stops along the Alaska Highway and I helped rummage through the trash for cans and bottles. He estimated he made about $30.

I took pictures and asked deeply personal questions yet like all hitchhiking rides I am frustrated that more can't be told.

I know that because I spent a couple hours with Fast Eddie the Cree carny. When I got into his car he was playing the radio high like a punk kid, Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream." His stories showed he thought deeply about his life and they were laced with mysteries.

I loved the question songwriter Jim Croce once asked, what he would do with time in a bottle. I spent a July, Northern Rockies evening with Fast Eddie searching for bottles, asking questions about time.