The Great


by Joe Tyburczy


CANOBIE LAKE PARK, SALEM, NEW HAMPSHIRE. 1969. I was working a group of rides at the lower end of the park nearest the lake. It was my third season there. I'd been unable to break the habit of signing on every Spring for the latest in minimum wages. You'd work seven days a week, from 11 AM until 11 PM closing, with an hour break for supper. The paycheck seemed pretty good as far as summer jobs go --- until you realized you didn't have any time off to spend it.

The Roundup was a giant wheel lined with standing compartments, like a hamster's treadmill lying on its side. Customers were held flat against its inside walls by centrifugal forces as the wheel spun faster and faster. Then the wheel would slowly lift until it was nearly vertical. It took some skill and finesse to give a safe ride and not kill everybody involved.

The electric motor that spun the ride was attached to an automobile tire. You started the motor and it squealed like a dragstrip racer, making contact with the steel outer rim of the Roundup. After you judged that it was going fast enough, you pulled a lever that caused a huge hydraulic arm to raise out of the center, lifting the whole thing into vertical mode. It was up to you how long the ride lasted. On Friday nights I liked to give especially long rides, partially releasing the hydraulic so it began to sink, then I'd send it back up again as if I'd changed my mind halfway. The kids loved it.

You could lower the arm gently, almost imperceptibly, or slam the lever back, bringing it down with a shuddering bang. Another good trick was to shut the electric motor off while in full vertical. The wheel would begin to slow and the passengers would start to slip out, -- but just barely. Again, it took a virtuoso at the helm to know precisely the point at which to kick the motor back on, avoiding any real danger. Once down and still spinning, you stopped the thing by the use of a very touchy electric brake. Deftly applied, it allowed you to stop the wheel's motion when the exit opening lined up with the front stairs. The machine was something of a pariah among ride operators who claimed that you'd be cleaning throwup from it all day, but in reality pukers were very rare, and the stuff easily sprayed off with a water hose.

I'd graduated from Kiddieland rides to these more dangerous contraptions, and they were situated on a pleasant lane overlooking the Boathouse and the Circus Ring. My boss was a hawk-nosed older guy with a penchant for straw fedoras. Henry Pitochelli had what most people agreed was a commanding prescence. He loved nothing better than to get in arguments with customers where he could utilize his vast lung power to reduce opponents to quaking, fearful heaps. Many times I saw him approach stern-faced mothers who were intent on getting little Johnny on a ride that had been closed. "MADAME YOU'RE WRONG AND I'LL TELL YOU WHY YOU'RE WRONG!..." he'd boom. And that was just his opening argument.

I accepted the fact that the golden-agers of the park employees got time off while the high-school kids worked the summer without a break. For a while, I ran the Catapillar while the inevitably overweight regular guy was out on vacation. The ride was merely a series of low, two-seater cars arranged in a tight circle. A canvas hood sprang over the cars and gave the appearance of a whirling catapillar; the idea being that you got squashed against your partner by vicious G-forces when the hood descended, blocking you from public view and giving you the opportunity to make out.

From the Catapillar controls, I had a perfect view of the circus ring. Twice daily, a dog act or some bad magician would do their stuff to canned music. That particular week it was a guy called the "Great Compaytis", who did headstands at the top of a thirty-foot steel tower. His sequin-clad female assistant did feeble gymnastics on the pavement below during lags in the action. Each and every performance was stunningly similar.

Compaytis would be introduced by Tom Reagan, an authentic hard-drinking Irishman who did his best to read from a prepared script over the Boathouse PA system: "DYE-RECT from a European tour with the world famous DUNINGER Circus, we bring you --the GA-REEAAEAT COMMM-PAAAAY-TIS!"

Compaytis would then climb the tower, stopping halfway to balance on one leg or something. The climax of the act was when he'd reach the top and pretend to signal something urgent to the boathouse. At that point, Tom would advise the crowd in his most solemn tones: "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, Compaytis has decided he wants to try SOMETHING SPECIAL tonight and I happen to know that he's NEVER attempted this DARING MANEUVER at such a DANGEROUS height so I must ask him are you SURE you want to do this, Compaytis?". Compaytis invariably signaled back that he was, in fact, willing to risk death for the handful of bored suburban families in the audience. "Well, GOOD LUCK to you then, good luck to you", Tom would intone gravely. Compaytis made a big deal of executing this particular maneuver--- a headstand on top of the tower. He would pretend to lose his balance a few times and then finally regain it, striking a triumphant pose to a smattering of polite applause.

When they weren't performing, the Compaytises lived in a beat-up aluminum trailer parked in the woods behind the boathouse. It was odd to see both the aging acrobat and his spangled assistant offstage. Overweight and clad in dirty bathrobes, they roasted some kind of smelly food mixture over an open fire. I learned that they had erected the steel tower themselves on arrival, and would eventually have to dismantle it, too.

All this, plus a cramped box to travel in. Life wasn't exactly glamorous in the Compaytis household, yet they undoubtedly got something special out of it. They were Performers and we were the Audience. I began to understand that Compaytis endured whatever inconveniences he suffered as a third-rate circus act, including Tom Reagan's dismal contribution, in order to bask in the glow of the spotlight for a few minutes twice a day. It seemed somehow related to the feeling of satisfaction I got after giving someone an especially good ride.

But surely the Compaytises were on the losing end of the equation. I thought about it a lot and decided that I probably was, too. I realized that I had shunned real, moneymaking summer jobs in favor of my status as a tiny, underpaid cog in a two-bit entertainment empire. And it made no sense whatsoever. My other high-school friends worked as kitchen helpers or on construction jobs, socking their dough away in fat bank accounts. There were cars, college, and responsibilities ahead. I knew that someday I'd have to give up my summers at the park, and it made me mad.