Summer Jobs: A Fairbanks Carnival

We close our summer job series with a story from listener Jeff Sands of Dorset, Vt. His most memorable summer job happened 16 years ago, when he was hitchhiking through Alaska. Needing money to get back home, he worked the games at a carnival in Fairbanks for nine days. We also hear a round-up of the summer jobs that made the All Things Considered staff the people they are today.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Throughout the summer, we've heard about your summer jobs, everything from lightning bug catching to corn detasseling. For our final summer job story, we're going to the carnival in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Sixteen years ago, listener Jeff Sands was trying to make enough money to get home to Vermont. So he manned some of games on the midway, such as the basketball toss and the softball-in-the-peach basket toss.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JEFF SANDS: To dispel any rumors out there about the carnival, the games are not rigged. They're simply impossible to win. As a newly minted economics major, I tracked game metrics to keep my mind occupied amongst the cycling screech of carousel music.

First, you have to be a barker to get your revenues up. Hey you, big guy in the tank top, yes, you with the pretty girlfriend. How'd you like to win that lady a prize? Excuse me, ma'am, yes, excuse me, pretty older lady with a walker. Let me show you how to win a free prize for your granddaughter. First shot's on the house.

Now, carnival math is simple enough: Pay one dollar for the chance to win a 50-cent toy. Earn five 50-cent toys, and you can trade that in for a two-dollar toy. Now, that's if you make the shots.

Considering that 99 percent of my contestants never won prizes, the math showed 50-cent toys generating phenomenal gross margins.

Although my fiduciary duty was clearly to my employers, I let a few toys slide. Everyone knows the old throw-the-ball-at-a-milk-bottle game. I still remember this one guy who was built like Michael Jordan. He delivered the absolutely perfect shot right into the sweet spot.

The top bottle flew off like a bad guy's head in an old Western movie while the bottom two bottles were hit with such immeasurable force that they actually tilted back, then settled with a thud exactly where they had started.

My options were simple: Award the man his 50-cent prize or get beat up. We have a winner, I yelled to the midway. This gentleman gets a prize for his lovely girlfriend, and you can, too. Folks, this game is hot. Step on up and win a prize.

Now, close your eyes and picture a professional carnival worker. They prefer to be called carnies. Okay, it's an intimidating image to see these people out from behind bars. Once the lights shut down, we gathered near tents in the back lot and started the second shift. For me, that involved little more than reading my way through (unintelligible) and studying maps while my co-workers worked their way through dinner, drinks, into cursing, arguing and, occasionally, a fistfight.

While I saw the open roads of North America stretch out in front of me, these folks were growing roots into what was, for some, the only family they ever knew.

One week later, our lights in Fairbanks shut for the season. The extended Goldenwheel(ph) family was heading down to Palmer for the big Alaskan state fair. The boss man slipped me a tip for my work and offered to double my pay if I'd come along with.

But somewhere down my open road was the girlfriend I wanted to marry and the rest of my life. With a pocket full of cash and my crumpled map, I crossed the parking lot to the highway, looked south towards home and put out my thumb.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Listener Jeff Sands of Dorset, Vermont. He and that girlfriend, now wife, will take their kids to the Vermont State Fair next weekend.

And now before we wrap up our summer job series and this hour of the program, here's a round-up of the summer jobs that made our staff the wildly talented people that they are today.

BRENDAN BANASZAK: I peddled romance novels.

SIEGEL: Brendan Banaszak worked in a bookstore.

ANDREA HSU: I tried not to mix up decaf and regular.

SIEGEL: And she still doesn't. Andrea Hsu was a barista in a bookstore.

CORY TURNER: I sat on your furniture before you did.

SIEGEL: Cory Turner loaded delivery trucks.

MELISSA GRAY: I made hundreds sick daily with the touch of my dainty finger.

SIEGEL: Melissa Gray ran a thrill ride at a theme park.

VIET LE: I made the seven layers in the seven-layer burrito.

SIEGEL: Viet Le worked at a Taco Bell.

FRANKLYN: I served the cement shoe.

SIEGEL: I always suspected he did. That's Franklyn Cater, who worked at a gangster-themed restaurant.

ALISON MACADAM: I was a pioneer when bagels went national.

SIEGEL: Alison MacAdam sold bagels at a drive-through window.

GABE O'CONNOR: I put my hands all over Jerry Garcia's food.

SIEGEL: Gabe O'Connor, who worked in a health food store in Marin County, California.

JULIA BUCKLEY: I folded clothes, lots and lots of sweaters.

SIEGEL: Julia Buckley gave up retail for radio.

SMOKEY BEAR: I grabbed the dirty towels and rolled out the clean ones.

SIEGEL: Smokey Bear, towel boy at a summer camp.

THEO BALCOMB: I taught baby ballerinas how to bust a move.

SIEGEL: Theo Balcomb, toddler dance instructor.

GRAHAM SMITH: I was a pearl diver off the coast of Maine.

SIEGEL: In his head, perhaps. Graham Smith scrubbed pots at a summer camp.

GERRY HOLMES: I mixed vodka martinis, and I was under-age.

SIEGEL: Gerry Holmes instantly promoted from busboy to bartender after someone got fired.

NEAL CARRUTH: I wore 18th-century knee breeches.

SIEGEL: And wore them well. Neal Carruth earned tips at a colonial-themed restaurant.

BILAL QUERSHI: At least I got to wear some cool goggles.

SIEGEL: Bilal Quershi copied keys at a hardware store. I'm former busboy Robert Siegel, and you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Happy Labor Day.

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