Carnival rides hold a special place for fairgoers — the Medina County Fair is no exception. But somebody has to build and operate the rides.
A week before the Medina fair was scheduled to open Monday, 11 men from Bates Amusement — most sporting tattoos, some shirtless and all turned a deep bronze from so many days working under the sun — stood and waited for the go-ahead from general manager Frank Puskarich to start assembling one of the more popular rides at the fair called “Catch ‘n’ Air.”
A cigarette dangled from his mouth as Puskarich circled the foundation for the ride, inspecting each jack that was laid earlier that morning.
“Look at this one,” he said. “It ain’t even touchin’ the foundation.”
Puskarich grabbed the jack and jammed it against the foundation.
Meanwhile, the attention of his workers — better known as carnies — shifted to who had some cigarettes to bum.
Danny Smathers, 33, a foreman with both arms fully tattooed and frameless glasses, leaned down and calibrated the jack so the ride could be assembled further.
Then the crew got to work — all now with cigarettes dangling from their lips.
“Depending on the number of pieces the ride has, usually we can have a show set up in six hours and torn down in two,” Puskarich said.
Medina is the eighth stop this summer for the Bates crew, who travel for six months out of the year.
Once focused, they assembled the ride like ants relocating their anthill.
Each worker knows exactly where he needs to be — all with smiles glued on their faces.
“I love my job because I love seeing kids have fun,” Dan “Red” Sexton said with a big, toothless grin.
His front four teeth were knocked out some time ago because he likes to “run his mouth,” a co-worker said.
Sexton, from Ashland, said he’s “in his 40s” and has four kids and four grandkids, who he misses while he is on the road.
“And home-cooked meals,” he added. “Boy, do I miss those.”
The men of the outfit hardly get a chance to visit home while they are on the road. They stay in company trailers on the grounds of each fair they work, even though most of them are from northern Ohio.
They crisscross Ohio, bringing the joy of fair rides to more than half of the counties in the state before fall rolls in.
Last week, they ran the Franklin County Fair. After the close of the Medina County Fair, they’ll move on to Zanesville.
The transition day from site to site is called a “circus jump.” The day is a long one because the men are charged with tearing down rides at one location, and transporting and assembling them at another in time to open for business the next day.
“It is about a 23-hour day,” Sexton said. “Most of the guys run on about three hours of sleep.”
It took the men about two hours before they were on the last step of assembling “Catch ‘n’ Air,” which meant hanging the cars, or tubs, in which the riders sit.
Wednesday was payday for the crew and Smathers was ready to let loose.
“I got 14 hours of sleep last night. I’m ready to get wicked,” he told the guys. Then he added that he first needs to do his laundry.
His plan was to hit Applebee’s for happy hour and appetizers.
On Thursday, the men gathered around a new challenge: the Musik Express.
The men hung from the rafters to place light panels that will give the ride its pop and magic in the early August night air.
Smathers was firmly planted on the ground inside the track, making sure that each separate piece had no gaps in between the next.
“This ride was under a flood last week,” he said as he banged away at the steel track with a 2-foot-long crowbar. “It is a son-of-a-b—— to put up. I hate this ride.”
As foreman, it’s been Smathers job for the past seven years to know every in and out of the ride.
During the off-season, he is in the Bates Amusement shop and warehouse, restoring and performing maintenance on the rides to get them ready for the next season.
He is originally from Bucyrus, but now resides in Wintersville, where Bates is headquartered.
As the men rushed to get their lunch break, one worker exclaimed, “I don’t wanna eat Subway again.”
By the end of the day, the ride was ready for the fair to start on Monday.
Smathers was one of the last to leave his post. The rest of the men started goofing around like best pals in eighth grade.
Two bigger men simultaneously bumped into a little guy who kept yelling, “What’re you guys tryin’ to do!”
The other guys stood around laughing and making jokes.
Sexton summed up the relationship he has with his men when he said that he can’t wait for summer to get back on the road with his crew.
“I couldn’t find a better group of guys to work with,” he said, that same smile reaching across his face. “It’s a home away from home.”
Contact reporter Andrew Davis at (330) 721-4050 or firstname.lastname@example.org.