On riding a motorcycle in a barrel

Once upon a time when I was a young fellow at loose ends I ran away to join the circus. Strictly speaking it was a travelling carnival, but why quibble over minor details? Close, enough, if you ask me.


I think it was shortly after I ran an ad in the classified section of the Toronto Daily Star. Young man looking for work was about all it said in so many words. I got one response from somebody who offered me a job as a shepherd on a large sheep ranch in Alberta. I was tempted, and maybe, now that I think of it, I should have taken the job. But I didn’t.

As best I can recall it was the spring after I dropped out of first-year journalism at Ryerson. I had just bought a 250 c.c. Royal Enfield motorcycle, a “bullet,” I believe it was called. I must have heard there was a carnival in town, but by the time I decided to see if they had any jobs for the likes of me it had already folded up its tents and packed up its candy floss machines and headed down the highway for the next stop on its seasonal schedule. So maybe, come to think of it again, it was more than likely summer.

So anyway, on an impulse, I jumped on the 1950s-something bike and took off in pursuit, so to speak. No sooner was I on the highway than it started to rain, and then it poured. But I kept going, for a few hours. I don’t recall the name of the town. But I remember it was still raining when I found the carnival all set up for business, but there obviously wasn’t any. I asked the first guy I saw where I could find “the boss.” He pointed to a trailer.


Not mine, but close enough

I parked my bike and knocked on the door. The man who answered was taken aback to see a soaking wet young man standing in the pouring rain. I said I was looking for a job with his carnival. He said none were available. He seemed like a nice, fatherly man, in his late 40s or early 50s. He looked concerned and invited me in out of the rain.

Inside, I explained I had just driven my Royal Enfield motorcycle for several hours in the rain. I had parked it outside. I wondered if there was any place I could put it out of the rain to dry off a bit before I started the drive back from whence I had come. He looked out a small trailer window and saw my bike. He had a thought. Did I ever see those motorcycle trick riders in the circus who drove around inside a big barrel, at increasing speed, as they gradually climbed the walls of the barrel, and then kept going around and around and around at high speed, until they finally slowed down and brought the bike to a stop with no harm done? Yes, I said. I saw that once at the Canadian National Exhibition midway.

Did I think I could do that, he asked. I thought about it for a few seconds. I was trying to convince myself that, yes, I thought I could.

But, no, I finally said, “I don’t think so.” In a pinch, thank goodness, I was still capable of a moment’s rational thought; either that or the hand of God came down through the clouds and rain, and through the roof of the trailer to save me from myself, yet again.

“The boss” smiled in a fatherly sort of way. “That’s okay, kid; it’s probably just as well.” And then he sighed, possibly remembering when he had been my age and followed an impulse to join the circus, or the carnival.

The rain was showing signs of slacking off. He thought I must be hungry so he invited me over to the food tent where the carnival workers had gathered to pass the time. An older man who had been a carnival sideshow operator for many years kept saying he was going to go home to Sherbrooke soon and be done with carnival work once and for all. He spoke English with a strong French-Canadian accent, as we used to say, as opposed to Quebecois. “I go home to Sherbrooke,” he kept saying, over and over, plaintively.

And many of the others, who had heard him say the same thing time and time again for Lord knows how many years, kept saying back, in unison, “Oh, you’re never going back to Sherbrooke.”

It was a game they were used to playing with him, except he wasn’t having fun.

“Yes I am, yes I am,” he said, raising his voice insistently. “I go back to Sherbrooke.”

Strange the things one remembers after so many years. But even now I can hear him saying, over and over, as they egged him on, “I go back home to Sherbrooke. I be done with carnival. No more for me.”

I can still hear them laughing. They wouldn’t let it go. They wouldn’t just give him that, in peace.

“You’re never going back to Sherbrooke.”

I wonder if he ever did. Probably not. At any event he’s long gone now of course, and done finally with carnival work. Most of them too, no doubt.

As for me, I got back on the Royal Enfield “Bullet” and kept trying to find my path in other directions. I guess you could say I was going around in circles. Maybe I should have said, yes, I think I could do that.

Who knows where it might have led, like Franz Kafka’s carnival Hunger Artist. One day, at top speed, near the top of the barrel, I might have ridden my “Bullet” through a crack in the Cosmic Egg.

“Where’d he go?” the crowd would have said in amazement. I could have been a somebody. I could have been a contender: the Royal Enfield motorcycle-barrel rider who disappeared into thin air.

It wasn’t long after that I packed a few books and clothes and rented a room in downtown Toronto. I lived on canned beans and apples and bread, wore out a few ribbons on my Underwood typewriter, and found happiness for a while.

May you too, wherever and whoever you are.

My advice? Keep it simple, be patient, stay out of trouble, be kind to animals, and chances are the answer will come to you sooner or later.

Or not. But that may be the answer.

3 thoughts on “On riding a motorcycle in a barrel

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