During our three-year “back to the land experiment” we encountered group that was living more of an altered existence than an alternative one. They came to the piedmont area of Virginia each spring in an unholy procession of junked out cars and beat up old trucks. They used expressions like “center-joint”, “hey rube”, “mark”, “G-top”, “lugen” and “lot-lizard”. They were gypsies gone wrong, a subculture traveling on the edge of society, they were carnies and they never stayed in one place for long.
These were hard-core people who were living more of an altered existence than an alternative one. They didn’t smoke pot, play Grateful Dead songs on their guitars, plant vegetables, and run away from wild roosters. Their lifestyle showed on all parts of their bodies. From the long scars on their faces and backs to their missing fingers and teeth, here were the souls who had been cast away by society. Each year when they’d pitch their big top on a nearby farmer’s field, it was more an attempt at survival than entertainment.
Once a year for our three years living on a farm outside of Lynchburg our counter culture lifestyle would come in contact with their sub culture to earn a few dollars. They would pay us $10. each to help them raise the big top and at the end of the run take it down and help pack it up. While we were putting up the tent they would ask us if we had any drugs for sale. We’d reply that Bedford County Virginia was not good place to deal illegal items as possession of one joint could lead to five years behind bars. “Oh come on” they’d reply “just give us sell us some whites, you know uppers to help with those long nights barking our wares on the midway.” We would offer them a few joints and they would always reply, “We don’t want any of that candy assed weed, give us something we can really get off on like bennies or some meth.” The conversation would usually end there or with them saying, “then what the hell good are you freaks anyway.”
In 1971 there was not a lot to do around Altavista, Virginia, and for the one week that the carney operated it was quite the local hit. For just a few dollars an individual could experience the freak shows, bearded ladies and lion-faced men, games of chance, the hootchy-kootchy show, a ram with four horns, a fire eater, a five-legged horse, a giant rat, a house of mirrors, odd looking life forms in a bottle and one very old, sad-looking gorilla named Congo.
We always made it a point to tour the midway during their short run in our area. It was seedy and ratty but it offered a combination of carnie types and local Christens mingling together which all seemed to very entertaining to us. Simply stated—it was a trip. We liked to listen to all the barkers shooting their lines to the local marks and always got a kick out of the dog acts.
That year as we helped them strike the midway we were offered an additional job. They needed two people to drive a large pick-up, one with a tattered old camper on back, up into the Blue Ridge Mountains and dropped off in Staunton, Virginia.
It was a pretty small truck, so why (we asked did they need two? “We need two because you’ll be taking Congo up to his next performance. It wouldn’t be a good carnival without a gorilla, now, would it, boys?” The old carney spit tobacco through the gap in his front teeth as he spoke. “He bites a bit, but he’s a good old soul.” He then held up his right hand to display his two shortened fingers, which he claimed were bitten off by Congo. “Try not to drive too fast and watch out for bumps and please don’t let anyone know there’s a gorilla in the back of that camper as we really don’t have that type of legality if you know what I mean.”
I looked at my friend; we both nodded. There was no room for any type of negotiation when you dealt with a carny. They would put their weathered face in front of yours and made sure you knew who was dictating the terms of whatever deal they were cooking up. They always smelled like cheap liquor, no matter what time of day it was. They seemed to be chomping at the bit for a chance to confront us, an opportunity to let us know who was boss. The combination of their aggressive nature and our stoned self always gave them the advantage. There was just no future in getting into an argument with an American gypsy.
Sure, we thought, $50.00 each for driving a gorilla up into the mountains, yeah great, it’ll be a trip. They also agreed to give us a little extra money for the bus ride back to Lynchburg.
Davidand I awoke at sunrise the next morning and we joked about our upcoming adventure over toast and coffee. We both mentioned that the gorilla in question seemed to be a tame one so there was little need to worry. We jumped into one of our many beat-up vehicles and drove down to the carney camp. The first thing we noticed was how frightening these folks appeared in the daylight without the tents of the carnival as their backdrop. Many of them looked like convicts, and all of them seemed desperate. The light of day did not agree with appearance of a vintage carnival person.
Our welcome greeting went something like— “Don’t either of you jack asses even think of opening the back of that pick-up to check out Congo, ’cause if anything happens to the ape it’ll come out of your ass . . . get it? Remember we know where you freaks live . . . OK?” All of a sudden the humor of the day was extinguished with the tone and the nature of Vince who seemed to be one of the main carny bosses.
We nodded a nervous nod, jumped in the pick-up, and started our three-hour journey to Staunton Virginia, with a full tank of gas, a gorilla in tow, and our minds full of apprehension. David and I decided that smoking a joint with a gorilla in the back of a truck would not be in our best interest. We did wonder what the jail term would be if the police pulled us over. How would I ever explain to my parents, the same parents who paid for my college education, that their recently graduated son was busted for driving an unlicensed gorilla down an interstate?
We tucked our hair under our hats, and tried to look like two good old boys driving their camper down the road on a Sunday morning. We took 460 West to Bedford then 132 to 501; from 501 it was a straight shot to Buena Vista and highway 81 north, which would take us into Staunton. We were a little worried on the small roads, concerned that some cop with nothing to do on a Sunday morning would jump at the chance to pull over two guys with beards and check out what might be in the back of their truck.
We soon found ourselves on the outskirts of Buena Vista. We could hear Congo as we headed down the road. He would make grunting sounds, and sometimes he almost sounded like a young child.
We wondered if he had ever been free, if he had known the life of a highland gorilla. Had he ever mated or journeyed through a rain forest, or was this carney life the only reality he had known? Through the cab window we could make out his shape; we noticed he hardly ever moved at all.
When we finally hit the interstate, a wave of relief and confidence came over us both. I then mentioned to David that the poor thing must be hungry. We decided to stop in Mint Spring and treat Congo to lunch. Hell with what those carney people said, the gorilla has a right to eat and we just had to see him. We pulled into a Safeway parking lot and purchased a bunch of bananas and peanuts because that’s what we saw gorillas eat in the movies. Then we drove down an old dirt road and carefully opened the back door.
There he was huddled in the rear of the camper like a ragged child, no great silverback, just a large, very frightened life form that was high up on the evolutionary scale. We stared at him for a while and tried not move. We then made eye contact with Congo and sent out our best vibrations. He gradually sensed that we were friendly and had something to give. He then leaned just a little bit closer to us, which was our cue to dispense some food.
We gently tossed the bananas and peanuts to him. He ever so cautiously gathered the offering and retreated back to his corner. He sat there and munched away and never moved from his spot.
While most of the population of Mint Spring, were turning the pages of their bibles and giving thanks to the Lord, two hippies and an old gorilla were on the side of a nondescript Virginia road communing with each other over a midday meal. David and I exchanged glances and sensed correctly that Congo and we would never pass this way again.