Profile of Chester “Pappy” Sanderson
One of the personalities on Fiesta Rides, Inc.’s lot is Chester “Pappy” Sanderson. He can start a conversation with anyone as though they’re a long, lost friend.
“I’ve been with this show for 61 years,” he boasted, “I’ve done this work all my life. I was born to Leavy Lea Hames on the platform of a merry-go-round in 1925. I was born on my grandfather’s show, Bill Hames, of Ft. Worth, Texas. I started working the merry-go-round when I was five-years-old, and have been working the merry-go-round off and on all of my life. I guess you can say that I’ve been going around in circles all my life.”
Pausing as though to relive those long ago carnival nights, Pappy sighed and continued, “Starting out, my mother and I would sleep on the merry-go-round. We’d close the night canvas and throw our sleeping bags in the center. It was quiet there and no one bothered you. I’ve also had to find sleep in the opossum bellies of trucks.” Stopping his conversation, he asked, “You know what a opossum belly is? It’s the storage space below the trailer."
"Now in these days, we have nice bunkhouses with hot running water for showers. It’s nice.”
When asked about his life away from the carnival, Pappy's rugged beared revealed a slight hint of a smile as he continued to weave his tale. “The only time that I’ve been away from the carnival is when I was in the Navy. I enlisted in the Navy in December 1949 and became a Naval Officer. I was sent off to the Korean War. When we first came upon the shore, the Koreans immediately captured us. Seventy-three men were captured all at once.”
Taking a slight pause, as if reliving it all again, he looked back at me and said, “The allied forces looked for us; however, we were constantly being moved around. I was a prisoner-of-war for nine years, and it was only a three-year war! All that we were given to eat were small bowls of rice. Four bowls in all each week, and we were given water twice a day. No matter how hot it was, twice a day was our limit for water. Sometimes, when we were given our small bowls of rice, the rice would be moving. That’s all we got. We were given nothing to cool us and nothing to warm us. In the winter, it could reach 0 degrees at night. We were given no blankets, no source of heat. To stay warm, all the guys would cuddle together. It was pure Hell.”
“I finally escaped with the help of an 8-year-old Korean girl. I had seen her and would talk to her. One night, she comes into the camp and grabs my arm, ‘Come, follow me.’ She said. She had found a way through the fence and helped me to freedom. I was taken to her parent’s house. I didn’t know that the war had ended. They took me, to what I thought was, an allied base. It turned out to be a US military base. When I walked up, I was arrested! They arrested me for ‘impersonating a dead officer.’ After seven years of MIA, the government considers you dead. I was thrown in jail by my own country and stayed there until fingerprint verification was made of my identity."
"I learned that they gave my wife my insurance and my children my social security. I came home December 22, 1959. On this date, I weighed 82lbs, and I was 244 lbs going in! I asked for early retirement from the Navy and received it. ”
“The spring immediately after my return, I went back to the carnival route. I didn’t know the route of Fiesta Rides, Inc, so I joined another show. I eventually learned the route of the show (Fiesta) and found my way back to their lot. I really like this show. It’s a family-oriented show. In fact, I changed the owner’s diapers when he was a baby, did the same with his children, and now his grandchildren. Everyone just started calling me ‘Pappy.’ I’ve been around four generations.”
He refuses to give up his lifestyle saying that there’s nothing like it. The freedom, the adventure. “I wouldn’t trade my life with anyone for a million dollars; however, I wouldn’t pay a dime to do it all over again,” he said with a laugh.
When the cliché came up stating how children grow up wishing to run away with the carnival, he met my wit and said, “My dream was to runaway from the carnival and join a home!”
“I’ve worked with most shows in the U.S., and have been around the world five times with the carnival. I hop scotched for many years to different shows."
In 1996, tragedy struck, yet again. “I was with Crown Amusements for a while and was the foreman of two merry-go-rounds and an Eli Ferris wheel. We were in Troy, Michigan. I was at the top of the tower changing light bulbs when I had a heart attack. I fell off the top of the tower and the next thing that I know; I wake up in the hospital trying to find my light bulbs! I was in a coma for 21 days and received several replacement parts.” Pointing at the troubled areas, he began describing what he had gone through, “I have an artificial hip, pelvis, knees, several pins in both knees and left ankle, but I didn’t change my outlook.”
“My advice to anyone just starting out is to think ‘mobile.’ You always have to move. Also, believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.”
“This is a carefree lifestyle. I’ve never gone hungry with the carnival and I get to see new places. There truly is no business like this business.” “Pappy” turned around and began describing the merry-go-round that he’s been operating. “This is a 1973 merry-go-round, but these aren’t the original horses. These horses were off an earlier owned 1950 merry-go-round. I like these older horses, they look better.”
“When the ride is in operation, I will step onto the platform. People always ask me why I do that. Well, if something were to go wrong with the ride, anything at all, I can feel it in the platform. The slightest vibration or change, I can feel it. I ride every ride.”
“I thought about writing a book or story about my experiences out here and what it’s like; however, I’ve never got around to it. There’s a lot out here. I never grow tired of it at all. I was born on the midway and will die on the midway.”
©May 18, 2001 Lori S. Maynard
Find your rest, dear friend