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Portrait of a carny: the story that got away

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In the depths of winter it’s hard to believe there were ever long days and sunshine in the north country.

But once upon a time it was summer and I interviewed William E. Waddell, of Everglade City, Fla., who passed through town in July to work the Jefferson County Fair.

Bill owned and operated the rope ladder game at the carnival and if you went this summer, you might remember it.

It requires participants to scale a swinging ladder with crooked rungs suspended at a 30 degree angle above the ground, sending most of them hurtling headlong into the colorful vinyl of an inflatable pit.

Bill said he had owned the game for five years and called it the best investment he ever made.

He told me he paid for a $230,000 house in Naples, Fla., with the money he earned from the game.

Bill was apparently a former commercial fisherman who joined the carnival after the industry collapsed in South Florida, and the idea that a man could, despite such setbacks, work himself into solvency through sheer determination was compelling.

On top of that, his profession, which he fell into more than chose, was intriguing to say the least.

So, after he told me that just about every reporter in every town where the carnival stops asks to interview him, I invited him to breakfast at the Crystal Restaurant to distinguish myself from the competition.

There, over pancakes and sausage, Bill told me that the game, which costs $2 for one try and $3 for two tries, is difficult but not rigged.

“There is no secret,” he said. “It’s just patience and balance.”

Bill could scale the ladder frontward on his hands and knees and walking backward standing straight up, a skill he insists is largely based on concentration.

“It’s a lot about distraction, you’re doing it, your friends are laughing. When I do it, I block everybody out,” he said.

About one in 12 people make it to the top, he told me.

Bill had long and sinewy arms and skin like tanned leather. He told me that he was 35 but I would have easily believed he was twice that age, he looked so weathered.

He was joined at the table by a young 19-year-old Watertown woman who shall remain nameless.

The young woman told me that she was going to join the carnival to make money to pay for college. The idea seemed a bit extreme initially, but as Bill explained it, the carnival can be quite lucrative, provided you don’t spend your earnings on recreational enhancements.

And with the ever-increasing costs of higher education a growing concern for young people who often become almost immediately saddled with large amounts of student loan debt, the idea of paying for college via the carnival began to seem unconventional but pragmatic.

This story was getting good. I pitched it to my editor and there seemed to be a great degree of interest.

So I tried to interview the young woman’s mother, who told me, in no uncertain terms, that her daughter was not running away to join the carnival, but had instead decided to stay at her job and attend college in the fall.

In the meantime, the carnival had left town and when I tried to reach Bill via the cell phone number he had given me, I got no answer despite several calls.

I was never able to confirm his claim about buying a house in Florida with his earnings from the rope ladder game. A cursory search of property databases yielded some interesting results. As I recall, there were a few Waddells who owned houses in the Naples area, but Bill’s name did not show up in the search results and since we were incommunicado, it was difficult for me to seek an explanation. He may very well have purchased the house in someone else’s name, but that was unconfirmed.

A search of arrest records revealed some minor charges, as much as Bill had admitted to me in person. And some cryptic Facebook posts revealed less to me about an obviously complex person than our conversation at the Crystal.

In the end, Bill faded away just like the summer but not before seducing some of us in different ways — the prospect of modest wealth, the tantalizing details of a scintillating story.

There is a mystique about the carnival, just as there is a mystique about the summer. We suspend our skepticism and believe in the myth of plenty and the ready availability of luck.

Over the course of a year, a lot of stories come into and out of a reporter’s life. But here, at the end of the year, Bill’s strange tale is the one upon which I find myself reflecting. His story is the one that got away.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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