Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations



From the outside, carnivals beckon with flashing lights and corn dogs and roller coasters. But our own Julia DeWitt comes to us with a story from the inside.


JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: This is Rocky. Rocky grew up in Shiprock, N.M.

ROCKY: Yeah, hi. I'm Rocky. Rocky is a nickname that my grandfather gave me when my mom was giving birth to me. I gave her a fight, so - after Rocky Marciano.

DEWITT: Rocky had to fight early in his life. From the time he was 12, he was on his own. His dad was out of the picture, and his mom...

ROCKY: My mom died. And I was just, like, a dude by himself. No one was, like, buying me school supplies or taking me to movies.

DEWITT: Rocky bounced around between family members, but money started to get tight, so friend of his had a suggestion.

ROCKY: He was like, dude, you need to get some money for school clothes. And he said join a carnival, so I said, all right.


DEWITT: Rocky finally caught up with the carnival in Arizona, and he quickly got a job selling corn dogs on the bustling midway.

ROCKY: There was just something about it - the smell. They're making the popcorn, and the corn dogs, and the oil, and the beer and then the cigarettes towards the end. It just gets - it turns into, like, this big, old open party at the end of the night.

DEWITT: Rocky quickly made friends with some of the younger guys, and the older carnies watched out for them.

ROCKY: Losing my mom was, like, a big part of it. I felt kind of vulnerable. So I let these people into my life, and then they were cool. They took care of me. They were my family. And once you're in there, you're in.

DEWITT: Together, they traveled up and down the West, hawking carnival snacks and sleeping on overinflated inner tubes.

ROCKY: We would meet, like, traveling circuses, freak shows. We'd all get together and have, like, a big carnival, circus, everything. And then, like, we'd all just disperse and see each other next year.

DEWITT: Every carnival season for three years, Rocky left his small town in New Mexico and struck out again on the open road.

ROCKY: Free range, baby. We had a good thing going. All the years before that were great.

DEWITT: That year was the year that Rocky was 15. He and some friends were running a ride called the Himalaya, a sort of roller-coaster-meets-a-carousel. It doesn't look like much, but it goes really fast. One hot day in July, they rolled into Taos, N.M. They were tired, and they were looking forward to some time off.

ROCKY: And then the supervisor was like, nah, dude. You guys are going to have to get out there and, like, set it up. We're going to open tonight.

DEWITT: So the crew unloaded the Himalaya from its truck.

ROCKY: I just remember my friend - he's like, this is a bad moon. We shouldn't be working. It's a bad moon. He's saying that all night.

DEWITT: But they switched on the strobe lights and cranked up the Foghat anyway. The Himalaya was open. At midnight, three girls approached the ride, and they were buckled into car number 10.


ROCKY: Three Chicano girls wearing, like, black T-shirts with Old English on the back of their shirts - three girls just being themselves.

DEWITT: Once their lap bar was secured, the ride was off. The Himalaya started slowly, sped up and slowed again.


FOGHAT: (Singing) Slow ride, take it easy.

ROCKY: They put their arms up. We told them they can't do that. They did it again. And we're like, if you do it one more time, we're going to kick you off the ride.


DEWITT: Rocky and the Himalaya crew repeatedly yelled their warnings to the girls over the blaring music.

And then the ride sped up one last time.

ROCKY: And then they did it again, and...


DEWITT: The girls were thrown from the ride. It was too late by the time the crew cut the power and hit the emergency switch. The police and paramedics arrived on the scene to find that two of the girls were severely injured. The third was announced dead upon arrival at the hospital.

DEWITT: The ride was deemed a crime scene, and the investigation into the cause of the accident continued on into the early morning. Physically and emotionally exhausted, the boys were finally allowed to go to bed. They went back to their semi-trailer and tried to get some rest, but their long night wasn't over yet.

ROCKY: I was laying there and I heard this - boom, boom, boom - like someone hitting the side of the trailer. But then I saw these, like, speckles of, like, wood and light. Then another went...


DEWITT: That's when Rocky realized he was in the middle of a drive-by shooting, and he was the target.

ROCKY: I was like, they're shooting at us. I jumped out and I, like, hid behind a tire on the other side of the trailer.

DEWITT: Turns out that one of the girls that was injured on the ride was a gang member's girlfriend. That gang heard about what happened, and they were back at the carnival looking for revenge. The shooters were long gone when the police showed up again, and Rocky says they weren't happy to be back.

ROCKY: They said, just get the hell out of town. It was, like, a small-town mentality - almost defending them, you know, like we were the riffraff. We were the troublemakers, you know? If it weren't for us, she wouldn't have died.

DEWITT: It was clear that Taos wasn't a safe place for them anymore, so Rocky and his friends moved on to the next stop, in Grand Junction, Colo. But just moving on wasn't enough. Rocky couldn't stop thinking about the accident.

ROCKY: It was just too much, man. The next morning, we woke up, we cleaned up, and I was like, I'm done. And that's when I quit the carnival.

DEWITT: Rocky went back to Shiprock and finished high school, but he found it hard to fit in.

ROCKY: When I was done working the carnival, I didn't feel like a kid. I wasn't doing what kids were doing. I couldn't. I tried. It didn't seem as fun as it used to be.

DEWITT: Later investigation would show that the seatbelt on car number 10 had loosened while the ride was moving, and the lap bar unlatched when the ride sped up. With their hands in the air, the girls had no way to brace themselves. It was a simple ride malfunction, the result of poor ride maintenance, not of negligent ride operators. But 17 years later, Rocky still carries the memory of that night with him.

ROCKY: I just still have this sense of guilt that she was someone's kid, and I was the last person she looked at.


ROCKY: I was pretty desensitized after my mom died.

DEWITT: But after the accident...

ROCKY: It made me have a stronger appreciation for life. She was only three years older than me. I was like, I want to do a lot more than that.

DEWITT: So Rocky grew up to get a culinary degree and is now the owner of a wildly successful street food business in San Francisco. He has learned to appreciate when life is good - for the girl in Taos who never had a chance to.


WASHINGTON: Thank you very much to Rocky for sharing that story with SNAP. Now, if you see Rocky in the streets of San Francisco selling his delicious fry bread, be sure to ask him about that SNAP JUDGMENT discount. He'll hook you up. That piece was produced by SNAP JUDGMENT's own Julia DeWitt.


WASHINGTON: When we return, I get to tell you about a circus that you - you, sitting right there - you can join for real, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Circus Circus" episode, continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.