©2022 By Matt Lubich

Leon felt the muscles in his arms spasm after tearing down the Snake Girl tent in less than an hour. A job that usually took three other men two hours and a half-pack of cigarettes, he could do alone in fifty-three minutes.

People might think he was just a big dumb carny, but Leon knew he was smart about the things that mattered. Who cared if he could factor an integer, or whether he even knew what an integer was? What he did know was that if you laid the poles to the tent in the back of the rig before you put the scrim in … well, how are you going to put up the scrim if you don’t already have the poles up? Were you just going to lay it on the ground till you got the poles up? Daddy paid Doc Rivera $2,500 to paint that scrim: The Snake Girl rising fifteen feet high in all her freakdom. Everything had to go in exactly opposite of how it would be reassembled in twelve hours at the next stop.

Leon’s theory of learning was simple: “Sit down. Shut up. Watch and listen.” That’s how he learned how to swallow swords. His Daddy wouldn’t teach him, but he taught his big brother Michael. Prince Michael. Leon learned by sitting there, keeping his mouth shut, watching, and listening. Then, after Daddy and Michael went inside, he’d practice until he got it right or got tired of spitting up blood.

He climbed up into the cab of the semi that pulled the Museum of Wonders after packing up the Snake Girl. While the Ride Boys were still sullenly tearing down, crawling the skeleton of the Zipper like tattooed, tranquilized monkeys, he was already done and ready to start the jump to the next town.

How can I describe Leon? If I told you about his voice, you wouldn’t be able to see his smile, lit in the strobe of traffic coming the opposite direction on an interstate late at night in the vast somewhere nowhere of Texas at two in the morning. If I told you about his smile, you wouldn’t be able to hear his voice, yelling above the sound of the semi as he runs through the gears at 3 AM on an empty main street in a town where tomorrow everyone will wake up to their same old lives and he’ll have moved on and be nothing but a laughing ghost.

That was Leon. A force of nature. There is water, wind, fire, and Leon.

Pickled Punks

I first met Leon and his family while wandering the midway at The Greeley Independence Stampede in Greeley, Colorado, in the early 1990s. I’ve always loved carnival midways. I remember constantly circling the one in Pueblo, Colorado, as a teenager at the Colorado State Fair cruising for chicks. I don’t recall ever getting lucky, but this night in Greeley I did as I found myself standing in front of The Museum of Wonders. The second the word “reporter” came out of my mouth people started getting hostile and nervous, but finally I talked my way into an interview with the guy that owned it … Henry Valentine.

Henry was probably in his seventies and he took me on a tour of the museum, his “pickled punks” as he called them. All sorts of malformed animal fetuses in jars, along with dummies and pictures of famous freaks. All the time as we’re talking Henry’s voice, his grind, the carnival barker spiel that attracts people to the show, was playing over and over on the loudspeakers … ALIVE … INSIDE…. We went outside and sat in lawn chairs in front of the museum on the midway with all the people walking by and he told me his story.

When Henry was seventeen, living in Fort Collins, Colorado, his girlfriend broke up with him and to salve his grief he went to the carnival that was in town. He left with it that night and never went back. With the exception of a couple of weeks during World War II, when he worked in an airplane factory in Texas but got fired for wearing cowboy books, he had lived on the road with the carnival.

Henry’s first marriage was to Selena the Seal Girl. Likely a Thalidomide baby, she had hands coming out of her shoulders like flippers. Henry speaks of her in the past tense, and I start to draft a melancholy little story about how she died and how he’s still out on the road with her memory mixing with the smell of corn dogs and cotton candy. I asked him finally what happened to her.

“I divorced her,” he said. “She was a drunk. She’s living in Oklahoma somewhere.”

After that Henry met a woman who had been “camping” by the river with her kids. Every morning before she’d go to work, she’d put them in life vests. He took her in, and her kids, and raised them as his own on the road.

The youngest, the baby, was Leon.

Henry worked with all the real freaks back when “the government would allow them to have some pride and work for a living rather than be warehoused in hospitals,” he said. Grace the Mule-Faced Woman. Frank Lentini, the guy with three legs who used to tie a fishing line to his third one when he and Henry would go fishing during the day at some lake they’d find on the road.

So I go home that night and I tell my wife Lesli. These people are fascinating. They are a culture all their own. Somebody should write about them….

Not even breaking her gaze from her book, she said, “Yeah, it’s too bad you aren’t like a reporter or something and could go on the road with them….”

I get in contact with Henry, which was hard enough since they had already moved on to the next town, but he agreed that if I’m standing outside the trucks when they leave the State Fair in Pueblo at the end of August, I can ride with them to the next stop. The next “jump” to Abilene, Texas.

Secret of the Snake Girl

And, because I can talk freaks and old classic country music, and I’m taking an interest in his career as a showman as it winds down, Henry takes a liking to me and probably took Leon aside just before we left and said: “Try to make sure nobody cuts his throat, okay?”

And that’s how I came to sleep in The Snake Girl tent trailer for the next 10 days, and meet my new friend and midway minder, Leon.

I am sorry to disabuse you of your fantasy, but The Snake Girl isn’t real.

She actually isn’t just a single girl. She’s one of two or three girls on the road with The Valentines, all of whom, while working, wear the same black wig that sits on Leon’s kitchen table in his trailer like a dead Yorkie at night when you sit with him and the girls and smoke weed.

Usually, the girls sleep in the back of the Snake Girl trailer, on a riser at the front where Henry put a couch. An American flag across the window serves as patriotic curtain to keep the people walking on the back of the midway from seeing you without your shirt on when you wake up in the morning. I think there might have also been a small table. It wasn’t much, but it beat sleeping under one of the trucks that hauled The Zipper like some of the Ride Boys had to do.

There was a special place for THE Snake Girl who got to share Leon’s trailer, his bed, and his no doubt prodigious sexual hunger. When I was on the road with them in Texas, she was named Kayla.

Blond-haired, buxom, with the beefy but sexy rocker chick look of a seventeen-year-old who had yet to have three kids and put on twenty-five pounds before she’d be smacking them around a Wal-Mart, Kayla had a nice hand-etched swastika tattoo on her shoulder.

The trick behind the Snake Girl is that it is the girl, sitting in an office chair, with a false box built around her so just her head sticks out. Around the head, on which she wears the ratty black nylon hair crown while on duty, is a rubber snake’s body. There is a rope under the body around her throat:  move your head to the side, the snake’s tail moves to the side. Move your head to the back, the snake’s tail moves to the back.

Henry had one rule: you cannot fall asleep, which is sort of hard when you are sitting on a chair in a box with a huge rubber snake body around your neck and it’s 115 degrees inside the tent in the middle of Abilene, Texas, in August. But what Henry says goes.

Leon is the ticket taker for the attraction and its bouncer. He sits out front of the tent in his ticket box and keeps an eye on the crowd, because people think it’s fun to taunt the Snake Girl and spit ice from their Cokes on her down in the box.

I had breakfast on the midway, just Kayla and me, the morning after the first night she got spit on. She was never coming back to what you and I call polite society. After she ran out her string with The Valentines, who knows why, who knows how, she left the carnival, and when I asked Henry, he said she “was working in a titty bar in Dallas.”

Ground scores

I rode the first part of the trip to Abilene with Henry, but early that evening I asked Leon if I could ride with him. I think it was somewhere in Oklahoma, in the middle of the night, when Leon was telling me how he shot someone with a shotgun once, that I told him if he was thinking he might need to be killing me I could just get out right here.

“Nah, you seem okay,” he said. He explained to me that he used to road race motorcycles. As a privateer, with no factory backing, he and his buddies had taken a bike to Daytona for the annual Bike Week race. He not only finished, but ahead of many of the factory riders. A year or so ago, however, he had had a bad crash and sustained a head injury.

What would have likely killed a lesser man had simply mellowed him out, he said.

“Only two things make me mad anymore. People that mistreat their kids (Leon had a son back in Texas living with his mom) and people who steal from my daddy.” Every morning, Leon said, before anyone else was awake, he would get up and prowl the midway for “ground scores” … the stuff that fell out of people’s pockets as they were jerked and tumbled like human dryer laundry on the rides. Sunglasses, lighters, combs, keys, pens and anything you could think of that people would have in their pockets. He was keeping it all in a box in his trailer for Little Henry, his son. Leon had an almost preternatural ability to spot the things you and I drop. At every gas station we stopped at he’d suddenly stoop low and pick up a piece of change from beneath the check-out counter.

We got into Abilene just before dawn. I climbed into back of the semi in the sleeper and didn’t wake up till early afternoon. Leon, on the other hand, was back up only a couple of hours later to put up the Snake Girl tent. As I sat drinking coffee still trying to wake up, he finished driving the last tent stakes, swinging a sledgehammer with one hand.

When I admired his strength, he looked at me, almost hurt, as if I like everyone thought he was just a dumb, muscle-bound mule. You only had to be strong for a moment, he explained, once you had the hammer in the air and in motion, it was a matter of focus.

It was a couple of hours before the carnival was to open when the sky filled with angry black clouds and down came a Biblical Rain that turned the fairground midway into a quagmire of mud. When it stopped, I ventured back out of the Snake Girl trailer and found Leon getting ready to open.

“Do you think anybody will even come?” I asked, thinking how opening night would be a bust after all the costs of gas and food to make the jump from Colorado.

“Just watch,” he said.

And they began to come. By nine 9 PM, the midway was filled. People dragging strollers, the wheels long too caked and clogged with mud to roll, while with the other hand cursing parents pulled screaming and crying children who would slip and fall, only to be jerked back up with a pop of their shoulder. They all marched, like mud-covered zombies, around and around the midway as the speakers on the Tilt-A-Whirl blasted Guns N’ Roses and ZZ Top.

“I would never bring my child out in something like this,” Leon said sitting in the ticket booth looking disgusted.

Bed of Nails

“Life’s a dare,” Leon said to me one afternoon while we were sitting in his trailer. “You either decide you’re gonna take it, or you back down. I’d much rather get my ass kicked than back down from someone. No shame in getting beat if you at least tried. Can’t ain’t never got nothing done.

“When I was sixteen, Daddy let me do the bed of nails act,” he said. “The whole key is that the nails are close enough together that when you lay down on them the weight is displaced, so none of them stick through you. You take the pain all at once like that, you can survive it. Man, you take each and every little hurt individually, they’re gonna go right through you eventually.

“I was doing the bed of nails and part of the show was Daddy called someone up to stand on my chest. He always picked the biggest guy he could find in the crowd. The idea was you have them get up slow. Well one night this fat fuck came up, and before daddy could stop him, he just jumps up on top of me real quick.”

“Did it hurt?” I asked.

“Of course it hurt,” Leon said, looking at me like I was an idiot. “But I didn’t let on it hurt. I just held it in. Then after the show ended, I had the guy who runs the Ferris wheel take me up to the top and stop it. I smoked a joint and I cried, then I came back down and went back to work.”

One day on the midway I let it slip to Leon that I was out here on a freelance gig. That nobody was paying me to do this. That my hope was I could write something someone would want to buy.

“Goddamn,” he said, with genuine admiration in his eyes for maybe the first time. “I thought you were just some reporter out here on assignment with an expense account. Good for you.”

In many ways, with his shaved head and perpetual good spirit, Leon was a lot like a Buddhist teacher to me. After breakfast on a rainy morning, decades and kids and a whole lifetime after that summer in Abilene and those ten days of meditation in the Snake Girl trailer, I sat in my empty newsroom alone and watched Leon’s funeral service on streaming video from the church in Texas. It was probably best summed up by one of the guys who spoke, who didn’t even bother to take off his greaser shades when he went up to the podium.

“I have a million stories about Leon,” he said, “and I can’t tell one of them in here.”

So here we go, one final story about Leon…

Stabbed through the heart

We were sitting on the midway in Abilene, a late afternoon, the promise of another night of neon and noise lying ahead of us. Sitting in front of the Snake Girl tent, Leon was telling me about how he bit a guy’s finger off one night in a fight.

It sort of put a damper on the party they were at, he said, and his girlfriend was pissed because they had to leave … As Leon was telling the story a woman, pushing a stroller with a small child in it, passed by. As she did the kid dropped their stuffed animal and the woman didn’t notice and continued along her way.

In mid-sentence Leon leapt out of the Snake Girl ticket booth and sprinted across the midway. He picked up the soft toy, caught up with the woman, and gave it back to the kid, bending down and handing it to them and smiling.

Coming back to the booth he just went right back to telling me about biting the guy’s finger off at the party.

That was Leon. The kindest, funniest, most joyful soul I have likely ever met, who was the last person you ever wanted to be crossways with. The night he was stabbed in Abilene, only about a week after I left, two guys and a girl were trying to sneak into the back of the Snake Girl tent without paying. Only two things made Leon mad anymore: people being mean to kids and someone who tried to steal from his Daddy.

I have no doubt that Leon wasn’t politically correct about telling the two guys and the girl that they needed to pay, but I know he gave them the chance to do it. The chance to avoid the fight. But they wanted to fight. They stabbed him through the heart. All he did was beat the hell out of all three of them and then go back to the Snake Girl booth and keep taking tickets till he stroked out.

Leon and his son Henry, weeks after the stabbing

Leon was never the same again. That fierce joy now trapped in a body that needed to be pumped full of drugs to keep it from seizing like a bike being run without oil. He had a hard time talking, his speech now slurred. That’s the most painful thing I remember about being around Leon after the stabbing: the sad, hurt look in his eyes when he would try to talk to kids on the midway and they would recoil in fear.

The thing that always came to mind was Frankenstein.

Well, that’s over now. Leon is free again. Fierce and funny and free. And for that, I’m eternally grateful and a little ashamed at the selfish grief that wishes he was still here. The Buddhists have a concept that we shouldn’t grieve too deeply, because it holds the spirit back from moving on. I got the message from Texas that Leon had died in the nursing home, more than two decades after being stabbed through the heart, the same weekend my youngest daughter was graduating from high school. Oddly, the sadness of his passing made it easier to mourn the moving on of my little girl. It put it in perspective. To hold her back, for my own selfish reasons, was as bad as feeling bad that Leon was finally released.

As the service was ending, they played the Carrie Underwood song “Temporary Home.” It talks about moving on. How this is but a passing place. As the song was ending, a guy with sunglasses and a Mohawk like Leon had when I met him walked by the window of my office. He was there for a moment, and then he was gone.

I feel privileged that I got to spend that time with Leon just before he was stabbed. The bike wreck had softened him just ever-so-slightly, but he was still in all his midway monster glory. To remember him, and that time, I plan to get another bracelet tattoo, right above the one on my right wrist made up of Day of the Dead skulls tweaked for those in my life who have passed on but remain forever in my heart.

In the center of my wrist I will get, as a clasp, a Ferris wheel. And around the edges of my wrist the words that every reporter should remember… A mantra of my business.

Sit down. Shut up. Watch and listen.


Matt Lubich is the co-owner, with his wife, Lesli Bangert, of The Johnstown Breeze, the weekly newspaper covering the communities of Johnstown and Milliken, Colorado, since 1904. This piece is a chapter of his work-in-progress memoir Hometown News. You can reach him at mlubich@johnstownbreeze.com.