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Lil' Smokey & The Wolfman

Updated: Apr 24

I learned early on, the advantages of carrying a cheap acoustic guitar around a campground. If you knew enough songs, in enough genres, you could bounce from campfire to campfire all night, getting free beer with each stop.

It was a great way to meet people from different parts of the country, and good practice for a young musician building his chops. The groups gathered around those campfires were intimate enough to really hone the skill of communicating a song. Nobody requests a tune in those settings to hear it. They're asking for a song, but what they're really asking for is a feeling. And to this day, it's easier for me to do that with small groups than in a theater setting. Artistry aside though, it really was the best way to catch a buzz all weekend without spending a dime.

I remember one year, my buddy Cogar and I were kicking around a festival in our hometown of New London, Ohio. The back side of the fairgrounds was roped off for campers, and the carnies would park their trailers there for the week before pulling up stakes and moving on to the next town. Cogar had somehow gotten ahold of a six pack of Budweiser tall boys, and I had an Alvarez acoustic. And so we started our rounds with out of town campers and the pop-up trailer park full of carnies.

They called the oldest of them Wolfman because he wore a sternum-length white beard. But the longer I looked at him by the firelight, the more he actually looked like a wolf. The man had very small, very pointed ears- that barely showed themselves through the tufts of white hair on every side. His nose was like one of those stop motion puppets from a classic Christmas movie; unnaturally red, and so round that it appeared to be glued to the rest of his face. The wrinkles around his ghostly blue eyes were carved in deep. Ol' Wolfman had seen some shit in his life.

His sidekick was a young man who couldn't have been more than eighteen. He was a tall and thin black kid, with purple corduroy pants and silver spray painted Doc Martins. The carnies called him Lil' Smokey because he always had a bag of dusty ditch weed in his pocket. When one of them wanted to smoke, they'd yell at the kid and he'd twist a crooked, gnarled joint (that looked like Wolfman's finger) on his pant leg. Lil' Smokey seemed to have a magic sack. There was never more than a corner of the bag left, but it never went empty. And we ventured back to his campsite a lot over the course of that first night.

By morning one, Cogar still had five beers left. We hadn't slept. I washed my face at a spigot behind the public restrooms and tried to burn the sweater from my tongue with a tiny bottle of truck stop mouthwash. You could smell the carnie bacon from every corner of the fairgrounds, and it made me want a hot cup of campfire coffee. I had a tin can and a strainer, and so I stumbled toward the nearest fire. I recognized the campers from the night before as the "Tuesday's Gone" couple, and they were happy to lend me some coals in exchange for a decent cup of coffee. They noted the carnie bacon scent, and both agreed it was better than the burning plastic they'd smelled earlier that morning.

I guess I had smelled it, too, but didn't give it any thought at the time. And once I did think about it, I thought it'd been more of an electrical smell. Like when you tear out drywall and expose old, tar-looking, 110 volt wiring in a century old farmhouse. I poured two cups of coffee for the "Tuesday's Gone" couple, thanked them for the fire, and set out for the carnie corner of the campground with bacon on my mind. Right about that time, I saw Wolfman in a full sprint, with a bucket of water in his leather, spaghetti arms. I followed his trajectory with my eyes and realized Lil' Smokey's camper was in flames.

Fair goers started running toward the fire as carnies flooded past them. Lil' Smokey was jumping out the side door with about half a pound of dusty ditch weed under his arm, and Wolfman was spilling most of his bucket of water as he tried to douse the smoldering HVAC unit on the side of the trailer. The local fire department was on the scene in about three minutes, followed closely by a handful of Sheriff's deputies. They'd barely parked their cars when they made a beeline for Lil' Smokey and his magic sack. We jetted for a campfire on the other side of the woods, where I sat on a tree stump and played a couple dozen Bocephus tunes.

That went on for another ten hours or so, and when we woke up on morning two, Cogar still had four beers left. Wolfman was running the ferris wheel with his head down and his sober eyes fixed on the lever he was gripping. No sign of Lil' Smokey.

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