For me and Charlie Ford, it was instant connection at first e-mail. At least it was on my end. I don’t want to speak for Charlie, but I knew I was going to like this guy when he contacted me with an email with the subject line “kiddie acres caroussel or merry-go-round.”
OK, so maybe Charlie’s not the best speller. But he more than made up for that with his email message: “Buying this was the easy part.”
“This” was the carousel from Kiddie Acres. I told you about Kiddie Acres back when it closed in June after 38 years of delighting kids with its simple, old-fashioned amusement park rides, all of which now have been auctioned off.
Ford, 65, retired owner of a local air conditioning company, was the high-bidder for the carousel, which he plans to reassemble on a vacant lot he owns next to his home. Fees and all, he says he paid north of $13,000 for it. You’ve got to really love carousels to pay that much for an old one. Or you’ve got to really want more grandkids.
After getting his email, I called Ford to ask what you’d ask: “What was it at this point in your life that convinced you what you needed was a carousel?”
Ford, already four days into what turned out to be a hot, sweaty, greasy five days of dismantling and moving the carousel, laughed and said, “I’ve been here well over 40 years and was very familiar with Kiddie Acres, because I raised four children here. And I’m tired of watching stuff like the Armadillo go and not getting it — and other things go and me not getting it. So, I wanted a little bit of Austin to keep. And I have a big lot next door. So, I had room.”
And he has one grandkid and wants more. Ford figures having a carousel plays into that.
“We’re down to just the pole over there,” he said of what was left to move, referring to the center pole of the carousel, “which is no small matter. It’s like half of a telephone pole that somehow we’ve got to get laid down and into the back of a trailer and (dragged) home.”
Sensing entertainment here, I headed out to now-defunct Kiddie Acres on West Howard Lane to catch the final day of moving, disappointed that I missed the previous four days.
On site, I reasked the big question: Why, Charlie?
“It spoke to me.” he said after carrying a heavy, greasy gear into his trailer.
(You’re going to hear a lot about grease. Apparently, it takes a lot of grease to keep a carousel carouseling. Or at least the former owners of this one thought so. And I’m proud to say the Austin American-Statesman was involved in the moving of the carousel. Turns out newspapers are handy for wiping grease off stuff. Folks, we’re not insulted. We don’t mind what you do with the paper once you’ve bought it.)
I asked Ford what the carousel said to him when it spoke to him. Ford answered: “You’ll be the only man on the block with one.”
Ford’s crew, including his greasy own self, varied between five and seven people while I was there. I tried to stay out of the way. (Ever vigilant to maintain my journalistic distance, I did not offer to help.) I lobbed the occasional question as I watched, including jumping ahead a bit and asking Ford if he’d know how to put this thing back together.
“I do not know that answer,” he said.
An hour or so later, I took another swipe at what seemed to me to be the core question: You got an instruction manual for this thing?
“We’ve got something that says, ‘two men, one hour,’” he joked.
I asked if anybody in his family had questioned his sanity.
“I’m getting a lot of support, actually,” said Ford, who self-identifies as happily divorced. “They think it’s real cool. Of course, they’re not taking it down and putting it back up.”
Not quite right. Son Ray, 29 and deeply greased by the time I showed up to kibbitz while others engaged in heavy labor, was part of the crew. Ray said things were going pretty well, though Charlie did note, “My son and I almost got divorced yesterday.”
Ray, who went to Kiddie Acres as a kiddie, said he came across the rides while looking at an auction of welding supplies. “I went home and told my dad about them — and he had coincidentally already begun bidding on things,” he said.
Charlie says the only other thing he bid on was the Ferris wheel.
Not knowing anyone with a carousel at their house, I asked him what kind of permits he’d need.
“Permits? Permits? Permits?” he said, feigning ignorance of such things. “I think if I do something for hire, then the rides get inspected. But as far as construction and stuff like that, I didn’t hear you ask that question.”
As we chatted, I noticed that the guy who bought the Kiddie Acres train was nearby and removing some of it. He said it was for hobby use and asked for privacy. Somewhere, I’m thinking, there might be a spouse about to get the surprise of a lifetime.
Back at the remains of the carousel, Ford (wearing a heavily-greased Eeyore’s Birthday T-shirt from 2007) and crew were trial-and-erroring their way toward getting the final heavy, heavily-greased parts on the trailer for the trip to his house for reunification with the other parts for reconstruction at an undetermined date in the undetermined future.
Ford, whose whimsical manner is informed by reality-be-damned optimism, had this prediction when I asked him when this again would be a working carousel: “Octoberfest.”
We have a better chance of world peace by then. So I asked what the chances are that his some-assembly-required toy might still be scattered around as parts a couple of years from now.
“Probably pretty good chances,” he said.
Still not fully buying into his optimism, I asked whether the unreconstructed parts someday could be part of his estate.
Ford, father of four, was OK with the notion and said, “There you go. Yeah, I assume all my kids will fight over it.”
Left unclear was whether they’d be fighting for or against that that particular inheritance from dear ol’ dad.
A few hot, greasy hours after I showed up to watch, the final parts were loaded on the trailer and I followed on the few-mile trip to Ford’s home. All went well until a big part flipped off the trailer when it hit a low-hanging branch at his house. There didn’t seem to be any damage, and carousel crew members Patrick Rocha, Nolan Davis and Anthony Tabira enjoyed the moment.
Rocha celebrated the end of the move by striking a cowboy-on-a-bucking-bronco pose on one of the 20 carousel ponies leaned up against each other in the lot next to Ford’s house. Ford, performing for my camera, pretended he’d collapsed on one of the ponies.
He showed me the parts arrayed on the lot and where the carousel will stand when reassembled, which, infected by Ford’s optimism, I now believe actually could happen sometime this century.
So far, Ford said, the project has been “10 times” harder than he’d imagined. “I wish I’d gotten the Ferris wheel,” he said. “It was easier.”
But Ford was dead right about what the carousel had said when it spoke to him: Best I could tell, nobody else on his block has one.
See video with this column at mystatesman.com