Local carousel operator's story of love for the carnival

BY NORA HEATON | JUNE 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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There are things one learns as a carousel operator. Bryon Young has learned them.

He knows, for instance, that the Coral Ridge Mall, where the carousel sits, was opened on July 29, 1998. He knows each fiberglass animal in the carousel's vibrant menagerie is the end product of 100 hours of painting by hand, and that the mall's carousel has 1,372 iridescent lights — he knows, because he's counted them.

Young just waved his hand, playing down the magnitude of the task.

"See, all you have to do is count one section and multiply by 12," he said.

Young, 68, also knows his customers' faces and their families' names. He knows who is moving to Oklahoma soon and who is out of school for the summer. He knows the most popular animal on the carousel is an impressive turquoise sea dragon with fins and scales. He reasons this must be true, because its paint has been worn away by the heavy use.

But of course, Young also knows this because it's just the type of thing one learns working at a carousel for six years.

He inquired about the carousel's music during a shopping trip and became one of the mall's part-time carousel operators in Thanksgiving 2006. He now owns several soundtracks of the creaky band organ melodies, from the '40s and early '50s.

As early as 1950, carnival rides were a part of Young's daily life.

"I had a mini-carnival when I was 6 or 7," he said, keeping his foot steady on the small operator's pedal that keeps the carousel in motion. "Of course, some of my rides were made out of Tinker toys. I also had the Tonka trucks, so you could pretend they were getting ready to carry the carnival to the next town."

The Burlington native went on, post-Tinker-toy days, to graduate from Iowa State University with a degree in graphic design and to become a TV art director in Buffalo, N.Y. He retired and moved to the Iowa City area in the late-90s.

His older brother, who now lives in Milwaukee, Wis., also remembered their childhood days.

"He was an unusual child," Howard Young said. "That [miniature carnival] was his childhood entertainment. Obviously, running a carousel in a shopping center is right up his alley."

Bryon Young seemed at home, perched on a black stool near the carousel's entrance, anchored by the operator's box, where he keeps one foot on the carousel's pedal. Even sitting, he is tall, with a friendly smile that crinkles his eyes.

He wears a tan Coral Ridge Mall baseball cap and brown trousers that he hitches up at the belt whenever he stands to usher in a new group of young riders, who stand poised for action with their $2 tokens.

But some patrons are quiet. On a June Tuesday, Amy Adamiec waited at the carousel's entrance with her 3-year-old son, Tyler, whose eyes scanned the gleaming dragon and toothy leopard. As they came through the gate, Adamiec mentioned to Young in a low voice that Tyler was a little nervous.

Young smiled and nodded, and followed them over to the carousel, where Tyler decided on the sea dragon. He grasped the dragon's neck with hands hardly bigger than the scales on the dragon's neck, and when one of his Spiderman slip-on shoes fell to the metal floor of the carousel, Young stooped over to retrieve it before journeying back to his operating station.

The kids took off on their two-minute adventure, which includes nine revolutions (another thing Young knows).

When the ride was over, Tyler leaned from his mother's arms and encircled Young in a bashful hug.

"Thank you, Mr. Conductor," he whispered.

It was a touching moment for Adamiec, who said she felt grateful Young was working at the carousel that day and could put her son at ease.

"I think it's the first time anyone's been that kind," she said.

Young is used to kids' excited affection. In fact, he said, kids' happiness is the best part of the job.

"The kids are so cute," he said, shaking his head.

Though he is unmarried and has no children, he sounded like a gushing grandfather.

"Some of them are so little," he said, holding his hands down low to show the kids' height.

But the rider he most remembers was 93 years old — a great-grandmother who rode the carousel on her birthday holding a portable oxygen tank. Young said he dug through the carousel's CD selections until he found and played music with an authentic, turn-of-the-century feel. She told Young it was the best birthday she'd ever had.

Luckily, Young has learned all of the key things one learns, operating a carousel. He knew exactly the music she remembered from her childhood. He already knows what it's like to bring those memories back to life — he is, after all, a 68-year-old carousel operator who still remembers running a toy carnival out of the family backyard.

Young stopped to think.

"That's probably where it all started," he said, laughing.

He turned toward the carousel, which continued to orbit slowly under his command — spinning full circle.

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