Out beyond the chicken coops, through the scented haze of cooking grease and just before the carnival rides, Glen Thompson stands in the midway at the Oklahoma State Fair with an offer.
He'll give you 100 shots to obliterate a red star printed on a white card hanging 10 feet back from a shelf lined with airsoft shotguns. You just make sure each dollar spent is well worth it.
He'll even give you an edge if you pay attention.
“You don't want to shoot straight at the star, you want to shoot around it,” he said. “I tell them all the time but nobody wants to listen.”
For 35 years Thompson has been barking his carnival pitch in the midway, but his words are just a lure for the ultimate deal clincher — eye contact. He carries a lifetime of showmanship, he said, and he can size up a target with a single glance: a young man ready to impress his new lady friend or a good old boy who can't resist a dare.
Once his eyes connect with theirs, he said, it's all over.
“Not everybody walks away happy, but people are going to win,” he said. “You wrestle with morality here every day. You deal with what's right and what's wrong, but you treat everybody the same way and it's got to be right.”
Since June, the Arizona resident has traveled from show to show, through San Diego; Sacramento, Calif.; Milwaukee; St. Paul, Minn.; and now Oklahoma City, where, he said, the people are extra friendly, the women extra pretty.
He calls himself a pirate, an expert in “gallivantry” who navigates his course on a day-by-day basis. And he's one of dozens of contracted amusement game employees who will spend the next week fetching dollars on the lot.
Fairgoers can talk about the food they ate, the rides they enjoyed, the people they saw — but only at the carnival do they get a chance to put their money on the line for an oversized stuffed souvenir to take home.
In it to win it
Case in point: Desiree Bivans, 23, of Oklahoma City, who toted a light blue Pokemon so large she could hardly see where she was walking. She won it with $20 of play at “Wacky Wires,” a game where contestants attempt to loop a magnet down a rotating circular rod without touching it to the metal.
Last year she spent $300 on the game and won two Pokemon toys, she said.
“Now I'm an expert at it,” she said. “I'll add this one to my collection.”
Across the way, adjacent to the children's carnival rides and under a large vinyl tent — teal-colored and spotted with white and pink stars — Edmond sisters Alyssa Baker, 18, and Briana White, 16, shrieked with frustration at “Balloon Bust,” a game where contestants throw darts to pop balloons stapled to the wall.
“Look sweetheart, all you got to do is hit two more and you're a winner,” said the man running the booth. Baker, who already took several free shots, gave him $5 more and threw three more — pop, miss, miss. Enough is enough.
“Look, don't tell nobody, just take it,” the man said, glancing sideways at his boss and then dancing a stuffed elephant in front of Baker's face. “I tell you, I love it when pretty ladies win.”
And at “Goblet Toss,” Susan Goodman, of Oklahoma City, was quite possibly more excited about tossing perforated plastic balls into open cups on a table than was her son, Andrew, 7. Just when it seemed they might leave empty-handed, Andrew bounced a ball into a yellow cup for a prize.
He picked a small stuffed snake and said he will name the animal “Slimy.”
“We come out for this once a year,” Goodman said, holding up a stuffed giraffe won at another game.
“I spent $20 and got this, five to get that, and his cousin spent five to get a dolphin. To splurge one day out of the year, why not? It's a lot of fun.”