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Scott Harrison carved his way out of pain, battled evil around the world, and now brings magic to a small mountain town.
By Tracy Ross
Photography by Stableford Studios
From my house, the road to Happiness passes the meadow where the mountain lion ate the horse, past the pond where the coyotes gather, along the spine of the Continental Divide, and into the town of Nederland, Colorado, where my 2-year-old daughter goes ballistic.
“Mommy!” she shouts from the back of the car. “We going to the carousel!”
“Yes, we are, Hollis,” I say.
“Mommy, what animal are you going to ride on the carousel?”
“Hmm, the gorilla?”
“No! I’m riding the gorilla!”
“Mommy, what animal are you riding?”
“Let’s see ... the mermaid?”
“No! I’m riding the mermaid!”
And so on.
It goes like this until we come to the turnoff for the carousel, which sits between the police station and a train-car coffee shop. All kinds of Nederland residents mill about, including artists, musicians, ski bums, superathletes, and mountain town entrepreneurs. I pull my car up next to a 6-foot-high spring snowbank, and we enter the Carousel of Happiness.
The building, 3,000 square feet, steel-framed, is shaped like a circus tent. A small gift shop occupies the front, and Hollis beelines for a rack of Muppets. I nudge her away from it and toward the front counter, where we hand over our two laminated, reusable tickets. Passing a stout wooden walrus holding a guest book, we come to the merry-go-round itself, a circle of 33 one-of-a-kind, hand-carved animals. Here, Hollis takes her sweet, excruciatingly long time deciding on which one she’ll ride. Just tall enough to graze the animals’ bellies, she passes the one horse on the entire carousel, a feather-adorned pony. He gallops next to a flying pig, also wearing a saddle. Beyond the pig stands a stately giraffe draped in a black-and-yellow snake; behind him, a snaggletooth dragon. Close by but in its own world leaps a stag with real antlers. On a normal day, throngs of other 2-year-olds race for a seat on the saddle-bound calico cat, the lynx with ear tips of real lynx fur, the donkey carrying baskets of waving monkeys, the kangaroo holding the world in her hands (Australia-side up), a bejeweled elephant with a kid-size wicker basket on its back, a leather love seat presided over by a sweet-faced grizzly, and a sprightly, also jewel-adorned llama wearing, of all things, ballet toe shoes.
More animals soar above us: a not unfriendly fox peering down at the grizzly bear love seat, a mischievous-seeming raccoon holding a bunch of flowers, a skunk pawing Mardi Gras beads, and, way up at the top, the carving of a little girl, arms aloft as if conducting the carousel. I wait as patiently as I can while Hollis chooses her mount.
Surprise—she settles on the mermaid. “Mommy, I’ll ride her, and you ride the dolphin.” I hoist Hollis up, and then myself. As we wait for the shining brass gong that tells the animals it’s time to gallop, the conductor walks over.
Scott Harrison, the creator of the Carousel of Happiness and the carver of all these wooden creatures, is 66, white-haired, and hazel-eyed. Today, he wears a paint-splattered sweatshirt and jeans and covers his balding head with a hat advertising Nederland’s popular Frozen Dead Guy Days festival (named for someone’s loved one who’d been stored in a Tuff Shed; it’s that kind of town).
“Hollis!” Scott says. “It’s great to see you.” And to both of us: “Great choice of animals. They’re an interspecies couple. The baby dolphin in the mermaid’s arms is its offspring.” It’s a little weird and thoroughly magical, like the 1913 Wurlitzer band organ that Scott walks back to and revs to life with a hand crank. It plays music (today’s choice: “Chattanooga Choo Choo”) from a paper roll just as the carousel starts spinning. A placard on the organ notes that it incorporates 102 instruments, including trumpets, flutes, piccolos, a cymbal, two drums, and tubas. I glance over at Hollis on her mermaid. She clutches the gold, swirly-patterned pole protruding from its back with a look of sheer ecstasy.
Then I look at Scott, the most prominent artist in a town filled with artists. He spent 29 years carving each of these animals and restoring an old carousel after U-Hauling its 20-ton body from Utah. And with grants, cash donations, and volunteer labor from locals, he set it up. The doors opened on Memorial Day 2010, and since then Scott has sold or given away about half a million $1 tickets. Hollis has used an estimated 300 of them.
Before Hollis became a regular here, I knew nothing about Scott. After 31 years in Nederland, he’s no stranger. But when I asked around, few people knew much about him. Something told me that he had a deeper story, so I decided to talk to him myself. I’m so glad I did, because Scott Harrison exceeds anything I had expected—his is a strange, wonderful tale with a great and beautiful sadness at its center. Not unlike the carousel itself.
He grew up an unhappy child in Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. “It was just … the Fifties,” he says. “You didn’t talk to your dad after work until he’d had his first drink. I didn’t know my mom had real emotions until I was in my 20s.” Two weeks before high school graduation, he joined the Marines. Having no interest in combat, 17-year-old Scott trained as a U.S. State Department–sanctioned Vietnamese interpreter as part of a five-person marine class.
The administration planned for men like Scott to win the hearts and minds of the villagers. But as it turned out, the need for combat soldiers was higher than the need for interpreters, so that’s what Scott became.
Going out on patrol in the countryside near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam, Scott saw the worst kinds of horror. Early on, he received a package from his sister containing the usual food and socks, plus a tiny wind-up music box that played Chopin’s E minor piano étude, known as “Tristesse” (“Sadness”). During quiet spells after each fight, he took out the music box, held it to his ear, and listened. “Tristesse” is slow and mournful, but it calmed him. He pictured a meadow high in the mountains, with a beautiful carousel in the middle and people gathering and smiling.
Scott’s tour in Vietnam ended after seven months, when a North Vietnamese soldier lobbed a grenade that shredded his left knee. He was taken out of the battle area without any of his belongings, including the backpack with the music box in it. But he never lost the song or the vision of the mountain meadow with the carousel. After spending three months recovering, he went home to an America “that wouldn’t look a soldier in the eye,” he says. He drank, took drugs, and avoided people—“isolating,” as he puts it. Still, he managed to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, with a degree in geography. Afterward, he drove west to San Jose, California, where he found work in a boatyard and learned to make sailboats, carving the hulls from wood. Eventually he built himself a 32-foot schooner and sailed alone deep into the Pacific. As he tells it, he was out of his mind, sobbing with grief and remorse for most of his two-week voyage. On day eight, he watched a 30-foot whale surface beside his boat. At this point Scott hesitates in telling his story. “It sounds a little ‘woo-woo,’” he says. But after some coaxing, he continues.
The whale swam alongside him for three or four hours. And for reasons Scott can’t explain, it made him feel loved in a way he never had before. It turned up an eye, regarding him, and Scott felt as if it conveyed a message: You belong among the living. He turned the boat around and sailed back to California.
Within two weeks, he was in San Francisco, at a Joan Baez concert. She sang for a Chilean folk singer, Victor Jara, who had been tortured to death under the dictator Pinochet. At the end of the concert, Baez solicited volunteers for Amnesty International. Soon after, Scott volunteered at the Amnesty office in San Francisco and quickly got involved in the group’s Urgent Action Network. This watchdog operation attempts to stop torture around the world by gathering real-time information on dissidents and political prisoners. The network then floods government officials in those countries with faxes, telegrams, phone calls, and letters. “The purpose,” Scott says, “was to inform those officials, often from small towns and villages, that thousands of us from around the world knew what they were planning.”
A petite, raven-haired woman named Ellen Moore was also working there, and the two of them, along with six other Amnesty staff and volunteers, helped stop an estimated 10,000 cases of torture. Along the way Scott and Ellen fell in love, married, and had two children.
In 1982, Scott obtained one of the first portable computers on the market, which would allow him to work just about anywhere. He got his boss to let him move to Colorado and work out of his home. After months of searching the state for a location suitable not only for the volumes of Amnesty-related mail, but also for his vision of a mountain meadow, he landed in Nederland. Back in California, just before they moved, he attended an art exhibit in Oakland featuring carousel animals. The vision of a carousel in a meadow had been playing in his head for years like a Chopin tune. A beautiful, 6-foot, carved rabbit particularly impressed him, and he sketched a full-scale profile of it. He wasn’t entirely sure why.
In Colorado, Scott and Ellen ran the Urgent Action Network, working with a crew of interns from the University of Colorado. Many of their attempts to stop the horrors were unsuccessful; even the successful cases were not the sort of stories you want to go to bed remembering. Still, between the years of 1975 and 2007, they helped 44,000 individuals. Meanwhile, Scott built a house in the woods, along with a shop. One day he walked into the shop, looked at a pile of Douglas fir scrap wood, and began carving his own rabbit. He created a pair of ears out of four-by-fours, glued blocks of wood together for the body, and continued carving for three months. When he finished, the animal weighed 70 pounds and had a dignified charm, with nothing goofy or cartoonish about him. Scott loved him and couldn’t help but call his creation by name: “Rabbit.” He carried Rabbit outside and placed him here and there in the woods, as if the animal were roaming on his own. When the snows came, Scott placed him on a box and piled snow around the box to hide it, then ran and looked back to see if Rabbit seemed to hop. Scott thinks he may have done a little dance himself.
He continued carving for the next 25 years, switching to basswood, the traditional material of carousel-horse carvers. He learned from other carvers, studied up, bought new tools, and slowly improved. And so his life went, commuting between his home office, where he battled evil around the world, and his shop. “You know, I want to say that I started carving because I wanted to create something beautiful for people, but in the beginning it was really for me,” he says. “Going to the shop, being with my animals, it was another way to isolate. Then again, I think it has always been there, that drive to create the carousel, because I knew it would bring people joy.”
Very quickly, the house began to fill with animals: a calico cat, a rose-bedecked lion, a dragon boat, a gorilla reaching out for an embrace. All of them are big enough to hold a 200-pound human. Gorilla sat in the living room, and the interns loved to pull up a chair in the space beneath his arm and let him hug them. Within a few years, animals populated every room, except the bathroom. Scott took some to visit friends; Dolphin and Mermaid spent two years cheering a young woman bedridden with cerebral palsy.
Eventually, the animals overpopulated the house, and Scott rented space in a local mining-equipment warehouse. Antique wires, pulleys, and cables hung from the rafters, and Scott built shelves to hold the animals. He carved another, more detailed Rabbit, with a mouse in its tail and a timepiece etched into its paw. Each animal took three to six months to create, and he found himself bonding with them, even leaving classical music on for them when he left for the night.
In September of 1986, Scott took his 7-year-old daughter, Colleen, to a National Carousel Association convention in Michigan. There, he met a man whose job was transporting carousels for buyers. Scott told him of his dream to find and restore an old carousel. A month later, the man put him in touch with the owner of a decrepit frame and rusting mechanism, built in 1910 by a young Danish immigrant named Charles Looff. Its first home was an amusement park called Saltair, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where it had survived not only a fire but also the collapse of a roller coaster, which crashed onto it during a windstorm. After Saltair went bankrupt in 1958, the carousel went to the Utah State Developmental Center, then to Charlotte Dinger, a carousel expert and collector, who kept the wooden animals and sold the frame and mechanism to Scott for $2,000.
He brought it home, where it sat in the yard collecting snow and rust. At times, he’d stare at it, wondering what he had done. But over the years, he slowly and carefully began restoring the thing. He took photos and notes, meticulously documenting his process. He read everything he could find on Looff carousels, traveling to two of them—in Spokane, Washington, and San Francisco—to climb inside and study their mechanics. There were no blueprints. With the help of an engineer friend and several other mechanics, and after many tries, the carousel began to turn. The Wurlitzer, purchased from a collector in Buffalo, New York, followed. Scott created a nonprofit group and donated the carousel, the organ, and his animals to it. All the while he continued to work at Amnesty as the director of the Urgent Action Network. Finally, in 2008, a Nederland landowner offered to lease him a patch of grass in town—a vacant lot in a strip mall—for $1 a month for 30 years.
When the Carousel opened on Memorial Day two years later, Scott ran it slowly and silently, in honor of the men he had fought with in Vietnam, including two—Paul Christmas and Christian Langenfeld—who had died on the day he was injured. Before the opening, Scott placed a plaque with their names on the wall of the carousel. “It was important to me to give a piece of the carousel to those two,” he says. “I’m not the most reflective guy, but I wanted some way to keep them in my heart and memory. From the very beginning, this carousel has had a deep spiritual meaning for me.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Like the whale in the Pacific, it gets strange and bears a message you have to interpret yourself.
A year and a half after the opening, in the fall of 2011, Scott conceived of another project. He wanted to turn the wall between the gift shop and the carousel into a work of art. He envisioned a place between here and there, between waking and dreaming, between life and death even, and he gave it a name: Somewhere Else. All the animals he carved into the wall—a giraffe and a chimp, a pelican, a small penguin, a dog, and a polar bear—would appear to be traveling to and from Somewhere Else. He even carved a replica of his own leg, from the calf down, as if he were passing through the wall himself.
At this time, Scott’s nonprofit still owed $36,000 in construction debt. So within his creation, Scott also created an opportunity. The 14-foot-long Somewhere Else wall would contain a 6-inch-deep “void” behind its facade. For a donation of $100 or more, patrons could put something of value—a poem, perhaps, or a picture—into the wall. He put the word out in the Carousel of Happiness newsletter, which is sent to donors and members of the carousel, and continued on his way.
Slowly, quietly, these tokens begin to filter in. They were what he expected, the poems and photos. But then one day, something else happened: A man named Paul Richard came to Scott with a wrenching question.
Paul’s wife, Laura, had recently died in a motorcycle crash. Laura had loved the carousel, riding it whenever she and Paul traveled to Nederland from their home in Taos, New Mexico. Tears pooled in Paul’s eyes as he asked Scott if he would place Laura’s ashes somewhere inside the carousel. Scott immediately thought of the unfinished Somewhere Else wall, and suddenly it took on another, even more meaningful purpose. Shortly thereafter, Paul held a “remembrance” for Laura inside the carousel building. People gathered to talk about the Laura they had loved. Then Scott ran the carousel, gradually increasing its speed, and people’s expressions began to change from sad to not-so-sad. Since then Scott has done a dozen memorials, including one for Dolphin and Mermaid’s old friend, Erin, who had cerebral palsy. Each time, people leave in a similar state as those who’d come to remember Laura.
“It’s true,” he says. “It’s what happens when people come in mourning but get to remember their loved ones in a place of joy. The animals, the motion of the carousel, the ride itself seems to alleviate their pain. When they leave, they’re not happy, but they’re thinking of that loved one in a different way.”
Along with Laura’s ashes, the wall now contains all sorts of other mementos. Last month, Scott held a party for donors, and he invited several Nederland children to place mementos like photos and drawings inside the wall. He invited Hollis and the rest of our family and asked each one of us to contribute something of meaning.
While the wall provides a passage to Somewhere Else, so of course does the carousel. Inspired by a music box, created by a man who saw more than his share of horrors and who “isolated” with his animals to a woodshop, the Carousel of Happiness is the epicenter of my daughter’s childhood. And so the story begins again. My opinionated little girl sits on Mermaid, and I, on Dolphin. Scott hits the brass gong that signals the animals are ready. He turns the 100-year-old crank on the timeworn machine that starts the carousel. We spin around and around, past the signs saying, “Don’t forget to wave!” “Have fun!” and “Smile!”
And we do.
National Magazine Award winner Tracy Ross is the author of The Source of All Things, a true story of love, outdoor adventure, and family abuse. O magazine named the book one of its “Memoirs We Love.”
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