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Some Days in the Life - Carnivals

Posted 5/2/99

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Given that I ended up sleeping through the best part of it, the rest of yesterday was an exciting, action packed adventure of a day. No rain or not, spring is a truly wonderful time of year.

After work, I went home and promptly fell asleep. I didn't expect too much different, as I'd been up past two in the morning, but had to be awake to be in the office by eight. So, a little nap....

Hah. "A little nap" turned into sleeping past six. The most beautiful day of the year so far, and I slept through it. Well, life can be like that sometimes, right? So I got up, booted up the home computer, connected and checked my mail and checked in with friends, and began thinking about dinner. What I really wanted to do was climb in the car, find a place that served breakfast for dinner, and write something. But I'm trying to save some cash (with Mason coming up next week) and I wanted to hang out.

So, naturally my ISP crashed. After about ten fruitless minutes of trying to reconnect, I decided to go out and get a bite and come back later.

No breakfast for dinner -- there apparently isn't a Denny's closer to where I live than Westbrook, Maine, and the same with the International House of Pancakes (Motto: "Today's special is pancakes.") Ach, the pain, the pain.... Then I went for a drive, just down to Rochester or back, or so I thought. Just something to enjoy the dying embers of the sunset of such a beautiful day.

I saw the unnatural glow from a distance. It seemed to be close to Rochester, which made it unlikely that it was a forest fire. I kept driving along Route Sixteen, getting closer to it... and then I crested the hill and I saw it.

It was a carnival. A carnival.

Let me back up. About twenty years.

Fort Kent, Maine, is a small place. Tiny, really. Officially a few thousand people, but they're spread over quite a large area. It looks like a small town and it feels like a small town, right on the edge of the world, or Canada -- which to a kid in Fort Kent seems to be the same thing.

Now, officially we were the largest thing around, but it never felt that way to me. There are less people in Madawaska, up the road from us, but they had a McDonald's and a K-Mart and a Zayre's (later an Ames, and I think that closed too) and the like. So it seemed like civilization while we were in the sticks. That bothers a kid. And it gives him some false impressions of how special McDonald's is, but I digress.

But one day in the early spring, each year, we became the greatest town on Earth. We became the center of Northern Maine. On that day, for a week long engagement, the Carnival came to town.

Old Smokey's, the company was called. They traveled in tractor trailers. Some of those trailers contained the collapsed rides. Others were the rides themselves (usually lame little "haunted houses" or the like.) There were tents with gambling -- usually just games you plunked a quarter in, and hoped that the quarter would fall in such a way that other quarters fell back out. The rides were covered with neon lights and blaring sound systems playing early eighties music. "Centerfold" was big, as I recall. The king of the rides was the Zipper -- a giant monster of metal with little cars in it. Those cars swung end-over-end while the ride itself did the same, sending the passenger through a series of tumbles not felt in nature. The cars had a safety bar in them, but it was mounted on the door, and you were constantly thrown against it. So, if the door popped open, you'd die a horrible death and you knew it. We loved that. There was the Tilt-a-Whirl, which was a big circle which spun really fast and then tipped on end, using centrifugal force to hold us in place as it turned. There were the Pair-a-troops, where a couple could ride up and down. There were the Swingers -- giant baskets on chains that spun around. The giant inflatable castle you could bounce in like a trampoline, which they'd always pack full on the last day, so the weight of all the kids would deflate it for them.

There was food, of course. And usually a "hall of wonders" or the like which had a few oversized spiders. And one year they had "deadly fighting ferrets" which was a pair of ferrets in a cage, desperately trying to get the little bits of food you could pay a quarter to feed them. They were about as frightening as old housecats in a cage. And there were the fixed games where the winners got the cheap crap. "Shoot the star out of the paper." "Pop the balloons with the darts." "Shoot the water into the clown's mouth." "Ring toss." There was the food. Cotton candy, candy apples, hot dogs and burgers, blobs of dough deep fried with brown sugar on top. Carnival food -- there's nothing like it. And there was a giant tent, inside of which there was air hockey and a ton of video games (this was in the Asteroids/Space Invaders days, right during the dawn of Pac Man and Centipede).

The workers all looked dirty, and lots were missing teeth and they all -- all -- smoked. And to get on anything, you needed tickets. Little red things which were used as money inside the Carnival's grounds. Officially, you had to pay to get in, but every kid that I knew rode his bike to get there, and piled it outside the back, and walked right in that way. It didn't matter. You needed tickets to get anywhere fun. You spent hours at the Carnival. Little kids and high school kids and college kids and adults alike -- it was bright, and different, and exciting in our small town. Folks from Madawaska drove over. And Allagash the other way. Folks came across from Canada to go. Everyone went to the Carnival. Everyone loved the Carnival.

Legends cropped up about the carnival. The Zipper was a deadly killer, we whispered. Some man had dropped his change next to it, and leaned in to pick it up, and the Zipper spun past and took his head clean off. Right where that rust was on the structure. That rust came from his blood. They'd kept running the ride right through. Little children sometimes got kidnapped by the Carnival -- they grew up to be the workers we saw everywhere. But none of us really believed those stories past eight years old. The Carnival was our friend. You begged to go, day after day, night after night. Older kids went with their significant others and kissed there and bragged to their friends about where they'd managed to have sex there. (The Pair-a-Troopers was the winner for that -- an open ride, but from the chest down you were enclosed, and it was slow and lasted a while. Perfect public/private sex material. Er, so I was told. Really.) And the last day, when rides were slowly closed down, was bittersweet. And then they went away, leaving an empty lot behind with some beat-up old ride tickets lying in the dust, until the next year.

The Carnival. And there it was -- right off of Route Sixteen, not thirty miles from where I was living.

Of course I went. Wouldn't you go? The sounds were there, and the rides. It was a company called "Bolanger's," not Old Smokey's, but that didn't matter. Old Smokey's wasn't really Old Smokey's, it was the Carnival. And so was this. They had a Zipper, and a Swingers, and a Tilt-a-Whirl, and the inflatable castle, and the stupid haunted house ride. They had a Ferris Wheel and a train for kids. They had cotton candy and fried dough and the fixed games. No video game tent, but video games are nothing today. No ferrets or display house of horrors. One guy was hawking video tapes of public domain cartoons. The Carnival Workers were still dirty, still had no teeth, still all smoked.

Astounding. I stayed for hours, just drinking it in. I only took a couple of rides (the Tilt-a-Whirl has a mystic hold on me -- it always did) and I played no games. That wasn't the point. For a little while, I was eleven years old again.

The thing that stuck out to me was how empty it was. There were some high school kids, but that's it. No little kids or eleven year olds. No bikes piled anywhere. Maybe parents didn't trust places with strangers, so they wanted to go with the kids if the kids went at all. Maybe kids today don't find these places special or magical. Maybe they're boring.

I don't know. I soaked it up for a while, and I got my hand sticky on cotton candy, and I didn't have to pay to get in. I'm content. I loved it.

I rode home in the perfectly clear night, the near-full moon (waning) glowing in the sky like a lantern, and soaked it up, I drove for hours, purely to reflect on the carnival and drink in memory and the feeling that it was Spring and I was alive and still young. The world was all right. The Carnival was in town.