An orange and green neon glow greeted them at twilight’s departure, and they stomped clouds into the dust and descended upon a night of thrill rides and funnel cakes. An odd mixed aroma of corn dogs and livestock manure floating through the air assaulted the senses of every weak-stomached visitor from out-of-state. It was redolent of happy childhood memories and lured people onward.
The kids went to the carnival every summer at the county fairgrounds. Rides were constructed by a haphazard traveling crew who put up and tore down the steel behemoths too quickly for any inspector to say just how dangerous they were with young riders’ lives in their clutches. It took what seemed like forever for their moms to let them try the Tilt-a-Whirl again after a 12-year old broke both his ankles in falling to the ground when a restraint bar wasn’t properly installed to keep him inside the seat.
They eventually regained the freedom to ride and staged a marathon on that particular attraction as their own parental junta. Calliope music swam around their heads, as they walked down the electrified midway awash in the height of Midwestern humidity. Doing so offered a feeling of euphoria since getting dropped off not only saved their parents parking fees, it gave them control over their own destiny as soon as their shoes hit the asphalt at the gate. All night was theirs independent of grown-ups. They agreed to stay in pairs, with the whole false security of the “buddy system.” Girls went in the opposite direction from the boys — sisters and brothers finally rid of one another for the duration of a fun-filled romp.
Searching for friends meant rubbing shoulders with strangers — cowboys, other kids, families, and criminals alike. All manner of people were there for similar reasons, whether it be nostalgia for past good times, to see what ribbon a cousin’s 4-H project was awarded, or simply a chance to find some other unfortunate soul’s accidentally dropped cash smashed underfoot. Sometimes the Budweiser Clydesdales might clomp through and part the crowd like the proverbial Red Sea, and a beer tent brawl inevitably spilled into the path of fair-goers on either Friday or Saturday night.
The kids wasted no time at the General Merchandising building or horticulture displays, certainly not at the Second Baptist tent with free lemonade in Dixie cups sporting scriptures, and didn’t stop to hear a popular country music singer at the Grandstand. The midway was their Meca with its fun house and freakshows.
A strip of tickets cost a month’s allowance but was worth every penny. Being especially sweet to Grandma might mean she’d spring for a wristband to allow an endless evening of continuous looping back to the line for the Gravitron in a competition of consecutive barf-free runs. Grandma was good for a few bucks at only the cost of their kisses and a short stint of conversation, with no guilty consciences if it got them a whole night of free tickets!
A pittance in their own pockets bought some cotton candy en route to test their skill at either skeeball or pop-a-shot. The carny running the ring toss was said to be a cheater who placed the bottles just so, making it fairly impossible to hoop them right and win a high-dollar prize. He was a wiry little man with greasy hair under his ratty straw fedora, with beady eyes to match and his fake gold Rolex. The kids all said he swiped it from the Bixby Brothers who owned all the game stands. Stopping there was a fool’s folly, because no one was ever known to succeed, but many sore losers protested in vain to the proprietor.
Temptation was more difficult to overcome when traversing the dunking booth occupied by Carbunkle the Clown, who sat suspended on a plank taunting passersby with personal insults. His ploy was to lure them in with name-calling aimed at those silly enough to take the bait. He’d yell, “Hey there, fat boy! Wanna use that slab of ham you call an arm to throw a ball at me?”
He’d use any flaw he could find or create to injure their ego sufficiently enough to goad them into buying a chance to dunk him. “Come on now! Is that your girlfriend, or did you get win a blue ribbon at the swine barn?” He got some of the crowd down right mad, and many a man emptied his pockets trying to hit the bullseye to sink the crotchety clown.
The high school football coach even tried his hand at it when Carbunkle took a shot at him and his wife. He hollered, “Here’s comes a booger eater and his Momma. Buy a ticket, throw the ball, booger eater!” Too bad he wasn’t better at throwing the pigskin or had chosen baseball as his sport instead, because he just couldn’t hit the mark. The kids ran past as Carbunkle gloated, “High and dry, folks! I’m high and dry!”
They’d laugh at his wisecracks, feeling no sympathy for the ball throwers, and keep running to their favorite game amid the carnival barkers calling them to “Step right up!” It was much easier to take a chance at the basketball booth. Millions of shots had been practiced at home in the driveway, so odds were better at this game than any other. Two-pointer after two-pointer was not enough to win that coveted pink bear for his girlfriend, though, and his sister egged him on to the ultimate test of strength — the Strongman game.
The boys usually took an unimpressive swing to try and ring the bell, and not only was another giant stuffed animal at stake but their public dignity as well. Being teased by your little sister in front of onlookers risked humiliation that could linger all the way until school started in the fall. This was the only time the rest of their schoolmates would see them again until they went back to class in September. He’d be the laughing stock for the rest of the season if his strike only sent the puck up to “wimpy” instead of “got skills” or the top notch of “you’re the man!”
He stepped up to the platform and hauled the mallet up behind his head, triceps shaking at the strain. Nerves got the best of him, and he had to set it down to take another windup. Looking over his shoulder at the sound of murmurs to his flank, he saw a small crowd had gathered in his stalling. His sister and her friend must have ushered in people they knew and shushed them into silence. The sneak attack would result in mortification if he failed. It was now or never.
He never understood why people would spit in the palms and rub them together when swinging a bat or chopping wood in stories or movies, but it couldn’t hurt to try the tactic. He set the mallet head on the ground between his feet and balanced the handle at his knees, then hacked a big glob of saliva into his right hand and clapped it onto his left. While vehemently rubbing them together, he heard a distinctively female expression of disgust resound, “Ewww,” at the action. He turned to see his sister’s friend burst into a fit of laughter at the incrimination.
There was no dragging it out any longer. Clasping his hands back on the sledge’s handle, he was discouraged to discover the spit did him no good — no extra traction, so Kung Fu grip, nothing. He heaved the full weight behind his body once again, elbows overhead, and spindly arms in traction at his back. One long, deep breath later, he hauled the hammer as high into the air as his limited strength and girth would allow.
It arced above his head and began to descend at the same moment the crackled pitch of none other than Carbunkle the Clown came from the rear. “Whoa, Skinny Minnie! Is that a ball-peen in your hands, or are you just happy to see me?”
What a time for the crusty clown to take a smoke break.
The crowd fell into hysterics when the mallet crashed to the ground beside the high striker’s base, completely missing its target. A fountain of dust instead splayed into his face.
He hadn’t the nerve to wipe the dirt from his embarrassed expression and kept his eyes downcast during the group’s entire trek back to the street where their parents instructed they report at midnight. His feet drug a snail trail in his walk of shame away from the midway. They were a quiet bunch with quite a different vibe than the exuberant foursome who’d arrived at the fairgrounds just a few short hours earlier.
An unspoken understanding silenced any further ridicule, as future snickers already weighed heavy enough on the horizon. His sister almost felt sorry for her role in the sport of degradation and gave him wide berth as they departed, leaving the sounds of calling carnies and echoing music and the sickly sweet smell of Pineapple Whip in their wake.
This post came from the writing prompt fairgrounds from Studio 30+, an online writing community.