With its Calliope music, bright colors and distinctive smells that only a carnival can produce, my stroll through our local extravaganza Sunday afternoon zipped me back in time to my very first carnival as a seven-year-old in Langley Park, Maryland.
I entered the gate alongside my parents that day with an appetite for new experiences. Naturally, I quickly partook in the carnival food fare. It didn’t take long to realize I had a low threshold not only for cotton candy, caramel apples and funnel cakes, but an even lower threshold for combining these tempting edibles with carnival rides.
Atop the tallest ride of all, something called a Ferris Wheel, I discovered my acute fear of heights – or was my vertigo from the incessant, annoying teeter-tottering of my chair, hanging on to the big wheel with just a few nuts and bolts? Failing to learn any lesson from the Ferris fiasco, I proceeded to experiment with my personal centrifugal force threshold on the Tilt-A-Whirl. It spun me around so fast I worried my carnival lunch would upchuck and meet me head on during my next pass around.
Battered, I retreated to safer rides. I rode the carousel and miniature railway, but felt like a big time weenie after. Laughs and screams – that’s what I wanted. I wished I was bigger, an older kid who could not only handle extremes, but relish in risky experiences. I’d never wished to be an older kid before.
A year later, I’d heard there was a much better carnival in Hagerstown, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from our house. I asked Mom if we could go.
“No, we’re not going to that Hagerstown carnival. It’s no place for a young boy, seeing the Bonnie and Clyde death car, Hitler’s staff car, those kinds of things.” Whoa – it had that kind of stuff?
“Can’t we see something there, Mom?”
“The Globe of Death motorcycle thing and the human pin cushion.”
“Those are just acts and freaks, Michael. What’s wrong with rides?”
“Any carnival has rides. Hagerstown has a two-headed calf and a dwarf miniature horse. The Human Blockhead, too.”
It was at that moment I realized something – all my interests centered around side shows, thrill acts and Burlesque, things I could watch. Being a spectator was safer for me. No participation necessary. Just observe. In fact, hadn’t I chosen to be a spectator and not a participant for most things in my life so far?
The following year, returning to Langley Park’s annual carnival, I was surprised by my fascination with bumper cars. I was not only a willing participant driving them, but madman behind the wheel. In the protection of rubber-lined cars, I cherished the opportunity to hit people head on. I loved ramming their car so hard it made the driver cry. I especially craved the opportunity to smash into them when they didn’t know I was coming. I never knew I had such lust for legalized mayhem and controlled violence! What boyhood memories. What boyhood discoveries.
The carnival I saw last week weekend at the Santa Fe Rodeo grounds was gone without a trace by Monday morning. What if carnivals go extinct just as quickly someday? What a shame. They are, if nothing else, a safe place for a child to learn limits. How else could a vacant patch of dust and dirt provide such lessons?
May our carnival come back next year. And the year after. And the one after that.