Carnival Snapshots

I’ve finally found a spot where I can safely turn the car around on this rural highway. Fifty miles per hour on what looks to my urban sensibilites to be nothing more than a well-paved logging road seems foolish enough during sunny daylight hours; trying to pull a u-ey in the middle of a blinding downpour struck me as bordering on suicidal.

While heading back the way we came, the rain stops – now I can see the signs I missed. Idiot-clear now, they mock me in their simplicity: Viking Festival. Pancake Breakfast. Kiawanis. Rides. Games. Luttefisk. Turn Here You Bloody Moron.

Okay – that last one is just in my head – but part of me suspects that the local Chamber of Commerce has figured out how to slip that one in subliminally.

I turn left, and head on down into the center of town.

I should have gotten a clue from the county-run buses with “Free Festival Shuttle” signs, but no, not me. We circle through the tiny downtown public parking lots like a shark around the floating corpse of a whale: there’s something good waiting for us, and we don’t want anyone else to get it before we do – but we can’t figure out where to take the first bite.

The pavement is starting to steam slightly, the earlier deluge sublimating into the sky of what looks like a very promising late spring day. Bruise-black clouds are grudgingly parting to reveal skies of pure robin’s egg blue.

This is seeming like a good idea again.

Shit! Brake lights! With backup lights!

We brake fast (good thing no one was behind us – we’ve seen other predators and scavengers circling our hunting ground) and make a hard left. A minivan sees the commotion and homes in on pure instinct. It is too large to make the turn in time and gives up. Defeated, it slinks off down an alley, hoping to compete against older, weaker predators.

I sneer triumphantly. This is seeming like a very good day, indeed.

Leaving the parking lot, we happen to pass the hapless minivan. It has stopped in the shelter of a bow-shaped bend in the lot to lick its wounds and regroup. Angry voices can be heard.

“I told you we should have stopped at the fucking parking lot outside of town!”

I glance down quickly at my son – you never know what five-year-old ears will register – and look up just as fast, satisfied that it has gone unprocessed. There will be no surprising additions to his vocabulary in preschool on Monday.

“Well, it’s too late for that! If you’ve got a better fucking idea, let’s hear it now!”

“Fuck you! Turn around and go!”

Another quick glance. Nope. He’s talking away a mile a minute: what he’s going to ride, what he’s going to eat, what color the banners are, dissecting in minute detail the abstract Viking longship designs on the bench we pass.

We walk on down the sidewalk, heading down the hill towards the waterfront. I can already smell popcorn mixed in with the faint ocean smell of Puget Sound and the far-less-subtle smells of car exhaust. Behind us, the minivan still audibly seethes with wounded pride.

Unable to track the stream of consciousness emanating from my son, I am reduced to faking it: “Oh, really? You think so? Tell me more…”. Inwardly, I am still gloating, savoring our victory.

We are out of place.

Okay, correction: I am out of place. The parents with their children look nothing like me – they look respectable, grown-up. If they have tattoos, they are all well-hidden. None of the men have long hair. Most of them look like they’ve just come from church.

I relate more to the metalhead kids wandering through, smirking… A couple of them even nod at me as we pass, silent freak-to-freak communication, acknowledging our outsider status.

I shrug mentally – first impressions are often mistaken, right?

Onward, ever onward, we press on into the crowd.

“That strap gets shorter each time.”

“What?” I cup my hand to my ear to hear over the noise of the midway.

“I said, that strap gets shorter each time. The littlest kids keep getting in that one.”

My son is in the airplane nearest the ride exit. I’d secured him myself, clicking the Fastek buckle shut and shortening the wet nylon strap as best I could. The carny had looped clockwise around the ride, checking his charges carefully. Stopping last at my son’s plane, he dutifully tugged on the webbing a little more. Walking back to the control box, he shares this observation about the state of the belt with me.

He flips the deadman switch and punches the big red button. Slowly, the ride starts turning.

“By the end of the day, I won’t be able to fit anyone in that plane.”

I nod absently, watching the planes rise and fall, sine waves traced in blue, red, and lime green. Ridiculously small propellers, looking like three-bladed automotive fans, spin in slow, absurd, silvery circles. The planes bear the names of WW2 fighter planes: Thunderbolt, Mustang, Lightning, Spitfire. Beaten and faded letters pay an unreal tribute to planes that haven’t flown since before I was born.

I am the only parent standing at the exit. The kids on this ride fall into two groups: old enough to wander this fair on their own, or small enough that their parents ride with them. My son is the only one in between.

“It’s hard work running this thing.”

I agree, watching the planes, watching the smile on my son’s face. He’s entirely wrapped up inside his head, flying his plane through the clouds, swooping down on the countryside below. He looks right through me, intent upon his game. Hard work, indeed.

“Messes up your hands good, too.”

I turn and look at the carny. He’s showing me his hand, blood blisters covering it like the pustules of some black plague. He’s thin, in his early twenties. His hand is covered in calluses that make me think of my grandfather’s hands, millworker hands. His dirty blond hair droops lankly over the small cut over his right eye. He has a trace of a mustache, muddy blond like his hair. The mustache accentuates his youth; for all his broken hands, he has a soft face. Dirty, sunburned, scratched – but soft. I murmur my agreement. Yup, sure does a job on your hands.

“It’s not all bad, though. I get to travel, see a lot of places. And it keeps you in shape, too. I used to be small, but this has built me up. Hell, I save money by not having to join a gym, right?”

I turn back to look at the planes, smiling inwardly; if this is the after picture, I can only imagine the before. My son grins wildly, still off in his fantasy, swooping by in lazy, mechanical, piston-driven arcs. I wish I could see what he is seeing.

“And you wouldn’t believe some of the things that happen doing this! You get girls, see? They come on down before the rides open, see? And they’ll offer to do all kinds of things to get free rides.”

It takes a second for this to sink in. I turn to look at him, still not quite believing what I just heard. The monologue continues, his young eyes gleaming with delight.

“Sometimes they’ll bring pot, or booze. Sometimes they’ll fuck, or give you a blowjob. And the best part?” He grins widely, slightly crooked teeth gleaming brightly against his sun- and dirt-darkened skin, and gives me a faux conspiratorial nod and whisper. “The best part is that they usually don’t even come back for the rides.”

The planes are slowing down, a real-life thermodynamics lab, moving in slower and slower circles, sinusoidal waveforms flattening. The carny turns his back mid-grin, mid-story, as he releases the switches and heads into the circle to release his fares. I step though the exit and get my son.

“Was that fun?” I ask.

“Can I ride that one again!?”

“Let’s see. This is your first ride, and we don’t have all day, right?”

“Right! Let’s go!”

We go, leaving the carny unbuckling the others. We don’t return until another carny takes his place.

We are jammed into the cockpit of a bumper car, my son curled into my arm. No way was he going to reach that pedal by himself… And steering on top of that? Forget it.

The more senior of the two carnys operating the ride walks over to us. He’s got skin like old, uncared-for leather. Short white stubble on his face shows starkly against the creased deep brown that is the surface of his face. His eyes are bright blue, and shine with a crazy sort of light. A shock of wild white hair is barely constrained by his baseball cap; a single yellow tooth juts out when he talks.

“This the best way to do this?” I ask.

He considers it carefully for a second or two, gnarled and twisted fingers stroking his chin. His face is comically drawn as he thinks, his cheeks caving in around his near-empty mouth. Coming to a conclusion, he nods.

“Yup, that’ll work fine.” The single tooth punctuates his verdict.

He moves on, carefully, tenderly checking each car. He stops at a car containing two boys – neither of them could have been a millimeter taller than the minimum height, if they made it at all.

“Nope, nope, nope. Won’t do.” His gums flap the words out. The boys look guilty, sure that they’ve been busted, staring sadly at the wetly gleaming tooth as the carny pronounces their fate.

He stoops down and unbuckles them, and points to another car.

“Take that one… you can reach the pedal on that one.”

The boys blink at him in confusion, crew-cut heads tracking his every move if not his words. The carny whistles to his co-worker; an enormous black man with huge dreads and an even larger beer belly hops over to the car the old carny had pointed at. Dreadlock unbuckles the girl, and whispers into her ear. As she hops out and heads towards them, comprehension dawns on the two small boys.

The boys run gleefully over to their new car. The old carny carefully continues his rounds, inspecting each and every car and passenger combination, rearranging kids so that they’ll have a better ride.

It is like watching someone arrange flowers, quickly, effortlessly, knowing where to put each individual stem to enhance the whole.

Before heading back to his perch to start the ride, the old carny makes sure to stop by the two small boys. As he crouches next to them, I can see him explaining how to work the car.

Their heads bob in joyful unison, their faces glowing under his care.

“Again, again! Can I do that one again!?”

I shrug. I bought the boy a bracelet, and I’ve alread used the tickets I bought for myself accompanying him on the bumper cars and the Berry-Go-Round. If he wants to spend the rest of the day tearing through the funhouse, so be it.

“Sure, if you want to. Go ahead.”

It’s kind of cool, actually… As long as we’ve brought him to carnivals, the funhouses have fascinated him – up until the slide to get out. Then, it’s total panic. Earlier today, after getting off the Ferris wheel, I asked him what he wanted to do next.

“The rainbow ride.”

“Rainbow ride… rainbow ride… You mean the funhouse? With the mirrors and the slide?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“You sure? You’ve been scared of it every time you’ve gone into it, and I’m not going in with you.”

“I’m sure.”

Who am I to argue? I agree, reminding him that he’s totally on his own.

I’m glad I didn’t argue. He worked his way through, and, after some initial hesitation at the top of the slide, came down with a minimal amount of coaxing.

“Again! Again!”

“Sure, how about two or three more times, then we go.”


Off he zooms, looping around the ropes that control the non-existant line. He flies up the stairs, thrusting his arm with the all-you-can-ride bracelet out at the carny sitting at the entrance for the fifth or sixth time in ten minutes. She hides under her fleece jacket, one eye peering out at him, no longer bothering to acknowledge his presence.

Not everyone here is having a good day.

We finally get to see Vikings. In a not-too-anachronistic encampment, my son tries on a reconstruction of a real Viking helmet. The sheepskin cap lining it sinks low over his eyes, pushed down by the weight of the steel.

“How’s that?” asks the mail-clad Viking.


“Here – you’ll need this.” The Viking hands my son a throwing axe fitted with a head that has been cut to the rough shape of the blade but not finished.

The boy hefts the axe, seriously considering his reflection in the hand mirror held out to him by the Viking.

“Now you’re ready for plundering!”

The boy nods, seriously.

“Cool. Which way to Ireland?” I ask the Viking. He laughs politely.

Tired, we head back to the car. It has been a good day, indeed. There was a minor cloudburst at one point, though nothing like the deluge that hit us during our drive. Reaching the parking lot atop the small hill overlooking the waterfront, I can see our rival the minivan in the distance. They found a space not to far from the fair after all… I wonder how long it took them to find it?

Our spot was better.

A hint of sunburn and a whisper of freckles color my son’s face. He can barely keep his head upright as I buckle him into his car seat.

“Dad?” he says quietly.


“Can we listen to the Viking CD on the way home? We don’t have to – after all, we aren’t going to the Viking Festival now…” His voice trails off.

“Sure, we can listen to the Viking CD.”

I close his door and come around to the driver’s side. It has been a very good day, indeed.