A sunbeam snuck in through a timeworn crack of the bleacher roof. The heat of it against my forehead caused me to squint and shuffle back an inch or two in my seat. I had just arrived, tea in one hand and a breakfast sandwich waiting to be devoured in the other. I rested contently along the aged wooden planks of the seating area, sipping and chewing calmly. I could hear the sibilant buzz of black flies and other airborne insects dancing in flight all around. Though the place I had known as a kid was now overtaken by the unkempt foliage of nature’s embrace, I could still see everything in the way of which I had known it to be all those years ago.
The longer my gaze lingered at these forgotten grounds, the more potent memory became. Soon, the aggressive weeds and twisted vines began to recede from view. I was painting with a varnish of fond memory atop all that I was seeing. The race track where the derby was held quickly rid itself of the dandelion infestation. All I could see was the raked dirt, ready and eager to be tossed by the churning rubber of dueling cars. I could almost hear the roar of patchworked engines and the unmistakable metallic wail of struggling chassis’. My nose remembered the swirl of fine dirt and oiled exhaust. A smile came to my face.
The fall fair was always a great time. And as I have gotten older, the more special the time spent there has become. The simplistic version of why that is, is because it was fun! It was a time to be relatively free from the watchful gape of our parents, all the while spending their hard-earned money on rigged carnival games that really made you feel as though you could win… for just one more token, of course.
The not so simplistic version of why it means so much to me boils down to the idea of innocence. As a kid I lost mine at a relatively early age. Though that realization wouldn’t don on me until much later in life.
As a boy, my time at the fair was respite from the realities of my everyday. On those dusty walkways, hay-laden barns or high-up on one of the rides, I was just a kid, like any other. I was no longer ‘Matt, the boy without a father and a sick mother’. It didn’t matter that I had been abused or that my glasses were just a size or two too big. At the fair, I was just like everyone else. To me, it was also symbolic for the start of my favorite season—autumn. Something about that subtle chill in the evening air made all the majesty of the fair just that much more special. The lights a little brighter, the cotton candy just a bit tastier, and of course, the rides… even more exciting.
The Gravitron! That iconic UFO design, the angulated 48 padded panel lean-backs and of course, the centrifugal force that foisted our tiny bodies against its whirling walls—now THAT was our ride.
I remember the first time that my eyes met with that grounded spaceship. A classic flying saucer in appearance, but the speed at which it moved, round and round, seemed almost impossible. I was with my best friend, Drew and our gaggle of ne’er-do-well’s when this monstrosity first came to the town fair. We each stood motionless, gawking at the space-aged splendor of it.
“Holy shit… let’s do it!” Harvey tittered. The boys were quick to agree and started moving nearer to the entry gate. I followed, reluctantly. I was scared shitless! I hold nerves in other respects, sure. But carnival rides, especially ones that look as though they could suck my asshole out through my eyelids are not exactly near the top of that list. My knees were buckling almost as loudly as the metal pins and rods of the ride itself—which did little to quiet my apprehension.
Drew looked back at me and upon feeling his gaze, I forced a smile and stammered, “this is gonna be awes… awesome!” Drew struck my arm in a friendly gesture of agreement and said “yeah!”
When it was our turn to present our tickets to the ride attendant, I observed as each of my friends ahead of me handed in their stubs with zeal. When it was my turn, I held onto it for just a second longer than I should have. Long enough for the ticket taker to voice aloud, “Hey, kid… you gotta let go of the ticket. Kid…!”
“Huh? Oh… yeah… who… me? Here.” I presented him with the now sweat soaked stub and walked up the swaying metal steps and into the dim interior of what I felt would become my coffin—the Gravitron. Inside was a panoramic display of wall tiles that we were to claim respectively while awaiting further instruction. I leaned back, situating myself in-between Harvey and another buddy, Robbie. Drew was beside him and appeared to be absolutely devoid of any fear or reluctance. This was in complete juxtaposition of my internal happenings. My guts were a warring mess of corn dogs, root-beer, half a bean burrito and some cotton candy, all battling it out for superiority within the confines of my ever-weakening stomach.
The one source of happiness for me in this terrible scenario, was that it was dark enough to hide the more obvious features of my fear—like sweat—I was sweating buckets. Before too long, the entry door began to close. The hydraulic hiss of working parts ascended the door from bottom to top. Once it was closed, I heard a sudden and horrific “thud,” indicating that the door had now been locked. I was now beyond the point of no return. Not that I could have turned tail and ran anyway, but still…
An announcer’s voice began to bleed through the speakers. An enthusiastic orator who assured us of certain doom… “great.” After he was done telling us how terrifying and exhilarating this was going to be, he ceased talking and some obnoxiously loud electronica music started to wail in. And along with that, a dull crescendo of a motor began to rumble from beneath my feet. I looked down and wondered if we were about to explode?! But rather than meet an untimely end, and much to my pleasurable surprise, we did not explode. Not at all. Instead, we began ascending the walls in defiance of gravitational forces. The ride was in full effect. Fear was escaping me as elation took hold. That was one of the most unique experiences of my young life to that point. I was not being thrown mercilessly in the air or tossed from one direction to the next as I had once feared, I was merely defying that which is unquestionable—gravity—I was defying the very thing that binds us all, and I was only 14!
The ride ended and we ran to the dirt stained fields of the fair ground. Now standing outside of the Gravitron, our trope devolved into cackles and guffaws while trying to out-speak one another on which part of the ride was the best! It was during this zealous parley that we decided to do it again. We lined up, this time with me leading the way. We handed in our stubs and ran to a panel each. We rode that coruscating saucer an incalculable number of times that fair weekend. On one ride through, Harvey discovered that if you spit into the air, instead of ones own loogie landing atop of them, it would traverse in an arbitrary direction, hitting an unsuspecting wall rider. Usually one of us. This became a challenge between we four. That is of course until we learned that Drew can conjure an inhuman amount of saliva. It was like battling with a camel. It would hit you almost as forcefully as a soft handed slap!
That year at the fair was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So much so, that in the present, while still sat in the bleachers, I noticed that I was smiling while reaching to my cheek, checking to see if I had some spit on me—I didn’t.
When I looked around after returning from this memory, the grounds had been retaken by nature. My smile softens as I contemplate the reality that there will be no fair this year. The virus has isolated that staple as well.
When I was finished my tea and sandwich, I traipsed around the nooks and bends of the fair grounds. Standing in the footprints of the past, things began to feel much simpler back then, even though they were not. But at the fair, Salmon Arm’s Fall Fair… they were. It’s the one moment and time in my life where I can truly say, and I’m going to quote a famous figure here… “I’m a real boy!” No lie.
There is a song that says “you can never go home again… things are just never the same.” And that’s true. But being here, being in this place that forged me, it gives reminder to me that as bad as things can be, they can also be great! Out of this world great!
So, although this is the fall of the fair, for now, I say this: it will rise again… in defiance of gravity and virus. These bedraggled grounds will once again be mowed, swept and festooned by farmers produce, livestock, laughing hoards and every accoutrement synonymous with our little town’s big fair. And maybe, just maybe one day, I’ll ride that magical ship again. With a face shield… of course!