When I think back on my childhood, it’s comforting to know that some things have remained the same. And there’s one tradition that hasn’t changed in decades: With the advent of spring, the carnivals start coming to town—all over the country.
Naturally, there have been changes. The rides I remember as a very small child, such as the Ferris Wheel and the merry-go-round, are still there, but they’ve been pimped out with flashing lights and electronic music. And there are all kinds of new rides and attractions, such as bungee jumping and rock climbing that were unheard of back in the day.
And there have been a lot of fabulously unhealthy additions to carnival food throughout the years. Along with cotton candy and popcorn and hot dogs, we can now get fried anything on a stick, along with onion blossoms, corn dogs and sno-cones in 85 flavors. And they will deep-fry whatever they can get their hands on: Twinkies, candy bars, even sticks of butter. The possibilities are endless; so are the trips to the doctor.
The first carnival I ever went to was held in the schoolyard at St. Lazarus School. I can’t imagine the grounds being big enough for that, but apparently, they were. I think I was around 4 years old and not even attending St. Lazarus yet. My cousin Karen took me along with her friends, and she made a big deal out of the event, going through my closet to pick out a sundress for me to wear. She was around 10 and I was so excited to be out with the “big girls.”
My aunt Gloria was petrified of the “carnies.” One time, when a carnival came to town, there were some break-ins in the area. We weren’t affected, but in our family, all it takes is one person’s misfortune to get everyone hysterical. “Watch out for those show people!” she’d warn us. “They’re bad news!”
They actually were pretty creepy, as I recall: Unkempt and unshaven, they generally had cigarettes dangling from their lips, along with homemade tattoos and missing teeth. They reeked of alcohol, which goes hand-hand with operating dangerous machinery. And let’s just say that most of them probably posed for a mug shot or two. But that’s what you expected when you went to the carnival.
My favorite scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is when Clark Griswold and Cousin Eddie are sipping eggnog by the Christmas tree. Clark tries to make small talk with him, so he asks about Eddie’s oldest son. Eddie says he’s planning for his future. “College?” Clarke asks hopefully. “Carnival!” Eddie responds proudly. Phil and I crack up every time.
The ride I enjoyed the most was the Tilt-a-Whirl. At this stage of my life, I’m sure I’d lose my lunch on the first whirl, but when I was a kid, I loved to be dizzy and tossed around. Karen was so proud of me for going on every ride. Her brother Richard, who was a year older than me, cried and wouldn’t go on anything.
When I got a little older and was actually attending St. Lazarus, it was kind of strange to see the nuns at the carnival. I was so used to them watching us like hawks and whacking the boys on their heads with rulers that it was weird to watch them eating ice cream cones and laughing—and even going on some of the rides. They were out of context; they belonged in front of the blackboard waving their rubber-tipped pointers and blowing on their pitch pipes in preparation for hymn singing, and fingering their beads. They weren’t supposed to have fun.
Of course, the most wonderful thing about carnivals is that they meant warm weather. There were no carnivals in winter. Carnivals meant long summer days and nights; screaming until you were hoarse and not being told to be quiet; having your father win you a stuffed animal; slurping on slush (that’s what we called sno-cones); laughing at our grotesque shapes in the fun house mirrors. It meant just being a kid. And I guess that’s why I still have such a soft spot for them. Anything seen through the eyes of a child is magnified; when we get older, we sadly lose that perception. But parents can relive that joy when they take their own kids to the carnival. Make new memories, but always remember.