“Carnival”

A Memoir by Michael Dickerson

    Violence reared its ugly head, helter skelter and random as the destinations of careening balls in a pinball machine.
    A ’60s generation stumbled, lost in a world that seemed malevolent in its attempts at self-annihilation. Vietnam. Racial discord. The specter of atom bombs that had panic-stricken youths huddled, contorted beneath their desks or cowering, confused, on the filthy floors of grade-school basements in a misguided and futile exercise.
    Still, it was a tranquil time in a small town. The turmoil and transgressions of the world were kept distant and muted as if a luxurious velvet drape had drawn close around us. Pristine and brilliant, glistening high atop a spiritual peak, our Shangri-la flourished free and clean, well above and beyond the commotion. Our Brigadoon, veiled and untouched, closed its bridge. Children, innocent and exuberant, reveled in the clarity of their simple purpose. No one embraced that simple purpose like us kids at 10 and 11 years old.
    We lived a couple of miles east of the Amagansett Legion Hall. From our upstairs bedroom windows we could see bits of the yearly carnival there. Dancing lights painted an aurora above the field.
    The organ’s tune was just barely audible. Only vivid imagination and a deep longing to hear it allowed us to capture the excitement and dreamlike quality of the carousel’s music. A Pied Piper, it called to us.
    My sister and I envisioned an evening’s adventure at the fairground, playing games and riding rides. Most of our friends had been able to go every night. They lived the magic over and over again. I was jealous. We vowed we would have our chance to go.
    I knew that with a little ingenuity we would soon be bouncing joyously, tumbling madly, and spinning wildly till we were exhausted or sick, or both. This night we could only watch and listen from a distance. In our dreams we could smell the popcorn, we could feel the sticky heat of cotton candy, and watch helplessly as sno-cones melted and leaked through the bottom of their paper cups. As we lay down to sleep we were aware that money was the passport to our dream. We knew that when slumber came the magic would be gone, stowed away until next evening.
    Early light woke us and with it came a sense of purpose. We jumped from our beds. Together we dashed from the back door and headed to the site of last night’s merriments. Our plan was to collect lost money, prizes dropped and forgotten, and returnable soda bottles. Despite our early start we had still not managed to beat all the other scavengers. As a team, we checked areas around the money toss games, the carousel, the Ferris wheel, and a wild ride called the Zipper.
    I was told it could create the most intense feeling of weightlessness and free flight. Each car, a cage, spun freely and on its separate axis. Then with great velocity, each cage was thrown high into the air. Having achieved its highest point, it was then slung toward the crowd and earth below. Change flew from riders’ pockets everywhere like salt from a shaker. Several people had thrown up on this ride. I could scarcely contain my crazy desire to try it.
    My sister had a brainstorm. Why not check the evening’s ticket buckets? Each ride had a bucket or box into which discarded or torn tickets were thrown. Supposedly, these tickets were all ripped but one could sometimes find several that had been missed. Four hours later my sister and I sat alone in the scorching sun with but one salvaged ticket.
    One of the first arriving carnies took pity on us and gave us a gift of two free tickets apiece. We were the envy of all our friends. With all the money we had found, all the bottles we returned, and the one vinyl dog I sold to my cousin for 35 cents, my sister and I were quite the wealthiest of all the neighborhood kids. We could now afford six rides apiece, two hot dogs, and one sno-cone.
    With our finances in order and a “well done” from our parents, permission was granted for us to go. It was hard to wait until 7 p.m.
    Wild with anticipation, we mounted our bikes and pedaled furiously westward to fulfill our weeklong quest.
    The neon lights glimmered from the freshly polished chrome on our bicycles. Organ music heralded our arrival. The spirited crowd swamped us. A throng of friends dashed to us, greeting and pulling us, pointing in all directions. We were escorted to purchase the tickets for our rides.
    Tickets safely tucked in our hip pockets, we proceeded to inspect the teeming grounds. Everything exceeded our most romantic visions. It was everything we hoped and imagined it could be. It was, simply, our dream made real.
    Adults became children and happy children floated joyously about. Prizes bulged from every arm. Cotton candy melted in every hand. Lights and music drove the crowd onward. We became lost in the moment, never dreaming the world outside was looming. We dashed eagerly from ride to ride and game to game.
    Abruptly and with great disappointment, we realized we now had only one ticket apiece and cash enough for but one sno-cone.
    It was late, and yet too early to end the magic. It had taken a week to piece this dream together. Shutting off the music, the lights, and the laughter this early was mean-spirited and unfair.
    We strolled some, biding time, and strolled some more. My sister snuck behind the dart game. When a dart did not stick and fell to the ground, she snatched it up and slipped it into the little straw bag she had won by rolling golf balls into their lowest numbered slots.
    One more ride, we decided. One more ride before it ended! But which one?
    The Ferris wheel was the most delightful and inspiring, we decided. We would use our last tickets on this freeway to and from the stars. At its zenith, we could see village to ocean while crowds below, heads upturned and ready, awaited their own ascension. We purchased our sno-cone to enjoy on the ride. I picked orange, she fancied grape. We could have only one, and so we decided a mix of syrups was in order.
    As we approached the wheel, it was announced the ride would shut down after the next group of passengers. A quick head count revealed a dire situation. There were more people ahead of us than cars available!
    We were desperate not to be left behind. We became so afraid of missing out that we traded several darts and all our prizes for spots on line, ensuring our places in one of those cars. As we boarded the wheel a great sense of triumph and happiness filled us.
    Our attendant threw us a bold thumbs-up and then, as if he were reading our minds, drew the wheel to a halt just as we reached its highest point. He held us there for what seemed a really, really long time. He knew how special these moments were.
    We teetered and I swung the car, teasing the kids beneath us. Below us the village, woods, and ocean appeared seamless and without boundary. Warm summer sky with dense, low-lying clouds reflected light, enshrouding us in its mystic fog. Before us the world seemed at peace. Above it, as the hoopla below faded to background, I felt alone, content, and quiet.
    I began to wonder about gravity, light, and all the other tiniest of things that create a “world.” It was at that moment that my sister decided to see if she could drop the ice from our cone, and while in transit, catch it again. As the ride continued, our car dropped and rocked wildly. We waited, and when we had once more reached the top, she dumped our sno-cone over the side of the car. On the trip down: no ice! On reaching the bottom: no ice!
    Looking behind us, I realized we had bombarded the romantic couple in the next car. They were shaking and swearing and demanding the ride be stopped. They were wet, angry, and wanted to get us for what we had done. Their night was ruined, they said. The man’s rage seemed uncontained and disproportionate to the offense. We twittered nervously but with some delight. He did look a little dopey in front of his date!
    Laughing robustly, the young man at the controls pulled the machine to a slow halt just as our car touched the bottom. As we disembarked, he gave us a quick wink along with a good head start. The crowd cheered, applauded, and flashed us the peace sign. The man dressed in sno-cone began chasing us. We beat our retreat with haste, and had time to spare.
    We mounted our trusty two-wheeled metallic steeds and hastened our exit into the moonlit night. Upon reaching home, we tiptoed silently, chuckling, to our rooms, where we collapsed onto our beds, bundles of sleepy happiness. We turned out the lights, drifted awhile, and dreamed new dreams.

    Michael Dickerson’s ancestors, members of the Conklin family, helped settle Amagansett in the 1600s, and family stories fueled his imagination. As a child growing up in that hamlet, he made up yarns based on local lore and legends. A resident of Northwest, he is working on a book, he said, about “growing up free in a small town.”