This week was the Volunteer Fireman’s Carnival in Clear Spring. The house I grew up in is a two-minute walk from the carnival grounds. The vacant lot where the old high school used to stand, where hundreds of people park their cars during carnival week, is directly across the street. As a kid I viewed this as a fortunate circumstance – the bit about being nearby to the carnival grounds at least; I had no good for all those cars parked across the street even then. Throughout my childhood, carnival week was the highlight of the summer.
I can tell you more or less the exact moment that I soured on the carnival. It was the summer of 1996, when I was learning to drive. I realized that, with all the carnival traffic, I had to give myself an extra ten minutes to allow for getting out of my own fucking driveway. Not even my favorite ride – the Tilt-a-Whirl, which had disappeared from our carnival by that point anyway – was worth that. There was also the fact that during this particular week my house became Mecca for a small army of drunken local rednecks. Drunk people, I discovered as I navigated my adolescence, were irritating.
And other causes for ambivalence toward the carnival aren’t hard to come by, either. The entertainment sucks. Last year Ashley and I walked up one night when the featured attraction was Michael Twitty, son of Conway Twitty, whose drawing power seemed to lie entirely in his ability to remember the lyrics to songs his father sang in the 1970’s. You’d like to think anyone hitting the road with such a pathetic non-act would be doomed to quick, humiliating failure, forced to spend the remainder of his life selling thumb-drives at Circuit City to pay the bills, but Michael, “the #1
Son of the Best Friend a Song Ever Had,” has been able to make a modest go of it. Lucky for him there is a sizeable audience of people my grandmother’s age who enjoy sitting in lawn chairs, smiling benignly up at a stage and listening to someone sing something that reminds them of music they used to enjoy.
The crowd is another strike against the carnival. I’m not nuts about having to move through large groups of people. For the blues fest or a baseball game I’m willing to put up with it, but beyond those it gets to be a chore. The carnival is the worst because it’s mostly a local event, so there’s always the possibility you will run into someone you know. A few years ago I ran into Tim Hawbaker, a very nice man who mistakenly believed that the fact we graduated from high school together meant that I was glad to see him and gave a shit about his wife and young children. Running into Tim was like crossing the event horizon of a black hole; in theory I knew that eventually the crushing force of the gravity well would kill me, it just seemed to take forever
When Leona Weaver lived next-door the crowd was at least good for a laugh now and then. Our favorite pastime during carnival is to sit on our front porch and watch the people walk by. I considered this a useful trial run for my retirement. Leona treated her front lawn like a member of the family and was a total Nazi about people walking on it. She’d sit on her porch, too, and shout at anyone who set foot on her lawn to get off the grass. There is no sidewalk, so those walking by on their way to or from the carnival can either walk on the edge of someone’s yard or take their chances in the very busy road. A few years back a group of teenagers were walking by. When Leona saw them start across her yard she rose from her seat on the porch and shot them this icy bad-witch stare, which one of the teenagers noticed. He said something to his buddy about Leona not liking them walking in her yard, to which his buddy replied, looking in Leona’s direction and loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, “Oh, fuck
‘at old crow!”
So yeah, the honeymoon with me and the carnival ended a long time ago. Not only for the reasons I just went into, but for a thousand little things, too, not the least of which being the nagging suspicion that year after year the ham sandwiches have gotten lighter and the french fries have gotten shorter. The carnival raises a lot of money for the fire company, and most of the people around Clear Spring seem to enjoy it, so I don’t want to be too hard on it. I’d just rather spend the week in Sharpsburg, passing the time with Ashley and my cat.