The shrieks of laughter draw me in. As the evening sun prepares to drop behind the pendulum tower I happen upon a park teeming with children and their families. Tunes, honks, and bells from different directions blend together to form a mellifluous song I think I have heard before. The aroma of smoking grills and sweets fills the air.
The shrieks of laughter take me back. I am knee-high in stature so everything looks gargantuan. The man on stilts soars up to the clouds; the leaping horses on the carousel are life-sized; the pink cotton candy I hold overtakes my head. It is a familiar scene and yet each year that my family brought me to the carnival a strange world unfolded.
I have not been to a fair since those childhood years. Now, as an adult, when I visit, everything is…smaller. How had I imagined a scene peopled with giants? The man in stilts barely reaches the tip of the hot dog stand awning.
“The carousel, once loud and fierce, is now a miniature moving with molasses deliberation.”
Even the fairy floss can be consumed in two bites. I remember being fascinated by the crazy rides that twirl and hurtle their occupants. Clearly I was not alone as I listen to the shrill screams of delighted youngsters being tossed. I watch them line up to purchase caramel corn, eyes lit with anticipation. I deftly step aside as a large group of adolescents dart towards the tossing gallery. Others giggle and jostle against their parents eager to get on the various amusements.
My favorite device back then was always the Ferris wheel —its twinkling lights circling the sky, its gentle whir and clank as each pod remains upright all the way to the top. Sitting on that Ferris wheel as a child felt incredible: everything stopped being huge. For a few minutes, as my carriage rocked gently back and forth at the pinnacle, the landscape came under my dominion.
With fond reminisces of the Ferris wheel I decide it is the one ride I want to experience again. In the intervening years not much has varied: the same two-seaters, with fresh coats of paint, dangle from the same illuminated hoop. I shuffle forward in line between metal barriers. I instinctively glance at the invariable cardboard height requirement sign. I show my paper stub to an old weary man. I climb onto the metal seat, put the safety bar into position, and once again travel above the bustle of the fair, past the treetops until I am surveying the empty fields, the sleepy town, and a little corner which used to be my entire world. When my chair reaches the summit I am once again master over all.
While my feelings atop the observation wheel have not changed, everything else at the carnival has changed. Once the fair was colored in silver, gold, and glitter. Now the shine has faded. Once the fair injected adrenaline into my veins. Now it is a tame beast powered by sentimentality. Once the fair was a magical fantasy of sights and sounds.
“Now all that remains of that fantasy are music-box melodies and a few flickering bulbs.”
As the carousel spins and the lights wink, I grasp that time has altered me, not the fair. The years have wrought a difference in my perspective. I see everything with an adult’s understanding. Taking a turn on a bleached merry-go-round horse as my feet graze the floor I know that I have undergone more than a growth spurt. “Growing up” is such a subtle and complex transformation that goes beyond physical size. When does it happen, I wonder? How does it occur? Somewhere along my journey, process unknown, I got to where I am. My life turned into an old record player whose needle skipped ahead to the next groove. I put aside some childish hopes, I cast away certain juvenile fears, and I threw out a few infantile behaviors in order to mature. I am not completely grown-up, never that, because I know there are decades of learning and reworking ahead of me. Even so, I am grown-up enough to perceive the evolution as I tour the old haunts of the fairground. I am not the same self who ran through these carefree alleys long ago.
A part of me grieves over the lapsed time, the yesteryears. Or is it nostalgia I feel filtering the scene with misremembered recollections? What am I actually mourning for? If there was a way to go back I would not want to reverse time. I have had more thrills since my days of falling inside the Gravity Defier. I have tasted foods more exotic since my days of devouring five-alarm chili. I have experienced more adventures since my days at the fair. I pass the big wheel for a third time and instantly detect a sense of longing. The capsules nod invitingly at me so I succumb to their summons and hop on for a final spin.
The great axle squeaks and my gondola creaks with a subdued murmur as we gradually climb. The seat sways, and automatically my feet move up and down to its rhythm. The carnival goers recede into dolls. Then the food stalls, the bumper cars, and the hurricane contraption ebb into toys. Finally, just as my chair reaches its peak, the treetops subside to grant me a view of the streets that surround the park.
“Promptly, every worry sheds me and I become sovereign over an entire domain.”
That is when the truth clobbers me like a giant hammer from the strongman game: it is this sense of boundless possibilities that I miss from my younger days at the fair. As a child, I thought the minute I turned into an adult the world would open and there would be no limits. It was a Cinderella story that never came true. But swinging up here in time to the wind I regain that sense of youthful optimism if only until the Ferris wheel begins its downward cycle.
Getting off the ride I promise myself I will keep a piece of that innocent hopefulness with me. The poet Elizabeth Bishop once asked, “Oh, must we dream our dreams and have them too?” Yes! These heartless times crush a dreamer with unrelenting storms and bitter seasons. I want to head into this maelström armed with the warmth of summertime fancies and the confidence that I am the captain of my life’s course. I want to believe that conditions are favorable for me no matter how unfavorable they are. Sometimes you have to return to your childhood haunt in order to move forward. Lately, I have been unsure in my travels and lost in my writing: an upcoming trekking expedition sounds impossible for my physical capabilities, and I have miles to go before perfecting what I mean to say. The fair recaptured a belief in my potential. I want to bottle that feeling and release it like a perfume during my arduous hike and before composing my next line. I want to be unstoppable wherever that may be.
Observation wheels were popular attractions in 15th century Persia and India during religious festivals. Modern variations of the wheel are named after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an American engineer who designed a 264 foot (80.4 meter) high wheel for the 1893 exposition in Chicago, Illinois.
Have you been to an unusual fair or returned to a childhood place as an adult? Do you have a favorite carnival amusement ride? What foods do you love to eat when you are at a fair, carnival, or festival?