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Carni-Fall

running down some county fair flashbacks

Mike Paulus, design by Serena Wagner

I can’t remember exactly why we ran across the carnival grounds that afternoon, but I doubt it was my idea. I rarely feel the need to travel faster than a light trot, yet there I was, chasing my cousins down the dusty gravel walkways of the Burnett County Fair, weaving between rays of blazing hot July sunshine. And I tripped.

My foot snagged something solid and for a few queasy moments I was airborne, held aloft by whatever modest inertia my pudgy body had generated. I didn’t see my little life flash before my eyes. I didn’t see the striped tents or the rickety Ferris wheel sail by. I didn’t see the startled faces of my fellow fair goers.

I saw my Walkman. It floated there next to me, spindles twirling the ribbon of a cassette tape as we tumbled through space, time, and the hefty aroma of deep-fried corn dogs. And I heard Kenny Loggins belting out the soundtrack to Footloose.

By the way, this was smack dab in the middle of the 1980s.

We’d only arrived at the fair moments ago, emerging from between two of the game booths. We must have been racing towards one of the rides – The Bullet or The Zipper or The Hastily Constructed Vertigo Whirligig or something like that.

I hit the ground and my Walkman soared ahead, yanking the soft, foamy headphones from my ears. The sounds of the fair rushed in – little kids screaming, carnival rides clanking and moaning, country music twanging from the beer tent.

Hoping to minimize my embarrassment, I jumped back up and dusted off my very favorite pair of Ocean Pacific shorts. I spun around and glared at what I’d tripped over. It was a big fat power cable running to that ride called “The Octopus,” with its shiny black tentacles and sickly green eyes.

My wrist was sore. Blood was seeping from scrapes on my forearms and knees. My Walkman had a big gash in its plastic chassis. And my cousins were long gone.

We’d only arrived at the fair moments ago, emerging from between two of the game booths. We must have been racing towards one of the rides – The Bullet or The Zipper or The Hastily Constructed Vertigo Whirligig or something like that. Because when you’re a kid, and you are excited to be some place, you run to it. Or in my case, you lightly trot to it.

So I don’t blame them for literally leaving me in the dust. They were just  looking forward – to speed and fun and almost certain nausea. Honestly, if the ride was scary enough, I probably would have just watched anyway.

My cousins were The Lords of the Gravitron. I was Kid Tilt-A-Whirl.

I was content to bounce ping-pong balls into goldfish bowls, flip rings onto soda bottles,  and toss darts at little balloons. I liked winning movie posters and cheap toys. I wasn’t particularly good at the carnival games, but it never bothered me. The carnival was the carnival, and the carnival was always fantastic. No exceptions.

At the carnival we got to stay out late and see the sky go black. Across the fairgrounds, neon lights buzzed to life – blue, red, yellow, and green. The Ferris wheel swelled and grew taller. Teenagers held hands and slipped into the shadows. My cousins and I swam through all of it, past the popcorn stand and the smiling grownups dancing and smoking and shuffling through the entrance to the beer tent. The stars came out and nobody cared.

The summer I tripped and scuffed up my Walkman was one of the last times I visited the Burnett County Fair. Because things change.

Years later I took my college girlfriend to the very same fair. We bought some mini donuts and got in line for one of those rides. It wasn’t even a scary one – it just went around in circles and up and down. But within 30 seconds I had the worst headache of my entire life, and I felt like vomiting over the side – around in circles and up and down.

Because we change. And the carnival will always be ruled by kids.

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