I did not want to go to the Fair. This annual event encompasses everything I hate: crowds, overstimulation, and senseless consumerism. Other than a visit to the quilt exhibit, I’m uninterested in everything Fair related, especially since my kids have become old enough to visit the Midway. Now all they want to do is race from one carnival ride to another in a blind frenzy while my husband and I trail behind. Needless to say, by the end of our Fair evenings, I tend to be a tad grumpy.
Apparently, I’m the only Fair Scrooge around because in the weeks preceding Labor Day, our little town seemed to hum with excitement over the impending event. My girls were coming home with reports about which rides were available this year and which ones were not. (A classmate cruised the fairgrounds on her bike each morning before school and scouted it out.) Another mom down the street was busily helping her kids prepare Fair entries. When she heard my girls weren’t contributing anything, she offered to enter some art my daughters had made at her house. At work, my colleagues discussed which food vendors served the best fare.
My twelve-year-old daughter generously offered to attend the Fair on her own this year and was even willing to chaperone her younger sister so we could “do our own thing.” I believe our response contained the phrase “over our dead bodies,” and instead of letting her do her own thing, my husband and I consulted our calendars and made a big Fair X on the Friday evening preceding the Monday holiday. A few days before the Fair began, I somewhat begrudgingly stood in line to prebuy two wristbands for unlimited carnival rides and four Fair entrances. The only consolation was that I saved $10 by planning ahead.
On Thursday, my husband was unexpectedly called out of town. As he left, he sent me a text. “I just drove by the Fairgrounds and I’m sad to be missing it.”
I was sad he was missing it too.
After flipping a coin, my older daughter Emma, the loser, was sent to ask, “Mom, even though Dad is gone do you think we can still go to the Fair?”
“Yes. We’ll still go,” I said with a pathetic lack of enthusiasm. I’d already spent the money after all.
“Dad says that secretly you really like the Fair,” my younger daughter disclosed with a hint of hopefulness in her voice.
Emma looked at her sister with disdain. “Dad is SO wrong.”
The girls woke up Friday morning practically ready to combust from Fair anticipation. To add to the Fair mania, they had made arrangements with a few other classmates and their much beloved teacher to meet that evening at the entrance of the Fireball for a group ride.
“Remind me what the Fireball is again,” I asked over breakfast.
“It is a big circle with the roller coaster inside and you go back and forth and then all around and sometimes it stops at the top and everyone’s change and hats fall out,” explained Clara breathlessly. She grinned. “Sometimes people throw up.”
I pushed my breakfast plate away. “Got it. Thank you for that vivid description, Clara.”
“I don’t know if I am going,” said Emma, chewing her lip. “Should I go?” she asked me. “I don’t know if I want to go, but if I don’t go I will be a chicken and I might wish I went. But I don’t think I want to go. But I might go. Should I go? But what if halfway through I decide I don’t want to go?”
“I’m going,” said Clara definitively, which made her older sister look stricken and even more undecided.
Later that morning, my husband texted me, “What are you doing?”
I texted back, using my special sarcasm font, “Centering myself for the Fair.”
A little before 4:00, I loaded the kids in the car and we headed downtown so we could be there right when the Fair gates opened. Best to just get it over with was my thinking. I’d been a little short-tempered prior to departure so the ride was mostly silent except for the girls taking turns telling me how much they loved me and how especially beautiful I looked that day. They laid it on pretty thick–their last-ditch effort to improve my mood and increase their chances of staying more than an hour or so.
We arrived so promptly at the Fairgrounds that we found a spot in the parking lot instead of in the distant field where we usually ended up.
“We’re really smart to get here early so we can park so close,” Clara pointed out as she opened my door for me in what I hoped was a gesture of politeness. My gut told me she was only trying to hurry me along.
Once inside the gates, the girls zipped right past the Quilt Building and headed towards the Midway. We were practically the only ones there with the exception of a few other moms with toddlers. The temperature was in the nineties and shade was scarce, but the girls didn’t care. They ran from ride to ride, their faces pink and sweaty. They were going for broke early. They knew I could snap at any moment, call it quits, and drag them home.
At one point, Clara pointed to a large loop that reached far into the sky. “That’s the Fireball,” she said with reverence. Emma shook her head. “I don’t know if I’m going. Do you think I should go, Mom? I think it’s too crazy. But if Mr. J. and the other kids go . . . Should I go?”
Soon, the Midway filled up with gangs of kids and a few more parents. Alliances were formed and plans made for which rides to ride, in what order, and with whom. Then, when it seemed like it couldn’t get any more exciting, there was a sighting of the kids’ teacher.
“Mr. J. is here!” a group of kids told me, their animated voices overlapping.
Emma looked at the Fireball. “Should I go?” she asked anxiously.
Not long afterwards, as if by some great design, Mr. J. and a large knot of kids met a few yards away from the entrance of the Fireball.
“So who’s going?” asked Mr. J. asked with a grin. No one answered right away, and a few boys took a large step backwards from the group. Even Clara looked like she was wavering. Emma opened her mouth, “I don’t think I am going to–”
Before she could finish, I whipped out five carnival ride tickets that I’d bought during one of my laps up and down the Midway. I held them up for everyone to see and said, “I’m going.”
Emma stared at me like I’d grown two heads. Clara grinned and shouted gleefully, “I’m going!” Mr. J. looked at me with amusement. He is young and a bit of a daredevil. I am middle-aged and think staying up past ten o’clock is living on the edge. “Okay then,” he said. “Let’s go!”
I grabbed Emma’s hand and led her towards the entrance. Halfway up the ramp, she balked. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” she told me. I held fast to her arm, and even though I agreed with her whole heartedly, I said with false confidence, “We’re going. No regrets. Let’s do this together.”
I was a bit disconcerted to discover that each compartment of the Fireball has room for four people. Two seats side-by-side face another pair so Emma and I ended up sitting across from Mr. J. and Clara. But I didn’t have time to worry about the seating arrangements because the ride was filling quickly and I was having trouble fastening my safety strap. I kept pulling on the end of belt in an effort to tighten the shoulder bars. “That’s as tight as it gets,” Clara informed me casually.
I looked at Mr. J. “That’s not good. These bars should be tighter. Don’t you think these bars should be tighter?” He grinned as he nodded in agreement.
And just like that, the ride started and I realized I was right. As we rose half way up the circle, which was backwards for Emma and me, I fell forward against the shoulder bars. It was completely unnerving to be so loose in my seat. I could only imagine how loose my children were. As we began our plunge downward and I was thrown backwards, my last coherent thought was, “Please God, don’t let me barf on my kids’ teacher.” Then, I shut my eyes and began to scream.
It wasn’t a little yelp or a loud shout even. It was a full volume, open throttle, involuntary scream punctuated by hysterical laughter. Emma was matching me note for note. I couldn’t tell what Clara was doing, and despite loving her beyond reason, I was not willing to open my eyes to find out. At first, I heard Mr. J. laughing, and I was pretty certain it was at Emma and me, but as the ride began to loop, he became very quiet. The “man silence” that males do when they are afraid.
The ride lasted f-o-r-e-v-e-r and then, to my great relief, it began to slow. Mr. J. found his vocal cords and started to laugh again. I was shaking so hard I could hardly get out of my seat and down the ramp. The kids and parents who had opted out of the ride looked at us with awe. One mom said, “I can’t believe you did that.”
I texted my husband, “I RODE THE FIREBALL!!!!” He texted back, “Seriously?”
Word spread. As we got some greasy Fair food for dinner and then walked around and checked out a few displays, we kept running into other parents and kids. “You guys rode the Fireball with Mr. J.?” they’d ask with a certain amount of respect. For a while it felt like we were minor celebrities. When I saw my best friend, I threw my hands in the air and announced, “I AM THE FIREBALL!” To which she laughed and responded, “Yes, you are, my friend!”
The icing on the Fair cake was when we wandered into one of the exhibit buildings and discovered that Clara’s art won not only First Place, but Best in Show in her division. To celebrate, I popped for the largest size bag of kettle corn using the $10 I saved on tickets. The bag was the width and length of my thigh. In hindsight, I realized that we would be eating kettle corn for a month, but I didn’t care. I was in full on Fair psychosis. I texted my husband, “BEST FAIR EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!”
On our way to the building housing the quilts, we ran into more kids and parents from our school. I was feeling expansive, so instead of looking at needlework, I agreed to chaperone a gang of kids for another round of carnival rides. I met up with a dad I knew, and for the next several hours we followed an ever-growing group of kids from ride to ride.
At one point, Greg waved his hand at The Zipper that was yanking the occupant in their metal cages around and around in a circle and said, “I don’t get why people like going on these rides.”
A few hours earlier, I would have shared his bewilderment completely. I’d never liked carnival rides–never felt the need to push the envelope, scare myself silly, or intentionally go out of my comfort zone. But I learned something from my Fireball ride. I learned that sometimes it is really cathartic to have a release. That there is something hugely satisfying about letting go. Daily life requires us to control our emotions, master our stressors, and conduct ourselves with a certain amount of socially acceptable decorum at all times. How often are we allowed to scream and laugh with such abandon? Certainly not while looking at quilts. When I was upside down on the Fireball, I didn’t lose any change, but I did drop a great deal of accumulated anxiety and tension. And although I was shaky on my feet after the ride, I was also lighter, happier, and newly energized. It was the best therapy I’d ever had, and it only cost $5.
At 10:00 that night, we finally left the Fair. As we drove home, we ate handfuls of kettle corn and talked over one another as we relived the evening. Again and again, we kept coming back to The Fireball. “I can’t believe I did it,” said Emma. “I can’t believe you did it, Mom!”
Clara laughed. “When you were screaming, Mom, your mouth was so wide. I didn’t know your mouth could open that far!”
I didn’t either. Until the dreaded Fair night, I didn’t know I needed to open my mouth that wide and let go. Since then, I’ve been thinking about getting a Fireball ride of my own and putting it in the backyard. A destressing tool of sort to be ridden as required. I could call it the The Fireball Release and invite anyone who needs it to take a spin. I’d only charge $5 a ride.