Rapid but contained forward motion: a ring of runner-less white sleighs in tight formation move along an unseen track, up and down gentle slopes, around a central, shining globe resembling a disco ball, over and over again. Round and round, faster and faster. The screams grow louder, and a man in a booth at the side of the ride shouts over the loudspeakers: “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The ride speeds up; the screams intensify. Centrifugal force pushes passengers to the outer edges of the sleighs’ slippery seats (everyone knows that whoever sits on the outside gets crushed). Even to onlookers, the ride appears dangerously fast. Yet this particular one has been around for decades, so it can’t have had too tragic a past. Just when it feels like the ride’s come to an end, the operator throws it in reverse. “WHO WANTS TO GO BACKWARD?” And now the ride repeats, but in the opposite direction. The screams resume accordingly. Despite the dizzying speed and the friend-crushing g-force, the disorienting backwards movement and bright-lit delirium, there’s always a long line; fair-goers can’t resist the Himalaya (or one of its many variants). And all the while, Guns n’ Roses’s 1987 track, “My Michelle,” has been blasting well out into the carnival midway from the ride’s sound system, like it or not. But of course, I love it.
An element of county fair carnival culture is frozen in the 1980s. Every year, it’s a sure thing: I will pass the Himalaya, with its cars racing round a central point, flinging passengers to their outer edges, and something from an eighties hair band will be playing. I wonder about the endurance of this, how those songs remain on rotation, thirty-plus years on, through doubtless generations of carnival workers and changes in popular taste. What is it about that era that hangs in the cultural ethos?
It’s night three of the Williamson County Fair, and I’ve boarded the Seattle Wheel, a unique type of Ferris wheel offered by James H. Drew Exposition. From above, the midway is beautiful–orderly, symmetrical, aglow. Gone is the gray dust that coats everyone’s shoes, and the August heat feels a little less concentrated. As an adult sitting in one of the Seattle Wheel’s gently rocking gondolas, looking down at the rows of game-of-skill canopies and the colored lights of the more earthbound rides, my anxiety about dangling ninety feet in the air gradually gives way to a re-emergence of the magic I felt in youth, when making the rounds at the county fair held romance and possibility; when, as a teenager, the tang of independence informed every stroll around the crowded loop, me and my crew feeling bigger than we were.
In my six-year-old’s eyes, I see the bubbling of that same magic. It’s like a cup filling, the contents of that cup approaching overflow, hidden inside the awe he holds for the big rides. When I ask if he wants to ride The Pirate (a giant, swinging ship) with me, he pauses before delivering a definitive, dramatic “no.” Within that two-second pause, however, is the internal debate over whether he feels ready. Height-wise, he’s right on the cusp. I’d say next year is the year. Maybe.
My first “big ride” was a Tilt-a-Whirl at the Obion County Fair in Union City, Tennessee, where I grew up. It felt like such a big deal when my dad agreed to ride with me (and I’m pretty sure he had as much fun as I did). My older cousin Richie was at the fair that night, and he and his friends were riding everything. I remember feeling both envious and intimidated. Yet by the end of the night, with one solid non-kiddie ride under my belt, I could envision being as cool one day as I believed my cousin to be.
The Tilt-a-Whirl was the obvious highlight of the fair that year. It felt like a rite of passage–an early step on the road from childhood to adulthood. Granted, there was still a very long way to go, but I was at least embarking (indeed, the journey continues). That sweaty August night, I drank of the magic that only a kid can truly claim–a kid who sees the wide world opening up before him and thinks it must surely be good, despite the long faces he sometimes sees and the exasperated sighs he sometimes hears from the adults he encounters. Clutching the lap bar inside one of the Tilt-a-Whirl’s twirling half-domes, rising and dipping around a clanging platform, hearing the metal-on-metal roar of each spin, I felt more than just g-force and random inertia–there also was a wealth of expectation for the future–an appetite for experience that, at that time, was wholly innocent; a feeling of stepping out into life and loving what I found there.
Let’s return to the present-day Himalaya ride, detailed in the first paragraph of this post. Here’s a theory: when it comes to that phenomenon of 80s hair band music being locked in permanent rotation, it could quite possibly be that, in the carnival setting, I’ve trained my ears to land on that specific type of music–that when bands from every decade since are played, I only notice them in passing, subconsciously saving my true attention for the occasional Guns n’ Roses or Ratt song. If modern science is correct in its assertion that we see what we expect to see, at the expense of what may actually be there, it could well be I’ve relegated my entire experience of the traveling carnival to that special corner of the mind wherein I remain, still, a wide-eyed, pre-teenage dreamer.
**Here, I ponder carnival culture from a different angle.