I trace my dislike of carnivals and fairs to a terrifying childhood experience on the Zipper at the Shasta District Fair. As the Zipper flipped, spun and plunged, my skinny twin began to slip beneath our lap bar. Soon, she would be free-falling inside this machine of death.
I knew the Zipper would kill us both, and that’s how I screamed, convincingly enough that my mother — in one of her finest maternal moments — recognized the degree of her children’s distress and successfully demanded the man stop the ride.
The Zipper was my last carnival-type ride experience, aside from merry-go-rounds and Disneyland rides, which don’t count.
For many years, a carnival has occupied east Redding during north-state schools’ spring break – rain or shine. It’s strategically erected at the south-east corner of the Mt. Shasta Mall parking lot. You can’t miss it, which is the point. When my three children were young, I would actually avoid driving that route the entire week, just so the kids wouldn’t see it.
I thought my carnival-avoidance days were behind me when my kids grew up and moved away.
Last week my daughter-in-law told a sad story of how she and my son tried to take the kids – ages 5 and almost 3 – to that parking-lot carnival, but my little granddaughter was too short for any of the rides, so they left.
They mitigated the children’s disappointment by taking them to Chuck E. Cheese instead (a place I like as much as carnivals). Even so, my daughter-in-law said Austin was still fixated on and talking about the missed carnival. And, well, she was wondering … no promises … but maybe Noni would take Austin, since I was going to keep him overnight Wednesday anyway?
The first thing that struck me at the carnival was the price of tickets: $1.25 each; 20 tickets for $24 (a whopping 5-cent-per-ticket savings), or an unlimited-rides wristband for $25 – for one person.
Twenty-five dollars per person? Are you kidding? Do I look stupid?
The second thing that struck me – shocked me, really – was how many families with multiple kids were buying up the wristbands without batting an eye.
I purchased the 20-tickets-for-$24 packet, an abundant quantity. I imagined that if we had any left over, we’d donate them to some family on the way out. This wouldn’t take long. Austin’s only 5, and I’d go on some rides with him. It would all be over soon.
Turns out most rides required between three and four tickets each.
Yes, apparently I am that stupid.
Our first ride was the carousel. I thought about riding the horse beside him, but wondered about its weight limit. I imagined in vivid, bloody detail the crashing-carousel-horse scenario, followed by calls for an ambulance and a maybe a lawsuit where Brass Ring Amusements Midway of Fun would eventually own my home. I’d spend my twilight years crippled, working in its ticket booth.
I decided it best to just stand near Austin as the horse beside us methodically molested my hip to tinny music as Austin grasped the brass pole impaled through his horse’s body.
Austin grinned the whole time, but kept looking up, which made me follow his gaze. We watched blackened, shiny machinery groan and rotate overhead. Even so, Austin seemed pleased with his grimy, faded steed.
I cursed myself for leaving the hand-sanitizer in the car.
Austin next wanted to ride the green-and-purple dragon train. It looked harmless enough. A bunch of kids were already seated inside the dragon’s many spinal cars, waiting for the beast to get moving. I started to board with Austin, but the ride operator stopped me and said it was just for kids, no adults.
I told Austin we’d find a different ride. He begged. Please, Noni. I can do it.I agreed, but hated it with all my heart. I got Austin buckled in snugly, after I’d looked to the ride operator for help and he’d put his hands in the air — as if under arrest — and said, “Hey, I don’t buckle kids in! I’d get in trouble!”
Megan’s Law came to mind.
Away went the dragon; a lilting mini roller coaster, around and around its track adjacent to Hilltop Drive. A bigger kid in a nearby dragon car kept yelling at the operator, urging him to go faster, which I was sure was impossible, but it didn’t make me despise that kid any less for asking. The dragon was already going plenty fast.
As the wild-eyed dragon sped around the track, Austin seemed so small; so far away from the safety of his Noni’s arms. I intently watched his face for signs of angst, but his smile remained intact. To me, the dragon ride lasted about an hour. The entire time I stayed pressed against the railing, catching Austin’s eye and waving wildly.
I was prepared to make a scene if I had to stop that dragon in its tracks, ala my departed mother, Claudia Jo Chamberlain.
A circle of motorcycles was the next stop. In retrospect I blew it by putting Austin on what would have been the back of a driverless bike. In my defense, somehow, the back seat seemed safer. But after the ride began I felt badly for Austin when I realized my mistake. The more savvy children who sat at the front of their vehicles were in full pretend-control of their motorcycles. They vrroomed around the track, small hands on their plastic throttles and metal handlebars.
Thankfully, Austin didn’t seem to notice the difference.
Next came a gentle kiddie locomotive. Austin shared his car with a little girl who appeared oblivious of her passenger. The ride traveled about 2 miles an hour, which was perfect.
At last we found another ride where I could join him; huge egg-shaped creatures that had a shaded bench seat inside, all wrapped up safely, with a big turning wheel in the middle to make it go faster.
I needed to buy more tickets at this point, which was making the $25-wristband look like a bargain, but it was too late for that now.
I didn’t take my own photo of the Dizzy Dragon because it was impossible to hang on and snap a picture at the same time. Austin loved being the master of the wheel as we lurched back and forth, side to side, around and around. I was starting to feel nauseous.
Thank God, that was pretty much the end of rides fit for a 5-year-old. I checked the time. We’d been there all of about 20 minutes; 10 minutes longer than I would have considered ideal.
I reminded Austin of our picnic we’d packed earlier, which he agreed was a good idea. (Noni Doni tip: Have a follow-up event planned as a carrot to entice the child away from a place you’re so done with.)
We’d nearly escaped the Midway of Fun when a carnie woman at the goldfish booth yelled out to Austin as we walked by.
“Hey, kid, look at your shirt! It says you play to win!”
I did a double take at Austin. She was right. Apparently he’d arrived at my house wearing that shirt. His mother, bless her heart. She thinks of everything.
I PLAY TO WIN
The goldfish carnie lady asked Austin if he wanted to win a prize with a ping-pong throw. It’s lots of fun! You can do it!
Second to the rule about carnies not buckling children into rides, should be a rule that they don’t speak to kids. Just adults.
Austin said yes. YES, he wanted to have fun and win!
Five bucks later Austin had a basket of ping pong balls in front of him, a basket that sat upon a mammoth ice chest. That ice chest should have been a clue, if I weren’t recovering from the effects of the Dizzy Dragon.
One throw after another Austin miraculously
thankfully missed getting any balls into that sea of green bowls filled with anguished-looking goldfish. Until the second to the last ball. He got one. And on his last ball, he got another.
I was just glad it was over, and was all, “Hey, that was fun. Let’s go on our picnic!”
Not so fast. The goldfish-booth carnie lady whipped into action. She opened the ice chest. Lo and behold it contained water, and about 5,000 goldfish prisoners. She deftly netted two fish – neither of which was the classic goldfish gold, btw. She scooped up a baby silver fish, just for good measure.
I said no thanks.
Austin, my first-born grandchild whose shirt said it all, looked at me in disbelief. He said he’d won the fish. They were his.
He plays to win.
Five more bucks later the carnie woman sold me a little plastic fish holder that I pretty much had to buy. It was an offer nobody would refuse.
… I guess I could give you the fish in a plastic bag, but you know, they might not do well in the car, you know, water all over and so on and so forth …
I’ve seen those same carriers at the Dollar Tree labeled as insect-catchers.
Austin was excited, and relieved, too. He said that finally, I’d have a pet of my own. I wasn’t surprised by this comment. Austin often asks me if I’m not lonely living by myself, without even a pet (to clean up after and feed and board when I’m away). I always tell him I’m happy living alone. Really I am.
He never believes me.
Actually, I was thinking the Midway of Fun fish would go home with him, since his family has plenty of space, perfect for herds of goldfish. Besides, I knew they had a fish tank. Austin corrected me and said no, the fish tank now holds hermit crabs, a gift from his Grammy Paula.
I took action and texted my son and daughter-in-law the photo of their irresistible son and his prize-winning fish. My son texted a reply: That’s cool he won you a new fish. You know what goes great with fish? Hermit crabs.
I will remember this.
My daughter-in-law texted her reply: Lol, thanks so much for taking him. I felt horrible we hadn’t been able to take him.
I imagined my son and daughter-in-law kicking back in patio chairs, laughing, doing high-fives and clinking beer glasses.
… One’s born every minute.
Before our picnic Austin and I stopped by PetSmart across the street from the parking-lot carnival. As we approached the store a beat-up van pulled up nearby. A man emerged with a boy about Austin’s age, and a woman with a blanket-wrapped infant pressed against her chest. The little boy held a plastic container with water sloshing inside, identical to Austin’s.
The man smiled and nodded knowingly to Austin’s Midway of Fun fish.
Location, location, location, you smartie PetSmart store!
I asked a serious-looking young salesman for the minimum supplies necessary to keep a goldfish – make that three – alive.
He inhaled deeply, and exhaled his expert reply. I glazed over and saw my life flash before me as he talked about goldfish potential to get more than a foot long, and how they they need at least two gallons of water per fish, and then there’s the whole business about tanks, lights, oxygen and risks of toxic water, a “waste” byproduct.
When I said I wasn’t interested in buying the professional setup with the store’s recommended hoses, pumps, plants, etc., he looked at me as if I were an animal-hater. He said in that case, I’d need to change the water daily. His tone sounded more like a threat than advice.
Meanwhile, Austin was eyeing with increasing interest the elaborate, colorful fish-tank decor, things like pirate ships and volcanoes and buried treasure, little made-in-China sculptures in the $30-to-$60 range you could fit in a lunch sack.
I stayed strong in the face of pet store temptation. I spent 10 bucks on fish food and some mandatory chemical drops for the water, since the PetSmart guy said Redding’s chlorinated water would kill the fish.
Good to know.
Once home, I poured the fish into a big glass jar that once entertained dreams of holding cookies.
Austin got busy writing the fish a note, which he taped onto the jar’s side. It featured his question, and the fishes’ answer, which he swore they told him.
Q: What do you like to do?
A: We like to play with are (sic) cousin jellyfish.
With the fish securely housed, fed and swimming in their new home, Austin and I finally went on our picnic at that little park near the river near the Sundial Bridge and amphitheater on the way to the rodeo grounds. It’s one of my favorite places.
We walked to the riverbank, and Austin asked if we found any frogs, if we could take them home. I said sorry, but I already had the responsibility of three new pets now.
We left after 4. Apparently, that was exactly when about 3,000 vehicles departed Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry at the Civic Auditorium. It took me 15 minutes to navigate what should have been less than a 5-minute drive from Auditorium Drive to my Garden Tract neighborhood.
Austin went home the next day without the fish. He seemed fine with that. In fact, he’s already dreaming of and drawing pictures of new, future pets.
Meanwhile, my sister says she might make a koi pond in her backyard this summer, and if I can keep the fish alive long enough, they are welcome to go there.
And Cinderella can go to the ball if she can get ready and find an outfit in 45 minutes.
And speaking of counting, I’ve done the math:
Carnival ride tickets: $29
Goldfish game: $5
Plastic goldfish house: $5
Fish food and water purifying drops: $10
Lessons learned: Priceless