My friends and I walked down the festival midway like we were a benevolent king surveying his court. It didn’t matter that our court was small in size, certainly less than a football field. We sauntered up and down each row like we owned the park.
We’d get there early and stay late. We’d walk down the middle of the fairway to volunteer or talk with friends. We’d come prepared for the festival, with a pocketful of pennies and quarters — saved up throughout the year — to try our luck at the various games of chance or to fill our faces with food.
As a kid, I looked forward to summer and the two firemen’s festivals in the community where I grew up. The first one would be held in mid-July and then the second would be held a few weeks later, usually around the first weekend in August at a local park.
The fire companies used the three-day festivals to raise money to help purchase new fire equipment, ambulance supplies, everything they would need throughout the year, and to keep their head above water. The festivals would run large raffles, have a local band for entertainment each night, and have small kiddie rides and games. They would sell barbeque chicken or chicken corn soup and a wide assortment of deserts and ice cream. Just imaging the Amish chicken corn soup makes my stomach rumble with hunger.
Games of chance
In my little neck of the woods, every local town or village seemed to have a fair and they would be sponsored by a local fire company or a 4H club. They would run from early summer to late fall. My local fair, though, was my favorite. My father worked as a volunteer and would be holed-up in a hot, old construction trailer each evening, helping to count each night’s receipts or tackling some other job. With him hard at work, I could count on staying late into the night, until the overhead lights were turned out around midnight. (I was not a patient kid, far from it, but I don’t believe I ever complained to my parents that I wanted to go home early. Now I had to be careful, nothing stunk more than running out of money, while the night was still young.)
My mother would usually make herself home near the Bingo stand, held under a picnic pavilion or outside around tables on the park’s tennis court. She would position herself in a lawn chair or a picnic table and would be a “safe spot” throughout the night.
Now it was a different time, a different place, but my friends and I would take advantage of the newfound freedom to gossip about the upcoming school year; check out girls, who were still very foreign to us; and to play the games. When we were really young, we’d play the go-fish game, where you’d swing a fishing rod over a tarp and a volunteer behind-the-scenes would attach a cheap toy. We’d graduate to the penny pitch or fish bowl game where you’d try to win 50 cents, a gold fish or stuffed animal. The prize didn’t really matter, we just wanted to win. The volunteer in charge would always warn us about leaning too far over the roped stand, giving us an unfair advantage.
From there we moved onto the Mouse Game. A local volunteer would man the game, microphone in hand, sounding like he spent his life traveling the circuit as a circus emcee. He’d bark at people walking up and down the fairway, trying his best to get them to the table, to put a few quarters down on the game. Whatever he said usually worked; the game never seemed to be empty.
And what a game? Imagine James Bond in Monte Carlo mixed with the Dukes of Hazzard, roulette gone country with a real live mouse to boot. The goal of the game was to place your bet, a quarter or two, on the number hole that the mouse would land once it was let loose in the middle of the roulette wheel. Around and around the lil’ mouse goes, where he lands, nobody knows.
Atlantic City and Las Vegas may have the visiting celebrities and hordes of crowds just waiting to throw around their cash, but they had nothing on the Mouse Game. And yes, the People for the Protection of Animals (PETA), The Humane Society, and any number of other animal rights groups would have a fit if they knew about the game. For me, though, growing up where I did, the game was fun as heck, especially if an eager mouse or two slipped out of the small box the circus barker used to corner it after each turn and made a run for freedom. Watch out everyone, there’s a mouse on the loose.
In our teen years, we might take a turn trying to dunk a friend in the dunking booth. I could throw a baseball to the Moon and back, but my aim left something to be desired, so I tended to watch rather than waste my money.
More often than not, we’d make our way by the end of the night to the Kelly Pool table, a numbers game where players would stand around a table and each get a small pill with a number. The guy in charge would roll a cue ball from one of the table to another and whoever had the number where the ball landed would win. I’d save up whatever money I had in my bank all spring to play. My mom would always fret and warn me to not spend it in one place. I’m sure she feared she was creating a gambling fiend. Funny enough, the game must have taught me a lesson or two: I hate to gamble today. The frugal miser in me can’t stand to lose.
A lifetime of memories
I looked forward to those fairs each summer. They marked an important part of my life. For a couple of nights each summer, we didn’t have a care in the world. We didn’t worry about getting in trouble. We didn’t worry about school or homework. We played and ran and goofed off. A simple cherry or grape snow cone cured whatever ailed us. If that didn’t work, we moved onto the homemade ice cream stand.
I think of my hometown fair every summer. I haven’t been back to one in decades. However, the fair taught me much about what it means to live in a community and to help one another. Residents’ came together for a greater good. They gave freely. They volunteered their time and their treasure for something bigger.
My local fire company where I live now sells Christmas trees during the holidays, has an annual campaign drive and even has a summer festival with fireworks. I try to contribute my share since the fire company plays such an important role in keeping my town strong, but it has a different feel. They bring in an outside amusement company to run the rides. They have to think about things like liability and risk. I get that they need the help, it’s a different time, but I’m still grateful for my memories of yesteryear.
I just wish the organizers of the local fair where I live now would bring back the penny pitch. I’ve been saving my pennies, waiting for the opportunity. If they do bring it back, I promise not to lean.