Morning dawned thick and steamy. Rolling over in bed, I could see the sunlight flickering through the blades of the fan in the window. Beside the fan was the statue of Mary, facing out at the world, placed there the night before as an act of faith that Our Lady would give us sunshine, and not the rain that Tom Jolls, our weatherman, was predicting. For this was the first weekend in June, the weekend of the St. Joe’s lawn fete.
The preparations had been underway since Tuesday. That was the day that the storage shed behind the school had been opened like a tomb, and the bones of the booths were carried out, and laid on the parking lot between school and church. In the evenings the Dad’s and Grandpa’s would gather to begin assembling them. Cables, and lights would be strung from one corner of the lot to the other. Looking out the windows of our classroom, the familiar outlines of the lawn fete would begin to take shape. But the real excitement didn’t hit until Wednesday night when the rides started showing up.
I looked forward to this weekend, more than any other all year long. Each year our family would run the games booths at the parish lawn fete, and we would spend the entire weekend at the carnival. I jumped from bed, and quickly got dressed in my shorts and tank top. It was already hot outside, and it was barely 9 am. Dad would be leaving to go set up the booths soon, and if I was lucky he would let me tag along. Then I could walk the midway, and size up the rides that had magically appeared overnight. No carnival in town ever had more rides than the St. Joe’s lawn fete.
The first one to arrive was always the Ferris Wheel. It usually appeared on Wednesday afternoon, because it took the carnies 2 full days to put that erector set together on the lawn right in front of the school. It sat right in front of the 6th grade classroom, and as the steel beams rose up into the view of the 2nd floor it was impossible not to stop class to watch the greasy, long haired carnies climb the wheel like monkey’s.
By Thursday they would start arriving in their trailers and motor homes. They would be parked out of the way in the grass along the side of the school. It was the 1970’s, and despite the social revolution of the 60’s, we were still small town kids that led relatively sheltered lives. So it was with great fascination that we watched the carnies. They seemed to arrive right out of a TV movie. Long haired guys, covered in grease and tatoo’s, with cigarette packs rolled up in their sleeves, and scrawny, leather voiced woman that seemed to belong to a mysterious gender of their own. We used to sneak up to their trucks before school in the morning and peak underneath the trailers to see them sleeping on the ground.
After a quick breakfast, I rode over to the church with Dad. We parked around the block by the library, since the church parking lots were now completely covered in booths, and rides. Walking into the school, it seemed like it had suddenly been transformed into a new and different place. This wasn’t the school where I sat behind my desk in white shirt, blue tie, and navy blue dickes as the nun’s droned on. This was a bee hive of excitement.
The kitchen was already in buzzing with old ladies, and Mom’s, cutting vegetables, and getting ready for the chicken dinner. The kindergarten room had been cleared, and was now the command center, and money counting room. This was the place where Dad checked in, and began collecting the games, and prizes. It took several trips back and forth between the booths, and the school, to get them set up. After the first trip, Dad left me in charge of “keeping an eye on things”, and I swelled with grownup responsibility.
Back in the school parking lot were the “Big Rides”, The Tempest, Scrambler, Ferris Wheel, and the awesomely terrifying Rockets. The red, green and white Rockets were always spoken off in a tone of fear, and awe. Only the biggest and the bravest of SJS students had ridden on them. They represented a sort of aboriginal right of passage between childhood and adolescence. Two back to back, rotating cars, mounted on opposite ends of a spinning column, that buzzed like a German V-1 rocket when they spun.
For as long as I live I will always remember the sound of that ride, buzzing louder and louder as it picked up speed, then slowing, and coming to a stop, before changing directions. The tension increasing as the teens inside screamed like they were being murdered. You never stood alongside the Rockets when they were running, lest you be sprayed by shoes, combs, brushes, pocket change, and half digested cotton candy and Italian sausages. I lived in mortal fear of that ride, and it would be 7th grade before I finally mustered up the courage to ride it.
Our games booths were at the opposite end of the midway, by the church. This was the area of the kiddie rides. They were always the last to arrive, and there would be much debate during the school week, about which rides would show up this year. The Merry Go Round, and the Umbrella Ride were always a given, but what else would they bring with them? Would it be inflatable bouncing “Moonwalk”, the small Ferris Wheel, the Octopus, or the Giant Slide. Walking out to our booths with Dad, I could size them up and see just who had guessed right.
Even though we had taken a family trip to Disney World when I was in the 2nd grade, I loved those rides more than anything that Disney could ever offer. I rode them every year I could until I was too big to ride them anymore.
By now the sun was baking the asphalt hotter than a pancake griddle, and it burned right through the soles of my Ked’s. I stood inside of the Hat Toss booth, as it was the one of our booths that had a canvas top to shade us from the sun. Year in, and year out we always ran the same 4 booths. The cane toss, the hat booth, the Fish Pond and the stuffed animal booth. I had been working with Mom in the Fish Pond for as long as I could remember. Helping a generation of Batavia kids hold onto the ancient metal poles with magnets attached, and guiding them into the round holes in the top of the orange box containing brightly colored plastic fish. When they pulled a fish out of the hole, I’d take it off the magnet, read the number on the bottom and fetch them a prize from the appropriate box. And oh what prizes they were! Little plastic cups mounted on a stick, with a string and ball attached, Plastic knives, rubber snakes, BB pinball games, and clear plastic magnifying glasses that were strong enough to light leaves (or ants) on fire if you held them still enough.
My older siblings and their friends were always conscripted to work the other games, and they would begin showing up around noon. As I got older, they’d let me help them out too. At the stuffed animal game, you’d pull tickets from a plastic jar, (10 cents a piece, or 3 for 25) and hope your number matched one of the winning numbers on the board. The cane toss took skill. You had to toss the plastic ring over the head of one of the canes on the game board 10 feet away. If you did you got your choice of a painted wooden dowel with a handle on the end, or one of the bamboo ones shaped like a candy cane. The hat booth was always Dad’s domain. To play you placed your money on one of the numbered squares on the counter, and Dad would spin the wheel. If your number came up, you got to pick from a wide array of plastic or styrofoam hats. There were Derbies, Straw Boaters, Top Hats, and even an English Bobby. If it didn’t my Big Bruddah would collect your $ by walking along the counter sweeping the coins into his apron. That was always my favorite part.
Every large family in the parish seemed to have a role in the Lawn Fete. You needed at least 4 kids to be able to staff a booth, but many families still had 6, 7, or even 8 kids to press into service. I was happy that the 20 Prospect clan drew the game booth. The hardest, sweatiest work at the lawn fete was always the food booths. The same families ran them year after year. The Dwyer’s always ran the French Fry booth, the Crimando’s ran the Waffle Booth, and I forget who ran the double sized booth where they cooked Hot Dogs, Hamburgs and Italian Sausage over a hot grill all day long in the sweltering heat.
For the grownups there was honest to God gambling going on in the rectory garage. The Pero’s always ran the craps table, while Mr. Welch worked the roulette wheel. In the days before Indian casinos, Church carnivals were the only place to gamble. Whether or not it was legal was a bit of a gray area, but no policeman would ever bust a priest for gambling, lest they end up in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks.
It is a well documented fact that for the entire decade of the 1970’s the weather was the same on the 2nd weekend in June. Saturday dawned with African heat and humidity. By the time of the parade in late afternoon, ominous clouds would start gathering in the West. As soon as the Firemen’s bands turned off of Main Street onto Summit Ave. the clouds would open. Biblical rain would fall for 15 minutes, as some ran for the safety of their cars, or the shelter of the “I Got It” tent.
As the day wore on, Mom would give me money, and let me slip out of the booth to go play “I Got It”. I can still hear the melodious voice of Al Boxall, “All ready now, toss ball number one…” followed by the sound of bouncing pink rubber balls. There were no better prizes at the Lawn Fete than the “I Got It” game. The Boxall’s used to tour the country every summer, setting up the tent at every fair and lawn fete. They brought with them real merchandise. Iron’s, Blenders, Toasters, Basketballs, Dart Boards.
After the post parade crowds finally began to dwindle, Dad would take me down to watch the rats and play some pull tabs. The “Rat Guy” came every year, and as far as I know, he still does. His game consisted of a spinning wooden table with different colors painted on it. There were holes around the edges leading to little wooden drawers underneath the table. Around the counter of the booth were colored squares, painted to match the wheel, each square with its corresponding odds marked beneath it. He’d spin the table, and place one of his white rats in the center. The rat would then scurry to the side and go down one of the holes. Place a quarter on a square, and if he went down one of your matching holes he paid you the corresponding winnings.
As the evening shadows lengthened the lights of the rides came on. A kaleidoscope of Blue-Green-Pink-Yellow lights swirled by amidst the constant sound of voices, and laughter. In the distance the loud speaker called out “Get you’re tickets on the Cadillac!!!”. Lesser parishes raffled off Chevy’s or Buicks, but St. Joe’s did things in style. Nothing but the biggest, newest, shiniest Cadillac from Mancuso’s would do. The drawing was always held near midnight on Sunday night, the culmination of the weekend. But Saturday night was when things got crazy.
I guess that’s what happens when you bring a few firemen’s bands together, and set them loose in a beer tent. Being Catholic meant that no event was official unless drinking was involved. The beer tent was always up against the fence by the convent, surrounded by a double row of snow fence to keep folks from passing cups of beer out to the underage kids. Walking past that tent, I could hear the wild, bacchanalian sounds coming from inside and wondered about the secret lives that grownups led.
After dark I would ride the Ferris Wheel, look out over the expanse of the whole glittering lawn fete, and drink it all in. Looking down at the roof of our school, dotted with little pink “I Got It” balls thrown there by teenagers, it seemed so small and inconsequential. Out over the tree tops the heat lighting would flash in the darkness, and deep down in my heart I knew just how fleeting and mortal life truly was.
Forty eight hours of food, color, and sound would eventually come to an end with Dad carrying me into the house, and Mom putting on my P.J.’s and tucking me into bed. The day after the lawn fete was one of the saddest, grayest days of the year. We’d all walk bleary eyed through the grounds, making our way into school, through the wrappings of hot dogs, and pull tabs, and cigarette butts. The rides were gone, cleared out overnight while we were sleeping. Only the half dismantled Ferris Wheel remained. When we reached 7th and 8th grade we would be allowed a day to wear jeans, and t-shirts and spend Monday cleaning up the grounds. In my Forty Two years of living I don’t think I have ever encountered a more vile stench than the grayish, pasty, ooze that coated the parking lot where the floor of the beer tent had been.
There would only be one week of school left. Time enough for final exams, and cleaning out our desks before the long, blissful, empty expanse of summer. Another year passed, another grade higher, one step closer to the day when rides and candy apples would lose their shiny luster.