This is an excerpt from my memoir in progress. Happy 4th and happy summer!
“Round and round! Well love will find a way, just give it time!” blasted over the rides, the games, the roulette wheel and a thousand clipped conversations. We watched the train of cars woosh by, climb, circle, and pass by again. They always played Ratt on the Vortex. Ratt, Crue, Scorpions — anything hard and heavy. We waited on line, ears throbbing, just to hurtle around and around that circle, music and motion giving us chills and sending us back to do it all again. But that wasn’t the magic of the fair, just one of the perks. The real draw was that everyone went — everyone in town.
During the school year, we saw everyone every day, from junior high through high school. There were 383 kids in my graduating class – about the same for the other grades – but everybody still knew everybody. And everybody knew everybody’s business, at all times.
Summer separated us, though. Once school got out, we retreated to our respective lakes, confined to our neighborhoods, unless we were lucky enough to run into someone at 7-11 soliciting the over-21’s who’d help high school kids score beer.
We had two fairs – the Mahopac Falls Firemen’s Fair and the Mahopac Firemen’s Fair. The Falls fair came in June – usually during finals week. Everyone went anyway, our last farewell before a lonely summer. But the Mahopac Fair was THE fair. They held it in late July. By that time we were starved for gossip, and drama, and a glimpse of our one true love, who lived on another lake and didn’t even know our name.
We’d pass by the firehouse on the way to Caldor’s during the week, noting the activity and its progress.
The rides came folded on trucks, paint peeling, red and white light bulbs dark; waiting for the magic hour. The Ferris wheel, the Salt and Pepper Shaker, the Tilt-a-Whirl, all unfolded for us over several trips to Caldor’s or Shopwell. Sometimes they’d assemble a huge slide, in the back of the parking lot, tucked away, but we could see early in the week, when the rides were bowed in their metal frames. The slide took a few days for the carnies to finish. Every year, they’d put all of the rides in the same spots. We didn’t know how they remembered, but the fair always looked the same, unless some add-on ride like the slide surprised us.
The grill was just right of the front entrance – no accident – the smell of grilled peppers, onions and sausage lured kids and parents alike to check out the stand’s menu. The firemen themselves cooked the sausage and peppers, burgers and dogs. Their sign told us that every penny from food proceeds went directly to the fire department, as if we needed persuading. Sometimes 18-year-old seniors from school volunteered for the fire department. They got to look brave but they were the first to admit they did it for the beer. They told us that the firehouse had a soda machine that dispensed cold Budweisers and the older firemen looked the other way when they drank them. Lucky for us, we had our 7-Eleven connections.
Next to the grill was a tent with the car they’d raffle off. Adults would gather around and admire the shiny prize. We didn’t give a rat’s ass about the car. It was a boxy, adult car – better for Boca Raton than Mahopac. We said if we won it, we’d sell it and buy a nice Camaro or a Mustang.
Next to the fence separating the lot from the street were the game tents. Roulette for the adults, water-gun races, ring toss, milk jugs – they were all there. Once I won a goldfish and Mike, who I used to like in junior high, came up to me and said, “I’ll eat that for five bucks!”
“Eeew, no, I’m taking him home. His name’s Sparky.” Sparky was a floater the next day.
Then there were the rides. The Vortex, of course, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Spider, the Round-Up, sometimes the Salt-and-Pepper-Shaker, and always the Ferris wheel. On the big slide, we’d climb up with a burlap sack (we never wondered where they got them) and we’d ride down on top of it.
Back behind the firehouse there were vendors with t-shirt decals and bandannas and a bunch of other stuff that appealed to our parents. That’s where they’d stroll, see and be seen. My parents never bought anything at the Fair. The vendors offered cheap household stuff. My mom wouldn’t buy anything without a name brand.
In direct contrast to school, where we dressed like miniature Manhattan models, high fashion at the fair had us in competing T-shirts, the more off-color, the better. We’d shop all year for the perfect fair shirt — not specifically, but we’d always keep an eye out for the most tasteless of T’s. A compliment on your shirt was a badge of honor, to be worn proudly through the night and ensuing weekend.
Sometimes the fair started Wednesday or Thursday, but those days were for little kids. Everyone who was anyone went Friday and Saturday night. You could ride the rides or shoot water at the clown’s mouth to blow up the balloon, try to knock down the silver milk jugs with a softball. You could eat. Firemen spend most of their time cooking for the guys in the firehouse so we knew their food was good. Beth’s family would go to the fair for dinner. Her mom couldn’t stop talking about the sausage and pepper sandwiches.
Our parents may have driven us to the fair but as soon as we got there, we split off and went separate ways. Sometimes we’d have them drop us off down the road, depending on how embarrassed we’d be to be seen with them. The adults went and got ice cream and took younger kids on rides but mostly they socialized with other parents they ran into.
We usually chauffeured one of my friends, so I wouldn’t have to walk into the fair alone. As soon as we got there, we’d take off for the ticket booth, get a long strip of tickets and head for the rides. On the way we’d cruise the game booths, check out the prizes, and note which denim-clad butts we could recognize from the back.
We’d get on line for the Vortex, chatting excitedly about who was here and who wasn’t. The blaring music ensured our privacy. Then we’d see a couple walk by – a new couple since the last day of school. Holding hands at the fair was a huge deal. It meant you were going out, no question. Going out was serious. You were committed. There was something called “seeing each other” at Mahopac, but it was more of a precursor to “going out.” You dated that one person, but seeing each other meant you weren’t quite serious. No one ever played the field at our school. That’s why it was such a big deal when a girl slept around. In Mahopac, a girl could date 50 guys in the course of her school career and sleep with all of them, without any repercussions. But if a girl slept with guys she wasn’t dating, even if there was only one, she was a slut.
In any case, the fair was THE social event of the season, and fair relationships sparked gossip, as well as envy, at least from me. I never had a fair relationship. The one time I had a boyfriend in high school, I went on a class trip to Spain during the Mahopac Fair. The other years, I focused all of my energy on finding out whether my latest crush would be there. Once I was there, Beth and I would walk around searching for those elusive crushes. We’d take time out for the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Ferris wheel – Beth always wanted to kiss a guy on the Ferris wheel. I don’t think she ever did.
I never got my kiss, either. I only had one boyfriend in high school, senior summer into senior year. But I went to the fairs. Year after year, we rode those death-trap rides, ate fresh-grilled sausage and pepper wedges, and trolled the crowd for gossip or love. When I remember Mahopac, I usually focus on the bad – the drugs, the sex, the alienation – but nothing can sully my memories of the fair. For a few days every summer, I felt what growing up in Mahopac was supposed to be – safe, innocent and idyllic. For those few days, I was just a normal kid, growing up in a small town, enjoying all it had to offer.