“We must not let in daylight upon magic.” Walter Bagehot (in reference to keeping Queen Victoria out of politics and the monarchy noble)
Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved carnivals–fireman’s carnivals, carnivals popped up overnight in parking lots like toadstools after rain, fundraising carnivals. The Centreville Volunteer Fireman’s carnival was the highlight of my summer. We’d wait till dusk, then cruise up the highway to the fire department, park on flattened grass and hurry to the midway, our feet churning puffs of fine red dust.
My favorite game was Pick-Up Ducks. As plastic ducks bobbed along the metal trough, I’d grab one, eager to see the number on its dripping bottom. Prizes were tacky and forgettable but at least I always won. I’d try to pitch pennies, but never landed one in the green Depression glass saucers.
Next I’d tear off to ride on the Merry Mixer with my stepfather, who was puce green himself when the ride was over. The Ferris wheel looked exciting, lit from top to bottom, but I had a fear of heights. No matter how big I was, I’d always pick out a fine steed on the merry-go-round.
My love for carnivals shows up in my books–an expression I used in The Big Green Pocketbook, the last chapters in Rebel McKenzie take place at a fireman’s carnival. When I was ten, I discovered a book called The Secret of the Stone Griffins, by Elizabeth Finnegan, that had a carny background. I learned a few of the secrets of the carny world, such as the swords the sword swallowers use are one molded piece so they don’t break off. Not a glaring searchlight on the magic, just a brief little match flame.
This weekend my husband and I were in Colonial Beach for the annual fireman’s carnival and parade. We missed both parades (too late for one, too hot for the other), but strolled along the carnival and craft fair. I hoped to see the carny ticket seller slap a customer on the back with a chalky hand so the concession guys would know he was an easy “mark.” Most of the men ambling around sported tattoos so it was hard to tell if they were juice men (ride operators and electricians) or people like us.
It was a gorgeous day, cloudless blue skies, June-hot. The gaudily-painted rides seemed overexposed in the bright sunlight. No one opted to hop on the Dizzy Dragons or the Airplanes. I couldn’t tell what most of the rides were supposed to do. There was no jenny (merry-go-round) and the rides were still attached to the flat-bed trailers they were transported on. In the old days, rides would be take off piece by piece and assembled by hand, with a decorative skirt to hide the wires.
But mainly it felt wrong to have a carnival running at noon. Carnivals should doze in the daytime like lions. At dusk, the carnies should flip on the lights, wake their rides slowly, then let the beasts roar to life. Then, and only then, is the magic real.
[Note: I processed my most unmagical photos in Elements 10 and RadLab to give them the oversaturated, vintage postcard quality.]