Glossy signs were tacked to electric poles all over town each July. The carnival was coming!
The dusty, burnt grass and cracked parking lots of the city park were about to turn into a wonderland of rides and games.
Rose City Rides pulled into town while we were asleep. At least it seemed that way. We didn’t see them arrive and didn’t go to the park early to watch them set up. That would ruin the surprise.
Instead, we started digging for change - in the couch, inside the car ashtray, and even outside along the sidewalks.
We cashed in bottles and did jobs around the house. If we wanted to go to the carnival, we needed money.
On opening night of the carnival, the town was hopping. Every car seemed to turn toward the park. Kids scurried down the sidewalks as if the pavement burned their sneaker soles.
I flip-flopped my feet toward the carnival, trying not to run. The pockets of my shorts jangled with coins. I felt rich and so happy that I lived in town, within walking distance of everything.
As I stepped onto the City Park, or carnival grounds, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It was a mixture of popcorn, motor oil and sweat. I took a deep breath through my nose and held it, adding it to my favorite memories.
Then the sounds. Tinny music wafted along the steamy air. Motors groaned and churned. Men’s voices yelled out scrambled words that sounded like chuckles.
Huge black electric cords snaked across the grass, connecting lights and noises together. Tiny trailers, painted gaily to conceal their rusty seams, housed cotton candy machines and funnel cake griddles. They circled the rides like old-west wagons; the aromas pelted us as we passed.
The Ferris wheel loomed like a giant hula hoop. Surrounding the giant wheel was the silver scrambler, the tilt-a-whirl, and little kids’ rides shaped like cars and airplanes and animals.
As I hurried from ride to ride, I eyed the booths at the perimeter of the carnival grounds. Men in sleeveless T-shirts sat or stood inside each one, calling out promises of terrific prizes for the price of one ticket.
I didn’t go to those booths. My favorite game wasn’t attended by a yelling man. It stood alone, like a glittery island.
The claw machines. Glass boxes filled with cheap cameras, rings, ceramic statues and belt buckles stood side by side atop a trailer that sat outside the hubbub of hawked games.
I bought my tokens, inserted one, and turned the metal handle on my chosen box.
A tiny claw swung crazily above the ocean of gifts. At a moment determined by fate, its descent began. The open maw flopped against an object below and the claw began to close.
I prayed for a prize. I watched the metal teeth scrape against a trinket and almost pick it up. Then the claw clanked shut and swung back to its perch just below the top glass.
More tokens. More tries with the claw. Prizes juggled and moved, changing angles. I couldn’t give up. Each token I spent got me closer to a win.
I won a few tiny toys that night, but nothing valuable. The best treasures were still there, just below the still-swaying claw. But I might win them yet, and all I needed was a bit of luck.
And I had reason to smile on my walk home.
There was tomorrow night and the next night. The carnival was in town and it was a magical time.