Ticket to Ride

A summer memory comes full circle

I have a guilty, borderline un-American secret. I hate amusement parks. Given a choice between root canal and Disney World, I would opt for the dentist every time.

I don't like crowds. I don't like noise. I don't like funnel cake. I don't like giant cartoon characters looming over me like neon-colored predators, nor do I want to stand on line for three hours to hyperventilate on the Doom Coaster.

But before you write me off as a whiny spoilsport, consider this: I hate amusement parks, but I love carousels. Also Ferris wheels. When I find a place where the two attractions coexist peacefully without Mickey or Goofy, I positively burst with summertime cheer. I happily queue up for both rides and I buy the value pack of tickets and invite everyone I know to join me. I might even spring for cotton candy, which is worse for your teeth than funnel cake, but looks prettier.

Carousels and Ferris wheels are the mainstays of local carnivals, which are distinctly different from amusement parks. Local carnivals have a certain unscripted charm. They are put on by churches or the firemen or some other benevolent organization, and they temporarily transform a familiar setting—a parking lot, an open field—into a garden of earthly delights. At dusk on a summer evening, the carnival is a place to inhale the smells of trampled grass and peanuts and watch the stars come out.

The fire department put on the annual carnival near my small hometown. It was the high spot of the summer, a handful of steamy, stay-up-late nights when dinner was hot dogs from the charcoal grill manned by red-faced volunteers and dessert was frozen custard swirled into drippy cones. My father bought us each a strip of cardboard tickets for the rides and games and turned us loose for a few hours of home-grown fun.

My first stop was always the carousel, drawing me with its oom-pah-pah Viennese waltzes and white horses with gold plumes and tigers with green glass eyes. I would ride until I was dizzy, holding tight to the metal pole and scanning the crowd of onlookers for my mother. I read once that you could feel hope for the human race when you watched parents wave at their children each time they whirled past on the carousel. Now that I think of it, the carousel is an apt metaphor for parenthood. You go and have an adventure. I'll be right here.

Wandering among the tents, I would stop to watch my brothers pitch baseballs at milk bottles with casual skill and win hideous stuffed animals or two dollar watches. I gave the pony rides a miss and moved on to my favorite attraction: the mouse house. Behind smeared viewing windows, trained mice in tiny costumes walked tightropes and jumped through hoops and sped around in miniature racing cars. I marveled at their sequined outfits and their apparently carefree existence beyond the glass.

I saved the best for last. The Ferris wheel stood at the center of the fairgrounds, outlined in white lights and broadcasting its own calliope tune. It cost three tickets to ride, but I had rationed mine for just this purpose. My sister and I climbed in and fixed the metal guard rail in place. The gears cranked and shifted as we began our slow ascent. When we reached the top, the wheel stopped and we swung in the moonlight. Below us, the carnival swirled and roared, but up there, it was still. I looked down at the tent tops, the tiny people, the fields and roads in the distance. For a breathless second, I seemed to see life whole, and the world—infinite, mysterious, vast beyond measure—summed up in this single view.