Irresistible lure of the carnival

Mattie Procaccini

August 30, 1991|By Mattie Procaccini

I REMEMBER my eighth-grade Latin teacher's explanation of the derivation of "carnival." "Carnival," she said, "is a combination of two Latin words: carne, meaning flesh, and vale, meaning farewell."

Indeed, when the carnival rolled into my little New England town each August, there was an element of "flesh, farewell." It symbolized excess, temptation, festivity, anything but restraint.

The long caravan of trucks carrying disassembled parts of dTC amusement rides arrived about the same week every year. Overnight, it transformed the town common, a dusty, barren field, into a wonderland: the towering Ferris wheel, the whizzing whip, the dobby horses of the merry-go-round, the lines of take-a-chance booths.

I remember distinctly the carnival men with their longer-than-acceptable hair, their unshaven faces, their tattooed, sinewy arms. They tucked packages of Camels in the rolled sleeves of their yellowing T-shirts. Their prematurely aging faces betrayed stories we thought would have scandalized the most notorious of townspeople. How many of my dimes missed their targets, how many enormous stuffed animals I never brought home!

Then there were the machine operators. They stood at their posts, cigarette smoke streaming from their nostrils, passively pushing buttons and controlling cranks with grease-smeared hands, never establishing eye contact with their customers. They were powerful. They determined how many would board a ride next and how long the ride would last. Once I was securely strapped in my seat, I hoped fervently that the operator would be distracted so the ride would last longer. And of course, the rides -- those mercilessly squeaking, shaky, metal monsters -- provided such delight, such exhilaration, such fear!

I have carefully preserved not only my visual memories of the carnival, but my gustatory and auditory memories as well. Scattered throughout the park were numerous, compact, portable stands which provided a less-than-wholesome delicatessen of childhood delights: hot dogs; swirls of sticky pink and blue cotton candy; "nutty buddies" and bright red, tooth-challenging candied apples. While wading through the dusty grounds, I was aware of the chorus of sounds in the background: screams from the haunted house, the squealing of the Ferris wheel pulley, the organ of the merry-go-round and the distant droning of the bingo caller.

My curiosity would lead me to trailers on the outskirts. These dingy places were the housing for the itinerant workers who swelled the population of our town for five days each summer. I wondered where they had been, where they would be going, how they received their mail, how long they endured this nomadic life. I'm sure I was not alone in harboring (though only momentarily) a desire to abandon my small-town, humdrum existence and join the carnival life.

This summer and fall, all across this country, in small towns, in big cities, at state fairs and county fairs, carnivals adorn the landscape. They continue to thrill children, empty adults' pockets, reward communities with a certain percentage of profits and alter collectively the mood of their clientele. Although today's carnivals may be more sophisticated than those of my memories, the motion and light, the exuberance, the delight and the lack of fleshly restraint endure.

Mattie Procaccini teaches English at Old Mill Senior High School in Millersville.

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