This time of year always brings to mind my favorite event back when I was a teenager: the annual carnival that came to Manchester every spring and set up next to the JFK Coliseum.
My friend Janet and I faithfully went to that carnival on a Friday night every year. We would walk from my house all the way to the JFK, which was about a 45-minute walk, just to spend our hard-earned babysitting money on rides, junk food and games that were nearly impossible to win. If we didn’t come home penniless and nauseated, then we didn’t consider the night a success.
My favorite carnival treat was a caramel apple, and my favorite ride was the Octopus, which was a ride with eight “arms” that went up and down, with seats that spun around on the end of each arm.
I never ate another caramel apple again.
As Janet and I stood near the Octopus afterwards, our faces green and the scenery still spinning, two really cute guys walked by us. One of them had blond hair and was wearing a light-tan suede jacket. The other was dark-haired and clad mostly in denim.
“Wow, look at those two cool guys!” Janet said, embarrassingly loud enough for the guys to hear. They turned around, stared at us for a second, smiled, and then walked over.
“Want to ride on the Octopus?” the blond guy asked. “Our treat.”
At that point, I would have preferred to have been dropped naked from a helicopter hovering over a field of thorn bushes, but I managed to smile and say, “Sure!”
Masochists that we were, Janet and I boarded the ride with them. I sat with the blond guy, and all I can say is he was lucky the ride didn’t go even one more revolution, because his tan suede jacket would have been covered with caramel apples.
Janet and I also always enjoyed playing the games at the carnival. We managed to win a few small prizes, my most exciting being an 8”x10” mirror with a picture of the Bee Gees etched into it. One year, however, a new game appeared, and the prizes were huge: TV sets, radios, stereos, fancy cameras. We immediately were interested.
“The game starts at 25 cents, the carnival guy told us. “All you have to do is toss a ring around one of these pegs. On the back of each peg is a number. That’s what makes tossing your ring such a challenge. You can’t tell what number you’re aiming for. When your numbers total up to 25 points or more, you win your choice of prizes. But…if one of your rings lands on a peg with a black star on the back, you lose all of your points.”
To give us an example, he let Janet toss a ring. It easily circled one of the pegs. The guy, who was standing behind the pegs, stooped to read the back, then excitedly said, “24! If you were really playing, you’d need only one more point to win your choice of any prize here!”
Janet and I were hooked. Imagine, I naively thought as I eagerly dug into my change purse, coming home with my own TV! No longer would I have to beg my parents to let me watch “Gilligan’s Island” when they wanted to watch some boring old TV show like “Lawrence Welk.”
We handed our quarters to the guy and threw our rings. Mine landed on 19 and Janet’s on 20. “Now, if you want to continue, it’s 50 cents,” the guy told us. Janet and I were confident our next shots easily would add up to the much-desired 25 points or more, so we turned over our money.
Janet’s ring landed on a 2, and mine on a 1. “Now it goes up to $1,” the guy informed us. Janet and I hesitated. A dollar was a lot of money back then. Still, that TV set sure was a beauty. We dug out our dollars.
To make a long story short, we both ended up hitting the dreaded black star just before our totals reached 25.
I narrowed my eyes at the guy. “I want to actually see that black star!” I demanded. “In fact, I want to see the backs of all of the pegs! How do we know you were telling us the truth when you told us what was on them?”
He shook his head. “No unauthorized personnel allowed back here. You just run along now, OK?”
“I want my TV!” I protested. “You’re a cheat!”
When passersby began to turn and stare, he reached under the counter and pulled out a couple teddy bears and handed one to each of us. “Here,” he said in a hushed voice. “Take these and leave.”
Only because he was big and mean looking with a lot of tattoos did we leave. But he’d ruined our night. We didn’t have any money left to spend on our favorite treats or any other games.
We never saw that peg game at the carnival again. Janet and I liked to think it was because some customer who was a professional wrestler with an anger management problem had played it and got really ticked off at the guy…and then he’d shown him exactly what he could do with his pegs.
I really do miss those spring-carnival days – the ice cream and fudge, the Octopus and the ferris wheel, the games and the cute guys.
But most of all, I miss that deluxe black-and-white portable TV, which I’m still positive I won.
# # #