Kiddie Coasters and Calamari
Red and yellow flashed and swirled in the empty field at Gabreski Airport. It was probably not a good idea to hold a carnival next to a landing strip. Confused pilots, lost in the night and trying to find the tarmac, could have ended up landing in a ski ball lane. But the Village was willing to compromise air traffic safety for fairground fun, and I, a boy of about eight, was not challenging the decision. All summer I had watched this roaming carnival move along the East End, popping up in one town, appearing in the next hamlet over, waiting for it to finally reach Westhampton Beach. But standing in the field that night, I wasn’t excited anymore.
I had recently suffered what I believed to be a near death experience. At a restaurant, not far from the fairground field. The place tried too hard to seem indigenous to Long Island; constructed in the shape of a lighthouse, as if to warn drivers in the night not to become smashed on the rocks of cocktails set at lavish prices. I sat inside the faux lighthouse before a plate of calamari.
As I sucked on squid juices, I imagined the salty fisherman braving the rough sea, which swelled at the sides of their ship and tried to pull the vessel into itself. The fisherman battled a kraken-sized calamari, firing harpoons into the beast as it flailed its tentacles in defeat. As I was thinking how grateful I was to these men, to go into such danger just so we all could enjoy a crusty appetizer for $14.95, my throat closed. The squid, as if its suction cups were still animate, latched itself to my esophagus. Revenge for being lightly battered and garnished with lemon.
As I gasped for air, my life flashed before my eyes. Mostly episodes of SpongeBob. But a few other scattered images. The flow of the Peconic as I kayaked along the river. The sound of foot on aluminum while playing kick-the-can with other running children on a privet-edged lawn. The smell of the Shinnecock bay at low tide. The tumbling world as I rolled down the high dunes of Montauk on a day trip.
The strobe light scenes ended when my mother wrapped her arms around my gut and constricted me. The calamari dislodged out of my throat and I collapsed into my chair. For the rest of the night, I didn’t dare touch any food.
And now I didn’t dare approach any ride. The Ferris wheel, red lights following the curved rim sixty feet up, was too high. The Whiplash, spinning on three separate rusty axes, was too aptly named. I could only see myself getting on the kiddie coaster. Shaped like a green dragon, the ride would carefully clank upwards till it reached it’s apex, at which point the dragon would fall slower than it had risen; its belly filled with sleeping toddlers, worn out from the carnival and lulled to sleep by the soft descent.
My brother told me he would force us to go on either the Zipper or the Gravitron, the two most daunting options available. Having two more years than me of carnival experience left him unfazed.
“They’re not even that scary,” he said. There wasn’t much evidence to substantiate that claim. The Zipper, a large, phallic, spinning cylinder where people locked in rusty cages were flung around, looked poised to go rogue. As I had just played the fair’s most dangerous game – colon roulette at the corn dog booth – I didn’t want to spend what might be hours stuck in an enclosed space with my brother, for both our sakes.
The Gravitron, on the other hand, was a mystery. People stepped into the black sphere, the doors closed, and then the whole system twirled faster and faster until was impossible to tell whether it was moving at all. What went on inside? I couldn’t imagine. All I could think about was the sphere becoming detached from whatever kept it grounded to the soggy grass of the field. Flung across the fair in an instant. Tearing everything up into frenzy. Lights flashing, explosions, twisted iron structures ripping open overstuffed Rastafarian bananas and Winnie-the-Poohs. Sirens going off for a whack-a-mole high score as volunteer firefighters arrive. The Gravitron was the clear choice. The safest place in all that destruction would be inside the ride. That’s what I told myself at least as my brother and I stepped into the momentarily stationary sphere.
In the center circle the professional operator, a tired teenager plugged into a Walkman, flopped over his controls. I followed my brother along the arc of the interior wall. The two of us stopped at the antipode of the entrance and waited as others filed in. In a few minutes we all would, possibly, emerge from the ride as the last survivors in the post-apocalyptic Long Island. I examined them. The team entrusted to rebuild. It would consist of a couple of wife-beater clad young men, a foreign tourist couple, and a complete family unit with three young boys. And the flopped operator.
The door sealed. I accepted my chosen fate. The operator straightened up and slapped a large button. And the ride lurched, began to move. I knew to ignore my brother’s advice to make a fist in front of my genitals, but besides that, nothing else. I was clueless as the ride slowly picked up speed. I noticed then that between the center platform and the walkway we stood on was a gap where I could peer out of and see the knotted grass of the field.
I suddenly felt the pull and as I was sucked into the padding on the wall. I could feel the summer sweat of previous riders seeping out onto my neck, arms, bare legs. I panicked, flicking my eyes left and right like I was trying to latch them onto something, someone. But then I noticed. Everyone loved this. The wife-beater wearers were inverted on the wall. The couple held each other sideways. The three boys inched themselves along the wall in all different directions. And my brother woo-hoo’d above the rumbling engine.
I suddenly noticed I was placidly stationary against the wall. I looked at the gap and saw the grass circling around my feet. And I relaxed. For a few seconds, inertia and perspective conspired to have me believe that, yes, the world did revolve around me.
The ride spun down and I detached from the wall, enthralled by the experience. I felt invincible. I could take on any ride. I took on any ride.
I rode the Ferris Wheel. I rode the Whiplash so many times my head was floppy. The Zipper was nothing more than a teacup ride to me.
At the end of the night, just before we left, we made our way to the dragon ride. It was a joke. We both knew we were well beyond that kind of ride. But we were the diarchs of the fair. We needed to ride it to claim it.
As we hopped on the head of the dragon and rose up with it, then eased downwards, I laughed. Laughed at how easily I slayed this beast, after walking away alive from the tornado of the Gravitron.
The next day, I was digging a trench in the sand around my castle at Rogers Beach. It was a blue flag day, rough waters, so I didn’t want to swim. I spent time practicing my architecture in the dry sand.
It was then my mother told me. Just a few minutes after my triumphant victory lap on the dragon, it had derailed, plunging over its soft curve after the first drop and flipping. She said there were injuries. I imagined multiple toddlers, who seconds before were riding with heavy eyes, suddenly hurdling towards the hard-packed field floor; like planes thrown off by carnival lights.
The soft and easy things, like kiddie coasters and calamari, are out to get us. Maybe it was just a boy’s hubris, but I saw solace in the scary. I stood up from my castle creation and walked to the edge of the swelling ocean. I timed it a bit, and ran, jumping over the crest of a wave and plunging into the cold, salty water.