A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Parking Lot

The boys spent the day at the carnival. With money they earned working this summer, they purchased wristbands granting them access to unlimited rides. For ten hours (with a brief pizza break for dinner) JJ, Christian, and Annie’s nephew alternated between long lines and thrill rides.

It’s the perfect end to summer: bright lights, circus music, lost equilibrium, feelings of weightlessness, laughter, screaming, fear, excitement, deep fried foods, and cotton candy. The carnival midway is a source of joy and wonder, the freedom of childhood and the gift of nostalgia. After their first week of school, we rewarded them with a day at the fair with as much fun their legs and stomachs could handle. The summer season is complete and fall begins from the top of the world.

Granted, it was only the boys who made an endurance run of the carnival. Annie and I took Steven and our daughters through the animal exhibits then wandered through the commercial and craft vendors and finished our evening at the rodeo. As we left the arena, I texted Christian to let him know we were ready to meet up and head home. He replied with a text and a picture.

“20 minutes? I’m in line for this.”

OK, fine. We agreed this would be their final ride of the night. The rest of us sat down to watch some side stage entertainment and waited for the boys to be done with The Zipper. A half hour later, he sent me another text with another photo.

“So close. We are right under it.”

Thirty minutes later, they were done stepping out of the flipping cart and headed our direction for the walk back to the parking lot.

Before I continue, I should describe the layout of the Spokane Interstate Fair for those who have never attended. There are actually two carnivals. The big one with all of the main attractions is situated on the north end, and a smaller carnival with tamer rides aimed for younger audiences on the south side. A row of buildings (Avista Stadium, the Expo Center, and the Grandstands/rodeo arena) are host to the multitude of performers, artists, food vendors, and merchants and divide the fairgrounds in two. The boys spent their day in the northern carnival, but the exit to the parking lot forced us to walk through the food trucks and marketplace and by the kiddie carnival to return to where we parked our cars.

Once we reached the kiddie rides, the older two of the three boys spotted a harmless attraction nearby and hatched a wild idea: could they make it harmful?

It’s the bear ride: giant metal teddy bears with benches inside. Riders sit on the interior benches, and hold on to a disk in the middle. If you pull on the disk, the bear spins in a circle. Whether you decide to spin it fast, or slow, or not at all, all of the bears sit on a track which pulls all of the bears in a bigger circle. Christian and Annie’s nephew (a freshman and sophomore in high school) took one look at this ride and pondered the possibilities. They asked “How fast do you think we could get that thing to spin.” They begged for one more ride and despite the late time, we relented.

This is where the story gets funny. Immediately after I snapped this picture, a younger boy asked to join them. The carnie took his ticket and let him in, but all the other bears were full. The only available seat for this kid (who looked about six or seven years old) was next to the two teenagers looking to exploit this ride in ways it was never intended. The boys granted permission and this little kid climbed in next to them. Then they started to spin. Faster and faster. The carnival worker hadn’t even started the ride and the boys had already reached maximum rotation speed.

In my mind, I could hear the intimidating words of Willy Wonka: “There's no earthly way of knowing which direction they are going. Is it raining, is it snowing? Is a hurricane a-blowing? Not a speck of light is showing. So the danger must be growing. Are the fires of Hell a-glowing? Is the grisly Reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing and they're certainly not showing any sign that they are slowing!” (sounds of maniacal screaming)

So they spun. By the time the worker pulled the lever to start the actual ride, the little kid who joined the big boys already looked a bit queasy. Their rapidly rotating bear slowly followed the ring track to where Annie and I stood. In the time it took for their bear cart to pass us, they made three full revolutions. With each fleeting passing glimpse, the older boys displayed an unchanging expression of fierce determination. They might have obtained the fastest speed allowed by the laws of physics, but they believed in a perpetual acceleration science cannot explain. Even if they couldn’t go faster, they were not slowing for anything.

Their ride-a-long passenger did not carry the same passion for reaching terminal velocity. His emotional state was rather conflicted. Every time we saw his face, he alternated between a look of unbridled glee and complete terror. He screamed in fright, and he giggled nervously. He screamed again, looked like he was going to vomit, laughed, cried, and squealed a half-hearted cheer.

His vocal expressions were also experiencing an existential crisis. In one passing, we heard him shouting, “Wheeeeeeeeeee!!!!” Then the next time he spun by, we heard him whimper, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Then “NOOO!” and “Why?” before he was laughing again.

When the ride ended and their cart finally locked into place, the little kid was the first to disembark. He was unsteady on his feet and his smile twitched in and out of existence. He looked confused, like he had just endured electroshock therapy and was trying to decide if it was horrifying or exciting.

After a few staggered steps, Christian walked up beside him to lend a helping hand. “Are you OK kid?”

He stared at Christian in a daze. “Uh-huh.” He feebly replied. He swayed out the gate, up to a parental figure and asked “Can I go again?”

You just know this kid is braver now than he was before. He’s going to go back to school and let his classmates know about the time he joined some teenagers on a carnival ride that spun so fast he could see the future. One day, his kids are going to ask why he’s never sacred, and he’ll answer, “One day, I rode a bear so powerful and dangerous; I could taste what the color purple sounds like. I’ve feared nothing since that day.”