I was staying with Aldo that weekend, my parents gone on some trip that did not require my presence. The Creels were close friends of my family. I had spent two years of my life, every afternoon on school days, with them. Mrs. Creel was like a second mother to me, and Aldo was that older brother figure. Only six months separated our birthdays, but Aldo was a year ahead of me in school. At turns he was my protector and my tormenter.
On this occasion there was a fair being held in an open field a few miles from Aldo’s house. As fairs go it was small; a few rides, some games of chance and a snack cart selling sausages, cotton candy and corn dogs made up the meager offerings. It was our habit to take walks in the afternoon. We’d often walk to a local convenience store for a soda and candy; a walk of some 8 miles round trip. It was exercise of a sort, but more importantly it was a time to be away from the house. Regardless what snacks were at hand in the house, the walk was made under the pretext that we needed Raisenettes.
With nothing worth watching on television and the restlessness of very early teens Aldo decided we should walk to the fair. As usual, I agreed. We donned light jackets, as the October air was crisp.
weather is strange to those from more temperate states. The summers are sweltering and humid. Sweating does little to cool the body in the muggy Alabama summer. Winters are cold and wet with snow coming in late February if it comes at all. Mostly it rains in the winter. It rains in the summer as well. In Alabama , spring is often missed by the inhabitants; the climate seeming to blend from the cold, wet weather of winter into the hot, humid haze of summer. Autumn is the best season. The temperature is hot in the early months during the day and gradually turns into a pleasant coolness just before winter. Autumn nights are the most magical time in the state. An abundance of trees changing colors before giving up their last for the winter season gives the day a motley hue, but the nights have a power all their own. The scent is the key. Early autumn nights have a special scent that tells the people that the heat wave will break soon. Soon air conditioners will be turned off for the rest of the year and windows will be thrown open to take full advantage of the cooling breezes. There is a peculiar silence in the air on autumn nights. The chirping of crickets, the buzzing of mosquitoes, all the myriad sounds of insect life die away to be replaced by the rustle of squirrels in the trees and across the leaf strewn ground. As the season moves on into its height one can smell the chill in the air. A person can sit quietly upon the back porch and enjoy the sunset, and with it comes that old familiar scent. It is death. It is decay. The scent of a million leaves slowly dying mixed with the wood smoke from campfires and outdoor grills. It is the most wonderful scent in the world and it belongs to the autumn nights of Alabama . Alabama
Out into that crisp October night we strode. Halloween was only two weeks away and the feeling of it saturated the air. There must be some primitive, instinctive knowledge that comes to the fore of our brains around that time. Perhaps our instincts, those primal urges and truths we have civilized out of the species, still live deep within us. At that time of year our human minds open to the oldest thoughts and feelings, triggered by those smells of the cold and decay, reminded by the sounds of the lesser creatures preparing themselves for the coming winter by hording food and stocking dens. Whatever the cause, I found myself a little more introspective at that time of the season and perhaps a touch more superstitious. So we walked and talked and laughed as young men do. Telling one another lies meant to amuse and impress and speaking lightly of deeply held hopes and desires we walked the two miles to the temporary fair grounds. Aldo was the more practical of us two, always instructing me when he thought I had missed the point or purpose of some esoteric concept. I was the dreamer, always talking of what could be and what should be, never about what was. In that way we were a good team, I suppose. Aldo was decent at drawing, but lacked the soul of the artist. I was the artist who never had time to practice the skills. Aldo wanted to be a soldier. He fancied a life in the Army or Air Force with the grand goal of sergeant. Not for me. I wanted a life of adventure and excitement, always hoping against all rationality that monsters and ghosts were real. Not that I would know what to do if I actually saw one. Like all young boys I was brave amongst my peers and a coward when alone. Aldo talked and I listened. He was always so serious, or so it seemed to me then. He thought that I was not serious enough, citing my lack of common sense as inferior to his own superb command of conventional wisdom. I don’t know if it was true, my lack of common sense, I assumed it was true as most people told me that I lacked that most important quality. Yet I think it served me well, that lack. It is not good to find yourself so early in life. It leads to frustration at midlife, when our ancestors would be dying of old age. In this age of longevity we need to be younger longer to guard against a midlife burnout at the too young age of 40.
So we walked and talked and smelled the night air with its promises of Jack O Lanterns and ghouls, candy and toilet papered trees, leaf-strewn yards and mysticism. Past houses lit with families at dinner and houses dark and alone we trudged. Much of our path was lit by the comforting street lamps of a small town still a decade away from a McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, and only two decades removed from segregation and violence darker than any ghost or monster my child’s mind could conjure. Shortly we found ourselves within hearing distance to the fair. The music promised fun and excitement. The smell of popcorn, sugar, pepper and onions caused my mouth to water and I quickened my pace. Within minutes the lights of the miniature carnival could be seen against the treetops urging us onward until the fair itself was in sight. Upon arrival we found a microcosm of a fair, but it was still a thrill for an October Saturday night when you were too young to drive.
I remember the rides being smaller than the usual, but we rode them anyway. The food was as good as could be, though. Popcorn and cotton candy eaten out of doors while walking around the small attraction somehow tasted better than it would have at home. Standing at that fair ground I was reminded of my earliest memories of the Alabama State Fair. In those bygone days the carnival sideshow existed and was a major attraction. The horrible PC age would come to destroy that particular piece of
while I was still a youth and too young to realize what was being taken from me. I had seen the sideshows when I visited my first State Fair at the tender age of 6. My stepfather and mother took me to the fair and as was typical of my stepfather, no experience was to be missed. A lesson I would not come to appreciate until I was a grown man was instilled into my subconscious at that young age: life is the sum of one’s experiences, one should never pass up an opportunity to experience new and wonderful things. Only a child, I knew nothing about the nature of carnival. I knew nothing of the deep-seated need that normal humanity has to see the bizarre and unnatural only to justify its own mediocre existence. I was a babe in the woods on that night, seeing for the first time the giant Mexican rodent, the world’s smallest woman, the lizard boy, and countless other sights that have gone from the sanitized, prozac riddled landscape of an Americana I never made. I would visit fairs many times as I grew, sometimes with Aldo in tow. We had a hobby of visiting spookhouses on Halloween that we extended to the fairground spookhouses when possible. Always Aldo’s idea, I should add. No state or local fair I would visit after my first would ever again have the sideshows full of grotesque and wonderful freaks. Naturally this small fair visiting my town for a week had no such sideshows, but it evoked the memories all the same. I felt happy there, and that was a feeling I rarely felt in my life. America
We were barely adolescents and still some years from our requisite teen angst, but I can say that I was already in the throws of that hormonal malady even then. Perhaps all people feel at some time that they need to find their niche. I had moved to this town at the end of my third grade year and immediately found a world alien to me. I was the outsider and it did not suit me. Yet I had no desire to be like my fellows, only accepted by them. I found neither. It was strange at the time, but it looks different to me now. Memory is a dynamic thing; it changes over time. Our adult understanding, colored by our life’s experiences, realizes our memories in ways that we could not understand when the events occurred. Looking back I remember that at that fair, on a chilly October night full of the scent of a world dying for the winter, the sounds of the fair and the wind in the trees, I felt as though I had a place in the world. People I knew from school, people I knew to hold an intense dislike for me, walked past me and had no harsh words. It seemed as though the fair allowed us all to forget our roles, to lose our sense of pecking orders and pack mentalities and just be individuals interacting. The carnival, the spirit of abandon and sin, the traveling show that has no home and no place inside society, the tiny city of freaks and tramps that sets up on the outskirts of civilization felt like my place. I know it is not real. I know that the carnival is a show from the moment you pay your admission and enter the grounds. Every person in the carnival is there to cater to your whims and petty desires, taking your money and leaving you feeling as though you wanted them to do so. The multicolored spun sugar that is overpriced and yet seems a bargain to the reveler, the popped corn and hot dogs that could be purchased from the grocer for a fraction of the cost, all of the elements of the fair seem magical and worth the expense; and we paid the price time and again until we were exhausted and penniless. Then we took a last walk around the grounds, soaking up the sights, the smells, the noise, and the garish glow of the lights decorating rides, games, and snack carts. When we had nothing left to do or spend we headed for home.
The walk home was so different from the journey to the fair. It was sad. There were no more expectations and nothing to look forward to at home. We walked slower on the return trip, reminiscing all the while about events that had only just taken place. Back at Aldo’s house there was little to do of interest. Aldo was always calm and somewhat stoic. I was hyperactive. How many times I had tried to drag him into some amusement I couldn’t say. He was never one for games and although he had always had plenty of toys, most of his interests were solitary, being model cars and solo video games. There was a little known Vincent Price horror spoof on the television and I convinced him to watch that. Although I cannot remember the name of the film or even the basic plot, I remember that it was another thing that my world has lost: the seasonal programming. In those days you could always find a scary movie on the television on Friday and Saturday nights, more so during the Halloween season. The Creels didn’t decorate much for Halloween until Aldo became inspired during his high school years. This year marked the last time we would Trick or Treat, and we were probably too old for it even then. But I didn’t know that at that time. What I knew was that it was autumn and I had been to a place where I felt I belonged. What I knew was that the movie on television made me happy and that I liked this season very much. Christmas had been lost to me when I’d learned there was no Santa Claus (and obviously the Easter Bunny didn’t stand a chance after that), but Halloween was still mine. Now more than ever Halloween was mine. I think the seeds were sown that night that created a life long Vincent Price fan. I think that was the night my rose tinted glasses cracked and I saw the world beyond my petty, childish world of games and simplistic desires. Without knowing it, I had opened myself up to the world and the world had come in to fill me. I understood on some unconscious level that the world was one of masks and the carnival was the only true face it had. Hiding behind the greasepaint of clowns and the misshapen limbs of the “freaks” was the real world, an ugly world continually going about the business of living and dieing. One day I too would die, but for now I would live. The smell of death surrounded me that night and in it was the smell of life. Beside the oak tree whose leaves were changing through a calliope of colors stood a pine tree, giving up some of its needles to the ground so that others could live through the winter. The cycle of death and rebirth played out before me every year and I had never noticed it. I was a child lost in the world and I accepted it, but I never knew it then. Eventually we would sleep. In the morning sun the world looked wrong to me. My happiness of the night before was but a fading memory and a feeling of loss and pain.
I would visit fairs and carnivals again many times in my life, but something changed. Perhaps it was the realization of the lost carnival spirit of old, or perhaps it was my changing interests as I grew to manhood, or perhaps it was something else, but I would never again walk through the fairgrounds and feel my sense of place in the world. I would feel that sense of belonging again though. In tourist towns across the country, in amusement parks and atop mountains I would feel that thrill of that first moment when I had a sense of self. I would find it standing on storm swept beaches and while watching sharks swim in the aquarium. The false face of the tourist industry, always serving the interests of the customer would be my comfort. A world made just for me was to be found in every amusement park and every tourist trap I would visit. That false-faced world felt more honest than the mundane world of my existence. It’s the kinetic nature of it all. I think that is why the fair was never the same for me again. Life is transitory; one day it will pass away. My happiness seemed to lie in motion. The traveling show, the tides coming and going, the constant swimming of the sharks, it all pointed to a sense of impermanence. Or maybe I felt as though I was the freak, forever outside of society. We all strive to find our place and I think all those years gone I found mine…and it was no place.
I’ve felt it again and again since that night so many years gone by. Something will trigger the memory, especially as autumn comes to take the life of summer. A simple smell or the feeling of the breeze upon my face as the sun’s light fades into night will cause my chest to tighten slightly. I might feel my eyes water and a wistful smile rush toward my lips and then the memory returns and with it the full force of my feelings on that night. At that time I feel sad and alone in this great, Atlean world and I want to go back, to return to that time and again be that boy who wasn’t quite as jaded or angry as the man he has become. I want to find my place again, but I know I cannot. I will not find my place again until I am put into the ground, completing my portion of the cycle of life and death. The autumn comes and I know that some day I too will be only a short sunrise from winter and like the leaf that was once green and full of life I will turn dark of hue and fall, never again to rise and my living time on this Earth will pass. Then, when that time comes and there are no more answers for the questions I will not ask, I will find my place in the earth. Until then I’ll just keep moving.