By Matthew Heneghan
A sunbeam snuck in through a timeworn crack of the bleacher roof.
The heat of it against my forehead caused me to squint and shuffle back an inch or two in my seat.
I had just arrived, tea in one hand and a breakfast sandwich waiting to be devoured in the other. I rested contently along the aged wooden planks of the seating area, sipping and chewing calmly. I could hear the sibilant buzz of black flies and other airborne insects dancing in flight all around. Though the place I had known as a kid was now overtaken by the unkempt foliage of nature’s embrace, I could still see everything in the way of which I had known it to be all those years ago.
The longer my gaze lingered at these forgotten grounds, the more potent memory became. Soon, the aggressive weeds and twisted vines began to recede from view. I was painting with a varnish of fond memory atop all that I was seeing. The race track where the derby was held quickly rid itself of the dandelion infestation. All I could see was the raked dirt, ready and eager to be tossed by the churning rubber of dueling cars. I could almost hear the roar of patchworked engines and the unmistakable metallic wail of struggling chassis’. My nose remembered the swirl of fine dirt and oiled exhaust. A smile came to my face.
The Salmon Arm Fair was always a great time. And as I have gotten older, the more special the time spent there has become. The simplistic version of why that is, is because it was fun! It was a time to be relatively free from the watchful gape of our parents, all the while spending their hard-earned money on rigged carnival games that really made you feel as though you could win – for just one more token, of course.
As a boy, my time at the fair was respite from the realities of my everyday. On those dusty walkways, hay-laden barns or high-up on one of the rides, I was just a kid, like any other. I was no longer ‘Matt, the boy without a father and a sick mother’. It didn’t matter that I had been abused or that my glasses were just a size or two too big.
At the fair, I was just like everyone else. To me, it was also symbolic for the start of my favorite season – autumn. Something about that subtle chill in the evening air made all the majesty of the fair just that much more special. The lights a little brighter, the cotton candy just a bit tastier, and of course, the rides even more exciting.
That iconic UFO design, the angulated 48 padded panel lean-backs and, of course, the centrifugal force that foisted our tiny bodies against its whirling walls—now THAT was our ride. I remember the first time my eyes met with that grounded spaceship. A classic flying saucer in appearance, but the speed at which it moved, round and round, seemed almost impossible. I was with my best friend, Drew and our gaggle of ne’er-do-well’s when this monstrosity first came to the town fair. We each stood motionless, gawking at the space-aged splendor of it.
“Holy sh@t… let’s do it!” Harvey tittered. The boys were quick to agree and started moving nearer to the entry gate. I followed, reluctantly.
Drew looked back at me and upon feeling his gaze, I forced a smile and stammered, “this is gonna be awes… awesome!” Drew struck my arm in a friendly gesture of agreement and said “yeah!”
Inside was a panoramic display of wall tiles that we were to claim respectively while awaiting further instruction. I leaned back, situating myself in-between Harvey and another buddy, Robbie. Drew was beside him and appeared to be absolutely devoid of any fear or reluctance. This was in complete juxtaposition of my internal happenings. My guts were a warring mess of corn dogs, root-beer, half a bean burrito and some cotton candy.
The one source of happiness for me in this terrible scenario, was that it was dark enough to hide the more obvious features of my fear—like sweat—I was sweating buckets.
I heard a sudden and horrific “thud,” indicating that the door had now been locked. I was now beyond the point of no return.
An announcer’s voice began to bleed through the speakers. An enthusiastic orator who assured us of certain doom. After he was done telling us how terrifying and exhilarating this was going to be, he ceased talking and some obnoxiously loud electronica music started to wail in. And along with that, a dull crescendo of a motor began to rumble from beneath my feet. I looked down and wondered if we were about to explode? But rather than meet an untimely end, and much to my pleasurable surprise, we did not explode. Not at all. Instead, we began ascending the walls in defiance of gravitational forces. The ride was in full effect. Fear was escaping me as elation took hold.
That was one of the most unique experiences of my young life to that point. I was not being thrown mercilessly in the air or tossed from one direction to the next as I had feared; I was merely defying that which is unquestionable –gravity – and I was only 14!
The ride ended and we ran to the fields of the fair ground. Now standing outside of the Gravitron, our trope devolved into cackles and guffaws while trying to out-speak one another on which part of the ride was the best! It was during this zealous parley that we decided to do it again.
On one ride through, Harvey discovered that if you spit into the air, instead of one’s own loogie landing atop of them, it would traverse in an arbitrary direction, hitting an unsuspecting wall rider. Usually one of us.
That year at the fair was one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So much so that, in the present, while seated in the bleachers, I noticed I was smiling while reaching to my cheek to see if I had spit on me – I didn’t.
When I looked around after returning from this memory, the grounds had been retaken by nature. My smile softens as I contemplate the reality that there will be no fair this year. The virus has isolated that staple as well.
When I was finished my tea and sandwich, I traipsed around the nooks and bends of the fairgrounds. Standing in the footprints of the past, things began to feel much simpler back then, even though they were not. But at the Salmon Arm Fair they were. It’s the one moment and time in my life where I can truly say, and I’m going to quote a famous figure here… “I’m a real boy!” No lie.
There is a song that says “you can never go home again… things are just never the same.” And that’s true. But being here, being in this place that forged me, it gives reminder to me that as bad as things can be, they can also be great! Out of this world great!
So, although this is the fall of the fair, for now, I say this: it will rise again – in defiance of gravity and virus. These bedraggled grounds will once again be mowed, swept and festooned by farmers’ produce, livestock, laughing hoards and every accoutrement synonymous with our little town’s big fair.
And maybe, just maybe one day, I’ll ride that magical ship again. With a face shield of course!
Former Salmon Arm resident and Salmon Arm Secondary grad Matthew Heneghan served as a medic with the Canadian military, works as a paramedic and is the author of the book, A Medic’s Mind. Matthew currently resides in Toronto, but one day hopes to return home to Salmon Arm – and not just for a visit.