Ah, it's that time of year again. In fact, it may be my favorite time of the year (aside from XMAS, of course, and also International Coffee Day Eve). Mid-April. The temperature outside has just gotten a liiiiiittle warmer. The grass is still moist outside from the snowmelt. There's the dank smell of muddiness in the air.
Last night, while driving, I had the car windows rolled down and I could hear the best sound there is in the world. It's the sound of those spring peepers, chirping away in swampy wetland, not too far off the main road. Oh, the sound of those peepers is the best sound in the world. The best.
Aside from being relaxing as anything, the peeper sounds also trigger a Pavlovian-like excitement deep inside my bodily cells. This excitement is undoubtedly rooted in my associating such sounds with April vacation.
Christmas vacation was always great and February vacation was okay, too, but April vacation trumped all of the three main school vacations. After all, it was the warmest of all vacations, you could sometimes even wear shorts, and you could watch the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day, go for hikes in the woods, maybe grab a cone at the local Bubbling Brook ice cream parlor (which had just recently opened its doors for the season), daylight savings time had come and gone, and the sun didn't fully set until almost eight-frigging-o'clock at night!
But warm weather, outdoor activities and ice cream cones were only a SMALL part of what made April vacation the bestest of vacations. When it came down to brass tacks, April vacation was the most anticipated of all school vacations because it meant one thing and one thing only:
The carnival was coming to town!
The "Billy Burr's Funorama" carnival, to be exact. For residents of Walpole, Massachusetts, this was the carnival of all carnivals, with games, food and plenty of rides...even upside down rides. When a carnival had upside down rides, you KNEW it was the real deal.
Indeed, Billy Burr's Funorama (no relation to the comedian Bill Burr in case you were wondering) would roll into town every year for April vacation and set up their "show" on Stone Field located behind Walpole's Town Hall. Stone Field was a Little League/Pop Warner field and Billy Burr's gang of vagabond carnies would arrive at the field on Saturday, assemble their respective amusement rides -- rusty bolt by rusty bolt -- and by Monday, Patriots Day, the carnival would be all ready to "amuse" the public with their rides.
I wish I knew exactly how many years the Billy Burr carnival came to Walpole, because I don't remember a time in my childhood when it didn't come, so I'm guessing at least the late-1980s to about 2007 or so? I would say it had a good 20-year run, though it may have even been longer than that. Not sure.
My earliest memories of the Funorama consisted of me begging my parents to take me to the carnival all April vacation long. By about Thursday or Friday, my mom or dad would finally cave and bring me there for a couple hours or so. No offense to my parents but my carnival experience with them was a tad on the dull side. No, not dull, that's too harsh. Let's instead say that it was a snooze-fest.
First of all, they would bring me to the carnival smack-dab in the middle of the day, around mid-to-late afternoon, and this was such a bad move because the carnival looked aesthetically terrible in the daylight. Not only were there no pretty lights but the rides looked faded in color, like they had been sitting in the sun far too long, weathered in parts and, in some cases, grimy.
Second of all, I had to go on all the kiddie rides. You know the ones; there was that "giant" (aka not-so-giant) super-slide you slid down on a potato sack. Then, there was the disorientating "mirror maze" that freaked the hell out of me. This was like a funhouse but it was all mirrors and you had to navigate yourself through what-seemed-like a labyrinth. This sounds like it would be easy but it wasn't always. And it made me feel very claustrophobic. Anxiety attacks were commonplace.
Then, of course, there were the bumper cars, a ride where you spent about 90% of your time either wedged in a corner or trapped between two other drivers who didn't know how to get their car to go in reverse. Also, the whole concept of the ride was awkward. You were trying to crash your car into complete strangers. As a child, I was conditioned to be a well-mannered boy and crashing into strangers made me uncomfortable.
As I got older, however, I grew tall enough to go on some of the more exciting rides...the most memorable of which was that Pirate Ship ride that swung back and forth like a pendulum. You know the one: if you sat in the way back of it, the ship would swing back and forth, get higher and higher, and then eventually it would go high enough so that you were vertical with the ground. The ride also gave you a funny tingling feeling in the 'down-there' area, not unlike climbing the rope in gym class.
Another ride that was equally amusing was the Rock and Roll. I suppose you would place this ride in the category of roller coaster (maybe?) but all it did was go in a circle, kind of like a spinning record player, go up and down a subtle incline, move in and out of a tunnel and it would go faster and faster as the ride progressed and then stop and go backwards halfway through. During the ride, rock and roll music blasted out of PA speakers and this music was DJ'd by a bandana-wearing, Keith Richards-looking carny stationed in a glass DJ booth. I believe this DJ even spoke into a microphone throughout the ride. He would say things like, "We're cranking up the speed, now! Let me see your hands in the air! Don't puke!"
As I grew even older, I graduated to the more adult rides and I also no longer needed to attend the carnival under adult supervision. I was a bit of a skater punk by this point in my life and my friends and I would spend much of April vacation skateboarding up at the Walpole High School's skate park with all its quarter pipes, launch ramps, fun boxes and what-have-you. After we got a good skate session in, we hopped on our skateboards, glided down Common Street to the center of town, hid our boards in a nearby bush and then hit up the carnival, skater-punk-style. 'Skater-punk-style' meant going on all the badass rides, the most adult of all the adult rides, the first of which was...
The Gravitron basically looked like a giant, UFO-like spaceship and, as a kid, it always looked so friggin' ominous from the outside. Upon entering, you would stand up against a matted wall and then you got "locked" inside. When the ride began, the ship would start spinning faster and faster and faster. The centrifugal force would make you start sticking to the wall, thus making it feel like you were literally losing gravity. You could crawl really high up onto the wall, flip yourself upside down and just hang out like that for the rest of the ride.
What I remember about the Gravitron the most was how it smelled inside, like a combination of stale puke and carny body odor. The latter aroma came from the sad-looking carny whose job was to sit in the non-spinning center of the Gravitron, running the ride and making sure the kids behaved themselves. He spent a small portion of the time messing with the Gravitron control panel, but throughout most of the ride he stared into space and looked despondent. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of thoughts went through his mind, or if he ever experienced motion sickness from watching kids spin around him all day. For the most part, I tried to pretend he wasn't there because he was a depressing presence and killed my carnival joy.
After the Gravitron, it was time for Super Loops, which was essentially a legit rollercoaster but it went upside down in one giant loop. Well, what would happen is the ride would start and the train-like cage you rode in would begin going back and forth along its track, kind of the like the aforementioned pirate ship ride. The train would get higher and higher each time it went back and forth and, eventually, you would stop at the top of the loop, completely upside down and, after that, you would go 'round the loop over and over again.
Looking at the pictures of Super Loops now, I'm amazed that I was so young and dumb enough to ever go on that thing. The ride was literally a giant, flimsy-looking loop of scrap metal supported by cables that ran from one side to the other. In other words, it didn't exactly look like a product of well-thought-out engineering. Also, consider the kind of people (i.e. carnies) who put these rides together; they weren't exactly the most trustworthy individuals on the planet, not that I'm carny-prejudiced or anything but, c'mon, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. I remember the man operating Super Loops looking like he had just gotten released from the State Pen! I'm honestly surprised nobody ever died on the thing...well, at least nobody ever died while it was in Walpole. As for anywhere else? Who knows. It's likely to have claimed the lives of several hundreds.
Now, Super Loops was badass and all, but it was NOTHING compared to the mother of all Billy Burr's Funorama carnival rides. This ride was for only the bravest of carnival-goers. You had to be fearless and you had to have a stomach made of iron. Of course, the ride I'm referring to is...
The Zipper basically looked like a giant caterpillar or maybe centipede. It went up high in the air, it spun on an axis, it went vertical, it went horizontal, it went upside down, and the 2-3 person cage you rode the ride in itself flipped upside down multiple times. It was a relentless ride. Just when you thought to yourself, "I can't take any more of this," you dropped into another intense free fall.
Oh, yes: the free fall. Those who have rode the Zipper must know what I'm talking about. There was one phase in the ride where your cage reached the highest point it could go and you dropped down into what-felt-like a true free fall from perhaps 70 feet up. This free fall would, indeed, give you the tingly 'down there' feeling and would then be followed by one or two or sometimes even three upside down flips in a row, depending on how you and your Zipper partner(s) shifted your bodyweight.
As a skater punk, I knew I needed to go on the Zipper and I knew I needed to go on it with the bravest of faces. It wasn't long into the ride, however, before the skater punk persona moved aside and allowed the screaming little girl inside me to reveal herself. That's right: the Zipper rocked my world...in a very scary way, yes, but, in the long run, it was the most exhilarating experience I'd ever had. At the time, I thought there was no bigger rush that you could get from anything in life. Of course, a couple years later, I went to Busch Gardens, rode Apollo's Chariot -- the rollercoaster Fabio notoriously got a bird-to-the-face on -- and quickly learned that there were larger rushes out there. And, then, a couple years after Busch Gardens, heroin came into my life and gave me a rush that made the Zipper and Apollo's Chariot seem like friggin' schoolyard merry-go-rounds.
Just kidding about the heroin.
But, yes, the Zipper gave me a rush like I had never experienced up until that point in my life. It was literally the king of all Billy Burr's carnival rides. I mean, this thing was so badass that it took a special, highly-trained carny to operate such a machine. I'm not sure he had to go to engineering school but he must've at least needed an 8th grade education. Unlike the other carnies who stared off into space and looked all zombie-like, the Zipper carny took pride in running his ride. He expressed this pride by wearing a faded-denim jacket with the Zipper logo patched on the back. In other words, the Zipper was his baby and he genuinely cared about giving carnival-goers the ride of their lives. He fed off of everyone's fear of his machine. He relished the sounds of all their screams!
In fact, it was probably the Zipper carny who possessed the most personality out of all the carnies. Well, this may not be true; that is, if you count the "barkers" as carnies.
The barkers? Yep, the barkers. I'm talking about the carnies who ran the rows upon rows of fun-filled carnival games. These barkers HAD to have personalities; otherwise they wouldn't seduce anyone into playing their (rigged) games and what carnival experience would be complete if nobody played those (rigged) carnival games? You know the ones; there was that shooting gallery game where you shot some sort of pebble gun at a piece of paper with a target. Then, there was a fishing game where you were given a magnetic rod and you tried to catch plastic frogs on lily pads that floated in a water tank. There was also a ring-toss-type-game but maybe I'm making that one up. Oh, and you had a game that tested how fast you could throw a baseball at a tarp with a catcher's mitt painted on it. And then, of course, you had that ubiquitous mallet game where you tested your strength and showed off to your girlfriend...
But my favorite game of all the games was always the basketball game where you would shoot a basketball into a net with a rim that was waaaaay below regulation in terms of its width. The rim was so narrow it would practically cough your friggin' ball right back out unless you got a perfect swish. This meant you had to be REALLY precise with your shooting. We're talking perfect shooter's wrinkle in the wrist. Flawless goose-neck-follow-through in your shot.
I spent a ridiculous amount of money at this basketball game and the biggest thing I ever won was a giant, furry, stuffed crayon. I probably spent $20 or $30 just to get this purple furry crayon that was probably made for about 30 cents with the blood and sweat of borderline-suicidal Chinese people. In retrospect, that's ridiculous. The fur wasn't even soft; it was kind of oily-feeling, like a carny had used it as a rag to wipe his hands on after setting up the oily parts of Super Loops. Or maybe the barker had used it as a napkin after eating a lunch of fried dough...
Oh man. Fried dough. So good. And the cotton candy. And the candy apples...the hotdogs, and the cheeseburgers. Carnival food was delish, even though it lacked nutrish. Get it? Lol.
I can bet what you're wondering right now: since Billy Burr's Funorama brought so much fun and joy to the hearts of so many carnival-goers, how is it that such a fun-filled carnival ever STOPPED coming to the town of Walpole?
Well, there are a couple theories behind this.
The town of Walpole's official excuse was that the carnival inflicted too much damage to the Stone Field that lied beneath it. In 2008, the field had supposedly just been re-seeded and town officials didn't want the carnival coming in and destroying the grass that they had just spent so much money on. Pretty lame, if you ask me. I mean, I had to miss out on my favorite carnival just so Little League and Pop Warner players had pretty green grass to play their sports on? Paleeeeeze. That's lame sauce, brother.
However, there are many Walpolians who claim that the "new seed" excuse was only the "official" reason for the carnival's disappearance, while the REAL reason was that the carnival, though fun and amusing for most, brought with it a lot of trouble.
Okay, it's true. Billy Burr's Funorama undeniably emitted a somewhat menacing vibe when it came to town and this energy did somehow manifest into trouble, pretty much every year that the carnival came around.
Part of this trouble came from the carnies themselves. Again, no offense to any carnival workers out there, but let's face it: most carnies are a unique breed. In fact, Billy Burr's carnies looked like they were from a different dimension altogether. They all had a burnt-out look to them. Sun-baked-potato-brown skin. Rotting teeth if they even had any chompers to begin with. Greasy hair. And a rotting soul. Okay, maybe 'rotting soul' is going too far or maybe I'm holding myself back in fear of being politically incorrect. No...no...NO! I'm going with rotting soul; I can't hold back the truth! I mean, I don't even remember those carnies ever uttering a single word, except for the Zipper carny, though that was more like a cackle as he got off on people's screams. For the most part, all the other carnies were silent. Eerie. Ghostly.
Not to go off on a tangent or anything (i.e. buckle up for a brief tangent), but the more I attended the carnival every year, the more I developed a fascination with the mysterious carnies. I wanted to know, where did these people come from? Did they travel with the carnival year-round? More importantly, where did they live while the carnival was in town?
I've heard two differing answers to the latter question, the first of which was that they lived in trailer homes. For a while, I thought this was true because there were several trailer homes parked in the municipal parking lot adjacent to where the carnival was. I was fascinated with this kind of lifestyle -- the vagabond lifestyle -- and it actually seemed very appealing to me. You could travel around America. Work at a carnival. Sleep in a trailer at night. It seemed adventurous. In fact, I figured that each carny must have hitched their respective ride to their trailer home and traveled from destination to destination. For example, the Gravitron carny would hitch around the Gravitron; the Super Loops carny would hitch around Super Loops; the Zipper carny would hitch around the Zipper. What I'm saying is that their respective ride was literally like their baby that they took from state to state, from sea to shining sea. Maybe they actually owned the ride themselves and Billy Burr rented them out. Yes, maybe they were all independent contractors and their ride was literally their bread maker. Or maybe some of the carnies leased the rides and the goal was to someday own them. Not that I've thought too much about this or anything...
However, in my later years, I heard that, contrary to my belief, the carnies did NOT sleep in the trailer homes but, instead, stayed in a nearby Walpole motel called The Boston View Motel. The Boston View Motel sounds like a luxury hotel but "Boston View" was a bit of an exaggeration because all you could see was the very tip of the Prudential building from about 26 miles away. Instead of five-star hospitality with wake-up calls and free continental breakfasts, The Boston View was more known as a place good for heroin deals, bed bugs and other $40-per-night shenanigans and, when I say "shenanigans", I'm not talking about pillow fights, people.
Anyway, I always preferred to believe that the carnies lived in the trailer homes as opposed to The Boston View motel. Trailer homes sounded more exciting to me. It was the more adventurous answer.
But where was I anyway? Oh, yes. The trouble. The carnies caused some trouble.
I guess what happened one year is that one of the carnies got in a fight with his girlfriend or wife. Some sort of domestic dispute. There was drinking involved. He hit or maybe even stabbed her. Okay, that's definitely NOT cool, brother...hitting and/or stabbing a woman is not cool, like, at all. But did that one isolated incident justify ending the carnival altogether? I mean, sh** can happen. Right?
Well, okay, there was more trouble, unrelated to the carnies. See, the carnival attracted all sorts of undesirable characters from Walpole to Boston, back to Walpole and to Providence, and...um...back to Walpole again. Some of these people were not always nice people. There was drug use, some theft, and most hideously, there was loitering. Lots and lots of loitering. Loitering! Everywhere!
Let's just say the Walpole Police Department found themselves VERY busy during carnival week.
Indeed, we're talking big trouble in little Walpole. I remember one year that Walpole planned on fighting Norwood in the dark field behind the carnival. From what I understood, this meant that members of Walpole High School (the Rebels) were due to fight members of Norwood High School (the Mustangs). And when I say "members", I mean as many members of each respective school as possible. It was due to be a big brawl.
Did the fight ever happen?
Do fights like this still happen? Or perhaps the better question is, does this kind of venomous animosity still exist between rival towns, enough animosity to make both towns want to beat the crap out of each other in a huge brawl?
No idea about that either. I just thought I would mention it.
But, yes, trouble, like the Cat Steven song says. The Billy Burr Funorama undoubtedly brought trouble to the town of Walpole. And, personally, I think it was this trouble that led Walpole Town Selectmen to make their final decision regarding the carnival's future:
"Know what?! Enough is enough! All this trouble is driving me bananas! The Billy Burr's Funorama is done! Finished! Adios!"
"But the citizens of Walpole will be upset! They love this carnival! You'll never win your re-election if you ruin their fun!"
"Then we must come up with a cover story. We must say that we've re-seeded Stone Field and we can't have it ruined."
"Brilliant! I'll personally write up the press release as soon as I run to the bathroom real quick. Too much coffee this morning. Haha."
"Haha. You're always good for a laugh, Thomas. I appreciate you."
Yes, I think that's exactly how it went down, folks. That's why the Billy Burr's Funorama doesn't come to town anymore. Fact.
Nevertheless, it was fun(orama) while it lasted. As a wise sage once said, you can take away the carnival, but you can't take away the memories.
I will personally NEVER forget Billy Burr's Funorama -- the excitement of the amusements, the fun of the games, the smells of the food, the noise of all the machinery, the sounds of screams heard from up close and far away -- nope, I will NEVER forget Billy Burr's Funorama. And I ask that you don't forget it, either. Say it with me now...
NEVER FORGET...the Fun-O-Rama.