Two decades ago, my husband Dave and I stood among the parents waving and grinning as our kids whirled in a silver Scrambler car or spun by in an oversized teacup. Easton’s Fireman’s Carnival has expanded since then and our children have grown up and left home, but the scene is still gloriously familiar. Bells clang, neon lights flash. Kids kick off their flip-flops as the Rip Cord ride rises slowly up a glittering shaft, then – whoosh! – drops its cargo of shrieking passengers. Indulgent dads squeeze into tiny compartments next to their gleeful little ones within a winged serpent for the Cobra’s gentle, undulating version of a small-scale roller coaster. Tan, lithe-limbed teenagers saunter and flirt with much self-conscious hair tossing (girls) and elbow-nudging (boys) as they enjoy a summer’s night out. Wafting over all is the whiff of grilled hamburgers and the sweet, sweet scent of sticky cotton candy.
Dave and I are the rare adult couple strolling without children in tow. For us, this is a chance to wander, hold hands, and catch up with friends and folks from earlier life stages. We spot parents of our children’s school friends, and even some of their former classmates, their second, third and fourth grade faces still recognizable in thirty-year-old bodies. But our memories are not what they used to be; periodically, one or the other of us furtively whispers, “Name?” as someone familiar, but not immediately identified, approaches with a smile.
We make our rounds of the rides remembering when we had the stomach for the lurch, spin and soar of Zero Gravity, the Dodgems, Ali Baba, and Dizzy Dragons. No longer. Dave owes me my annual stuffed animal, so we head to the games and stop at a baseball toss, a likely choice because Dave was a pitcher in high school. We chat with Irv Snow, who is one of those on duty at the booth. Almost every tent, game, and attraction is manned by one of the town’s volunteer firefighters, putting in still more hours on behalf of Easton’s fire department. I’m surprised how many people I know who are wearing firefighters’ blues tonight.
Dave’s pitching prowess wins me a stuffed purple turtle to add to last year’s Chihuahua, and the dolphin and long-legged brown bear of years past. As is our tradition, next we slip into the baked goods booth to savor a slice of blueberry pie in a flaky, buttery crust. Delicious. We catch up with Carol Mulligan who has volunteered here for as long as I can remember, then Dave and I beeline for the Bingo tent: for us, the high point of the carnival.
The place is jammed and we scan the tables for two open seats together. We recognize Kyle Haines, the Kushnir brothers, Jon Davis and the Sabias among the uniformed firefighters serving as Bingo ushers. We grab two seats next to Bill Bartosik (whose math-tutoring savvy helped our daughter through quite a few math tests as well as the SATs) just as the next game begins.
Used to be a dollar bought one cardboard playing card and a handful of corn kernels to mark off numbers. Now, that same dollar buys a three-card sheet. I can barely keep up as I hurriedly scan the appropriate columns when a number is given and, with a magic marker, place a splotch of brilliant red when I’m lucky.
The caller, Joe Puchalski, is a kick. His patter rolls with the fluidity of a stand up comic; if Bingo weren’t thrilling enough, he brings an energy that keeps us in our seats far longer than usual. “Keep your eye on your card, a hand on your dauber and another hand on your seat,” he advises. “Things move fast here in the Bingo tent!” His expression gives nothing away as he reaches for the next number. He intones, as if it were a moment of high import, “Whoa – another ‘B’!” and draws it out, the suspense palpable – how many are waiting for just…this…number for the five-in-a-row or all four corners that would win the pot?
“B-4!!!” Joe calls to hoots of relief when no one shouts “Bingo!” He pauses to announce, “My Chief Financial Bingo Officer tells me we have $50 riding on this game. Yes folks, here in the Bingo tent you get the biggest bang for your entertainment dollar. It’s not just the winning, but the unbridled excitement of the game!” We players crack up and remain in our seats for round after round, earning us Joe’s commendation. “This crowd will go down in Easton Bingo history…In fact, some might say in world Bingo history!”
Eventually, Dave and I lay down our daubers, still grinning. We stroll across the firehouse green to await the shuttle bus to the parking lot at the middle school. We line up behind chatty teenagers, heads bent as they text, weary adults and sleepy little kids clutching their trophies – stuffed frogs, mustachioed bananas (!?), and fuzzy dogs with floppy ears. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, after a great night at the carnival in Easton.