John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd in Berlin with the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner." His presidency ended tragically a few months later. In August the Beatles released “She Loves You” in England. In 1963 change came suddenly and unexpectedly.
School had been out for several weeks. When days in the sunshine and fresh air became boring and routine, we turned to familiar games or made up something new. Often we got stuck in the following loop:
“What do you wanna do?”
“I don’t know, what do you wanna do?”
This continued until it got boring as well, which was pretty much right away.
I realize that nothing will ever again approach the bliss and freedom of summer as a child in the early 1960s. We were completely cared for and free to spend our time in play, learning and growing with worries resting on someone else’s shoulders.
Decades later, when I emerge from my basement office at the end of the day I’m reminded of those earlier times and how much I miss them. A breath of fresh air. Sunshine. Clouds floating by. We took it all for granted.
It was on a typical sunny summer day that boredom hit everyone in the neighborhood at the same time. A few of the older kids had an idea. A carnival! We planned to create an arcade full of games with a haunted house, and staff the venue with kids of ages appropriate to their assigned jobs. The older kids took care of crowd control, marketing and ticket sales. We advertised on hand-made signs posted around the neighborhood and charged everyone twenty-five cents for admission.
We knew that location was important. A secluded area near fixed structures minimized construction materials and controlled access for expected crowds. A spot central to the neighborhood made it easier to haul materials back and forth each day. We quickly decided on the grassy expanse between my parents’ garage and that of our neighbor to our rear. In the city, this would have been a space reserved for an alley, but only a few properties on our street had set-back detached garages like ours. Most shared a rear boundary and had larger back yards.
Materials were collected. Chairs, folding tables and drop cloths. Empty trash barrels and tarps. Ladders and two-by-fours. An expandable fabric-covered “tunnel-o-fun” became the entryway to the haunted house. It led into the main space, wedged between the side of the garage and a row of bushes, narrow and perfectly positioned.
A small maze was constructed with tarp-covered tables to guide attendees past scary images – dolls covered with blood, a vacuum cleaner on blower setting that inflated a pillowcase apparition as they passed by, and even a trash can from which jumped a costumed kid. There was some controversy over this, since the can was dirty and moldy, and everyone suddenly claimed to have allergies.
Entering and navigating the maze on hands and knees put our guests at a vulnerable disadvantage. They could not stand, nor could they run. The maze led to a relatively larger central area, a propped up tent with room for a séance and storytelling. Blindfolded participants dipped their hands into passed bowls of “body parts” while listening to a tale of death and dismemberment. Hard-boiled egg "eyes," jello and bread "stomach contents," and cooked spaghetti "brains."
As with many risky things we did as kids, I now look back in horror at some of our ideas. Our parents seemed involved only at a cursory level. They watched us construct our carnival with seemingly harmless materials. But did they realize we were building an airtight combustion chamber where we planned on lighting a candle during our séance? Did nobody notice the paint and gasoline cans behind the garage?
The excitement was tangible on opening night. Our ability to draw crowds was hampered by two factors. First, every kid in the neighborhood was working at the carnival. Second, we were not allowed off our block to advertise. Still, a few friends from down the street and word of mouth resulted in a respectable line of carnival-goers. We made perhaps four dollars, but couldn’t have cared less. It was showtime!
Candlelight illuminated the darkened séance chamber. Nancy Farley was our storyteller. She was one of the older kids involved, and probably came up with the entire carnival idea as a vehicle for her budding dreams of acting. The first group of kids to hear her story had been well behaved, and Nancy learned from their reactions when to pause for dramatic effect or to speak in a whisper. Group two entered the chamber, which grew more stifling by the minute. Assistants were ready with bowls of body parts.
It was nearly dark outside by mid-story. No one remembers the name of the screaming young girl whose hands were thrust into the bowl of brains by an older sibling. I remember laughter as Nancy lurched forward with a particularly dramatic verbal outburst. The little girl reacted in an exaggerated spasm fueled by heat, fatigue and fear, yanking her hands from the spaghetti and tossing the prop across the chamber. The bowl, the brains and the candle flew across the space, quickly igniting the old drop cloths. A rush of scorching flames and penetrating screams filled the tent. Outside, the sky glowed orange above the two garages in a flickering eruption that briefly reached treetop height and then flared further as the leaking gas cans exploded.
Fireflies blinked the approach of nightfall. The tinkling, travelling bells from the Good Humor man grew louder and softer as sounds from the truck emerged from between houses one street over. Bugs swarmed as streetlights flickered on, and the cadence of cicadas and crickets provided a backdrop to the cries of children pleading to make it stop, please stop.