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Fondness for a firemen's festival

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Greg Peck
September 30, 2013

This weekend I was in Wisconsin Rapids, attending the Wisconsin Writers Association's annual fall conference. I'm on the board of directors, and our largest of two weekend board meetings was Friday afternoon, so I had to take the day off from work.

We had our annual Jade Ring contest banquet Saturday night. I entered previously unpublished works in three of the six contest categories because I enjoy creative writing and have a personal goal of winning a Jade Ring. That's right—a first-time winner in any category wins an actual Jade Ring from the association. It's a personal goal.

I received advance notice that I was an award winner in two categories—Nonfiction Essay and Nonfiction Reminiscence-Memoir. The judge in each category doesn't know who the writer is, and even with the advance notice, you don't know whether you got first, second, third or an honorable mention until they announce the winners at the banquet. My essay placed second, and the reminiscence-memoir took honorable mention. I'm saving the essay for use another time, but I'd like to share with you today the latter piece. Though it's about the firemen's festival in my hometown of Marshall, the story has ties to Janesville. I hope you enjoy it.

"Fondness for a Firemen's Festival"

When I was in high school in the Dane County village of Marshall, I couldn't wait to graduate and leave town.

Na´ve and immature, I didn't realize what was important in life. I thought a community had to have a bowling alley, a movie theater or even a fast food restaurant—some place for kids to hang out and meet their friends. Marshall was too small for such businesses. I still remember the number 739 on the population signs.

Now, however, I better understand what makes a community such as Marshall special. It's people pulling together, cooperating, neighbors helping neighbors.

When I was 5, my family moved into a new home on Park Drive. Fields of alfalfa behind our home and other houses under construction served as my playgrounds. With a fishing net, I'd chase butterflies flitting about those fields. Neighbor kids and I built forts out of scrap lumber atop dirt piles whenever workers started another home. We'd ignore our parents' warnings against playing in the pond beyond the fields. The chance to catch tadpoles, frogs and turtles was just too tempting.

Best yet, our home was two doors from Firemen's Park, which sprawled out on a crook in the Maunesha River. In winter we'd skate on the ice, build snowmen or stage snowball fights. If roads were icy, we'd race our steel-runner Flexible Flyer sleds down the street circling the park.

Firemen's Park was even more fun in summer. After a rainy day, Dad and I slipped stealthily into the park after dark, like two soldiers on night patrol, flashlights and empty bean cans in hand. We caught night crawlers that my friends and I used to entice bullheads from shore. My buddies and I also spent lazy days at the beach, swimming and ogling girls in skimpy suits. We'd play catch, “500” or—if enough kids were around—pick-up games on the ball diamond. On breezy days, we'd fly kites.

Summer's highlight was the annual Firemen's Festival. The week of the fest, we'd sit on our bikes atop the hill, the big blue water tower shadowing us like a giant lollipop, and wait for the first carnival truck to arrive. We'd pedal our Schwinns down the hill to talk to the driver.

“What rides are coming?” we'd ask with excitement. “The Scrambler? The Tilt-A-Whirl? The Octopus?”

“Yes, yes, they're all coming,” we'd usually hear.

Those were our favorites.

“What about the Rock-O-Plane and the Roll-O-Plane?”

To be honest, I never rode the Rock-O-Plane or its cousin, the “Bullet,” as we'd call it, because the Roll-O-Plane looked like a bullet was attached to each end of a long steel arm. I wasn't fond of heights, particularly when upside down. I feared the embarrassment of losing a stomach full of festival fare. But we were delighted to hear when wild rides were coming because it meant more excitement, more people, more girls.

In my grade school days, I'd save allowances for the festival. When I turned 12, I started helping Uncle Louie bale hay on the farm where he and Mom and their siblings grew up. I'd save my earnings, like a farmer filling his mow to the rafters, so I'd have a bigger pile of festival cash.

Dad served as a volunteer firefighter for a few years, and he and Mom always helped at the festival. They'd often work in the food stand or at the bingo or raffle tent.

Before each festival, Dad got a stack of raffle tickets, and I joined him as he drove the countryside, stopping at farms to sell tickets to support the firefighters. Whenever a mean-looking dog came out snarling and looking as though it was ready to tear off your leg, we sat in the car and honked. If no one came out, we headed to the next farmhouse down the road.

I always made sure I bought a raffle ticket. I was optimistic that, some year, someone in my family would win that big color TV, new deck furniture, or comfortable sofa, and our lives would be grand. At the festival's closing, I listened with great anticipation as the fire chief stood on stage and announced names on ticket stubs drawn from the big tumbler. Alas, we never won.

Filling the festival air were mouthwatering smells—cheeseburgers, grilled chicken, and fresh popcorn, and the sweet scents of cotton candy and Sno-Cones—the blue raspberry one being my favorite thirst quencher on a hot summer night.

Joining this blend of aromas in the muggy air were the many sounds—children squealing with delight as rides twisted and turned, or crowds cheering water skiing acrobatics, another run for the home baseball team or a pair of muscular draft horses setting a new mark in the pulling contest. Polka music wafted from the beer pavilion. Songs echoed beyond the stage, where local folks stretched vocal talents. The bell “dinged” after some beefy guy used a wooden mallet to ring it in the strong-man game. Cork guns popped and BB machine guns rat-a-tat-tatted as customers aimed at carnival targets. Winners shouted “BINGO!” from beneath a big canvas tent.

The highlights were Sunday's downtown parade and the concluding fireworks that night. The blasts were so big that we could watch from a blanket in our back yard, sipping sodas and smacking skeeters.

No matter how much money I'd save for the three-day event, I always ran out before the festival left town. In my younger days, I'd then scour the grounds, packed as hard as concrete from foot traffic, to see if someone dropped a dime here, a quarter there or the rare crumpled dollar bill.

One time, boisterous young men standing just outside the beer pavilion saw me roaming, head down, and asked what I was doing.

“Looking for money,” I replied.

“There's a quarter,” one shouted and pointed.

I scurried over and found it.

“I see a dime over there,” another pointed out.

I collected it, too.

A minute or two later, I walked away grinning with a handful of change. Only later did I realize they were tossing the coins when I wasn't looking.

The carnival games—”gyp joints,” as Dad called them—gobbled too big a share of my money. Despite Dad's warnings about how the games were rigged against me, I was determined to win a stuffed teddy bear and the heart of whichever girl had caught my eye that summer.

One year it was my teenage classmate Andrea, a slim, dark-skinned, dark-haired beauty with a pleasing personality, lovely smile and attractive name to match. She lived behind our house, but I was too shy, too tongue-tied to mosey over and talk to her.

I won a teddy and gave it to Andrea. She politely thanked me, but we never developed a relationship, what with older boys as smitten as I was. Her family left town before I gathered the gumption to ask her out.

I did, however, get my first kiss as the festival wound down one summer. She was the cousin of a classmate and visiting from Indiana. The festival's flickering lights danced on the maze of cars parked on the otherwise dark ball field, where we strolled hand in hand before stopping for one brief, soft, parting peck. I wrote to her once, maybe twice, but we never reunited. Today I live in Janesville, a midsize Wisconsin city. Now I better understand what a festival means to a community such as Marshall. Besides supporting the firefighters, it's where friends, neighbors, relatives and even former residents get reacquainted. It's a chance to catch up on the crops, the jobs, the kids, the schools and prospects for next fall's football team.

In contrast, Janesville service clubs have been sponsoring Fourth of July festivals for decades and have struggled financially. The Jaycees organized the fests for many years. They had a carnival for kids, but bad bands did little to attract adults to a beer tent whose profits helped pay for fireworks. Each year, they sought donations. The Jaycees eventually went defunct.

The Odd Fellows tried running the fest but did no better and gave up after two years of pitiful attendance. The Rock Aqua Jays then took over.

I find it ironic that the Aqua Jays are the water ski team I watched perform so many years ago in Marshall. Yet this group, too, fights to balance festival costs with revenues.

If only the city I now call home could rally the sense of small-town community pride and the volunteer spirit that Marshall's firefighters enjoyed. Then maybe, just maybe, the Aqua Jays could make ends meet.

As I observe the struggles of Janesville's festivals, I appreciate more and more what we had. I find myself reflecting on my boyhood days in the village of Marshall with fondness and affection. Each year my memories stir, and I long for the opportunity to watch my grandchildren discover the magic and wonder of a small town's festival.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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