Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Janesville Hay Daze: Zipper, carnies and the world's smallest pony
Here's the world's smallest horse. Maybe. The pinto stallion - named, for some reason, Einstein, perhaps because it's the same size as the scientist's oversize brain - is 14 inches tall. He weighed six pounds at birth. Guinness will check out the horse tale to determine if it breaks the record currently held by Thumbelina, a 17-pound horse.
He's cute. And creepy, like something that randomly appears in a nightmare. But I question whether he's the smallest in the land, no matter what the gatekeepers at Guinness eventually rule. Because about 18 years ago, in Janesville, I saw the world's smallest pony at the annual Hay Daze celebration. That's what the hand-written sign declared:
WORLD'S SMALLEST PONY!
If true, it'd be a coup for Janesville. A worldwide attraction! Maybe the little guy would find a permanent home on Main Street, earning a spot in town lore along with the doll in the window. The sign caught the attention of my cousin Matt, as we patrolled Main Street on Hay Daze Friday.
In reality, the world's smallest pony was an average-size dog. The not-so-great beast stood in its tiny pen, sadly looking out at passersby. His hair had been styled to look something like a pony's 'do, but this was no foal. He appeared severely depressed or sedated. We laughed, but the joke was on us, since we had paid a couple of bucks to see the stunning exhibit. I'm assuming someone eventually called PETA.
Just another night at Hay Daze. It's Janesville's week-long celebration, which always takes place in June and always ends with three days of fun on the midway, as the carnival rolls into town with its poorly maintained rides, rigged games, and occasional freak show - like the world's smallest pony.
As a kid, I counted down the days until Hay Daze. It was a holiday. Anticipation rose as school ended and mid-June approached. It's the kind of festival you find all over small towns in Minnesota. Last year there was actually a mini...I don't know, controversy is too strong a word - conflict, over the dates of Hay Daze. Neighboring Waterville - a rival in high school sports - had their Bullhead Days at the same time as Hay Daze, as Janesville shifted its celebration to accommodate the visiting carnival that earned rave reviews the year before. It's the type of thing that can spark civil war.
Kids look forward to Hay Daze, teens eventually mock it, people who have recently moved away roll their eyes while remembering some of the rides, and folks who have been away from the town for several years miss the event and want to eventually return. Or at least I do.
The carnival always arrived early in the week. In the days before the Friday opening, I'd check the weather report religiously, like Eisenhower monitoring the forecasts before D-Day.
The carnies immediately began setting up the rides. We anticipated what they'd bring along, knowing that staples like the merry-go-round and Ferris Wheel always made an appearance. But would they have the bumper cars? How about the Hurricane? And, please God, is the Zipper in the arsenal? The carnival hired local kids to help with the construction, another reason to question the safety record of each ride. So the kid who stole a car when he was 15 is now in charge of putting the screws into the roundabout?
I was about 8 years old the first time I operated a bumper car. Unfortunately, my driving skills resembled those of an 80-year-old woman from New York who never learned how to drive but decides to go for her license after losing her husband. The controls confused me and the steering wheel overpowered me. Eventually the worker wandered through the carnage to my stranded vehicle. With a look of disdain on his face and tobacco jammed in his mouth, he guided me to safety while standing along the side and leaning down to steer.
We lived a block from Main Street, a block from the carnival. I always walked the same route, past the kids' rides on a side street and emerging on Main Street at the merry-go-round. The zipper stood at one end of the street, the Ferris Wheel on the other. The rides didn't extend all the way down Main Street, as Highway 14 went through town. So passing cars gawked at the local yokels as we enjoyed our cotton candy and lost dollar after dollar on the basketball game that a state gaming commissioner should have shut down.
I hated that basketball game, with its small hoop and large ball. Pistol Pete couldn't have hit three in a row on that basket. Yet every year I threw down my dollar bills in a desperate attempt to win a pen, which I could convert into an oversize crayon, which I could then convert - about 50 dollars and a hundred shots later - into a 10-foot tall stuffed animal that would be forgotten about and eventually land in the basement. The only other game with more questionable logistics was the ball toss game, where you had to throw a baseball into a tilted wooden container. The world's leading physicists couldn't have figured out the proper angle and velocity needed to land the ball in the bucket, but everyone kept trying. It's a great way to impress girls. That, and getting into drunken fights, another Hay Daze tradition.
The main big-ticket rides were the Zipper, the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler and sometimes the Hurricane, a large ride with small cars that made gigantic WHOOSHING sounds as it went up and down, sounds we could hear from our house throughout the night. I always expected one of those cars - put together under the careful eye of Merriam's finest mechanics - to go flying off, landing on the neighboring bowling alley. Hasn't happened. Yet.
The carnies, of course, reigned over all of this. To a snot-nosed kid, carnies are the object of mockery and occasionally admiration. "Wow, what a fun life, getting to be around the bumper cars all of the time!" The more idiotic youth enjoy baiting the workers with verbal taunts, which the carnival folk return. You don't think about how tough of a life most of the people in the carnival probably had before signing up. No one's dreaming of being a carny. But every year they show up and put on a good show, which always proved safe, no matter how unsafe the whole operation always seemed. When I was 10, I somehow got involved in a little tiff with some workers while shooting baskets at the local park, where a host of them gathered. They said they'd beat me up. I believed them. I mean, they wore black shirts. One guy sported brass knuckles. My aunt and uncle were visiting so for the next few days I walked down to the park accompanied by my uncle, an intimidating figure who stands about 6-6. The carnies eyed me but didn't make a move. Looking back, I'm sure they weren't going to do anything, but that didn't stop my imagination from running wild. I saw the headlines: CARNIES PUMMEL LOCAL BOY, STUFF HIS FACE WITH YEAR-OLD MINIDONUTS
Janesville always had a beer garden. And a dunk tank. Lots of food options, including foot long hot dogs, and the firemen made the best burgers and onion rings in the county. They always tasted even better on the way up after a stint on the tilt-a-whirl. There's a "fun run" and there's occasionally a softball tournament.
But there's always a parade. Sunday afternoon. This might be the main event of any small town celebration. The quality varies from town to town. In my parents' hometown of Fulda, the locals pride themselves on putting on a standout parade, which always features numerous local marching bands. Janesville always has a better carnival, but Fulda gets the edge in parades (again, this is for bragging rights in small towns). The Janesville parade always went past our house. We sat on the porch or near the street as the bands and tractors rolled by. People put their blankets out early on our yard, like tourists getting ready hours ahead of time for a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral.
And thanks to youtube, the whole world can now enjoy the parade. This is from 2008, but it could have been from 1978. And this will probably be what it looks like in 2028.
The video starts with some large farm equipment. Then the normal floats supporting local businesses. People throw candy, which kids fight to the death over. At the 3:25 mark, one of the main attractions every year: the Shriners. Usually they ride in motorcycles, an overweight, ground version of the Blue Angels. They perform impressive driving feats that delight the crowd. I always wondered how long they had to practice their stunts, and how many Shriners never made it through training. Was it like the Navy SEALS? In this particular parade, they rode in their mini-cars instead of the cycles, which were never quite as visually stunning.
There aren't any marching bands on this video. As I wrote, the Hay Daze parade didn't attract as many groups as other towns. Making things worse, for years the JWP high school band didn't march. Instead, they'd ride on the back of a large flatbed truck, tooting their songs as the crowd grumbled. They complained because many of them - including my mom - were old marching band performers themselves. They felt...offended. To them it was ridiculous that a high school band sat and played, instead of sweating in large costumes and marching up and down the city streets. People applauded, but never as loudly as they did for the marchers.
The parade always ended mid-afternoon on Sunday. People took their kids uptown for another hour or two on the rides. The beer garden hosted one more band.
The carnival leaves town late Sunday and early Monday, sneaking away in the dead of night like the Colts out of Baltimore. From my bedroom I could hear them taking everything down. It was always sad. Another Hay Daze gone. By the next morning, they were all gone and Main Street was again unoccupied, although a stray ride occasionally lingered, stationed near the city park.
I've probably been to one Hay Daze weekend in the last 10 years. But the memories remain. After all, how can anyone forget seeing the world's smallest pony?