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Been Thinkin' About...My end-of-school carnival

Once a summer in the small town near which I grew up, there was a carnival. Despite getting to road trip across the nation and getting to go to big-time theme parks, there was a strange excitement to our small town carnival. Granted, there in the shadows of the bank and the post office and the corner bar, the lumberyard and the Dairy Queen and the railroad hotel-turned-cheap tenement apartments and beneath the big elm trees, there were all the expected community pageants. The only thing I really cared about, however, was the carnival rides.


That particular city park was pretty boring under normal circumstances and even more boring that one afternoon I was forced to play a game of makeshift baseball with my schoolmates. No surprise, I spent my time standing, bored, in something called an outfield, wondering when I would get my turn at the bat. Spoiler alert: I never did. But that first Friday evening of each year’s carnival was magic. What had been boring grass and elm tree shade was transformed into a strange wonderland.


I could still wander that park and point out where the red and blue Tilt-A-Whirl used to sit, along with the shiny green Octopus, and the silvery Scrambler. The Bumper Cars took up a lot of space mid-park, marking the edge to the little kid rides where I would wait in line, still holding my mom's hand, waiting to get on small carousels of colorful animals, or colorful airplanes, or colorful boats in smooth teals and pinks and gently bumped up and down.


That carnival remains forever in my childhood memories. By my teenage years, I had redirected, rarely went to that town, focused on my books, separated from media, separated from the high school community of my older sisters. I don't regret my pop culture blackout, having finally discovered a strange thing called "responsibility" that my mom had been nagging me about since we had started homeschool in third grade. Perhaps had I returned to the carnival as a teenager, I would have been entranced by another kind of experience entirely. Or perhaps I would have been disappointed by just how small everything was. Either way, those early year experiences did something unanticipated.


First, that carnival remained eternally magical. Second, as a small child and assisted by my sisters, the carnival was inspiring. After school ended in May, when the sun was hot but the air still tinged with cold and the pond not yet warm enough in which to swim, we would build our own “carnival” in the backyard. My mom's green childhood bicycle would be turned upside down into a double-wheeled thrill ride for small plush toys. My dad's black umbrella was taken from the front room closet to become something similar to a Tilt-A-Whirl. We probably spent an hour or more making up construction paper tickets and emptied a good portion of the toys in the basement into the backyard. I'm still confident most of the stuffed toys enjoyed their afternoon. At least, none of them complained.


Perhaps what I remember best of that makeshift end-of-school “carnival” was the lack of adult structure. There was no guidebook, no plan, no one guiding the process. We just... made it. My mom was mildly amused, possibly relieved I wasn't in the way of the laundry or the housework. My dad was indifferent. What kids did was never part of his concern as long as we didn't lose his tools. Beneath the forever almost-summer sun and billowing Midwest clouds, it was an afternoon that seemed to stretch beautifully on forever, a thread of memory that has proven indeed eternal. And with it? A unique lesson.


You don't really need permission to create something. Inspiration, perhaps. Excitement, definitely. And some effort, certainly. But not permission. Such was the lesson I took to heart seven years ago this summer when creating StateoftheOzarks' first real festival. The result? "This doesn't look like a first-year festival," someone I respected deeply told me at the end of that hot summer day in 2017. "This looks like a veteran, 10-year festival. Good job. We expect you to do it again." And so we have. StateoftheOzarks Fest '24 is marked for September 14, 2024, on historic Downing Street, Hollister, Missouri. I expect to see you there.

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