Before moving to our small town, I was a city girl, born and raised in the hills and suburbs of Pittsburgh. Rodeos weren't a part of my life. But now, I appreciate and look forward to our annual Cattlemen's Days Rodeo and the wondrous sights of beautiful horses, 4-H animals, and a man in a well-fitted pair of Wranglers.
Alongside the rodeo grounds, a carnival sets up adding to the festivities. It's the typical travelling fair, Ferris wheels, rickety Tilt-A-Whirls, funnel cakes, rigged carnival games and high school girls dressed in summer shorts, flirting with boys.
One year, when my son was five, we took him to his first carnival. We bought the requisite cotton candy and let him ride the harmless kiddie roller coasters and fly down the big wavy slide on a burlap sack. My son soon spied a school chum walking hand-in-hand with his mother. The boys asked to go on rides together so we joined the pair and strolled the dusty, popcorn-strewn grounds searching out new thrills.
Eventually, we found our way to a looming ride called the Rainbow. People climbed steps up to a staging area to board a big platform fitted with rows of seats. With bright lights and music, the platform rose in a clockwise motion before reaching the apex and dropping quickly, riders squealing and screaming with delight. A few brave souls even raised their hands above their heads to maximize the thrill whenever it made its downward loop.
“Let’s do that one!” my son's friend exclaimed.
My son looked up at me expectantly, “Can I, Mom?”
Every instinct in me knew this was a bad idea. “I don’t think so, Sweetie. Is there another ride you’d like to try?”
The two boys looked at each other. “Please, Mom?”
“Once you're on, you can't get off,” I countered. The ride looked scary for little guys.
“I won’t be scared, I promise. Pleeease?”
The other mom smiled at me indulgently, “I’ll go with them. They’ll be all right.”
Ugh, now the peer pressure, not for my son, but for me. Against my better judgment, I relented. The ride stopped and my son, along with his friend and mom, climbed up to the platform and buckled up in their seats. My heart was in my stomach. I berated myself for being so foolish.
The carnival worker stood above me on the platform and pushed the lever. Up the ride lifted. So far, so good—my son was all smiles. The ride hit the top, seemed to suspend a partial second, then dropped. His face expression quickly changed. By the second circle around, he was in tears, gripping the mom's arm.
Without thinking, only feeling with a mother’s heart, I reached up and grabbed the young carnival worker’s ankles. He turned with a start, and looked down. “Stop this ride,” I said, or more precisely, growled.
He hesitated. I reiterated my desire with conviction. “My son is on this ride and terrified. Stop it. Now.”
My husband, his mouth slightly gaping, stared at me--his wife-gone-mad.
In the face of a crazed mother with a death grip on his legs, the wise worker let the ride complete its last loop before bringing it to a full stop. “Thank you,” I said, releasing him. My son climbed off, his face still red. We moved to wait for him at the bottom of the steps. He climbed down, his legs shaky, his face struggling to find composure.
“That was fun, Mommy,” he offered in a tremulous voice, bravely trying to find a smile.
It was a lesson for all of us. For a poor young carnie, just trying to make a few bucks for the summer, he learned to never cross a frantic mom and perhaps to stand a few feet out of hand's reach. I learned to trust my instincts, always, and never let someone else influence my parenting. I hoped my son learned to listen to his parents, but he probably really just learned the vital lesson every kid should know: how to save face. And my husband's lesson…well probably, that he married a woman with an inner lunatic lying just barely below her surface.