When I was growing up in the 1950’s, I learned two indelible lessons. The first was that money was supposed to be saved and not spent. I’ve spent my whole life compensating for learning this so well, vainly struggling to exorcise a cheapness that runs bone-deep. You could say that I have an obsession with not obsessing about money. I rush to pick up tabs with feigned glee. I shamelessly overtip. And I never grumble about prices. However queasy I might feel while nursing a five-dollar Coke in a hotel lounge, I always find a way to make it right. In Beijing, I remind myself, this Coke would cost even more.
The second lesson was never to trust a Republican. Even today, the word conjures up a fat man in a suit putting out a cigar on somebody’s face. We all have our quirks, I guess, but mine make paydays almost unbearable. I can’t go to the bank to deposit my paycheck—my money—without feeling like I’ve entered a world of Republicans. All the men working there are wearing suits, aren’t they? What evil things are they going to do with my money?
The seeds for these habits of mind were planted 20 years before I was born. In our house the Great Depression was one of those events that never seem to have ended, like the first Christmas or the American Revolution. Our family wasn’t poor. Like many children with Depression-hardened parents, however, I grew up convinced that we could become poor—and pretty quickly. My parents weren’t trying to scare me with their stories of hoboes and the Hoovervilles and Roosevelt closing the banks. It’s just that when I heard about the bad old days, I saw no reason why they couldn’t return.
When I was eight or nine, it was easy to picture the dust storms coming back, wiping out our small Ohio town and reducing everyone to nomads. I had seen the splintered barns and bloated cows that tornadoes left behind: the dust storms, I figured, would be like that but worse. I imagined us living in tents like Indians, begging our way along a trail of tears stretching to Cincinnati and back. Nor was nature the only threat. All I knew about the stock market was that it once “crashed” and that Republicans had something to do with it. That could happen again, too, turning all the money in the First National Bank into scrap paper; a wheelbarrow of it would buy a loaf of bread. Maybe we could sell apples, like the men in the 1930’s newsreels that the Royal Theater ran to fill up its all-day Saturday kid shows. Or maybe we’d sell things we had made, though I couldn’t imagine what those things might be: paperweights? ashtrays? drawings of our cat?
After the Depression came World War II, and with it, more stories: the shock of Pearl Harbor, casualty lists in the newspaper, rationing coupons for milk and butter, drives to collect tires and tinfoil, victory gardens in the backyards. Some people, I knew, cracked under the hardship and forgot the collective good. I learned that after asking my parents what Daffy Duck meant when he screamed, at the end of a wartime cartoon, “Who’s the bulb-snatcher?”
My parents, it seemed, had lived through some interesting times. I loved hearing about the old days, but the stories made me feel guilty. No catastrophes were hounding my childhood, and I wondered how I would handle real trouble if it ever came. Most of my friends, egged on by emergency drills at school, worried about the Bomb, but not me. All I knew was that we’d all be dead—or we’d live a while without lips and ears and then we’d all be dead. The Great Depression was what scared me: being broke seemed worse because a boy would have to deal with it and grow up fast. If he survived, though, he’d be a better person, no longer an untested youth who never had to cope with worthless money, swirling dust, or godless Nazis.
My father had been tested, and it showed. A former pipeline worker, he had taken correspondence courses in accounting and moved from the Marathon Oil tank farm in Lima to the home office in Findlay. A fervent New Dealer, he was a pro-labor blue-collar guy working in a white-collar, non-union job—a mismatch that constantly put him on the defensive. Dad liked to say he wasn’t rich enough to be a Republican and hoped to Christ he never would be. In the bad old days FDR had helped people, but FDR was dead and we weren’t about to see his like again. Eisenhower had been a great general, but hadn’t he cast his lot with the rich bastards and run as a Republican? My father, who’d been in the Navy, took this as an act of personal betrayal by his Allied Supreme Commander. That the hero of D-Day could make such a “whore’s choice,” as Dad called it, made it clear that all this postwar prosperity was just a mirage. Beneath the bright certainties of the new ranch houses, the TV dinners, and the polio vaccine, it was every man for himself.
Findlay, Ohio, had no problem with Ike’s choice. Dad always said that the Republicans could run Hitler and Tojo on the national ticket and still get 85 percent of the vote there. I don’t guess he was far wrong. The home offices of Marathon Oil and Cooper Tires produced a disproportionate number of executives and middle managers whose families had built a separate world around the Country Club, which was located not in the “country” at all—a fact that puzzled me—but in a wealthy subdivision on the other side of Riverside Park. Our family should have felt solidarity with the local farmers and factory workers, but they were Republicans, too. That mystified my father: had everybody forgotten what the Democrats had done for the common people? His children, at least, would grow up knowing the score. Whenever my older sister and I ran foot-races around our house, Dad started us off with magic words that made us run like the wind: “Last one back’s a Republican!”
If the town didn’t care about the poor, at least our family did, which made me proud of our alien status. Democrats knew something that everybody else seemed to have forgotten: the hard times might come again. Gradually, my secret desire to be tested made me expect to be tested, and I began to see everything as impermanent. Lessons from school seemed to back me up. Weren’t all kinds of dead things lying beneath us? And hadn’t they had their heyday, just like we were having ours now? Dinosaurs once grazed where the Elks’ Club now stood: what would replace the Republican businessmen who met at the Elks’ Club? For a child who distrusted Republicans and felt vaguely ashamed of the soft life he was leading, such thoughts were not entirely unpleasant.
I was convinced from watching my father that being an adult meant working all the time. Dad wasn’t working to get rich and to follow Elsenhower’s defection, however, but to prepare for whatever the Republicans might throw at him. “Waste not, want not” and “savings account” were the two mantras of our house. Even as a child I knew that we lived pretty plainly. Going out to a restaurant was a major affair, and the clothes that my older brother had outgrown were carefully pressed and stored in the hall closet, waiting for me to grow into them. Occasionally, though, Dad would surprise us by buying something fancy to show that he was holding his own against the rich bastards, taking care of his family against all odds. Once I asked him why he worked late so many nights. Without a word he lowered his Findlay Republican-Courier and nodded toward the new hi-fi that held pride of place in the front room, all thick screening and shiny blond wood.
Dad knew how cheap he was and sometimes joked about it. Whenever the fuel gauge was running low, he’d announce that gas was two cents cheaper in Lima, 35 miles away. “If we don’t make it, you kids won’t mind pushing the car, will you?” During those rare restaurant visits he’d squint and squirm in mock indecision as he studied the menu. “What do you think, kids? Should I get the $3.95 or the $2.95?” When the check came, he always had the same line: “Let’s see what the damage is.” He’d watch Jack Benny and howl, partly at the absurdity of Benny’s cheapness and partly, I think, in bemused self-recognition. Years later, when I got my first checking account, he was stunned to learn that I was rounding off my check-record to the nearest five dollars. He shook his head in disbelief as he read out my entries: “about ten dollars,” “about twenty dollars,” “about fifteen dollars.” Where in Christ’s sweet name had he gone wrong?
In retrospect, Dad’s tightness with money took courage. In a time when buying things was a patriotic act, Findlay proudly held the front between commerce and communism. It was a place where Joe McCarthy was someone you couldn’t joke about even after he lost face, as my father’s arguments at work proved. Dad had trouble with the brand of Americanism that the Republicans at the office were promoting. There was a strong-arm United Way campaign at the company, which Dad boycotted because he thought too much money went to the “goddamn Boy Scouts” and not enough to the League of Women Voters or the NAACP. Our family felt even more isolated once Mom started circulating petitions and meeting with local realtors to demand why they weren’t selling houses to any of the “colored” people who were coming down from Toledo to work at Differential Steel and the Cooper Tire plant. Mom’s efforts brought occasional phone threats, always anonymous. Whenever Dad answered the phone, he offered to meet the caller face-to-face in an alley so he could teach him what America really stood for.
My mother gave liberal politics a softer turn. We kids cleaned our plates for Dad because it was a crime to waste food produced and bought with American labor. With Mom, we cleaned our plates out of respect for the poor people of Poland, Mexico, and Alabama. My mother’s natural benevolence got tested once she started her civil rights work. One time our next-door neighbor, a man from Mississippi who had just gotten a job selling Bibles, asked to practice his spiel on us. It was going pretty well until he proudly explained that his company was first-class and didn’t sell Bibles to “Nigras.” Mom ran him down our front steps with his samples case open and papers flying all over the place.
Mom was a loving liberal, Dad an angry one. He wasn’t a Democrat because he loved poor people and wanted to save them. He was a Democrat because the Republicans hated poor people and wanted to destroy them. For him, voting Democratic constituted the patriotic duty of keeping at least a minimal check on the rich. You could vote with your pocketbook, too—by refusing to buy all the stuff that the rich were constantly trying to sell you. The cards were stacked against little guys, but if they kept building their nest-eggs, they could at least hope to live decently if the Republicans should gain complete control and everything came crashing down again.
My older sister rebelled against our family’s politics. Sue, who actually liked living in Findlay, wanted to have fun and didn’t mind spending a little money along the way. Whenever her face turned hot-red at Dad’s restaurant jokes, I thought she was being disloyal. I had absorbed his politics totally, and even when Sue managed to save some babysitting money, her motives struck me as appallingly shallow. While the rest of us were saving toward some nameless disaster, her goal was a car-coat with beer-barrel buttons or a junior high letter jacket. One time she announced that she was saving for a lobster dinner after learning that it was the favorite food of Ricky Nelson or some other teen idol. “What about the poor people in the Congo?” I asked, self-righteously aping our mother. Sue had a ready response: her lobster would rot before it reached Africa anyway.
Our family’s sole materialist, Sue was an unrepentant lover of immediate pleasures. The rest of us were masters of deferral, our eyes set on future intangibles. My older brother, who had been a militantly unfashionable high schooler, was working weekends as a disk jockey in Columbus and constantly saving for the next term’s tuition at Ohio State, where he was studying to become an “electrical engineer,” whatever that was. Mom and Dad were just saving—1 wasn’t sure for what, except I knew it had something to do with an uncertain future. I became a saver, too, content to play with friends’ toys but not especially desirous to own any of them. By the time I was nine or ten, I had gotten so good at saving money that I almost forgot about spending it. A passionate seeker of free fun, I wondered whether a boy could go a whole afternoon without spending anything and still have a good time. What about two afternoons? Such tests, I knew, were good preparation for when the Russians—or maybe the Republicans—felt a rush of greed and swept us back to square one. A boy had to get tough if he expected to keep up with a caravan crossing the sand dunes of Ohio.
Two places in town offered unlimited fun—with no spending required. I spent rainy or snowy days at the Findlay Public Library, with its stacks of free books and its W.P.A. plaque, a tangible reminder of the bad times. Most other days I spent at the Hancock County fairgrounds. We lived near the fairgrounds at the edge of town, just before East Sandusky Street became State Route 15. If you were heading out of town and looked to your right, you’d see a big clearing, some empty animal barns, and the old grandstand. Beyond that were a few more houses and then nothing but fields—corn, soybeans, sugar beets—until Carey, 16 miles away. I remember thinking that if anyone really belonged to the “country” club, it was us.
We whose houses were squeezed between the fairgrounds and the fields played mostly among ourselves. We prided ourselves on being a little wilder than our school friends who lived “in town”—that is, on the town side of the fairgrounds. Lenny’s father was dead and his mom ran their auto-body shop. Carol and Brent’s dad was a carpenter, Dick’s worked in Marathon’s motor pool, and Tommy’s was a long-distance truck driver. Gary’s dad worked construction and Cheryl’s and Robbie’s dads both tended bar. The scruffiness of our neighborhood was visible. The streetlights and sidewalks ended with the fairgrounds. The next block—our block—was dark at night, with a non-regulation sidewalk on one side of the street. Our fathers had mixed the concrete and poured it themselves, and our names and handprints were there to prove it.
The fairgrounds was our year-round private playground. It had empty barns, two grandstands, woods with trails, a creek, and broad fields of wild grass. It was also our shortcut to Whittier Elementary, despite our parents’ warnings that hoboes camped out there and that the creek sometimes overflowed the flat concrete bridge. These were not empty warnings. We had to carry our bikes through the two-foot stream of water that sometimes ran across the bridge in the spring. The hoboes were real, too. Mom took plates of food out to men who sometimes showed up at our back door, and I’d seen their campsites in the woods and in the unlocked animal barns.
Still, hoboes were more mysterious than scary, and a swollen creek merely posed an additional challenge for a boy navigating his Sears bike through intergalactic space or down a streamlined Oregon Trail. The bikepaths we wore down, with banked curves and challenging ruts, made for an exciting ride even if it was just school we were speeding to. On the way home we’d dawdle in the fairgrounds, staring into the creek or sitting in the woods or sliding our bikes through the sawdust on the concrete floor of the livestock judging arena.
The fairgrounds was a perfect place to toughen up, to practice the art of being happy without spending a dime. A few plastic armymen transformed the judging arena into Arizona’s great Meteor Crater. Put an armyman in a soapdish, and Lye Creek became the Columbia rapids. Tie one to a handkerchief and toss him off the grandstand, and the dirt track became a jump-site in Normandy. The steel bars that formed the understructure of the new grandstand functioned as a vast jungle gym.
When my sister turned 12, she started to get bored with the fairgrounds. Puzzled and hurt by her reluctance to play with us anymore, I noticed that she had also started buying things. Once she stopped going to the fairgrounds and began riding her bike downtown to the stores, I was sure that she’d crossed over to the Republicans. By the time she was 14 her bedroom was filled with make-up kits with French names and stacks of slick magazines that told about Fabian’s favorite color and how Annette became a Mouseketeer. Sue’s fascination with these things baffled me. How did American Handstand’s Bob and Justine meet? Who cared? You, too, can draw Frankie Avalon in four easy steps, the first always being a trisected egg. Who’d want to do that? Tube socks and saddle shoes and pedal-pushers and poodle skirts and cat’s-eye secretary’s glasses came and went, but these objects never disappeared completely: there was all this stuff left over.
As I watched my sister collect useless things, I couldn’t see why a person couldn’t get by with two pairs of jeans (one for school), two shirts (ditto), and one pair of “Red-Ball Jets.” I knew nothing, of course, about the fashion imperatives of seventh-grade girls. All I knew was that Sue’s closet was stuffed with perfectly good clothes that she didn’t wear anymore. The jetsam that crammed her room seemed to justify our family’s Spartan ways: she could have saved her money for something really cool that she didn’t even know about yet. Then again, what if our family had to hit the dusty, post-apocalyptic trail? That trail, I figured, would be a lot like the Hancock County fairgrounds, and there’d be no place to plug in make-up mirrors with Christmas bulbs all around them. I couldn’t understand why Sue wasn’t worried. After all, she had heard the same stories. Weren’t some men, down on their luck, already sleeping in the fairgrounds as they passed through on their own Bible-like wanderings?
When the Fair came, we neighborhood kids were torn between excitement and resentment. Our neighborhood was at center stage for a change, but strangers took over our turf and had the gall to charge us admission. Still, we agreed that the worst thing imaginable was to have no money when the Fair started. We collected pop bottles, mowed lawns, and cleaned out garages to get ready for the big week. We also let the country people park on our lawns, and worked feverishly to make the most inviting “Park Here” signs.
Despite this entrepreneurial frenzy, the Fair only reinforced my frugality. I soon learned that a couple dollars a day would do quite nicely at the Fair, provided you played it smart. I was the best in our crowd at what we called the “Fair Game”: the challenge of stretching our Fair money to its furthest conceivable limits. Naturally, the game was my invention.
I considered the rides—a big drain on the others’ budgets—a frivolity because once they were over they were over. The real fun, I insisted, was watching other people go on the rides, especially the tilt-a-whirl, where older guys on dates tried not to scream or throw up. As the teenagers pitched and rolled and shrieked, my sister often among them, I jingled my change, smug in the knowledge that another quarter of Fair Money remained unspent.
Plenty of people were out to get your money at the Fair, even if they didn’t look like Republicans. This was especially true on the midway, where mean-looking guys ran the “games of skill.” The games were all rigged, I told my friends knowingly, and none of us played them except Dick, whose parents simply gave him his Fair Money in what seemed an astonishingly generous but somehow misguided act.
For me, the Fair was an annual rite of pre-apocalyptic caution—a practice run for the hard times that I was convinced were coming. The trick to having a good time at the Fair lay in not being tricked—and that meant watching other people getting tricked and learning from their experience. To watch was to reconfirm a profound unreliability at the heart of things, to sense chaos lurking beneath placid surfaces. I’d watch as tough teenagers, trying to win teddy bears for their girlfriends, got only five of the six iron milk bottles to fall, or knocked over only four out of five fuzz-lined “cats.” They really went crazy when they lost at the basketball shoot. I could tell from the rebounds that the hoop was slightly smaller than normal. When high school guys couldn’t ring the high bell by slamming a tread-covered lever with a mallet, they quickly slipped back into the crowd, sometimes leaving their girlfriends behind.
There was also Dunk the Jaycee, where you threw baseballs at a trigger that plunged a clown-suited businessman—doubtless a Republican, I thought—into a tub of water. For obvious reasons I was tempted to play that one, but it was plenty of fun just to watch. The Republican clown razzed the losers—”Hey Wimpy, no Wheaties this morning?”—and they always took the bait, coughing up another quarter for three more balls. I studied this drama for hours, adopting a deadpan expression after I once made the mistake of laughing after a big guy in a cowboy hat got mad and threw his last ball directly at the cage where the clown was sitting. The cowboy, his face bright red, suddenly spun toward me. “What’re you lookin’ at, Four-Eyes?”
The Fair promoted immersion in exactly the kind of junk that my sister loved, especially the free stuff that the merchants passed out at the Commerce Building. I collected it all, justifying this frenzy for getting by remembering that no spending was involved. I might take what the Republicans offered, but I wouldn’t stoop so low as to pay for it.
We would pick up First National Bank shopping bags and fill them with the artifacts of small-business advertising: Cooper Tire bottle openers, Cussins & Fern Hardware yardsticks and vinyl floor samples, Marathon Oil sunvisors, wallet-sized Findlay College sports schedules, Blanchard Valley Hospital calendars, county maps with all the Foodtown Supermarkets marked with red arrows, B & G Drugs emery boards, State Farm cardboard wheels with windows that showed the mileage between Ohio cities, Isley’s Ice Cream cork coasters, and dozens of rulers and pencils and cardboard sunglasses stamped with business names. When our bags got full, we’d stow them in the woods and replace our Marathon sunvisors with Delco caps. Secure in the belief that all children look pretty much alike to Republican businessmen, we’d pick up new bags and go back for more.
It wasn’t hard to picture the merchants’ stuff blowing across the barren landscape of the future, despite the confident messages that the “literature” preached: glossy brochures for Fords and Frigidaires; Chamber of Commerce pamphlets narrating the history of Findlay (“a thriving center of commerce and transportation,” the place where “Down by the Old Mill Stream” was written); church-distributed comic books that showed drunken businessmen (did Republicans get drunk?) turning to Jesus after they’d lost their wives and jobs (which they always got back); and assorted leaflets like “Your Insurance Planner” (“compliments of State Farm),” The Story of Smile-Maker Service” (Marathon Oil), and “Keeping America Rolling” (Cooper Tires).
Another attraction was the fake food in the refrigerators at the appliance store booth. We imagined fooling our parents with it. “Here’s your steak, Mom and Dad.” Then Mom and Dad would look puzzled as their knives scraped the plastic meat. This never happened, of course. For one thing, our parents would never have accepted a steak “prepared” by their fourth-graders, though that never occurred to us. For another, the fake food was not a giveaway item. Dick, Robbie, and I once snatched some plaster-of-Paris eggs from a refrigerator door and bolted for the exit. As we ran the salesman shouted, “I know who you kids are! I know your parents!” Scared and ashamed, I buried my egg that night in our back yard. In the game of getting free stuff, stealing was breaking the rules. Don’t be like a Republican, I told myself: play it straight.
The Commerce Building was best visited on steamy afternoons, when huge industrial fans made breezes so strong that you had to lift rocks and ashtrays to get the free literature. There was also free entertainment. At the Carter’s Music booth the salesman would be playing “Alley Cat” or “Patricia” on the organ. Every so often he’d let a little kid hit the trumpet, violin, and piano keys, which all sounded alike. An Ohio State Highway Patrol booth, manned by an unsmiling patrolman, featured blown-up photos of accidents, posters of skeletons drag-racing, and glow-in-the-dark decals for your bike. The pamphlets always contained a “Safety I.Q.” quiz: “Should Safety Cat ride his bike facing the traffic or with the traffic?” There were also lots of statistics, like how many minutes passed before someone else died on an American highway or how much money you wasted by making “jackrabbit starts.”
The Army booth had brochures with pictures of blue-eyed young men in snappy uniforms, along with some rifles mounted to a folding partition. The recruiter was usually talking heartily to two or three nervous-looking teenage boys as he showed them the guns. Sometimes he’d stop talking when we kids passed by and give us an official-looking salute. We were too scared not to return it. After all, Army guys were tough, ready for whatever hard times might come. Dick’s father had told him that in the Army you had only one minute to go to the bathroom, and they gave you just three squares of toilet paper to use. When I asked my father if this was true, he said that Dick’s dad was as “full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”
The animal barns yielded other reasons to move cautiously through the world. The cattle were impossibly huge, like those bulls from Crete in my mother’s art book, and they seemed to move in slow motion, like Godzilla or those unclassifiable animals that chase you in nightmares. It made me nervous whenever Dick imitated their bellowing and made them roll their eyes at us. Couldn’t he see that these beasts could squash a boy without even trying—that you couldn’t make them laugh or talk them out it? The steers, with their wavy coats that looked like Red Buttons’ hair, provoked special awe. After Dad told me how they became steers, I kept sneaking glances under their back legs, looking for some horrible wound.
The sheep looked like white, wrinkly dogs after they were sheared, and seemed embarrassed at their diminishment. But the hogs, huge and bristly and nothing at all like cartoon pigs, were even scarier than the cows. The pigs seemed smarter than the other animals, more self-willed as they peered at you from the corners of their eyes. Once I stuck some hay through a fence and the mammoth boar inside banged against the wood so hard that a plank fell out. The farmer at the next stall told me to watch myself. “That one’s a killer, boy,” he said. “Gutted and ate a young man just about your size last month.” I knew he was kidding, of course, but was embarrassed by the commotion I’d caused.
The rabbits and chickens gave further proof of nature’s irrationality. They shared a tent, which I always entered alone so my friends wouldn’t see me flinch whenever the chickens jerked and fluttered in their cages. They’d all rattle at once, suddenly and for no apparent reason. I liked looking at the bright colors of the different breeds, but their eyes were inhuman and wild, like devils’ eyes. The rabbits weren’t cute and furry, but quick and ratlike. Some of them were huge, and the white ones with pink eyes looked eerie and boneless, less like animals than animal ghosts. Like the pigs, they kept watching me in that sneaky, sidelong way. Trying to look casual, I kept my hands in my pockets to hide the real reason why I wasn’t petting them like everybody else. I’d nervously jingle my change and move on.
When I talked with the country lads, they seemed to know more than I did. They were bigger and more sure of themselves, and I figured they’d do all right in the bad times, growing their own food and riding out whatever came along. The farm stuff, exotic and powerful, seemed safer when filtered through our imaginations, as it was when we played on the farm machinery on display. We spent hours high in the seats of gleaming red or green John Deere tractors and Massey-Ferguson combines, pretending to drive nuclear-powered tanks into Moscow. We always checked for keys, half relieved at never finding any. What would we do if we did? Dick once told what he’d do: he’d mow down everything at the Fair that annoyed him. Sucking on a piece of taffy, he described the swath he’d cut: through the produce displays, with the outsized pumpkins and their mean-grandmother growers; through the crafts building with its quilts, cherrywood wishing wells, and wood-burnt plaques that read “Bless This Home” and “Your Name Here”; through the fuzzy-cat game tent, which had cheated him the day before; and through the police trailer, payback for being kicked out the year before when a cop caught him hopping the fence.
We also toured the new housetrailers. Provided there was no Dust Bowl, this was the world of the future, rife with conveniences and so pristine that you had to walk through it on a plastic strip taped to the floor. It was in one of those trailer kitchens, with appliances and counters and cupboards neatly nested into each other, that I saw my first automatic dishwasher. The trailer salesman got mad whenever we traipsed through. “You kids gonna buy a mobile home?” We learned to wait until some adults started the tour and to stick close to them. It was fun watching the trailer guy being nice when grownups were around.
The old wooden grandstand had booths under the seats that housed a taffy maker, a tobacco shop, a popcorn stand, and an artist who could turn out a Rocky Mountain vista, complete with mountain lake and framing pines, in around ten minutes. People would ask for a lake with green forests and a cabin, or a scene that was all snow and ice with a glistening mountain peak in the background—and they could order a sunset if they wanted one. The painter, a skinny man in a straw hat, never said much. He’d just take 10 or 20 dollars, depending on how big the picture was going to be, light up a Lucky (the pack lay on the counter where I was leaning), and start coating and dabbing and stippling a pre-stretched canvas with a house-painting brush.
Inside the grandstand there was always something free going on: pony races, sled pulls, greased pig chases, baton twirling contests, barbershop quartet sings—everything you could imagine. At night there was a “nondenominational” church service and gospel sing. We kids avoided the area around dusk, fearing that somebody’s parents would spot us and make us go to the service with them.
We always headed for the midway in early evening, drawn to the danger that we sensed there. Everyone looked greenish and sick under the lights, and big guys in high school letter jackets from Mount Blanchard, Van Lue, and North Baltimore cruised the area in packs or with dates. The pinball tent—the “Arcade”—was filled with these tough-looking guys and their girlfriends, and everyone puffed on cigarettes. Every so often the change-maker, a beefy man with palm trees tattooed on his arms, came out of his booth and threw a guy out for tilting his machines or jamming them with slugs. Sometimes a big kid would commandeer a game from a kid our age.
You’d expect a penny arcade to be one place where you’d have to spend money to have fun. But I didn’t play the games very often. Once they were over, what did you have to show for it? Besides, sticking a quarter into a game meant committing yourself to staying in that tent longer than you might want to. You never knew when some bigger guy would materialize and say, “You want yer ass kicked?” Although the question was scary, I always had to suppress a laugh. Who would ever answer yes? Tact dictated a cool reply—”You gonna try?”—and a casual stroll toward the exit, with an occasional pause to flip the levers on another machine as you moved on. If you resisted the urge to run out, only the hood would know that you’d just been given the boot. The hoods fascinated me. Like the cows and the pigs, they seemed motivated by dark impulses that I couldn’t understand. I figured that if the Republicans got their way, I’d be fighting guys like this for food. It was good to practice dealing with them, and there was a certain thrill in threading through the Arcade without bumping them or catching their eye.
We’d hang around in the Arcade—or frequently, just outside it—until an announcement blared from the new South Grandstand, the one built from steel bars. Some nights the Helldrivers were there, and we’d race over to claim standing space outside the fence so we could watch the jumps and the crashes for free. After each stunt the announcer said the same thing: “Uh Oh! Folks, is Junior Saparelli all right? He’s pretty slow get-ting out of that car!” Then a helmeted Junior Saparelli would ease himself out of a window and give Churchill’s victory sign, and the crowd would explode. Other nights we’d watch the harness races, hardly tame affairs when you’re pressed against the railing as the carts and horses thunder by and fill your nostrils with track dust.
We usually left halfway through the grandstand show so we wouldn’t be late getting home. About the only event still going on was the teen dance staged on the loading dock at the rear of the Commerce Building. We were too young to take much interest in that, except for the disk jockey who ran it from inside the WFIN Mobile Radio van. He was broadcasting over the radio, too, and we’d watch him through the van’s picture window. Before he left for college, my brother was sometimes the DJ as part of his weekend job at the station. My friends were impressed, of course, but I found it disturbing. Dave’s radio voice, which made him sound years older, was nothing like his nasal mumbling at home. Then, too, he seemed to have crossed over to the Republican world of getting and spending as he played records I knew he hated, like Patti Page’s “Que Sera, Sera” or Mitch Miller’s “Yellow Rose of Texas,” and read announcements I knew he didn’t believe in. “So when your car needs care,” he intoned with a nervous grin, “bring it on down to Little’s Marathon. That’s Little’s Marathon. You’ll be glad you did.”
With our ten o’clock curfews, my friends and I never stayed long at the dance. We wanted to end the night at the First Methodist food tent, when the church ladies cut prices to clear out the day’s leftovers. While we ate we determined who had won the Fair Game, comparing who had had the most fun for the least money. As I recounted my victory I usually had the meatloaf dinner with two vegetables, roll, and dessert—exactly the sort of meal I’d complain about whenever Mom served it at home. I’d order it, though, because it seemed like a fittingly grownup meal, an appropriate reward for living the day responsibly and not being a pawn of the carnies and the Republicans. I never spent everything I had on this last meal, even though the next day’s Fair money was already parceled out at home. Anything could happen, and I didn’t want to get caught short.
Even at the time I dimly understood that I needn’t have been so careful. For all my premonitions, life was pretty predictable, “safe as a steer,” as my father would say. In hindsight, I think that Dad shared my resistance to the tranquility all around us. He had helped his parents butcher hogs and put up tomatoes and beans so their family could eat, but now he wore a suit in an air-conditioned office and tracked the flow of corporate money through the coffers of the Marathon Oil Company. Although he had made a good life for us, he may have wondered whether he hadn’t made a whore’s choice, too, maybe no better than Ike’s. The good life may even have bored him a little. After all, the rains were regular and gentle, the banks were safe, and the Japs and Nazis had been beaten. Maybe the Republicans were all he had left to fight.
I was seeking trials of my own, even at the Hancock County Fair. But while I kept looking for signs of an apocalypse, I knew that when I got home that night I’d find my parents sitting in the front room looking strangely contented, watching something funny on TV while Dad nursed a beer and Mom glanced at a book during the commercials. I knew just what they’d say: “How was the Fair?” I always said “Fine,” but if I had been able to say—or even to know—what I really thought, I’d have told them that the Fair had been disappointing, another reminder that I’d been born too late to see the livelier times my parents had lived through.
Gradually, this mental swerve toward the past became permanent. Whenever our family drove up to Dearborn to see Greenfield Village, it was the old buildings—Edison’s lab, the Wright brothers’ shop— that grabbed my attention, not the nearby Ford Rotunda, with its model City of Tomorrow filled with space-age cars zipping to and fro on elevated tracks. The Rotunda had a decidedly Republican feel to it, with the latest Fords on rotating platforms, waiting to be bought by anyone who didn’t want to be left behind in the race for new stuff. The Rotunda was like those housetrailers at the Fair: it forecast a world of convenience, but nothing as exciting as the Great Depression or World War II. There was even a whiff of conspiracy. If you bought a new Ford, wouldn’t you be making the Republicans even richer? They wanted you to forget that the Great Depression ever happened, but what if you were driving your new Fairlane off the lot just as the dusty winds kicked up, or the banks shut down, or a bunch of Republican bosses decided to fire everybody? Soon the whole country would look like something a tornado had left behind. You’d have a brand new car and nowhere to drive it except a fairgrounds-like landscape of tall grass, gravel, and dust.
A few years later, when the Ford Rotunda burned to the ground, I was only mildly surprised: wasn’t this just the sort of thing I always expected? By now, though, I realized that the Republicans weren’t responsible for the inevitable sadnesses of life. Cheryl’s father had gone to prison for killing a man in a fight, and Tommy’s father had died in a truck crash. The natural entropy that fights and fires and accidents helped along seemed too pervasive for the Republicans to be behind it all. I wondered when the dark times would hit home, and I’d be living them with no need to read about them in the newspaper. I kept saving my money as I waited for the other shoe—the personal one—to drop.
It never did. The definitive Bad Thing never happened, at least not to our family. Marathon Oil never went bankrupt and Dad never got fired, despite his water-cooler political debates. He did have a heart attack eight years after the Rotunda fire and was forced to retire, but pension and disability allowed him and Mom to shake Findlay’s Republican dust from their feet and to try several retirement cities before settling on Columbus, where they’re doing pretty well. My brother never became an electrical engineer. After a 15-year career in radio, he became a software designer, a card-carrying citizen of the futuristic world that once made me so uneasy. As long as the electricity holds out, he’ll be happy. My sister never amassed enough stuff to be a Republican, like I always feared. She finally got her lobster dinner in Toledo after her senior prom, but pronounced it a huge disappointment, virtually tasteless except for the melted butter. An elementary school teacher, Sue now spends most of her time and energy trying to talk children—her own as well other people’s—out of buying all the current versions of the useless junk she used to love.
The Republicans never got me, either, though I finally understood that some of them have beating hearts. I even have some friends who are Republicans—not many, granted, but enough to signal a some-what opened mind. I ended up being an English professor, not rich but not poor, with enough money to smile pleasantly as I treat friends to dinner, but not enough to suppress a churning stomach whenever I do. I suppose it’s a shame that I worried so much as a kid, or that I still enact countless rituals designed to counter a pessimism so profound that I’ve learned not to mention it in casual conversation, let alone in class. I know that throwing money around like a guy with a trust fund is a compensatory flip-flop so transparent as to be ludicrous, and it’s never pleasant to feel the tug of compulsion doing its work.
Finally, though, we are who we are, and we can’t go back and change what made us this way. Even if we could, we’d fail spectacularly. If I could sit down at the end of a day at the Hancock County Fair with the penny-pinching boy who I was, I’d shake him by the shoulders and peer into his sober little face. I’d tell him that Sue has gotten it at least partly right, that he ought to give up that stupid Fair Game and start having some real fun. Being who he was, he’d probably agree to think it over only if I bought him a snow-cone to top off that meatloaf dinner. Being who I am, I’d buy him two of the goddamn things and then fume about having been taken for a ride. This miserly kid with the thick glasses, I’d figure, must be some sort of junior Republican. I’d try not to hold it against him, though it would be pretty damned hard.