The opposite side toward the lake (a recently discovered map names it Harbour Street) dissolved into a small desert of sand and grass. Benches and trestle tables of wind-worn timber and posts emerged like bleaching bones from the landscape forming a rough horseshoe. During the week they were playground to kids running their length to a soft-sand landing that pre-1969 might have been a South Pacific beachhead and after stood in for Tranquility base. But come a summer Friday or Saturday night, that vacant stretch could transform into a mystical, magical dream: the Beach Carnival.
In the preceding weeks, posters and handbills appeared tacked to lampposts and community bulletin boards around town, fighting for attention over cries of “Church Supper” or “Dance at the Casino”. They were displayed in storefront windows, competing with the faded notices of years past. Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis: they all had their allotted Saturday nights gambling every bit as much as their carnival patrons on the whim of the weather to bring in the dollars to continue their good works.
Carnival was preceded by an afternoon of slowly mounting activity and tension. The air began to buzz and those bleaching bones gave the slightest shiver of anticipation. First to arrive at the site were a few trucks and station wagons bearing equipment needed for the games of skill and chance. The wheels with their circle of spikes for the ball to roll about or the clicker stop, the table to hold the cakes and pies, the flags and bunting. Next came the electrical and the sound people, usually Miller’s Electric, to ensure there was power for the bingo machine with its birdcage of ping-pong balls and for the PA system to call out the numbers. Just before dusk, the truck would arrive with the prizes that would unload into a mountain of dazzling, tawdry treasure in the middle of the bingo square. This was before the days of the slacker’s sell-out, the cash prize. There were lawn chairs, air mattresses, toy boats and portable barbecues, enormous electric fans and complete fishing rod kits, propane lanterns, swim fins and snorkels, huge striped umbrellas and net bags with beach toys enough to last a lifetime. What were dollars compared to this? Darkness brought on the naked strings of overhead, insect-swarming lights illuminating the treasure trove, gleaming and glittering with promise for only a dime, or a quarter, or fifty cents. The price of paradise kept pace with inflation. You could double or triple your 25-cent wager at the Crown and Anchor Wheel or the Derby Horse Race. Or lose it all. If nothing else, it was a valuable lesson in finance, fate and the wisdom of Mr. P. T. Barnum regarding fools and their money. Bingo was sometimes played in those early days, on newsprint-thin sheets with the cards stamped on the paper. The numbers called were marked by placing a kernel of dried corn on the square with the silent prayer that no excited patron would jump up and send the whole mess flying. It was always wise to wait for the numbers to be verified. To the Bingo playing community’s immense relief, this system gave way to those more reliable, and certainly more re-useable, leatherette cards with the tiny black shutters to be drawn over the called numbers.
Darkness and the first echoes of “UNDER THE B” was the signal to put on jackets if there was a breeze and wander down towards the lights and mounting excitement. When you are very small the noise and hustle of so many adults performing their arcane rites can be frightening and exciting. You had to wiggle your way to the table’s edge, then find a number that wasn’t being played, but still looked promising. Your age was always a good bet, or the year you were born. Stake it out then see how long it took for luck to smile on you or move on down the board to someone else’s territory. Stay where you are? O move on down? Difficult choices when your 9 and down to your last dime. Try the wheel for a homemade pie or a cake that might still be warm from an uptown oven. The really good carnivals had a fishpond where everyone was a winner. But, having played it safe, you got far less than when the odds were longer. Popcorn, cotton candy, taffy apples. The assault on the senses rose as the darkness fell. By standing at the edge of the circle of light and noise you could look over the darkening lake, with maybe a gentle breeze in your hair, to see the moon and stars dance on the water. Here was the ragged edge, the dividing line between two worlds: one exciting and chaotic, demanding in its shrill call to the senses. The other, dark and alien, a subtle allure stretching forever beyond sight. I always turned and ran back to the safety of the things I knew. I won a chaise lounge playing bingo that first year at Port Elgin. When faced with a choice from that mountain of extravagance, I chose something practical, safe, something I thought my parents would approve. A few years later, I might have picked otherwise. But then, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Things started to unwind about 10 ‘clock. Time to get the kids to bed and rested for tomorrow’s adventures. By 10:30 the only ones left were the die-hards trying to break even at the Crown & Anchor table. Time to go home.
The next day, amid the drift of sand and grass, it was as though last night’s carnival magic was no more substantial than tattered smoke from a dying campfire drifting out across the lake, just a fading wisp in the air.