Local dispatch: Every generation can stake a claim to CMU carnival

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Each April as I drive on Forbes Avenue past the Morewood parking lot at Carnegie Mellon University, I feel excitement when I spot the Ferris wheel's arc above the trees. It signifies the arrival of the annual Spring Carnival, the event I've attended every year since I was quite young.

This week, Spring Carnival celebrates its 100th anniversary. While my memories don't go back that far, I have numerous years of varied carnival experiences.

My earliest Spring Carnival memory was when I was 6, when everyone called it "Tech Carnival," referring to Carnegie Tech. I actually thought it was "Tex Carnival," as if it had been named after a cowboy.

At my young age, carnival -- longtime patrons never say the carnival -- was fascinating and thrilling. The games were impossible, the prizes irresistible. I desperately wanted to win a Hershey bar at the roulette wheel, the most likely game for a 6-year-old to win. My friend Tina's dad patiently shelled out enough dimes to buy at least 10 candy bars in a store. I put each one on a number I deemed lucky, but after numerous spins, I dejectedly left without a candy bar.

The rides weren't kid-friendly, either. Instead of cute animal rides that went around in a level circle, I remember rather insane contraptions with no apparent height or age requirements. (Not to mention that they were assembled in a matter of days.)

I found myself inside a cage with Tina and her mother on an enormous, deranged version of a Ferris wheel, sobbing in panic at the thought of flipping over when we reached the top, which was basically the point of the ride. Tina's mother shrieked for the operator to stop the ride, which he grudgingly -- and mercifully -- did.

On the first night of carnival each year, I watched the fireworks from my bedroom window. I ran upstairs when I heard the first boom and pushed open my curtains. I was old enough around age 10 to go to carnival at night and see the fireworks in person. I was captivated, watching the fireworks explode overhead while riding the Scrambler.

The games remained frustratingly difficult, though I recall the joy of winning a small clip-on koala bear at an Australian-themed booth. I wonder now how much I paid for the bear, with all the attempts it took to win.

As a child, carnival was the place to be and be seen. My classmates and I lived in our own little grade school world, with only kids our age on our radar. I was vaguely aware of the college students as the cool elder statesmen in charge of everything.

Years later, as a CMU student, I felt some ownership over the event and discovered the inner workings of my childhood wonderland. When I walked the midway, I noticed my fellow students, not the little kids or alumni. The high-schoolers who came at night to attempt to get drunk and act collegiate were intruders. It was our event.

I gained a new appreciation for the work that went into the elaborate booths, since I knew some of the people helped to build them or design the games. My personal passion was Scotch 'n' Soda, the student-run drama organization, so my endeavor was acting in our spring show, performed several times during carnival weekend.

Now when I attend carnival as an alumna, the booths are still amazing. The Scotch 'n' Soda performers still seem to have that overflowing enthusiasm. The games are now free to play, often with a piece of candy as a reward for simply trying. And there are age-appropriate kiddie rides.

When I walk the midway, my field of vision includes multiple generations. I see myself in all the people there -- in the young kids' enthusiasm and hopefulness in trying to master games beyond their abilities; in the students' energized exhaustion; and in the alumni's reminiscent wanderings.

I have come to realize that I am part of a larger whole. My accumulated carnival experiences are a tiny piece of the evolving history that includes everyone who has built, painted, designed, performed, gotten dizzy on a ride and eaten funnel cakes at this wonderful event.

While carnival will continue to change, I hope that in another 100 years people will still be walking the midway with the same excitement I feel every year.


Laura Lind of Squirrel Hill, a music teacher, can be reached at beedy@hotmail.com

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