Wednesday, February 26, 2014

                       THE 1964 NORTHWOOD SCHOOL FAIR

     By the summer of 1964, I had stretched out my adolescence to the breaking point. The following summer would find me working in a warehouse in downtown Baltimore, the summer after that, boot camp in Fort Gordon, Georgia, the next summer, Long Binh, Vietnam.
     Many events and adventures with the Northwooders were yet to come, but the summer of ’64 was my farewell to the enchantment of the season, before work and responsibility pushed the magic aside. Thankfully, it was a great summer, maybe the best of my younger years. It began, as every summer did, with the Northwood School Fair.
     The Northwood School fair was the event that marked the official beginning of summer vacation. Our school semester ended the third week in June. The school fair was always the last Saturday of that month. The contingency plan was to have it the first Saturday in July if there was a rainout, but, to my recollection, that never happened. That Saturday was always a beautiful early summer day.
     The fair was held mostly outside (the candy and plant sales were indoors) at the rear of the school.
     I guess you could say it was sort of a combination flea market/amusement park. Tables were set up around the school's perimeter for selling contributed items like clothes, tools, and even records. There were also stands selling hot dogs, sodas, snowballs, and cotton candy. There were pony rides and various beanbag-tossing games.
     The fair opened at nine AM, but my brother and I would get there early to help a friend's mom set up the tables. After that, we were on our own. The gang would start showing up one or two at a time during the morning hours until all were present and accounted for.
     Let me say right now that it was never our intent to create mischief at the fair. We started the day in a courteous and polite fashion. But by early afternoon, after checking out all the tables, playing most of the games, and eating a couple dozen twenty five cent hot dogs, we were getting restless. Sitting on the crest of a grassy hill, watching all the action, some of us noticed a child open a rear door to the school before being scolded by his mother.
      The Northwooders happened to know that door was always locked because we had often tried to enter it on weekends. We simultaneously looked at each other with the same thought in our heads; a hangout.
      We raced down the incline and into the door. We found ourselves on the first floor of a stairwell. For a while, we were content to lounge around on the steps, listening to the commotion outside. Before long, we became restless, tired of sitting and talking, and decided to explore a bit.
     At the top of the stairs was another door. It too was unlocked and, to our amazement, opened up into the school gym.
     We couldn't believe our luck. What started out started out as a somewhat forgettable stairwell adventure had now suddenly developed into much more. The gym had ropes hanging from the ceiling and tied down to the walls. An assortment of balls littered the floor from small dodge balls to huge medicine balls. A large piano occupied one corner of the facility.
     I'm not sure to this day the purpose of a piano in a gym. It was an elementary school so maybe the kids climbed ropes to Beethoven or Mozart. At the time nobody paid it much mind. The ropes held most of our attention.
     Once untied, we began to swing around the room with wild abandon. It was such a unique thrill to have a fully functional gymnasium to ourselves that one of us went outside to spread the word.
     Soon the gym was filled with boys taking advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity. All the ropes were being used by at least one boy. Some had two or three hanging from them. Balls of all sizes flew about the room, some aimed at the swingers, others at the walls and ceiling.
     At some point, it was decided that the piano would make a good launching pad for the ropes. It was rolled out to the center of the gym and while one talented young man played a medley of Jerry Lee Lewis standards, others jumped off its surface, swinging out on their improvised Tarzan swings.
     It was around this time that we realized our shouts, yells, and off key rendition of 'Great Balls Of Fire' had drawn the attention of a few adults. We saw them crowded outside the door that led to a school hallway. Fortunately for us, that door was locked from the inside.
     They were trying desperately to get in. From the door's small glass opening we could see their mouths moving frantically, but the din in the room prevented us from hearing their words. One woman in particular seemed in obvious distress. Every time a guy would mount the piano she would open her mouth wide in what looked like a scream, but, as I said, we couldn't hear her.
     Suddenly, it appeared that a light bulb turned on simultaneously over all their heads. They had figured out our point of entry.
     As fun as this was, no one really wanted our day to end with police officers escorting us home.
     We took off in a flash, at least thirty of us, leaping down the stairwell and out the door. Adults outside scattered to avoid being trampled by the onslaught. It was several seconds of sheer chaos.
     Most of the guys mixed into the crowd, heavy panting the only obvious sign of their shenanigans. Our gang headed back up the hill in time to see several quite angry adults enter our former hangout.
     The remainder of the day was a rather normal affair. A couple of us were kicked out of the plant room after a shoving match knocked over some azaleas. One of our gang took a pony ride when he thought we weren't looking. But we saw him and gave him grief throughout the summer. But mostly we ate hot dogs and cotton candy and talked about how we'd spend the rest of our vacation.
     I can't remember how many more years the Northwood School fair continued. It wasn't many. It was, despite our occasional ill behavior, a unique social event that defined the innocence of the sixties. Like many memories from that time, it was irreplaceable.
     Oh and by the way, that door was tested many times during the course of the summer, but it was always tightly locked.