Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor Day Celebrations....

....mark the end of summer in most of the USA. At Chez Indian, the kitties are back from their 'far south' vacation, but left a note that says they're taking the day off because it's Labor Day which, contrary to common belief, wasn't originally intended to reward laborers. The original day was intended to mark the end of the idleness of summer & signal it was time to get back down to business, but that's another post.
In most places I've been during Labor Day around the USA, it wasn't celebrated by much more than a cookout or picnic. But, in the little place I was raised, the Fourth of July wasn't really more than a cookout or picnic, Labor Day was the biggie. This was likely as the folks living in town generally worked at the paper mill, which in those days was still owned mainly by those employed there. In most families, the parents were from Europe or Canada and part of their pay when the mill started in the early 20th Century was given in shares of the company. These immigrants, mostly poorly educated, might not have known the way it worked, but they certainly understood when told the shares were important and to keep them safe.
That they did, as did their children when they went to work there and when those called to WWII returned they saved the shares that had been accumulating since the beginning of the mill to pay for their kids education. Shortly after I left the area to seek my fortune, the mill was sold to an International Company based in the USA & was greatly expanded. Today, many years and many owners later, it's struggling to stay alive with sporadic closings & openings. I understand that Labor Day is still a big day there, although on a greatly reduced scale. But, as it's those long gone days I remember, it's those days I write about.
Summer in Maine is notoriously short and, on a farm of any type, very busy. For the town kids, days of summer were filled with Boy's or Girl's Club, Little League, Pony League, part-time jobs, and a slower pace. For farm kids, it was filled with long days and evenings of dusty toil, an evening swim if possible, and early bed followed by an equally early rise. For us, the days we had free were few in number and thus very precious and were spent packing in the most we could while the day lasted.
One big event made us all rejoice and moan in anticipation, Labor Day. Even farm kids got a final reprieve for a few days of fun and, for older kids, a chance to pick up some quick money. That was the rejoice part, the moan part was that school ALWAYS started the Wednesday following Labor Day, which is ALWAYS the 1st Monday in September. In those days you didn't get 'snow days' as often as now. Perhaps if the plows were unable to clear a path in the stuff, but that was rare. So school years were more fixed. Because of the impending days sitting in classes, we likely held on to Labor Day festivities as long as possible.
The 1st signs Labor Day was nigh upon us was the appearance of 'Carnival Coming' posters being posted on every available surface & pole in town. Why they were ever needed was always a mystery to me, as EVERYBODY for many miles around KNEW that on the Wednesday before Labor Day the little traveling carnival rides on trailer trucks would arrive and congregate on the open rail-yard space opposite the Little League Field at the north end of Main Street. The Paper Company would ensure the lot was clear of logs & coal well in advance to allow the ground to 'settle' a bit for the rides. Usually there were two outfits working together to provide rides and numerous traveling & local vendors & games to round things out. They almost always had a 'Girlie Show' which most of the women opposed and almost all the men would go to see at least once. Set-up started shortly after arrival and opening was always noon Thursday, just like clockwork every year. Occasionally there was talk at Town Meeting of switching to a circus for a change, but this was usually strongly opposed by those folks who sold snacks & ran games every Labor Day. Thus, the wonderful 'sameness' stayed the same.
Uncle R would, from when I was 11 or so, always allow me to go try to earn some hard cash spending money over the few days I could. When picking kids to hire, the Carney's weren't very discreet about it. The kids would cluster around the van marked 'Boss' as soon as the wheels stopped moving. After a few minutes, out would come the fella in charge who would tell all of us to back up, he'd make a line in the dirt, and tell all over 10 years old to step into one side of the line. The rest, being too young for any job, were sent away disappointed. Then the current 'Boss' would invariably yell out for all farm kids with loads of chores to move to the other side. For some reason, the 'Townies' always fell for it and us farm hicks stepped over the line without them. Then the 'Townies' were sent packing with a promise that if they came back every day any extra jobs would be doled out first come, first served. All the farm kids were always hired with the same old line about no time for auditions, I want boys that can work and work hard. Girls in those days might get on serving snacks, but much care needed to be taken to protect their 'reputations'.
After 'set-up', most kids were let go until 'tear-down' the following Tuesday. Some of us always seemed to end up being included in the 15-20 'lucky' few who were hired on to help with almost everything requiring a strong back and weak mind. When not doing something we were free to wander the grounds, which to us meant checking out the members of the 'fairer gender' wandering the stands and rides.
That we were 'employed' by the carnivals was a plus as we would get paid every night and thus, starting on opening day, we had money to lavish on them trying to gain their favor. We ALWAYS fell for THAT as easily as the Townie boys fell for the 'choosing help' ruse. If we were wanted, the ticket seller at one of the 2-3 ride ticket sales stands would call us by name over the speaker system and tell us where to go.
Very heady stuff indeed for a buncha farm kids who spent most days doing nothing more exciting than shoveling dung, milking cows, delivering farm goods, baling hay, etc. Occasionally a real lasting friendship would spring up among the local girls & guys that was beyond the school kind winter allowed for. A couple friends are still married to 'Town Girls' they met while working the carnival. Both gals decided they liked farm boys & now they both have farm boy grand kids as they became farmer's wives, and happily so from all accounts.
I was a bit different, not that I didn't chase girls, but I always spent a fair amount of time hanging quietly around with the men & women who spent most of their time moving from city to city around the country east of the Mississippi River. It may have even instilled a bit of curiosity in my young mind, one that moving in at 16 or so with a friend who had just finished his Navy enlistment converted into more of a quest. Topped off by all the tales I heard from veterans of WWII & Korea who had been all over the place, my remaining in that town wasn't even an option when I left for the Navy at age 17 after graduating early due to skipping ahead grades a few times.
On Friday it was 'Veterans' night, Saturday had day-long contests and events ranging from tricycle parades to egg tossing and similar contests. Saturday night was 'teen' night. Sunday, the midway opened at 2PM and there were more games, greased pig chase, greased pole climb, and dance contests.
Monday, the big day, started at 11AM with a pretty long parade. There'd be several school bands, floats, baton twirlers, and every other thing anybody wanted to enter. Go-karts, square dancers, etc, followed by the perennial parade ending horses. I'd go to my Dad's house as the parade always passed by it because the marshaling area was the Elementary School ball field on the next block down, so we got to see it when the folks in it were fresh & at their best.
The day ended shortly after 9:30PM with fireworks for 45 minutes or so. In my latter years in the area we'd speed to Milltown, New Brunswick, Canada, about ten miles away to watch their Labor Day fireworks, a neat trick allowed by them being in a different time zone and the display starting at midnight there, 11 PM our time. Then I'd spend the night at Dad's and go down early the next morning to help finish up tear down and packing. This was an easy time for the regular Carney folks as the next show was always about two weeks later, allowing them a bit of a breather for the first time in months.
Even today, when I see the trucks going by in mid-September to set up for the county fair, I get a deep sense of the old wanderlust that settled deep in my very soul all those years ago listening to all those adventurous tales that sounded so unimaginable back then. Today, having been fortunate to do what I love as a part of my career, I know that those 'unimaginable' places and events only scratched the surface of what the world has to offer those willing to take a leap of faith & step beyond familiar boundaries.
Until next time, which will be shorter than the last idle period, take care & be well.