Sunday, August 14, 2011

August Is County Fair Season

County Fair, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

August is county fair season here in Pennsylvania. Fairs and carnivals bring out the kid in me, evoking the same sort of muscle memory reflex that shows itself as I watch parades with marching bands. Long dormant band practice drills awaken within me at the sound of a drum cadence, left-right-left-right-left-right, and I check myself to see if I’m actually marching in place from the sidelines as a spectator. I get a similar adrenaline jolt at the sound of a Ferris wheel motor starting up or hearing the bells and whistles of games along the midway.

Carnies, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Growing up, summer meant 4-H Club projects. End of summer meant county fairs and carnivals coming to town before the start of the school year. For rural kids, the county fair was an amusement park that traveled to us each year, bringing with it a sense of mystery and a hint of danger. The rides excited and distorted the senses, the games of skill and chance always seemed rigged, and the nomadic outsiders working the fairs looked more world-weary than the locals. It’s the ultimate story premise: a stranger comes to town.

Dunk Bozo, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

What draws me in most is the carnival atmosphere, especially at twilight when the mood shifts with the light as it changes from the golden glow of sunset to bright, spinning neon. After dark spookiness sets in, an underlying sense of danger, which probably works better to create added tension in films than in books since it’s so visual. No specific scenes from books come to mind as I write this in the way that scenes from films do, particularly Alfred Hitchcock’s film noir “Strangers On A Train.” I’ve yet to read Patricia Highsmith’s novel on which the film was based, so I don’t know if the carousel scene in Hitchcock’s film was part of story in the book. I never tire of Hitchcock’s visual mastery in storytelling, be it in black-and-white or Technicolor – and no one used color better than Hitch.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Further Along On The Road

Road Trip 1978, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Road trips make great stories, summer the perfect setting. This summer brings back two famous journeys, one by Jack Kerouac and one by Ken Kesey, in new formats – a book app for On The Road, and the documentary “Magic Trip” using restored film footage of Kesey’s 1964 cross-country trip with the Merry Pranksters. The beat and hippie generations, two eras colliding for Kesey, and with Neal Cassady serving as the legendary wheel man in both stories. Born too close to the end of the baby boomer generation, I missed out on much of the great stuff – at least that’s the way it always seemed growing up. But, I was just old enough to fully embrace the ‘70s with my art school friends, and we have a few road stories of our own.

The picture above was snapped by Kevin as he was about to set off on a cross-country trip with his best buddy KT in the summer of 1978. KT is the shadowy figure in the driver’s seat. Shortly after Kevin took this photo, the two departed Pittsburgh for what was to be a summer’s long road trip to British Columbia and then down the west coast. Riding along in spirit were friends who’d painted their names on the blue VW beast, and that big thing on the passenger’s door was supposed to be a hawk (KT was a big fan of The Band, known early on as The Hawks when they were the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins). I’d moved to Los Angeles a month or so earlier, and one of those boxes on the roof rack contained some of my favorite books which they were kindly transporting west for me.

Kevin and KT made it as far as the Ohio border before the blue beast developed serious engine trouble. They sputtered back to Pittsburgh, managed to borrow a car from KT’s dad, transferred their gear and my books to the loaner car (a Pinto, Ford’s legendary fiery deathtrap of a ride), and set out on the road again later that same day.

The year before graduation and this road trip west, Kevin and I both happened to be reading On The Road for the first time – the 25th anniversary paperback edition, the one with the bright orange sunset on the cover. That book brought us together, connected us. Most couples have a song they call theirs, we have our book. We return to it again and again. I’ve reread it many times over the years, and Kevin keeps adding new editions of it to our bookshelves, the latest being a new hardback version he came home with a few weeks ago, this one with a new version of the yellow and orange sun on the jacket. It’s likely that my first copy of On The Road was in that box strapped to the roof rack.

It’s also likely that my copy of Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest hitched a ride to Los Angeles with Kevin and KT. Last Wednesday I happened to catch Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” on cable. It must’ve been a preview prior to its official release last Friday in theaters and on pay-per-view. You can read a review by Charles McGrath for The NY Times here. Filmmakers Gibney and Ellwood managed to salvage forty hours of footage shot by Ken Kesey and the Pranksters during their 1964 cross-country trip in the psychedelic bus, Further (and the New York City World’s Fair) their destination. My favorite scenes included glimpses of novelists Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone, and of Kerouac, who seemed to be having no fun at a prankster party. Kesey, who’d already published Sometimes A Great Notion and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, appears incredibly young in the film.

Just as with all good stories, there were complications and unexpected twists in Kevin and KT’s road trip of ’78. KT ended up having to drive all the way back across the country alone for the final leg of his journey. Kevin decided to stay in California and start a different journey, and convinced me to join him in San Francisco. I’m a sucker for happy endings. KT remains Kevin’s best buddy after all these years. And after all this distance, all this way further along the road, it turns out the road trip of ’78 was really just the beginning.

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