When the fair rolled in with its rickety roller coasters and Ferris wheels pulled from a box, we didn’t race into town with our pockets full of coins like most kids. We didn’t hunger for overpriced funnel cake or candied apples, nor pinch pennies to toss rings at empty soda pop bottles. We had everything we ever needed right there on the farm. And if by chance we didn’t, Penny would find a way to build it. He could build anything from scratch and fix the broken with his own two hands.
He was constantly tightening door knobs and getting under the sink to fix a leak. One time he and Uncle Wayne were chopping down a tree out front and the axe broke right in half. It was the only axe they had, but Penny made it good as new with a prescription of screws, rope, and electrical tape. Sure it was ugly, but it got the job done. So when his grandkids dreamed up ideas like a zipline or a 9-hole putt putt course, Penny didn’t bat an eye; he got to the drawing board. When we heard, “Rose, where’s my…?” from Penny as he walked in and out of the farmhouse, we knew the plans were laid and construction would soon commence.
He started small with his own kids (my parents, aunts, and uncles), crafting rafts out of large truck inner tubes. We got a lot of mileage out of those tubes over the years. They served as battleships, bumper cars, and lifeboats until one too many patches hung them up to dry. With the birth of his grandkids, Penny’s projects grew more elaborate. The green shed now housed every tool imaginable, from simple screwdrivers to a massive table saw that no one was allowed to get within three feet of. He’d get an idea into his head and couldn’t get it out until he saw the smiles on all our faces.
But when we drove past the fair on our way home from church one Sunday, the wheels in Penny’s head turned with a speed never before seen. He had laid his eyes on a ride he just knew in his heart he could craft even better for his grandkids. That afternoon, while we were distracted by doughnuts in the bed of Uncle Roy’s truck, he disappeared and returned about an hour later with a station wagon full of beat up wooden boards and steel pipes.
“Help me take these out beyond the shed,” he hollered as he pulled in. One by one, we carried the boards and pipes and laid them out in the grass. Penny had to crouch down as he walked to keep the boards on my level, but I still struggled to walk without stopping every few feet to readjust my grip. With all the pieces in the grass and sweat beading at my brow, we made one last stop to the green shed for Penny’s toolbox.
“If you carry my toolbox, you can be the first person to try it out,” Penny offered.
“Try what out?” I asked.
“Why, the Ferris wheel!” he beamed and winked as he skipped out of the shed. I followed, clutching the toolbox with both hands at my belt buckle. Never for a second did I doubt that my grandfather would pull this off and that by sundown, my cousins and I would be riding the Ferris wheel just like the kids in town.
It was around three o’clock when we started. I was Penny’s right hand man, handing him whatever he asked for like I’d seen Uncle Roy do while Penny worked on the wagon. We didn’t even notice the hours passing, too consumed by trial and error as the Ferris wheel took shape in the grass.
“I have a confession to make,” Penny smiled as he hammered one wooden beam to the other. I looked up from the bolt I was tightening. “I stopped at that pharmacy next to the hardware store for some penny candy.” A grin spread across his lips as he reached into his pants pocket and presented a paper bag full of candy. I reached for a piece, but Penny tossed me the entire bag. “It’s all yours,” he said, “but don’t tell the others.”
As each board connected to form the wheel, we stood it upright and secured it to its steel base. We fastened thick rope and wooden planks for seats and the Ferris wheel was complete. Penny gave the steel crank a turn and we watched as the giant wooden wheel went ‘round and ‘round.
“Ok, take a seat,” Penny said, wide-eyed and proud of his handiwork. I sat in the seat closest to the ground and gripped the metal rod in front of me. “Ready?” he asked, and before I could answer, I started to move. Penny held the crank with both hands, using the weight of his body to propel me upward. The Ferris wheel was a success and I made two rotations, hootin’ and hollerin’ until….
It stopped. The wheel wouldn’t budge, no matter how much weight Penny put on that crank. “I think I know what we need,” Penny assured me. “I’ll be right back.” Why didn’t I go with him, his dutiful companion, his right hand man? Well, because I couldn’t. I was stuck at the very top of the Ferris wheel with no safe way of getting down! I had no idea what he had left me up there to go retrieve, but I trusted him, even when the sun began to set on my rambling thoughts.
The darkness soon made way for the fair in all its brilliance. From my seat in the sky, I could see its lights from miles away, the Ferris wheel turning ‘round and ‘round as I sat stagnant. But I didn’t feel like I was missing out. It felt more like a movie, a show being put on just for me. I also knew that my cousins weren’t there; they were on the farm, just like me. Some were running in the field with flashlights, others were pushing their final splash of pond water, and still others were helping Aunt Kathie bake Snickerdoodles and squeezing oranges for tomorrow’s breakfast. I dipped into my pocket for the bag of candy Penny had given me earlier. The bright red candy stuck to my molars and I picked it from my teeth while swinging my legs to a tune I’d heard on the radio.
“Hey, whatcha chewing?” Scott hollered up at me.
“Piece of candy,” I shouted down.
“No fair!” he returned with a pout.
“At least you’re not stuck up here!” I reminded him. I reached into my pocket for another piece and tossed it down to him. “Now go tell Grandpa it’s getting dark!” The candy landed in the grass and Scott struggled for a moment to find it before running off toward the green shed to find Penny.
When Penny returned, he acted as if no time had passed at all. He ran on his own clock, or maybe it was the farm’s clock that moved slowly and made him take notice of simple things like the color of a flower, the taste of a berry, the twinkle in Rose’s eye. Sometimes the clock stopped completely, like this day when I got stuck at the top of Penny’s Ferris wheel and the world continued on without me.
“Alright,” Penny spoke through thickening darkness, “I’ve got the right tool now.” He cranked away as the wheel slowly turned, returning me to solid ground. I ran to join my cousins, who were now catching fireflies in glass mason jars, which we would set free from the porch before bedtime. Penny tinkered away on the Ferris wheel until it was too dark to see his hands in front of him, but you can be sure he returned first thing in the morning before anyone else opened their eyes to a new day.
Over the years, Penny built a zip line, water slide, diving board, roller coaster, seesaws, and our much loved 9-hole putt putt course, and despite his long commutes to and from the mill, he always had time for a swim with the grandkids or a push of the tire swing.
I just spent the last hour waiting in a line at Disneyland. My daughter insists we all need to experience Peter Pan’s Flight, a ride that will last no more than five minutes and be forgotten in the hundreds of rides she’ll wait in line for over the course of her childhood. It’s hot and a cold cup of lemonade costs $7. We get to the front of the line and my long legs barely fit inside the pirate ship. “Ready?” a young man asks, and before I can answer, we start to move. We fly over London at night and see the lights of the city twinkling below. We see Wendy tied to a pirate ship and Captain Hook balancing on the mouth of a crocodile. We see Peter and the Lost Boys running through Neverland, flying on a wish, never growing up. I look at my children and they’re having the time of their lives.
My kids are reeling when we exit. They have never seen anything better in their lives. I laugh, but know they mean it. And I’m filled with joy because I am the one that made it all possible for them. In this moment, I know exactly what kept Penny moving, what kept him making that long commute to and from the mill every week only to spend his weekends laboring over his tools in the hot sun. I reach into my pocket for a twenty and hand it to my oldest.
“Grab your sisters some cotton candy,” I say.
He looks at me, and holding back a laugh, he quips,
“It’s gonna cost more than that, Dad.”
As I dig into my wallet for more, I realize there’s one problem with having grown up on the farm. It was priceless, and because of that, nothing will ever compare. Not even “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
These are the days we remember...
Penny's diving board
Penny's roller coaster
"The happiest place on earth", The Farm