It's a FAIR, Son, It's a FAIR!

Patricia Sheasley Sicilia

© Copyright 2009 by Patricia Sheasley Sicilia


Photo of lights on the rides at a county fair.

Sixteen people left Philly that Friday for a Labor Day weekend of swimming, sunbathing, boating and sightseeing at Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos.  Well, that’s not quite what happened.  For the better part of three days, we forlornly sat in our dream house -- and watched it rain.

By Labor Day weekend, 1974, construction was finished on my parents’ A-frame chalet in the woods at Lake Wallenpaupack. Dad fed the four of us still living at home that year white bread, whole milk cut with Carnation Instant, and homemade bean, potato, vegetable beef, chicken noodle and pea soup from a giant, restaurant-sized pot.  We were about to reap the rewards of our sacrifice with a house-warming family weekend, to include our significant others and best friends.

The gang consisted of my mom and dad, age 41 and just 44, my almost 30-year-old future husband, nine young adults in their late teens and early 20s (me, my two brothers and sister, and assorted friends and lovers), two 11-year olds (baby sister and a cousin) and two 4-year-olds (my daughter and the daughter of one of the friends).  And, oh, yeah, a mixed breed terrier and an Irish setter.

On Friday night, Ron and I were the last ones to leave.  Dad, whose “expertise” at giving directions was family lore, had drawn up a map that made perfect sense to him, got us to the main highways okay, but when we hit the unfamiliar Wallenpaupack area, we were hopelessly lost.  There was no telephone at the house, and cell phones were still decades away.  (And it didn’t help that we just killed a bottle of Strawberry Hill.)  It was dark, there were no signs on the roads leading into the forest, and we found ourselves looking for landmarks, like "the big rock with yellow paint on it," the "third dirt road past the first dirt road," and the "first house on the right on the left." After cruising up and down Rte. 507 for an hour, we found our turn, and my daughter, who had just learned about time zones, asked if it was the same time at the mountains as it was back home.

We finally found the right dirt road, and located the house by the four haphazardly parked family vehicles.  We pulled into the driveway at 2 a.m. after a six-hour drive that should have taken three. Most everyone was still up.  Well, “up” may be stretching it, given that a large trash bag was already filled with beer cans and wine bottles.  When two couples began arguing over the sofa bed in the living room, Dad said, "The boys sleep upstairs, the girls downstairs." Everyone looked at him in disbelief, bursting into guffaws when I said, "Surely you jest."  (Okay, so we were bad, fresh kids.)  My parents had claimed the master bedroom, and the four children were already in the only other bedroom. With the remaining accommodations consisting of a sofa bed and foam rubber mattresses tossed onto the floor in the open loft, and a sofa bed downstairs in the living room, I don't know what he thought was going to go on.  After Dad retired, Ron and I, as the eldest, claimed the living room sofa, and the rest of them took over the loft.

The weatherman assured us we could look forward to mostly blue skies that weekend, so when it started raining on Saturday morning we weren't too concerned. When it continued throughout the day, we said "Oh, crap," but figured tomorrow was another day. We took shopping excursions to nearby Hawley, the local gift shops and the State Store, played UNO and 500 Rummy, and drank beer, Strawberry Hill and Mateus like water. Later that night, it cleared up enough that five of us decided to catch the last couple hours of the nearby local county fair.

On the way, we took a little detour down a dirt road to, uh, practice our Rasta religion. (C'mon, it was 1974, I was 22.) I don't remember too much about that Fair, but a couple incidents do stand out. First there was the Fun House, entered through a giant spinning barrel. Four of us stumbled through the entrance, then turned to see brother Bill spread-eagled and spinning around with the barrel, change and keys falling out of his pockets, his long blond hair and tall athletic physique drawing an admiring crowd. We were consumed with mirth, but Fair security was not amused. Two burly men in flannel shirts signaled for Bill to stop what he was doing immediately, pointing to the sign specifically banning this behavior.

My next memory is standing in line for the roller coaster, which our friend Doug did NOT want to get on. Naturally, we dragged him into line, bumping into and almost knocking down an unsecured light pole as he struggled. Seemingly from nowhere, the two flannel-shirted guys appeared and told us we were no longer welcome, not swayed by my argument that the unsecured pole was a safety hazard.

The Fair being the biggest event all year in the area, traffic was horrendous trying to get out of the muddy cow pasture being used as a parking lot.  When Bill saw the slightest opening, he screeched out onto the highway. Giggling and laughing, Bill’s girlfriend Denise and I broke into the bottle of vodka we discovered in the back seat. We hadn't travelled five minutes when a state police cruiser’s flashing lights and siren indicated that we should pull over. (I think those flannel-shirts turned us in.)

Mr. State Trooper sauntered up to the driver's window. "Uh, you pulled out of that lot a little fast back there, son."

"Sorry, officer, sir," Bill answered. "The traffic was really bad trying to get out of the carnival."  The trooper stiffened.

"It's a FAIR son, it's a FAIR."

"Yes, sir, Officer," Bill answered, "I meant the Fair, Officer, sir."

In the meantime, Denise and I were doing a valiant job of not losing it, hiding the open bottle of vodka on the floor while Ron kept muttering "Stai zitto" (Italian for "shut up"), which only made us almost burst a vein.

"Where are you headed?" the officer asked. When Bill explained we had a less than ten-minute drive back to our parents' house, he let him off with a warning to carefully drive directly there (as cops were wont to do in those days) -- and stay there the rest of the night.

As soon as the trooper was out of sight, we heard a car behind us, honking furiously. It was brother George and his boyfriend (no one said “partner” back then, we just called it as we saw it), who had gone out on “reconnaissance" to round everyone up. He got out of his car and, clad in a lovely Indian caftan, stood in the middle of 507 and started screaming.

"You (bleeping bleep)!  I saw you pull out of that lot and that cop stop you! What are you, (bleeping) nuts?" Sticking his head in the back window, he saw the vodka.

"And, oooh, if it isn’t the wenches hiding a bottle of booze. Isn't this special. Are you (bleeps) having fun out here with these (bleeps)?”

The sight of Georgie in a caftan, in the middle of 507, channeling the church lady a decade before her time, was just too much. We laughed until we hurt ourselves and couldn‘t breathe, almost falling out of the car. And then it started to rain.

Sunday morning didn't exactly "dawn," because the sun was still obscured by persistent storm clouds. By the afternoon, it was so torrential, no one even ventured out to the deck, except to clean up the garbage bag left there the night before that the raccoons had gotten into.  We didn’t yet know the country rules -- take your trash to the dumpster every single night, or keep it indoors, or it might be a bear next time.

With no TV, we tried to entertain the antsy kids, and ourselves, as best possible with radio sing-alongs and board and card games that Dad wouldn’t let anyone else win.  The animals had to be let out to do their business, and the smell of damp dog began to permeate the house. Someone got the scathingly brilliant idea of putting a tarp on the deck, letting the kids don their bathing suits and go "slip-sliding" in the rain. It gave us a break and them an energy outlet. Until one of them slid off the deck. (Don't worry, she was fine. The mud cushioned her fall.)

Although we all pitched in with meal preparation and cleanup, tidying up after 15 people with nothing to do but eat, drink and play UNO (and occasionally wander off into the woods to "practice our religion") had begun to wear on my mother, who had hidden her Manhattan fixings in her bedroom. The State Stores were closed until Tuesday (Pennsylvania is so uncivilized, that‘s why you can, even now, find stills there), and she feared we‘d run out of our stuff and hit hers.  We were out of paper cups, and Sunday afternoon Mom was "done running the dishwasher every four hours," ordering us to do our own glasses. We said, "Okay, Mom, we'll take care of it," -- and started drinking directly from the bottles, even the kids, of whom I have pictures with two-liter sodas to their mouths. That's when Dad confiscated everyone's car keys. That's when the sleeping arrangements became "wherever you fall."

Monday morning we started looking for Noah's Ark through the downpour. The house looked like Patton's army had marched through. With hangovers that would kill a herd of mustangs, we cleaned and packed up. It was a dreary ride as we caravanned back to Philly late that afternoon -- but we told everyone we had a great time.

Labor Day weekend up the mountains became a family tradition, thankfully, never again marred by such bad weather.  The permanent residents of the road eventually became accustomed to the crazy, noisy city people who weekended and vacationed at the A-frame on the corner.  Who, when the parents weren’t around, left food out to draw the bears.  Who went looking for lost black cats at night.  Who cut down trees that fell on their deck.  Who built “anatomically correct” snow people.  Who took Dad seriously, and climbed up on the roof to see if we really had a “lake view property.”

And I never played another game of UNO. Or drank another bottle of Strawberry Hill.

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