Can it really be that long ago? It feels like five minutes; it feels like 150 years. That’s what some birthdays are like, I guess, and the one this week felt like that.
You see, several centuries ago, long before I met my Better Half, and way long before the Rotten Kids arrived kicking and screaming into life’s complicated carnival of hopes and dreams, I had a birthday — a 21st birthday — and it was one of those milestones you don’t forget, even several centuries later.
I’ve been lucky on account of the birthday gods rolled the dice and it turned out my B-Day would always fall exactly when the Red Deer Fair (now “updated” to Westerner Days) came to town.
And since I was one of those kids who experienced the fair as a rose-coloured magical time in one’s rich pageant of growing up, to have a birthday and the fair all simultaneously and serendipitously — well it was truly transcendent. Or, put another way: totally awesome, man!
I only remember two things vividly about that 21st birthday. I recall quite clearly that oddly enough, among the other forgotten things, I received a large pair of binoculars and an ornate curved knife in a sheath, which took me a while to figure out was a letter opener.
In those days, turning 21 was kind of a big deal — this was before somebody somewhere declared that 18-year-olds were suddenly adults and somehow old enough to rabblerouse in a bar — so I was sort of expecting a gold watch or a plaque or something.
I mean, I thought every 21-year-old received such epic recognition from the universe itself.
I remember at the time wondering if my dear old Mom and Dad were sending me some kind of subliminal message about looking ahead or going away somewhere where they could send me letters.
It turned out they just thought I’d like and use the binoculars and the letter opener, and all these 150 years and five minutes later I still, in fact, use them both. As usual, they were right.
The other thing I remember like it was yesterday — as opposed to 15,330 yesterdays (I did the math) — was the grandstand show at the fair.
For those unfortunate readers unfamiliar with something called a “grandstand show,” or even a “grandstand” for that matter (and here I am no doubt speaking to a younger generation, younger than Yours Truly, and who isn’t?), a grandstand show consisted of a “show” and a “grandstand.”
It was by definition, outdoors, with a humongous set of wooden bleachers under a humongous roof in front of an entertainment stage.
The Red Deer Fair had one in spades at the old Arena fairgrounds near my family’s old house in Parkvale, and I suppose today’s equivalent would be the Centrium at Westerner Park, where bands and circuses come to play.
I scribbled about this exact topic in my very first summer writing this column, and since this is my fifth summer of ramblings, raves and ridiculous notions I thought I’d revisit one of my favourite columns.
You and the venerable Advocate have indulged me this long, so I hope you won’t mind a bit of a re-telling:
It’s my 21st birthday. Our eight-piece rock and soul band, Gaetz Ave. Dance Band, is the opening act at — you guessed it — the Red Deer Fair Grandstand Show.
And when I hauled my skinny long-haired self up on that stage, and the lights were on us, and the grandstand was jammed-packed full of a sea of faces, I stopped for a moment and looked around.
I was thinking seriously about fainting right then and there, but when I settled behind my drum set I caught a glimpse of a sight I’d only seen at one of our concerts once before.
I don’t know how I spotted them, what with the lights and the excitement, but there they were — Row 5, Seats 21 and 22.
My Mom and Dad, not ones to go to big events, were there in the grandstand, to surprise me. I could see their smiles all the way from my spot on the stage.
We started to play and it felt hyper-real and surreal all at the same time. In the moment, in the music — but all the while, I’m 21-years-old but I’m re-living the magic and the mayhem that the fair and the grandstand and the old fairgrounds and Parkvale gave me every single summer as a kid.
And when our first song ended and the crowd applauded and kept applauding, I looked over to the north from the stage.
I could clearly see our old house in Parkvale, the house that we had moved away from a half dozen years before, and there was a light burning in my old upstairs window. For a moment, I wondered if a kid was glued to that window. Watching. Like I used to. Knowing that anything is possible at the fair.
I hope so, I thought to myself. I hope so.
So when birthdays are coming and going as fast and furious as a spinning Tilt-A-Whirl, you have to grab on to the moment and a memory or two, because you never know how long the ride’s going to last or when the music is going to stop.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.