Skill, chance, & carny fun

Just a pane of glass separates Jeffrey Cimeno and Cody Willoughby from the prizes. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Just a pane of glass separates Jeffrey Cimeno (front) and Cody Willoughby from the prizes. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Julian Wise - August 24, 2006

The carnival midway at the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair was a brightly lit cacophony of buzzers, barkers, and bells as patrons were invited to step right up and try their luck. From water pistols to whack-a-moles, children and adults lined up to earn their share of oversized stuffed animals and other novelty curios.

Old-timers were prone to groan at the new pricing schemes, which asked $5 for three darts to pop a balloon or hit a paper star. Long gone are the three-tries-for-a-dollar days, vanished with cheap gasoline and sufferable pop music. Still, once you surrendered to the inevitability of the price hikes and chalked it up as a once a year expense, there was ample fun to be had.

At the coin dozer game, a series of metal platforms and metal levers deliciously threatened to spill coins slot machine-style into the hands of eager players. Fourteen-year-old Elina Street and Zoe Guastella tossed quarter after quarter into the machine to tip the lever.

Quentin Cabral works the squirt gun. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Quentin Cabral works the squirt gun.

"This game is so addictive," Ms. Guastella murmured.

"The problem with this game is you can't stop and you end up using all your money," Ms. Street added.

As the two walked away with empty hands, carnival worker Kerry Pomelow asked, "want to know the description of a gambler? Absolute and eternal optimism."

The water race featured a stereo system blaring "Tequila" as players used water pistols to race a fixture to the top of the booth. Two-and-a-half-year-old Quentin Cabral won a plush white polar bear when his nanny Stephanie Andriotis played against him and let him win.

Father Shaun Dolan of Medfield tried to win a prize for his young daughter Haley by knocking a stack of wooden dice off a pedestal with a softball. He went 0 for 3, coming close but leaving the dice standing.

Dakota and Jesse Fogg celebrate the frog's perfect landing. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Dakota (left) and Jesse Fogg celebrate the frog's perfect landing.

At Balloon Bust, where players hurl darts at an array of balloons tacked to a black backdrop, barker Kimberly Young commented, "Children under eight do much better at this game than adults."

Behind her a museum of plush figures, featuring Elmo, Clifford, Oscar the Grouch, Batman, and several teddy bears stared out at the crowds.

At the Frog Bog, where players whack a small seesaw with a mallet to rocket a frog onto rotating lily pads, brothers Jesse and Dakota Fogg furrowed their brows in concentration until they got a lucky landing and walked away with a prize. Nearby, a wisecracking clown held court at the dunking booth, taunting passersby with his banter. When a player failed to dunk him in the water, the clown quipped, "Don't feel bad, your money goes to Charity. That's my ex-wife's name, Charity."

At the perennially tippy rope ladder, Jordan Savesen, 9, of Newtown, Conn., made it half way up the ladder before toppling onto the cushions below.

"It looked really easy," he said as he rejoined his parents. "It's hard to keep your elbows locked because it keeps twisting."

One of the new games featured twisting coils of metal. Players had to navigate an iron ring from the top to the bottom without striking the metal and triggering a buzzer. Older players recalled the vintage game "Operation." Many were lured in by the deceptively easy appearance of the game and the giant Homer Simpson dolls, yet most were dismayed to touch the metal and trigger the buzzer before they reached the bottom.

At the end of the day, players left the fairgrounds happy, if lighter in the wallet, clutching their plush dolls and plastic bric-a-bracs and dreaming of next year when the empty field is once more converted into a den of chance and skill.