Cotton candy and bumper cars -- a German Kirmes

It was a tossup whether I heard or saw them first as I drove down Plittersdorferstrasse to the red-dot frequent-pickup mailbox. At any rate, suddenly there they all were: the sausage-and-potato-pancakes van, the cotton-candy van, the shoot-a-target-win-a-doll van, the merry-go-round , the electric bumper cars. Our local parking lot had again been occupied by the Kirmes,m or church fair, whose predecessors probably go back to medieval times.

Nothing would do but to inch the Beetle around the block, park it (being careful not to leave any tire compressing the tap-water hose that was hooked up goodness knows where), and join the commotion.

The first stop, of course, was the potato-pancakes van. The second, while munching these delectables, was the observation rim of the bumper-car ride. It was early on a Sunday afternoon, so not all the autos were yet in demand. The United States flag was idle, along with the Israeli and Turkish banners. The West German flags (no East German ones offered) were already in there banging away at Finnish, Swiss, and French competitors.

Two very serious little girls couldn't get their vehicle to engage the electricity, so an employee fearlessly stepped onto the bumper, clung to the flagpole with one hand, and helped steer with the other till the girls go the knack of it and almost smiled. Some cavaliers drove backward. One somber man -- who seemed to be neither the parent of any other driver nor an employee of the ride, but simply a fanatic -- went round and round the course in determined circles for all the world as if he were on a particularly unnerving freeway. Everybody bumped, spun, jostled, and jarred everybody else.

And then the electricity stopped, the earsplitting music continued, and it was time to go visit the potato-pancakes van again. A half order this time, adn on to observe the spinning of the sugar and the rather lurid array of candy apples, chocolate-covered bananas, chocolate-covered grapes, chocolate-covered strawberries, and chocolate-covered pineapple rings. The sugar filaments danced and whirled; the cotton candy stick grew plump. An 11-year-old Kirmesm veteran walked away content, prudently cheating by pulling off mouthfuls of the goo with her fingers and keeping the confection well away from her flaxen hair.

At the shooting stand a man popped rings off bottles with a practiced trigger and won a teddy bear, or perhaps a "wanted" poster of himself as the badlands outlaw. The electronic games were quiet for the moment (or as quiet as they ever get). No one even tried the test-your-strenth machines.

Behind the bushes back of the merry-go-round the local drum-and-bugle-plus corps began to play, or at least to practice for some future march on more public streets. They stood in place, stomping out the snaredrum tattoos, then coming in on their oompahpahs. The piccolos shrilled. The glockenspiel tinkled (though that may perhaps be the prejudiced view of a former piccolo player). The bass drum boomed a steadfast beat. The 13-year-old bugler and the septuagenarian clarinetist looked equally handsome in their braided, epauletted uniforms. Two middle-aged ladies locked arms and swayed gidily to the rhythm. There is more tradition than meets a foreigner's eye, it seems, in Gunter Grass's choice of "The Tin Drum" as a symbol.

On Monday it had all vanished. No bass drums. No rifles with cork bullets, no chocolate-covered pineapple rings, no rival rubber bumper cars, no gentle merry-go-round horses. Only a prosaic cinder parking lot remained, along with the green glass thingamabobs, and Schaefer's TV shop promising a grand opening sometime or other. In a fairytale way I wonder if I dreamed it all, or stepped through some magical door, but the forgot to keep my eyes shut tight.

But maybe that's just the nature of a Kirmesm . Evanescence is the essence of cotton candy, of the rubber-bumper spurts to nowhere, of the live, unrecorded oompahpah, and maybe of the neighborhood fair itself. I put today's letter in the red-dot mailbox, confident that next spring the potato pancakes will, in fact, return.

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