Seven dollars. I remember it as seven dollars. At the time, it seemed as if it might as well be $100, $1,000 or $10,000. How could I possibly spend seven photos of George Washington in just a few hours?
I was probably 9 years of age and my friend Jett and I had begged our parents to let us go to the Midway at the then-Fat Stock Show. So, the year was likely 1963 or ’64. I’m not sure how I earned the money – I used to deliver grocery store circulars (you youngsters ask your grandparents) and I could clear $2 in about three hours of work.
Finally, our parents agreed because they saw the reason of our arguments and/or because they just couldn’t stand it anymore.
Immediately our minds filled with ideas. We’d do this, we’d do that. We’d beat some of those carnival games, pop balloons, toss rings on bottles. We’d eat cotton candy. We’d drink soda. Maybe we’d see some sideshow that we couldn’t tell our parents about. We’d ride rides. We’d go to the Fun House.
Oh man, it was going to be awesome. A day of parentless freedom as we were loose on the world. I was exactly one year older than my friend Jett, so I was expected to be the responsible one. I had been captain of the South Fort Worth Elementary Safety Patrol, after all. So, I must be squared away, right?
It must have been a weekend or a day off from school because our parents let us out and were planning to pick us up in three hours. This was long before the days of “stranger danger,” but still we were told to be careful and don’t talk to anyone that “looks funny.” Did they forget we were going to the Midway? Where were the normal-looking people we were supposed to interact with? And, after all, we had seven dollars – we’d be too busy to get into trouble.
It was fun. I remember that. We got our coupons and went to work. The Tilt-A-Whirl, where the cars spin freely as you go around and around, was one of our favorites. There was a guy running it from the neighborhood. He was several years older than us and he worked at a gas station on the corner. We used to, in ‘60s parlance, “give him the business,” basically crack wise at his expense. He sometimes got mad, but sometimes was amused by our pre-teen shenanigans.
We followed that with more soda, more candy and topped that off with a corn dog or two. Then to the Fun House, where we zoomed through the mirror room, the moving walkway and the rotating cylinder as quickly as possible to leave time for all the items on our list of fun. At some point, we slowed down enough to take stock of what to do next. I think we were planning some big purchase, like an ice cream cone or something when we actually added up our funds. We had at least two hours to go before the parental pickup time.
That didn’t take long as we didn’t have much. We checked our pockets. Surely, we hadn’t … oh, but we had.
We were aghast. We searched deep in our pockets. What had happened to our sacred seven dollars? We retraced our steps. Had we dropped something. As we did, we began adding up the cost of what we’d bought, the rides we’d ridden, the games we’d played, the food and drink we’d ingested.
Oh. That’s where our money went. We spent it.
We thought we had a fortune that no two fools in the world could spend in three hours, let alone one single, solitary, jam-packed hour. We hadn’t counted on us being the two fools.
Jett and I couldn’t believe it. We were on the verge of tears. Our plans to take the Midway by storm, to show the world we were kings – they had all collapsed into a few precious dimes and nickels.
What were we to do for the next two hours? A lifetime in young boy time. I’ll give my buddy Jett credit. I remember he came up with the idea of using our few remaining tickets and basically hiding out in the Fun House, going toward the exit, but then doubling back so that we could find new ways to walk through the room with the moving floors.
“We can stay in there for as long as we want.”
We did. Well, mostly. We truly had as much fun as the Fun House allowed until some carney wised up and tossed us out with a scowl. That took up one of our hours left. I’ll admit, it was fun. There was truth in advertising on the Midway that day.
We still had an hour. We went back to one of my favorites, the Tilt-A-Whirl. We had enough for one ride. We went to the guy we knew from the neighborhood, explained our situation and asked him to make it a long ride as it was our last for the next hour or so.
We rode our last ride and then took the walk down the ramp to exit. We had a long time left with nothing to do.
Our neighborhood buddy called us over.
“Pretend to hand me some tickets.”
We were slow.
“Pretend to hand me some tickets, you dumbasses.”
We got it.
We rode that ride again and again, handing him imaginary tickets each time, until really, we couldn’t take any more tilting or whirling. I don’t think I’ve ridden one since. And we never gave that guy the business anymore, either. The guy bought himself some peace of mind with his underhanded kindness.
Our parents came to pick us up and asked if we had fun.
We did. What we didn’t say is that we not only had fun, we actually learned the value of a dollar that day. Seven dollars, to be precise.
Let’s just say I never fail to think of this day in my life when some financial institution talks to me about their “financial literacy” programs. Needless to say, Jett and I learned our “financial literacy” lesson in the school of hard knocks that day, tilting and whirling all the way.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.