Once upon a time, many summers ago, I attended my first Fourth of July Celebration at Nelson Park in Slater. I don’t remember that particular one, but I’ve attended nearly every one from that time on.
I guess it’s nothing to brag about. After all, attending an Independence Day in one’s home town has become a tradition for many of us. People even plan their vacation around them.
The early celebrations I do remember all seem to have some things in common. Things like hot weather, cold lemonade and fireworks come to mind, but mostly I remember the carnivals.
What’s weird about that recollection is that it isn’t the rides I recall so vividly. It’s what my parents cautioned me to avoid – the games of chance.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not referring to poker games, throwing dice or playing bingo. I talking about the games of “skill,” the ones where you prove your worth.
I remember so well plunking down dime after dime trying to make three long shots in a row at the basketball stand in hopes that I could take home a neat hunting knife. I patronized that stand for at least four July Fourth celebrations and the proprietor still had that same knife. He probably still does!
Then there was the record-breaking stand. This wasn’t a real classy set-up … just some 78 rpm phonograph records stuck in a slot on a long 1x6-inch board. The record stand didn’t give out prizes, but it did offer a way to impress the girls who stood around watching.
As skillful as shooting baskets and breaking records might have been, there was a “wild duck” game that guaranteed a winner every time.
The object of that game wasn’t to shoot the ducks or even catch live ones — all you had to do was dip a plastic duck out of the water with a little wire strainer. The ducks were like the ones kids take with them to the bathtub, but on the bottom was a number. Certain numbers brought certain prizes.
The guy who ran this stand was a real character. No way were you ever going to get the best of him. He became part of every celebration for at least 25 years.
He always had the same ducks and the same old line: ”Catch a duck; win a prize – a winner each and every time!”
And the prizes, what treasures. Things like plastic combs (guaranteed to break the first time you used them), cap guns made in Japan out of old beer cans, rubber cigars that squirted water and strings of colorful beads made out of thin glass.
Like I said before, this guy was as much of a fixture at the celebrations as the marching bands. As times changed and the carnival rides became safer, the duck stand never faltered. Years later, when my kids started frequenting the games of chance, he was still there with his usual prizes.
Hey, maybe he’ll be Slater this year. If there’s anything I really need, it’s another plastic comb.
Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.