Favourite Places: PNE Memories

Our province, British Columbia, has local fairs, rodeos, May Day celebrations, seasonal celebrations and such in pretty much every community, large and small. But the biggest annual “fair” is the Pacific National Exhibition — popularly referred to as the PNE — which takes place the last couple of weeks each year in August, though the midway is open for at least 3 or 4 months each summer season.

If you check out the map, you will see that British Columbia covers a lot of territory, and yet folks come from all over the province to attend PNE. In fact, when I was young, all British Columbia students received a couple complimentary gate tickets with their final school report card in June. I understand that students in the Vancouver regional area still receive these tickets.

So it was always big excitement when our parents decided to take us to PNE, which they did every 3 years or so. As my dad was a teacher, and the PNE happened at the end of summer, he hadn’t received a paycheque for quite some time, and thus we were limited pretty much to what was free. We could each go on a couple midway rides. My favorites were the “roller coaster” and the “salt and pepper shaker.” I loved the rush of feeling like my tummy had been left behind as the roller coaster zoomed upwards, hung for a breathless moment at the top, and then slid downward at a dizzying rate, taking our breath away! The chief fun of the salt and pepper shaker was to ride it immediately after lunch, and prove how tough we were by being able to keep our dinner down! I always managed it myself, but quite a number of times we’d end up having to be hosed off because the riders in the car above us hadn’t!

I liked to stroll through the midway games, and was intrigued by the callers at the games trying to get people to come and play. We almost never had money to play, ourselves, but it was fun to watch other people try their skills. I especially liked to watch the man who would guess people’s weights and ages. He was almost always right on, or at least very close, which I thought was really amazing. And I loved to watch people use the big sledge hammer to try and hit hard enough that the tube would rocket up the pole and ring the bell. Very few people could actually manage it, and what was really interesting to me was that often the people who did make the bell ring didn’t look all that strong, while lots of big, burly guys couldn’t make it happen.

We always went to the midway first, but when our money ran out, usually after less than an hour, we’d head for the free entertainment, and there was enough to keep us busy all day. We loved to go through the provincial exhibit building. It had an enormous 3D topographical map of the province, that was absolutely huge, probably at least 30 by 50 feet, and you could look down on it from a gallery that ran around the walls above. Even though it was a permanent exhibit, and we saw it many times, we never got tired of it. In the same building there were all kinds of exhibits of the province’s history, economy, government and so on. It was like a museum and most of the exhibits were updated or changed from year to year so there was always something new to see.

Then we’d head over to the huge barns to see the farm exhibits. People brought in their animals and produce from all over the province. We were most interested in the 4H exhibits because they were produced by children our own age. I especially remember one year, a child of about 10 years old had raised an enormous sow, and during the PNE she gave birth to 15 tiny, pink and black spotted little piglets. We must have spent a good hour watching them climbing and tumbling over each other, trying to get to the best milking spots! We were so impressed that a child our age could raise a pig family like that! Of course there were prize cows, goats, chickens, and all kinds of farm animals. We were amazed at all the different breeds of chickens and the different colors and sizes of eggs. We also were amazed at the enormous pumpkins and other vegetables, although for some reason I was never very interested in the flower displays (it must have been a disappointment to both my sets of grandparents, who were all prize-winning flower growers!). Finally, we’d check out all the delicious looking and smelling pies, cakes, and other wonderful home-baked goodies… and then sadly head off to eat our peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches we’d brought with us for lunch, since we couldn’t afford to buy lunch. Once in a while there would be enough money for one treat each, and then we’d be sure to head to the cotton-candy stall, where we’d watch, drooling, as the stall worker would take a long paper cone and swirl it around in the fluffy swirls of cotton candy floating in the big machine. If one were in a hurry, they could buy a pre-made cotton candy, but we always waited patiently in line, partly to watch the process, and partly because the freshly made ones tasted so much fluffier, while the others were already kind of flattened and gobby-sticky! In the early days, pink was the only color available, and while later we could get blue, I always chose pink. Somehow it seemed to me that there had to be something seriously wrong with blue cotton candy!

We usually ate our lunch sitting in the stands at the demolition derby which was located right in the middle of the fair. I think the demo-derby was my absolute favorite part of the fair! It was so cool watching the different events. There were the cars and trucks, with big roll bars, that would go speeding up the ramp, and then fly off, coming down with a big CRUNCH! There weren’t any of those huge tires you see now in events like that, so one or two rounds with any vehicle would pretty much finish off its tires and suspension! Sometimes they would line up a few wrecked vehicles and see if the “flying” cars could clear them; we preferred when they didn’t because it was so exciting to see those old heaps get crushed! Every few minutes the loudspeaker would come on with an announcement urging any spectators with old cars in their yards to let the PNE know; and they’d be happy to come by and pick them up. We always wished we had an old heap in our yard, but no such luck! But our favorite part of the demo-derby was the demolition event itself. It was so exciting to see the drivers of all those old heaps smashing into each other. After awhile quite a few of them would get stuck together, and wheels would fall off, and smoke would be pouring out, and yet somehow they’d manage to keep them moving. Of course, one by one the vehicles would tucker out, till only one would still be running… sort of! Every once in awhile, a vehicle would go on fire, and it was very exciting to watch the attendants rush out with portable fire extinguishers to put out the flames!

The demo-derby drivers would take a break from about 2 to 4 pm, so we’d head over to another exhibits building, this one huge and multi-storied. This was where you could see new products in action. It was so fun to watch the demonstrators hawking their wares. It was packed with people, dusty, and so incredibly noisy with all the demonstrators trying to shout above each other to be heard. They made the most simple or boring devices seem absolutely amazing! Some people would get carried away by the excitement, and seem to buy one of everything. Of course since we had to money, we were safe, but sometimes we really, really wished for this or that. It was probably a good thing we didn’t have money, because, years later, when I did have some money and bought a couple items, they turned out to be awfully disappointing, considering all the hype of the demonstrations! Kind of like watching those infomercials on TV these days, but far more exciting with all the live action, crowds of people, yummy smells from the booths selling new food products, and so on. And can you imagine the “hygiene” of those foods, considering the crowds, the dust, the big animal barn right next door, so many hands touching everything… ewwwww….

Finally, we’d usually head back to the demo-derby lot at four o’clock for one or two last rounds, before heading home, tired, dirty, and well-satisfied with our big end-of-a-long-summer adventure!

(written March 2008)

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