Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!
As I walked down the normally quiet street of Vankleek Hill, Ontario and saw the tips of the ferris wheel come into view, I got excited. At the gate of the fair, two men stood wearing bar-back aprons around their waists that advertised competing beer companies and each waist apron was stuffed with money. It was only $8 to attend the Vankleek Hill Fair and I think that was pretty reasonable, especially since it’s my first-ever experience at a real country fair.
And, let’s not forget, a Demolition Derby.
But before we get there, to the craziness of the derby, I must comment on the quaintness of this fair. Overall, this fair felt old-fashioned in every way. Even with the hip t-shirt vendors, Mohawk-shorn teens and mingling beeps of cell phones amidst the constant musical drone of the rides and betting games, I still expected to see women with long dresses and parasols trailing kids in suspenders licking giant lollipops — straight out of the turn of the century.
This is the real deal. I hope these kinds of fairs aren’t a dying breed.
I felt as though I were stepping back into time, or a book, or an old movie. There was a petting area for goats and llamas and donkeys as well as pony rides for kids (and check out these goat hooves in the grooves of the fence as they try to get fed by those walking past!); there were birds on display in cages explaining where they were from and who farmed what around the area; there were cotton candy vendors, kids with sticky fingers and the smell of hot dogs around every turn; the rides were full of screaming teenagers and bored teen attendants taking tickets that were overpriced to begin with – but who can put a price on thrills, eh!?
We got a “seat” at the Demolition Derby just about fifteen minutes before it started. Lyndell was so excited. She had been to these as a kid and said she loved them. I had no idea what to expect. Now, I say “seat” because it was really just a balancing position on a guard rail that wasn’t already being sat on. We had pretty good sight lines, actually, and I settled in for a brand-new cultural experience with what I tried to keep an open mind.
Someone described this to me in advance as “real-life bumper cars.” I hadn’t even considered this as entertainment in my whole life – I’d never heard of it – and the closest thing I could imagine about it was the monster truck programs that I’d seen on TV growing up. I figured it would be full of boys and their toys and that I’d be bored, but again, I tried to stay open. In the way of cars, I’m pretty stereotypically “girl.” (Although, I do like to talk about bio-diesel and alternative fuels when given the chance!)
We balanced on the railing trying to shift when our butts fell asleep as the first of the cars pulled into this extremely small area surrounded by stone barricades. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when over ten cars pulled into the area – an area smaller than a soccer field – as though they would have even a bit of room to breathe once they were all going different directions!
The announcer was a local radio host, I think. He was pretty terrible, but at least kept talking at the crowd to keep them informed about what was happening if they couldn’t see properly or didn’t know who was driving what. (Turns out that two women were in one of the heats. They didn’t win, but I was cheering them on and hoping they’d kick some butt on behalf of women everywhere!)
So this is what happens in a Demolition Derby: a whole bunch of cars gather in a small space (that in this case was muddy and slippery). When the whistle blows, they drive around and ram into each other until they destroy each other’s cars. These cars are basically “write offs” to begin with and have been selected for destruction. Many of these vehicles wouldn’t even pass the emissions or safety standards for licensing and so they’re “sacrificed” for the sport, if you will. When a car hasn’t moved in over a minute, they are out of the game and must remove the flag that is positioned just above the driver on the hood of the vehicle. When the last car is still running and moving, it is declared the winner. At that point, the driver crawls out of the window (all doors must be welded shut and all windows knocked out for safety) and stands on the roof of the car banging his chest. Basically, the only strategy to obtain this win is to position hits well (mostly by rearing into people so as to protect one’s engine) and to avoid being hit by others. I’d say there’s a lot of luck in it. (Or, in many cases, bad luck.)
It’s a giant free-for-all.
The place went crazy. Four different heats and one final round for any cars still able to compete even after their heats were over. Lots of smoke and fire and overheating. The ambulances and fire trucks were standing by. Lots of yelling and screaming.
I was sitting by these teenage girls with shiny clean braces that were direct contradiction with their dirty mouths. It amused me; It’s been so long since I could relate to the showing off that happens in groups of teenaged girls, especially when strangers can hear and no parents are near. One of the drivers – a 17 year-old “rookie” from the local high school — had painted all of their names on his car. One of the girls was thrilled to have her name in a central position and kept yelling “You bang ‘em up Scotty and I’ll bang ya later!” Her friends giggled and guffawed but screamed their support too, wanting Scotty to “Kill that car” or “Watch that side – you’ll wreck our names!” Now fill in all the blanks with expletives and you’ve got the picture.
We left just before the final round to beat the crowds. Lyndell was bouncing in her feet as she walked, so happy to have relived something from childhood. I was trying not to be a “party pooper” about the environmental impact such an event has. It kinda made me feel sick to my stomach, actually, (which could have been the exhaust and the fumes) and I was quietly wishing that I could just lighten up and enjoy it without analyzing everything.
What I did enjoy was the energy of a community. Now, if we could only get that energy together to protect the local water rights, elect an honest representative for parliament, or phase-out factory farming and non-organic agriculture in these parts.
Now that would be a derby I’d attend.
In the meantime, I’ll likely go back again in the future (if we’ve got that Saturday off next summer) because I’ve a feeling I’ll be cheering Lyndell on. She’s keen to get behind the wheel and do some damage. She said it’s a smarter kind of “roller derby” for her bad knees!
That made me smile, despite my misgivings.
She’ll probably win.
Especially if we never demolish the old-fashioned fair.