The main entrance to the PNE grounds at Renfrew and Hastings in 1957 (somewhat before the author's time).

The main entrance to the PNE grounds at Renfrew and Hastings in 1957 (somewhat before the author's time).

Midway magic at the PNE

The annual fair has changed a lot over the years, but some magical memories linger on.

The PNE has started for another year, signalling that the end of summer is nigh. As a child, however, I never thought of it that way: the PNE was one of the highlights of my year, anticipated from the moment I received my report card in June, out of which would tumble a small piece of paper promising free admission to the fair. The lucky finders of the golden tickets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were not more thrilled than I, for that pass was redolent of the promise of excitement beyond measure.

All summer was a lead-up to The Day. My mother would make egg salad sandwiches the night before, and next morning they would be carefully placed in my father’s navy-blue satchel. Then he and my brother and I would set out by car from our Richmond home, park near Granville and Broadway, and take the PNE special bus to the hallowed ground.

In through the gates we would go, passing from the everyday world into a mysterious one filled with sights and sounds and smells that filled the senses. “Win a house, win a car!” the raffle ticket salespeople called, while the scent of fried onions and cotton candy hung heavy in the air, and off in the distance the whirl and glitter of the midway beckoned.

But that had to wait. We always started off with a thorough examination of the exhibition buildings (now mostly long gone) near Renfrew Street, where my father would collect handfuls of brochures and leaflets, and we would admire the fast patter of the salesmen and the myriad wonderful items for sale. Then we would wander down to the Agridome and look over the livestock; I was always especially fond of the lovely Jersey cows, with their coffee-and-cream colour and soulful brown eyes.

We would settle into the cool, dusky arena and munch our egg sandwiches as we watched an equestrian event; then we would emerge, blinking, into the sunlight and take in the Home and BC buildings, my father lingering over such exotica as in-house vacuum systems and hot tubs and reclining chairs while my brother and I hurried to admire the vastness of the Challenger Relief Map, wherein the majesty of our province was (literally) laid at our feet.

Then it was back outside, to create a masterpiece at the Mad Artist booth before going to the lumber show, which never failed to delight (one year I was the lucky recipient of a small chair carved out of a single block of wood with a chainsaw; I still have the chair). And then—oh my, the midway! The games—Whac-a-Mole was a favourite—and the carnies with their enticements; the music, the delighted cries, the whirlwind of noise and excitement, the rush of the rides as they whooshed and swirled and flew, and my brother and I flew with them, our father a distant speck on the ground.

A stop at the Haunted House, of course, where I was always deliciously frightened, then back up to the Food building for dinner (the cotton candy and Buckeye root beer and little donuts consumed during the day not nearly enough for my brother and me). And then, the sun dipping down and replaced by fairground lights, it was back on the bus and then in the car and so home, sated for another year.

I have been back to the PNE since, with my own son; been that distant speck on the ground as he took to the air. It is much changed, but the magic still remains, if I look and listen hard enough. And the little wooden chair is always there to remind me of those wondrous, far-off days that live on in memory.

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