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Fairing Well Between Beginning and End

A look back at good times had at the Fair Haven Firemen's Fair and reasons to hold on to valuable memories

It’s all about the ride. Forget about waiting in line in nerve-wracked anticipation to get on it and the guise of regret when it comes to an end. 

When I was a kid, my dad, Bill, used to goad me to ride the Sizzler with him at the Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair — that stupid amusement the sole purpose of which was to whip you around on the end of octopus-like tendrils ‘til you were sour-bellied, dizzy and scared.

OK, I was a bow-legged, scrawny sissy. He would laugh that unmistakably hearty guffaw as I screamed and smashed into his side from its whipping force.

You could say it was symbolic of the ride life takes us on — jolting and scary at times, yet an amusing thrill of comfort. Of course, there’s the memory of my father’s utter joy over my chicken-hearted fear to dwell on as well.

And that laugh … that laugh … No one knew quite how to amuse themselves with their own inside jokes like Bill Van Develde.

The fair ended last night.  Those ride-prompted screams, sirens, lusciously lingering stenches of fried foods, cotton candy remnants wafting through the air, reunions, traditions and goodbyes it evokes signal many beginnings and endings.

Yes, everything has its time and purpose and those beginnings and endings are a part of life. But what about hanging onto the middle just a little?

Sometimes the beginnings and endings are just too bittersweet a life’s morsel to gobble up.

There have been way too many abrupt starts and finishes for many in the area lately — an earthquake, a hurricane, fatal accidents claiming the lives of teens and sudden deaths.

Yeah, the middle is always better …

When I was a kid growing up in Fair Haven, we couldn’t wait for the fair. Both my parents, Sally and Bill, were lifetime Fair Haven Volunteer Fire Company members. They worked the fair every year, and so did we.

We couldn’t have cared less about things like traveling abroad or expensive, competitively adventurous or glamorous summer vacations. The fair was it for us. We loved and were proud to work there and felt pretty confident that we were part of a special secret society. And, in a way, we were.

Plus, we got these cool “tickets” that we earned as pay and could use on our breaks to buy food or go on rides. We’d work as much as we were allowed and hoard them for a big last hurrah the dreaded last night that meant we’d soon be back to school. Our parents didn’t have large wallets from which they could dole out countless dollars to indulge us — only big hearts and an awful lot of love for the community and us — my sister, cousins and friends.

It was our simple life country club, social event and learning experience all in one.

Every year, people would come to see us at the fair. My mother ran what they called the Grab Bag Booth — where people who didn’t win prizes at the wheels came to buy consolation goodies for their kids. The booth had balloons, punch balls, sand art and, yes, grab bags.

I, along with my sister, cousins and friends, blew up the punch balls during the day and sold helium balloons at night. Sometimes we’d help cook (sort of) upstairs in the firehouse. I remember hundreds of meatballs and the non-stop shucking of clams for the fair's signature clam chowder.

At night, clad in really ugly David Cassidy-style hip huggers and K-Mart hippie clothes and sporting frizzy hair in pig tails with large, fashion disaster bows, I stood at Mom's booth affixing balloons to the mouth of a very ominous looking clown face attached to a helium tank. Yes, we inhaled the helium, talked like Donald Duck and giggled like gawky fools.

I would wander off on my own and try to win at least one stuffed animal a night when I was on break. One year I accomplished that goal. I also spent a great deal of my time off hiding from my father, who tried to hunt me down for his own good laugh on that Sizzler. Thrill seeker!

OK, the secret’s out now … He could have found me sitting on the ornately camouflaged bench on the merry go round — going ‘round and ‘round, never up and down. It was my speed. The lights flashing by were dizzying enough for me.  

Eventually, I had graduated from the merry go round bench and high school.

The fair became my good-bye to Fair Haven and hello to college stomping ground, as it was and still is with just about everyone in the area.

I had also grown out of the thrill of working at the fair and into the reality that I needed a job that paid money and not "tickets." It was then that I started working college summers at The Haunted Mansion in Long Branch. That’s a whole other “hang onto the middle” story, though.

But my parents were always at the fair. Year after year, you couldn’t miss Sally in the middle of the grounds in that booth, chatting up all her Ladies Auxiliary pals and re-connecting with old friends who always came to visit her as an annual tradition. They all knew where she was, as did I, and it was a soothing joy to many.

You couldn’t miss my dad, either. Every night you’d see him, Brylcreemed hair (“A little dab’ll do ya”), dime store glasses perched on the tip of his nose, darting around the fair grounds, clip board in hand, pencil tucked behind his ear, manically hollering at some poor kid to get a booth low in prizes stocked and chuckling and smacking people on the back with a “Take ‘er easy, buddy!”

For the longest time, we thought there were an awful lot of people Dad knew named Buddy. Bill was in charge of the stock room and the beads of sweat on his brow told you that he took his job seriously — annoyingly seriously. But, boy, was he loyal to that fire company and loved by many. When not working the fair, you'd see him at an accident or event, donning a dayglow jacket and waving his flashlight in the middle of the road at hummingbird speed and shouting directions, earnestly trying to keep people out of harm's way.

In fact, Bill Van Develde loved the fire company so much that my uncle told me he turned down a good job in Massachusetts to stay with his fire company and raise his family in the town he loved.

He stayed in what he made his hometown and knowing he was a staple around town and on the fair grounds was also a comfort to many … until that staple was ripped out in 1982 during the fair. Bill died at age 56 from complications due to diabetes —one ending no one wanted to experience.

The fair grounds seemed somber that year.  There was no more manic “Come on kids, hurry up and get those boxes over to the booth!” or “Take ‘er easy buddy!” to be heard, never mind the hearty laugh. On the plaque in the front atop the bell were the words “In memory of William Van Develde … “

Going to the fair became more and more difficult. Yet, it was somewhat soothing to still feel his presence looming. My mother continued to head her Grab Bag Booth every summer.

Her grandson, my son Cole, was born in 1988, six years after Bill’s death. Sally wasted no time showing him off from the first summer on and grooming him for the fair. He, too, began to work there every year, running stock to booths with lightning speed his grandfather would have been proud of.

Then, in the summer of 1995, my mother went missing from her popular station in the center of the fair grounds. She couldn’t muster up the energy to get out of bed, as much as she wanted to. She had pancreatic cancer. It would be the first fair she missed in decades, since she settled her family in Fair Haven. The year before would be her last.

Fire Company friends came to see her at home. We tried to feed her fair goodies, but they only made her sick. A sullen pallor tinged the grounds that summer (as it did when Dad disappeared) and, most of all, her booth.

Where was Sally with that smile, a grab bag or toy for a special kid and a little taste of funnel cake? She never made it back. Sally died in the winter of 1996 during that fateful blizzard. People still asked for her. “Where’s your mother?” some would unknowingly continue to ask even years later, almost chiding her for not being in her rightful place.

Going to the fair became even more difficult. One by one, old timers died off. We had night one of a 20-year high school reunion there, where we toasted those of us who were gone and mused that the memories were one thing that would never go.

Then there were young people we grew up with who died suddenly after that reunion … Jeff Lang, who was like family, lived down the street and had gone on to be a member and stay involved, a few years ago, and my grade-school through adulthood friend, Stephanie DeSesa, only a few weeks ago.

Steph didn’t go in much for reunions, but she did love to visit my mother, gossip, chow down on some funnel cake, remind her of childhood antics and offer a few more pranks for good measure. Her laugh, too, was so hearty it’d provoke a side-splitting spit.

Jeanette Choma, Mom’s friend and old-time cohort, still works the Grab Bag Booth. She started a tradition several years ago — letting balloons float up into the dark, endless sky over the fair grounds, presumably to Heaven, in memory of everyone associated with the fair that had passed. Teary eyed, last year she reminded me of her tradition and that she never forgets. No one does.

When you let go of a helium balloon, like a lot of things you begrudgingly let go of in life, you really never know where it’s going to end up. Sometimes it just gets away from you.

You’ve seen it before … a kid crying, jumping in the air to grab it back and hold on tighter than before. It’s that time … the time when you held it and walked with it that made you smile ... like a memory. Letting it go never takes that middle away.

The fair grounds are sparse today. The rides are dismantled. No one’s cooking in the kitchen. The remnants of a flyaway balloon are stuck on a bush. In the distance, I can hear a loud, hearty laugh and smell a leftover whiff of steamers and funnel cake … “Take ‘er easy, Mom and Dad … Thanks for the middle.”

Jenn Doremus September 06, 2011 at 12:40 AM
awesome, awesome, awesome. love, love, love.
Sue Morgan September 06, 2011 at 04:50 AM
Elaine: Very moving and touching article. You really captured the essence of this wonderful, small-town tradition. I remember how my great-aunt Betty who lived in Shrewsbury & Red Bank enjoyed the fair and even drove around in her old Ford Maverick wth a FH Firemen's Fair bumper sticker on the back. I can imagine you wearing those thick colorful, wool hair ties back in the early '70s. I wore those too. Yes, hippie, post-Woodstock and peace signs were all the rage. I'm sorry you lost your parents so early and more recently your friends Jeff and Steph. It's so hard when our peers pass on. Memories are forever though, amen!--Sue
Phyllis Halleran Bickerstaff September 06, 2011 at 05:36 AM
Thank you for the wonderful story. Many of us have warm memories of the friendliest of all fairs...The Fair Haven Fireman's Fair! Phyllis Halleran Bickerstaff
Elaine Van Develde September 06, 2011 at 01:40 PM
Thank you, Phyllis and Sue for your kind words. It was my pleasure. It's a very special memory for so many. ;)
Joanne September 14, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Love the entire article, but this is pure poetry: "When you let go of a helium balloon, like a lot of things you begrudgingly let go of in life, you really never know where it’s going to end up. Sometimes it just gets away from you. You’ve seen it before … a kid crying, jumping in the air to grab it back and hold on tighter than before. It’s that time … the time when you held it and walked with it that made you smile ... like a memory. Letting it go never takes that middle away." A beautiful analogy. Thank you for sharing!

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