The Last Punch
Back in the old days, back in the fifties, back when Fairview Heights. was called just plain Fairview, there was a midsummer ritual - fires were burned, games were played, food was consumed.
Yes, it was the Fairview Fireman's Picnic. During one glorious weekend in July all of Fairview would come together to observe the passing of summer. For weeks ahead every man, woman and child pulled together to prepare for the festival. Men would scour the businesses to come up with prizes for the big raffle. Back in the fifties you could count on some fine prizes - washers and dryers, refrigerators, and even a car!! Ladies were busy crocheting pillowcases and collecting odds and ends for the white elephant stand. Kids were busy doing odd jobs to save up money to spend on rides and novelties.
You knew when the picnic was coming because the Judge would get out ole Betsy and take her for a ride up and down the village streets. Ole Betsy, mind you, was Fairview's first fire engine - an old Model-t adapted to fight fires. She was in retirement by then, but once a year the firemen took her out of storage, shined her chrome, placed her on a flatbed and took to the streets. The Judge, Mr. Hiser, would get out his bullhorn and announce, "The Fairview Firemen's Picnic. This Saturday and Sunday at the Grant school playground. Games, rides for the kiddies and our famous barbecue ribs."
Oh, just the mention of those ribs got our mouths to waterin'.
My house was in the same neighborhood as the picnic. And the day before the picnic our streets filled with the scent of cheery wood fires. Then, on the day of the picnic, the smell of ribs searing on the grill wafted through town. Now back in the old days you could buy a quarter side of ribs, two side helpings of home-made cole slaw and potato salad, and a delicious dessert all for the pricey sum of one dollar and 25 cents - and worth every penny.
Well, by the time the big day finally arrived, I would have saved enough money by doing extra chores. I counted the money in my mayonnaise jar and put it in my sock. Usually I arrived early at the picnic grounds. As I turned the corner of the old gym at Grant school, my eyes would feast on the fairway.
Back in the old days, before Six-Flags came on the scene, there was nothing quite like it - the Ferris wheel with its bench seats filled with squealing teen-aged girls and their newly found boyfriends, the merry-go-round with its kaleidoscope of sounds and lights, the ever loving tilt-a-world twisting and turning with green faces leaning over the side, and the rolly coaster bobbing up and down. I'd bypass all these sights and sounds and make my way to the novelty stand.
If I didn't buy my necessities ahead of time, there would no money later on. So I headed straight for the novelties. There were my usual items - a fancy wrist watch with hands that really moved when you turned the stem, a ring from the ring card which held a myriad of precious stones - diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds - I spent a lot of time trying to decide which ring should adorn my finger. Then, I always bought a cupie doll. She was made of golden molded plastic. Her naked body modestly covered with an array of brightly colored feathers and mounted on a bamboo cane. I was in doggie heaven.
Each year you could invariably find a new novelty. One year there were smoking monkeys. That's right - smoking monkeys! I delighted as I stuffed their little mouths with pretend cigarettes and watched them puff away. Tiny smoke rings rose like haloes above the monkey's head. Well, like I said - this was the fifties, the good ole days.
With what money I had left, I rounded up some friends and went on the rides. My money was soon spent, but that didn't mean that I was busted. No! Back then you could go around and collect soda bottles. I got two cents a piece for each bottle. Sometimes, I lurked and waited until the person I had scouted out finished the last swig. Then if I saw anyone else eyeballing that bottle, I was duty bound to wrestle him or her to the ground. The winner collected a precious 2 cents.
With my extra money jingling in my pocket, I hit the booths. Now there were definite male and female oriented booths back in the fifties. The men had booths filled with salamis and slabs of bacon, baskets full of groceries and fruit, and, of course, six-packs of beer and cartons of cigarettes. To win these prizes you either had to roll dice or spin the wheel. I usually avoided these booths.
I'd rather spend my money on the "ladies" booths. I mean you got something you could really use like a cake or pillowcases, or perhaps a second-hand bottle of Avon perfume from the white elephant stand. But my favorite was the doll stand.
The ladies' auxiliaries must have spent countless hours designing, sewing, and dressing those dolls. You must remember that this was before the birth of Barbie Dolls - so those dolls were really special. I had cradles full of baby-dolls but these dolls were dressed to the nines. Fancy ladies dressed for the prom or cotillion ball, others dressed like they came from a foreign country, still others dressed like nurses or girl scouts. But, they were all essentially the same six-inch doll - hard plastic, with moveable arms and winky-blinky eyes, and each with different color soft hair. Now, I had a system at this booth. You see, to win a doll there was a punchboard with bunches of silver dots. You took hold of the keypunch and poked through those silver holes. Out the other side came a small piece of paper folded like an accordion. You unfolded that piece of paper and tried to match it with one on the dolls. Now back in the old days, the chances were just 10 cents a piece or 12 for a dollar. My system was to go in one direction up, down, right or left for 12 consecutive punches. Almost invariably, after I spent two or three dollars, I won a prize.
This one year, I came to the doll stand. Honestly, it took my breath away; there in the middle of the doll stand, was the most beautiful doll I ever saw. She was larger than the rest, and she had jointed legs so she could sit down. Her red dress spread out like an exquisite Chinese fan. She had dark brown hair and blue winky-blink eyes. She had ruby red lips that smiled as she held her arms outstretched holding court for all the other dolls. I had to have her. I could just see her sitting on my white popcorn-stitched bedspread, her arms reaching out holding court for my array of stuffed animals and baby-dolls.
I laid down my dollar, then another, then another -nothing! My money was soon gone. I was in despair until I spotted my Grandpa Joe by the beer stand.
Ah, my Grandpa Joe was an easy mark at these affairs. After all, the money from these booths went to a good cause. So, I went over to the beer stand. There was Grandpa in his shiny, wrinkled gray suit. He was a large man - well over six feet and a good three hundred pounds, but age had him hunkered over his cane. His head was bare except for a wisp of corn silk that ran from ear to ear.
"Grandpa, Grandpa, come here. I've got to show you something. Come here," I pleaded. He looked at me over his rimless glasses that slid to the end of his fleshy nose. He must not have been having too much luck either, because he followed me back to the doll stand.
"Grandpa, look, isn't she the most beautiful doll you've ever seen? Wouldn't she look pretty on my bed? Can you win her for me? Can you? Please?"
He looked at the doll and then at me. "Marilyn," he said, "Can you read what it says under that doll?"
I looked up and read, "Last Punch."
"That's right. 'Last Punch.' Do you know what that means?"
"No, I guess not," I replied, but I was afraid I didn't want to know what it meant either.
"Last Punch means that it is the last punch. Hence the name 'last punch'. All the other dolls have to be won before you can win it."
"Oh, well, can't we at least try?" Like I said Grandpa was an easy mark. So, he gave me a dollar I anxiously opened the tiny papers, but Lady Luck was not with me.
Grandpa went over to get some food and I shared some of his ribs. After he was finished, I coaxed him into returning to the doll booth. I thought for sure it would be time to try for the last punch.
"Look Grandpa, a bunch of the dolls are gone. Are we ready for the last punch?"
"Not quite, there are still over half the dolls left. Maybe later."
But when he saw my long puppy-dog face, he relented and gave me another dollar. Still nothing.
Well, now it was getting towards evening and Grandpa settled himself upfront at the Bingo stand so he could hear the numbers loud and clear. Back in the old days they actually played for money. There was always a certain tension under that tent. Sweaty palms gripped a handful of corn kernels so tightly you'd swear they'd start popping any second. No movement -except the turning of the number bin. It would stop. A number pulled. A number called. Then that moment of high expectation and pure terror as you waited for some distant caller to yell...BINGO! Hopes dashed, cards cleared as a low rumble of voices shared the number of "waits" on the card.
Grandpa was sitting in his usual spot so I sat right next to him and watched him place the kernels of corn on his card. Eventually I heard a number called "B-6". I saw the number on his card, but Grandpa didn't move. They rolled the numbers getting ready to call the next numberů still no movement. I couldn't stand it a minute longer. I took a piece of corn and slyly move it to the called number. Grandpa, made a big sigh. "I heard it. I saw it. You didn't have to go and cover it." After two or three of those, he got so exasperated, that he gave me some money just to get me out of there.
I took the money and ran back to the doll booth. Well over half the dolls were gone. I ran back to Grandpa. I don't know how I did this...cause, if you've ever tried to wedge yourself between an avid bingo player and his card, you'd know what I mean... but somehow I pulled him away from the bingo card and back to the doll booth. "Look," I cried. We're ready for the last punch!"
This time he had me count the dolls. After I got to 20, I stopped. I saw his point. I laid down that dollar and went away empty handed again.
Grandpa went back to his bingo, and I searched out some friends to hang around. We were having a pretty good time. We collected enough bottles between us to buy a red soda. We got five paper straws, and at the count of three we all took a one huge slurp and watched the red liquid disappear in a blink of an eye. Finally, I decided enough time had passed. Surely it was time to try for the last punch. I skipped back down the booths until I came to the doll booth. I stopped short. I couldn't believe my eyes. They were taking down the booth! "Where are you going?" I cried.
"Well, the last punch was sold so we are going home," declared the lady in the booth.
I was so disappointed! Suddenly my feet were made of lead as I made my way back to the bingo stand. I threw myself over the picnic table looking like what my Uncle Rollie called a mug-wump. My mug was dragging on one side of the picnic bench and my wump on the other. Grandpa looked up and said, "Guess we need to get over to that doll stand, huh?"
"No, too late," I muttered.
"Too late, what do you mean?"
"I mean somebody beat us to the last punch."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I meant to get back over there. Maybe next time."
There'd never be another next time, but I didn't tell him that. I just moved a piece of corn and covered one of the numbers.
We always stayed for the last hurrah - the big raffle. Our hopes were always high, but of course we didn't win anything. Like I said Lady Luck was not with us that night.
Although we lived close by, my mom and Grandpa each drove a car - each was loaded up with things for the various booths. My mom and I stayed a bit later to help tear down the cake stand where she was working. We piled into her car and headed for home well past midnight.
When we got home all the lights were off. Everyone must have been asleep. We walked inside breaking the silence around us. I walked to the front of the house where my bedroom sat next to my grandpas. I walked down the hallway so I wouldn't disturb him, opened the door and switched on the light.
And there on my popcorn-stitched bedspread was the most beautiful doll I'd ever seen. There with her arms stretched out as if holding court for all my stuffed animals, was the doll in the red dress! Just then, I saw Grandpa appear from his doorway.
"Grandpa," I yelled, "did you do this?" He just smiled as I ran over and gave him a big hug.
"How did you do it?" I wanted to know.
"Oh, us Grandpas have our ways." He said mysteriously.
And that would be the end of the story except that the next day things had pretty much settled back to the ordinary. I was already bored. So I went out to explore our garage.
The garage was a magical place and it always yielded some unexpected treasure. I was looking through the windows of Grandpa's old green Dodge, when I spied something in the back seat.
Something I knew had not been in there before. So I opened the front door and climbed inside. It was a two- door car. So I had to reach over the front seat and attack the mystery box. I opened it, and there inside I found the rest of the dolls. All dressed in their fancy dresses, like they were getting ready to go to the ball. Grandpa bought out the doll stand! I never told my grandpa that I found those dolls. I knew they weren't for me. Somehow having those dolls would have taken away from the glory of having the doll in the red dress, and I never saw them after that day. But I knew what happened to them.
You see, my Grandpa Joe was always collecting usable toys and clothes for his beloved St. Vincent De Paul. And I just figured that one night some poor little girl went into her bedroom one night, switched on the light, and there on her bed would be a most beautiful doll...a doll given to her by my Grandpa Joe.