Drew spent all week teasing me with some secret mystery activity he was planning for the weekend. It might be great, or it might be lame, he warned me. It might be an all-day thing, or we might not stay very long at all. It was less than an hour’s drive from LA, and it did not involve swimming, music or food. Well, maybe food. Those were my clues. I guessed we were going to a monastery, and Drew said I was freakishly close.

It was the Festival de San Gabriel Mission!

Yes, on Sunday, we drove out to the San Gabriel Mission for a carnival celebrating the mission’s anniversary, which had something to do with the first settlers in Los Angeles a certain number of years ago. I didn’t go to elementary school in California, so I don’t know the history. But I do know there were rides, games and plenty of carne asada!

Okay, the rides were rickety old carnival-type rides operated by scary-looking carnies. We only went on two rides, the Lame Bobsleds and the Dirty Burlap Sack Slide. The Lame Bobsleds, which one carnival worker told us was their “new” ride (in the sense, I guess, that New York is the new York), were operated by a man who is probably the guy Freddy and Jason see in their nightmares. (Casting directors, take note!) Drew and I were going to ride together in the same car, but we were afraid to ask if that was okay. So he rode two cars ahead of me and periodically turned around to mouth something I couldn’t understand, but which I assumed to be about how scary the ride operator was. We were the only two people on the ride.

The ride operator on the Lame Bobsleds seemed to have two distinct responsibilities. He pressed a button that started the ride, and he flipped a latch on the security bar to let riders in and out of their cars. The latch would be easy enough for anyone to operate, but when the ride ended, rather than just flip it myself and jump out, I waited patiently for the scary man to do it for me. I didn’t want to take away one of his jobs and risk his wrath.

Drew wisely decided not to go on the Dirty Burlap Sack Slide, which had three lanes but which never seemed to accommodate more than one rider every five minutes or so. To get to the top, you walked a very narrow, very shaky metal staircase. The slide was about two stories tall and leveled off at the bottom with about eight feet of flat surface, during which time the rider was expected to come to a complete stop. In case the rider did not stop within the eight feet, he or she would be catapulted butt-first onto a speed bump on the pavement of the carnival grounds. I don’t think anyone quite mapped out the physics of this prior to constructing the ride, because I saw quite a few people hit that bump. This made the Dirty Burlap Sack Slide into probably the carnival’s biggest thrill ride. I didn’t scream as I went down, but when I got to the bottom and hurtled toward the speed bump, I shouted, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” as I dragged my hands on the other lanes of the slide.

Drew and I also played some games. My favorite was the Wacky Water Race, because I won it every time. Yes, I discovered a new skill. No, I do not plan to list this one on my resume. The Wacky Water Race cost $2 to play and, as the woman told us, you needed at least two players, “Because it is a race!” The object of the game is to shoot a water gun at a moving target until you fill an unseen container with some predetermined amount of liquid. While the game was in progress, music played from the game’s tinny speakers. In between games, in order to catch the attention of passers-by, the speakers would play sound bites of catch phrases dating back to the 80’s. Actually, I think there were just two: “I’ll be back!” and “Well, isn’t that special!”

The prizes were only slightly less dated. When you won the first game, you got a dusty, fist-sized plush horse. It was the kind of toy a prop department would furnish a little girl in a movie to give the impression that the kid was poor. The girl would play with the horse and name it Sally and dream of the day when Mommy would meet a new Daddy and they’d move into the Cinderella castle in Disneyland. When you won your second game, you could trade up from the horse to something slightly bigger but equally shabby.

A third win earned you your “choice” of prizes, which I assume means you could choose to go back to the horse if you wanted to, but I doubt anyone ever would. The level three prizes were the brass ring, plush toys about a foot tall. For some reason, most of them were Tweety Birds. You could choose a plain Tweety Bird, or Tweety in a baseball uniform, Tweety in a Statue of Liberty crown… Mind you, it’s not like there was a selection of Warner Bros. characters available. Just Tweety. Tweety was by far the most popular prize at all of the carnival’s games. Depending on what game you played, you could get Tweety on a hat, Tweety on a mug, blow-up Tweety…

After my third win, I opted for one of the few choices besides Tweety — a Crash Bandicoot. (Yes, Drew and I played three times, meaning we paid $12 for that dumb toy.) At first I figured I’d give the doll to my niece or to Drew’s goddaughter, but then I decided it was a little too shabby for a kid I knew, a kid who might judge me based on the kinds of toys I give. There was still a plastic covering on one of Crash’s eyes. So Drew and I decided we’d give it away to some kid on our way out of the carnival. I figured carnival kids expected these kinds of toys.

The carnival also featured a Bingo hall, which was hard to resist. Cards were fifty cents each, and the jackpot for our first game got up to a whopping $13. This is quite disproportionate to how upset Drew and I got when we lost. When we started, we figured we’d just play one game. We ended up staying for four. We never won. I consoled myself as I left by hoping one of us would score big in the raffle. There was a $1,000 cash prize — and that was fourth prize! The top three prizes were $5,000 cash, a cruise, and a laptop computer. Fifth prize was a lame TV/DVD combo. I have no idea how they expected to cover the cost of all those prizes given the sparse attendance, but I figure that means the odds are in my favor. I’m still waiting by the phone for my call from the prize committee.

There were not a lot of choices for lunch. Well, not a lot of good choices. Every booth had soft tacos, but nobody was selling chicken, which was a problem since Drew doesn’t eat red meat. The Vietnamese booth had mystery meat on a skewer, and I guess Drew decided mystery meat was better than meat he was sure was beef, because that’s what we both got. It was a combination plate that came with two eggrolls, bland dry rice and bland dry noodles. But the combo also came with a tasty barbecued corn on the cob, which was pretty much the only thing I ate. Corn on the cob and popcorn were the only foods I consumed at the fair.

There were also not a lot of options beverage-wise. There seemed to be a carnival-wide pricing structure on drinks. For $1.00, you could either get a tiny paper cup full of ice and your favorite fountain soda, or you could get a large bottle of Snapple. I decided to be cautious about how much I drank because there did not seem to be bathroom facilities that met my high standards. But my bladder always betrays me, and when I saw that the port-a-johns also had adjoining port-a-sinks, I decided to test them out just for novelty’s sake. I support any and all advances in port-a-john technology.

On the way out, we decided to give away our spare ride tickets as well as the Crash Bandicoot. We had trouble finding kids who seemed like they’d be both appreciative and unlikely to run to their parents and say, “Those two strange men offered me things.” We found one nice-looking bald Dad escorting two young girls through the gate, and Drew stepped up to offer his tickets. But when we got closer, I noticed that the man’s head was shaved not because he was balding but rather to reveal the numerous tattoos on his scalp. Just to be safe, I checked for swastikas. We didn’t think we’d find any takers for Crash until, a block away from the festivities, Drew saw a little kid ogling the toy. “Do you want him?” “That’s Crash!” the kid said. We had our winner.

Drew had been very nervous about planning this event. He told me beforehand that if it wasn’t actual fun, it would be fun afterward to talk about how much fun it wasn’t.

I think we’d both agree that in the end, it was a little of both.

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