I grew up and still live in the suburbs. All the conveniences of city life are right down the road. Major sports teams, museums, and restaurants are all within minutes and there is never a lack of new places to explore. As a kid I watched as new development took over the spare lot, and kick-the-can games got re-located to the school baseball field. Independent shops got swallowed up by malls and the corner ice cream store became a real estate office. Making life easier seemed to be the goal. Suddenly everything was open on a Sunday. At the time we thought it was great!
But I am genetically wired to love small towns. Both my parents were born and raised in little farm communities and grew up ice-skating on frozen rivers. Even though my dad could not wait to escape, he had lots of stories about hiding in bushes when his girlfriend’s father caught him on the front porch way past curfew. So when I moved to a small town in Central PA in the late 80’s, I was drawn to the slower pace, the town square, and the corner butcher. I was intrigued by the news stories highlighting the daily activities of the citizens (who won the blue ribbon at the fair), and I was hooked when I saw my first Halloween parade. Kids in costumes riding their bikes, families walking toddlers in decked out strollers, and fire engines tossing candy into the streets. I was home.
I loved the years I lived in Carlisle PA. and I loved the sense of community. When my husband, daughter, and I returned to city life to be closer to family, I kept searching for that same feeling, same sense of connection. Block parties were the best I could do until I discovered the allure of festivals – the floats with high school queens and bad for you funnel cakes. It started with the Duct Tape Festival, grew with the Milan Melon Fest, and became addicting with the Port Clinton Midnight Walleye Drop on New Year’s Eve. At each I found people with no other agenda than to have fun and relish a silly tradition.
In this year of 60 things to do before I turn 60, there were three festivals that made the list, three that I had wanted to experience but had always missed. The Medina Ice Sculpture Festival and the North Ridgeville Corn Fest each lived up to their names with beautiful works of cold art and dozens of fresh roasted ears. Both drew people to communities that benefited from the hordes of people flocking to their squares. But the grand-daddy of them all was the Valley City Frog Jump. I marked it on my calendar months in advance, determined not to miss this one day extravaganza of all things frog.
My friend Pattie, her 5-year old daughter Carolyn, and I arrived early to ensure that spots would still be available. Also in tow was my daughter Julie, our official frog handler. But something took over as we approached the registration table. I decided I wanted my own frog. I knew if I remained a spectator that I would later feel cheated I did not compete. So eight bucks later my frog, appropriately named “Sixty,” was rented and being held until it was my turn.
I knew this event was special when the competition started by the singing of the National Anthem. What better way to kick off an athletic event of this magnitude! Everyone in the park, those close to the jumping and those buying frog cookies, stopped, and with hands over hearts joined in the singing. Afterwards I walked the area outside the competition ring and smiled as I looked around at the families showing off their prized amphibians, kids playing frog corn hole, and basketball. Some of the critters had escaped and kids bounced through the grass retrieving their athletes. Carolyn found her challenge with frog putt-putt as we patiently waited for our ‘flight,” or division to be announced. As she found the bounce house, I stood on the edge of the observation area, looking to glean some tips.
The rules were simple. When your flight was called you reported to the holding area to receive your frog in a bucket. Warnings were given to leave the lid on until you were called to the jumping area, and those who ignored the warning found themselves startled by escaping jumpers. Once in the center of the parachute, the frog was to be placed in the green circle. After placing the 4-legged star in the ring, the handler could no longer touch the critter, only encourage by slapping the cloth behind the bug-eyed athlete. The frog would be given three jumps. Then a team of assistants would run out and measure the distance, scooping up the contestant in one hand. Winners of each flight would compete in the finals at the end of all the rounds. Like I said…simple.
Tucked in my pocket was a pair of gloves as I had been warned that frogs always pee in your hands. But as I waited my turn, I realized I would be booed out of the ring if I wore them. I decided to suck it up and peeked into the bucket, bonding with my entrant. “Sixty” stared up at me, almost daring me to remove the lid. I felt a moment of panic…worried that he would jump into my face! But before I had a chance to talk myself out of the whole thing, the referee was handing him to me and directing me to the brightly colored parachute cloth.
Placing him in the circle, I quickly stood back and watched as the long-legged guy took off. In his three jumps he covered 9 feet, 2inches, flying through the air in three great arches. I broke into a smile, clapping at his success, proud of his distance. It wasn’t the longest, but it certainly not the shortest! I had known him for less than 30 minutes but felt an odd sense of maternal pride! Sixty was quickly put back into the bucket and returned to the rental table, where he was then taken back to the cool waters of the river bank. Job well done!
After bonding with some anti-bacterial gel, we headed to the food stands to enjoy a celebratory lunch. Unlike many events, the choices were not local food trucks or vendors who travel fair to fair. Rather, each stand benefited a local church or athletic team or scouting group. Alice, Marge, and Judith sold cookies carefully decorated as frogs and slices of berry pie. Ed and Joe were in charge of the roasted chickens and rib platters. There was Italian sausage, popcorn, and ice cream. All homemade… all local…all simple. Which is the whole point.
It is that flavor, that simplicity that makes me love these festivals. Yes, they are a bit quirky, yes they are silly. Whether prom dresses are being made out of duct tape, or kids are bowling with cantaloupes, what these festivals have in common is the desire to connect and have fun! Simply have fun. While I appreciate the advantages of living near the energy of a city, it is the energy of people that draws me to these small town celebrations. They feed my soul.
The summer is far from over. Hot air balloons, baskets, and grapes are all waiting for their day. I will watch queens get crowned, try to dunk the high school football player, and eat funnel cakes. I will chat with the church ladies who have crocheted dozens of dish towels, play bingo, and watch sack races. I might even get my caricature drawn. At the end of the day I will return to my home in the suburbs, content in the knowledge that despite the pace of my daily life, I can always take a break and rent a frog.
Susan Emmerich is the author of A Girl on a Bike: Musings on Life, Loss, and Hot Flashes, now available from Second Wind Publishing and amazon.com She can be found riding her bike around Cleveland OH making observations on a most interesting life.