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‘I knew you still had it in you’: Carousels and cotton-candy skies at Durham Spring Carnival

Jeremiah Sterling has six shots in him—three Pfizer vaccinations, two Jack Daniels shooters, and one bullet from Iraq—and he feels them all on an unusually cold March evening at the Durham Spring Carnival. But he’s determined to win his wife Lindsay that rainbow stuffed llama if it is the last thing he does.

The 57-year-old war veteran is bald under his Semper Fi cap. He sports jean cutoffs and a leather biker vest. Faded tattoos poke out from beneath his fraying shorts. The largest one is a crude bald eagle on his left leg. Beneath the bird’s curved beak, the skin puckers where shrapnel once entered but never exited. 

Stroking his salt and pepper goatee, Sterling squints at the balloon dart board, mentally calculating the best trajectory for his final dart. Teeing up, he eyes the final balloon that has survived his best efforts. In one swift motion, Sterling lets the dart fly. 

Pop! The balloon deflates and bells go off. Sterling fist pumps the air. The carnival worker, dressed in a red and white striped uniform, grabs his ladder and climbs all the way up to where the rainbow llama hangs. He tosses it to Sterling, who hands it to his wife of 35 years. Grinning, she shrieks and plants a smooch of red lipstick on Sterling’s cheek. 

“I knew you still had it in you, you old geezer!” she says in her thick Southern drawl.

Sterling tousles his wife’s bottle-blonde pixie cut. Hand in hand, the high school sweethearts walk away towards the sweet tea cart.

The typically quiet, unassuming field off Stadium Drive has been completely transformed by the annual arrival of the traveling Spring Carnival. Brightly lit carnival rides and games line the street, beckoning visitors of all ages to join the fun. Families with children in tow try their luck at the games of skill, from ring toss to Whack-a-Mole, vying for prizes ranging from giant inflatable bananas to goldfish in plastic bags. The air rings with a cacophony of carnival music and an off-key live rendition of “Chicken Fried” by a local cover band.

Soon, the smell of honey barbecue ribs and fried funnel cake topped with fresh strawberries and powdered sugar entices hungry crowds to gather around the smorgasbord of food stands. A middle-school couple on a first date stands in line for the caramel apples. The boy fidgets and stares at his flip-flops during long periods of awkward silence between the two, while the girl picks at her sparkly pink nail polish and twists the earrings in her newly pierced ears.

The couple’s mothers stand a dutiful 15 feet away, chatting about soccer practice, bake sales, and the latest PTA gossip. They snap a couple iPhone pictures of their kids with a not-so-subtle flash. “Knock it off mom!” the boy says indignantly.

As the couple gets to the cashier, the boy orders two Granny Smiths covered in chocolate sprinkles. Digging around in his jeans pockets, he fishes out just enough change and clanks it on the counter. The girl stands on her tip-toes to carefully take the paper plate that’s bowing under the weight of the candied apples. After a big bite, her sugar-high smile reveals caramel and sprinkles stuck in her braces. Her mother gasps, running to bring water to wash out her mouth. The boy doesn’t tell his date — he simply gazes at her like she’s still the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.

As the sun sinks beneath the treeline, the skies light up with pink and blue clouds that look like they could be twirled straight out of one of the cotton candy machines. 

A college couple takes a selfie with the vibrant backdrop. The woman looks at her phone and frowns. Grabbing a napkin from her purse, she wipes cinnamon sugar from her boyfriend’s churro popcorn snack off his face and retakes the picture. 

The American flags flying above the field whip in the wind. The woman shivers, her teeth chattering. With a begrudging glance, her boyfriend hands over his Durham Bulls varsity jacket.

Making the most of the time they have left here, the man leads his girlfriend over to the carnival’s centerpiece — the carousel — just as the employee manning the ride hollers “Last call!” He hands the employee two crumpled yellow ride tickets. The employee unhooks the metal chain at the ride’s entrance with a clang. Made from wood and fiberglass, the carousel’s horses are painted in bold shades of orange, blue, green, gold, and purple. Weaving between the steeds, the couple tries to find the perfect one.

The couple finally settles on a majestic white galloping stallion. Together, they hop on with his hands around her waist, even though the horse is too small for two.

Above: The carousel pauses between rides at the Durham Spring Carnival. Photo by Gwyneth Bernier — The 9th Street Journal