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The Firemen’s Festival

The volunteer fire department of McConnelsville/Malta, Ohio, sponsors a Fourth of July festival each year. They block off the town square and hold a four-day orgy of eating, gaming, square dancing and speech making. It’s rather like the Huntsville, Texas, Fair-on-the Square, but all the profits go to the Fire Department.

Various civic and social groups set up stalls around the perimeter of the square to sell food and wholesome family beverages. Big Jim Turner, the mayor of Malta, hosts a large lemonade booth right next to the speaker’s stand. Big Jim’s operation aside, most of the booths also provide some form of gambling. Bingo is most popular, particularly with a group known as “the little old ladies”. By the way, do you know how to get four sweet little old ladies say “#*~&!” ? (A really bad four letter word.) Have a fifth little old lady shout, “Bingo!”

Of course, bingo isn’t the only game of chance. There’s ring toss, throw a ball and knock down the milk bottles, throw another ball and dunk the high school principal into a tank of water, and the ever-popular cakewalk, the latter conducted by our old maid school teacher Miss Janize. A cakewalk is a lot like roulette except in a cakewalk the people go round and round instead of a little silvery ball. Miss Janize plays a lively tune on her portable hi-fi -- usually a Sousa march -- and the contestants step out smartly. When the music stops, Miss Janize drops a pole and the person behind the pole wins the cake.

Almost everyone in Morgan County attends the festival; it’s the social occasion of the year. The climax of the event is the rousing patriotic speeches made by local dignitaries, particularly Malta’s Mayor Turner, a speaker highly regarded for his oratorical prowess, not to mention his lemonade.

Rastus Clodfelter, the local bootlegger, was a more or less regular fixture at the festival, although he never managed to get a permit to operate a food and beverage booth. Rastus’s main obstacle was Mayor Turner who was determined to stamp out the evils of alcohol. If he were successful, this would have a serious negative impact on Rastus’ chosen profession.

Rastus was not one, however, to hold a grudge; every businessman faces his share of challenges, opportunities and learning experiences. Rastus knew that free samples of his product were its own best advertisement, so he invited some of the older high school boys (you know – in their early to mid-twenties) to help him get his product to the consumer. He gave five of his most trusted assistants a mayonnaise jar of his best moonshine, a delightful colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid. A couple of hours before the speeches were to commence, the “boys” began to dump the near 190 proof likker into the mayor’s large lemonade bowl on the sly, one jar at a time. Due to the heat of the day (and to lubricate his tonsils for his upcoming speech) Mayor Turner himself made quite a few visits to the punch bowl.

When the time for speeches rolled around, the mayor found himself experiencing some serious difficulties with his motor functions. Attempting a quick run-through of his prepared speech, he had trouble dealing some of the eloquently worded phrases. Even with his glasses on his eyes couldn’t make out the print on his copy of the speech. It took him two tries to hoist himself up to the first step to the speaker’s platform. But the most interesting manifestation of his condition was his sudden ability to see things no one else could see and his inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Mayor Turner climbed to the speaker’s stand with considerable lack of dignity. He squinted up his eyes and got a look of great concentration on his face. He was, if the truth were known, concentrating on the memory of a very erotic fantasy he had enjoyed 40 years ago, as a high school senior, involving the lovely new English teacher, Miss Janize. He could remember it like it was only yesterday. In fact, when he began speaking in his somewhat slurred but bombastic voice he said, “It was only yesterday when the lovely Miss Janize took me by the hand and led me behind the bleachers on the far side of the football field…” Without a script he described the encounter in shockingly minute detail, much to the amusement of the local citizens who had also had a few hits of Mayor Turner’s lemonade. Miss Janize, in the front row of the audience, fainted with a slight smile on her face.

As it turned out, that was the best year for lemonade sales in the history of the festival. With Mayor Turner’s profits alone the twin cities were able to buy a new brass hose nozzle for the Fire Department.