ORMSTOWN, QC. — My birthday weekend includes the Ormstown Fair. It’s been a family tradition for years and years.
We don’t just love the carnival rides and cotton candy and funky chickens. We also love a good old-fashioned demolition derby. Sometimes it’s the only one I get to all year and sometimes, when it’s a really good year, it takes me three vigorous shampoos to get the smell of burnt oil out of my hair. I live for those years.
ORMSTOWN, Que. – When I say I go to the Ormstown Fair for the extreme heat, I mostly mean I’m going to watch cars demolish each other in a dirt arena.
But also, it’s hot. This year’s fair marked the first time I felt justified in wearing my Stampede-approved cowboy hat. The sun was unforgiving, punishing the open fields on which the midway rose.
The view of the demolition derby isn’t as good from the beer tent as from the bleachers, but it’s shaded and there’s a country breeze and Bud Light served by don’t-hurt-the-eyes firemen. The volunteer firefighters who aren’t serving beer are standing at the ready by the arena, and good thing, as there were plenty of fires in the pit this year. Just one injury, though —in the stands. It was unclear whether he fell off a trailer, walked into a trailer or succumbed to the most amateur of ailments—too much beer and sunshine.
This is a step down from Nascar. Come for the crumpled metal, stay for the tramp stamps. You can even turn it into a game: Count the clichés permanently inked onto people’s bodies. (I’m not just being catty—I’ve got a cliche stamped on my ankle forever. You’ve gotta own it.)
If it seems I come to these things just for twisted metal, then I’m giving a slanted view. I also come for the crazy-ass chickens. This is the Olympics of local livestock, where cows and pigs and a multitude of birds are judged by breed. It’s where you learn there is a whole world beyond the chickens and ducks in children’s books.
Discover roosters that look like peacocks, and pigeons as sleek as ballerinas, and ugly ducklings with spiderweb-fine down. Waddles come in rainbow colours. Feathers are iridescent, or nearly transparent.
There is no greater marketing for the Buy Local movement than a country fair. The Ormstown fair takes place in June, but there’s still time to check out demolition derbies and cute chicks at the Brome and Huntingdon fairs.
We had supper at Ormtown’s former train station, now the 1950s-styled Express 57. The diner’s menu – printed on records – is standard diner fare: bacon cheeseburgers, deliciously crispy fries, smoked meat, that sort of thing. And diners can play pinball while waiting for their food. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis stare down from every wall, even in the tiny bathroom, where a plethora of mirrors offer a 360 view of ’50s knickknacks or, if you’re not careful, of yourself on the throne.
Trevor was visiting his grandmother, who lives in Ormstown during the summer months and Benin the rest of the year. We picked him up after we’d eaten and he chattered incessantly during the 20-minute drive to St. Chrysostome.
The event has been running in some form in St. Chrys for nearly 30 years, and all proceeds go toward Leucan. That’s nice. It makes you feel a little better for just wanting to see cars smash into each other until they catch fire (my YouTube video, now with more sparks!).
Derbies make me laugh. I mean full on, open-mouthed laughter. The smell of the motor oil, the sound of metal on metal, the smoke in the air as we yell and cheer – it’s as heady an experience as being caught in a mosh pit. I can’t tell a four-cylinder from a six-cylinder from a paddleboat in a dark alley, but I know I’m watching a good show when the bed of a pickup is suddenly in the cab’s passenger seat.
Many of the cars have sponsors, but we don’t like the splashy, impeccable paint jobs (I mistyped that as “pain jobs,” which is rather telling). We root for the car with a Teletubby stuck on the hood, or a spray-painted message on the bumper like: “Look out – you’re next” or “Pas de nourriture sans agriculture.” And no matter who we’re rooting for, we’ll cheer just as fervently for any car if it catches fire.
We’re so used to watching firefighters grab their extinguishers and dash into the pit that midway through one of the last competitions of the night, we weren’t too concerned when they rushed to a car that had been crashed on the sidelines for some time. But when one of the firefighters climbed into the vehicle from the back window, we knew something was up. A safety officer ran toward the ambulance so quickly he tripped over his boots and rolled down the grass. The announcer said something about the driver feeling dizzy and then the emergency crews were cutting into the car. One firefighter stood on the hood and started working at the windshield with a crowbar. It seemed like it took forever to come loose.
They sawed into the doors and began peeling away the roof. The other drivers sat in their idled cars – you never get out of your car – and hung out their windows. They couldn’t see what was going on any better than we could, but you could see how worried they were. The first firefighter never left the back seat. He’d put a neck brace on the driver and stayed there talking to her.
I don’t know how long it took to get the car cut open and the driver onto a backboard and then a stretcher. Time just sort of froze up and the crowd – thinned anyway as it neared midnight – was so quiet. When the driver was taken out of the pit and wheeled toward the ambulance, everyone cheered. Forget the cars, forget the fires, forget the smoke and motor oil. The firefighters won the evening.
That’s where the story ends. I don’t know whether she’s okay. I don’t know her name, though the roof of her car said “Maude.” I do know that the race went on and that the drivers’ hearts weren’t in it, and I know that the next two competitions seemed to go very quickly and we never did quite get the adrenaline back.