I’ll admit that several years ago, when I first heard that Kingsport was building a carousel downtown, I had one question: Why?
I rode a lot of carousels as a child. The one at Dollywood, the one at the Knoxville Zoo, the one at the mall where I lived in Alabama (a full-size size one, smack in the middle of the food court). But I didn’t understand why Kingsport of all places needed a carousel attached to the farmers’ market.
The project started in 2008 with an idea from Gale Joh. Where he grew up in New York, carousels abounded, and he felt that the children of Kingsport deserved the everyday delight he’d experienced as a kid. Through years of work by many local artists, support by the government and help from its citizens, Joh’s dream came to fruition. Though he did not live to see the carousel’s completion in 2015, it is finished.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, rides are just $1. I went for the first time this past Saturday.
My family and I went to the Fine Crafts Show at the farmers’ market. A ride on the carousel came with admission to the show. My mother was excited, but I felt neutral about the whole thing.
When we walked into the roundhouse, I changed my mind. Here was this massive structure: hand-carved and hand-painted, 32 animals and two chariots, the contributing artists listed on the walls. The music isn’t played over loud speakers; it’s done by a pipe organ, loud and brassy.
We picked out mounts, and I climbed up onto the wooden horse. I used to ride real horses, too, so my body knew what to do: heels down, legs tight, tuck your tail bone. It was familiar.
“Oh, look!” my mom said, pointing. Above us, around us, there was more to see: little animals perched on the metal framing, murals of local flora and fauna, each thing rendered in exquisite detail. For the three and a half minutes of the ride, you’re never bored because there’s always something else to turn your eye to.
Soon enough, the ride lurched to a halt. My horse stopped at the top of its rotation.
“Do you need help getting down?” my dad asked.
“Do you know how many times I’ve dismounted a horse in my life?” I countered, swinging down in one smooth arc–muscle memory.
“Oh, right. I forget about that.”
We forget about a lot of things–things that used to be an integral part of us, cast aside unwittingly or unconsciously. That’s the nature of being alive; you experience too much to remember all of it.
But we can decide to pick those things back up, once we’re reminded of them. Even if it’s only for a moment, just three minutes on a carousel, we can remember what it’s like to be children with wonder in our eyes.
That’s why the carousel. It’s a massive artistic undertaking. It’s for the kids to have fun. It’s for the adults to remember how they used to–and maybe remember how to do it again.