Life’s a Carousel

Behind the wall of mirrors are complex, unseen elements

In Balboa Park, a renewed antique carousel turns round and round, with bobbing horses and the familiar circus décor and music. It has one of the few operational brass-ring games anywhere. I was touring the Park to create an excursion video for the San Diego County Library branch in San Marcos. Tired from walking, I sat down on a bench a short distance from the carousel, next to an older gentleman.

“My family is riding that carousel, reaching for the brass ring. You ever try it?” he asked.

“No, I haven’t. You?”

“When I was a kid, rode it a lot. Takes a long reach to grab the ring for another free ride. I’d have to lean from my horse as far as I could, one hand clinging tight and the other stretching for the ring. After a while I got the hang of it, but it took practice like everything else. Hell of an analogy for life, I’d say.”

“You mean the tired cliché, ‘Reach for the brass ring’?”

“Yeah, but a lot more interesting than that,” he said, offering me some popcorn.

“Okay, I’ll bite. What else do you see?” I asked, pinching a few out of his bag.

“Well, for starters, notice the horses face and rotate right. In Europe, they go left.”

“Why’s that?”

“It seems that during medieval times, knights wore their swords on the left, so mounting their warhorses was done ―”

“On the left side … got it.”

“In America, it’s a Carousel and in England, a Merry-Go-Round. That one was built in 1910.”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

“My father owned and operated one, years ago. We still have mounted on display an old brass ring of his. He used to tell us stories, like about the accidents people had when reaching for it. Got expensive, offering free rides to entice more riders, and also made for much higher accident insurance premiums. So, now, only a handful of carousels offer it.”

“Why do I get the feeling you have more back story to tell?” I said, pinching more popcorn.

“Well, son, that depends. . . . I have to decide if you can handle it.”

“Which means what, exactly?” I asked, as I aimed my hand-cam at the start of another run.

“When I was a kid, a gray-beard maintenance man would disappear into its mirrors like magic. We used to imagine him the Wizard of Oz, pushing levers and buttons, and making life go round.”

“Now it’s all done by remote control.”

“Sure, but the wizard is still working inside, hoping no one will discover that seamless door.”

“So, what would happen if someone found their way inside?” I asked.

“None of us kids ever did, so I couldn’t say. Maybe we’d mysteriously disappear forever.”

“Let me guess: who enter that hidden door, on learning the secrets of life, may never return.”

“Couldn’t have said it better. Round and round the gambit goes and where it stops nobody knows. Life’s a carousel, old chum. See if you can find that secret door.

“Ah, here comes my family.” He and I stood, as a child and its parents approached us.

We shook hands; I thanked him for sharing his popcorn, then headed for the ticket booth.

After chatting with him, now I had to do it. With my ticket in hand, the carousel started turning and picking up speed. I aimed for the mirrors at the hub, which housed the machinery. The increasing centrifugal force wanted to thrust me back to that outer lane where the people were focused on a shiny brass ring. I had to strain at pulling myself hand over hand to reach those mirrors. Nobody seemed to notice that I was behaving contrary to what everyone else was doing.

I stood there, entranced, finding myself reflected in a distorted image on those imperfect glass surfaces. It took concerted will power to pull away. I nearly forgot my fanciful purpose, to find the seamless door accessing life’s inner sanctum. I stumbled along the mirrored surface, hoping to find what had to exist.

I must have looked strange doing that, with everyone else on board attending the brass ring. It takes determined courage to stray from the herd, confident that there’s far more to life than chasing after promotional freebies that profit nothing.

Maybe someday I’ll find that hidden door, despite narcissism keeping me mesmerized by my own grandiose self-image. I’m not sure, though, that I’d be coming back if ever I do get to meet the Grand Wizard. He’d be showing me the way things work back stage. I bet behind that wall of mirrors is complex machinery operating gears and pinions, ropes and pulleys, music and lighting. Maybe the old man was right: life’s a carousel, with vastly unseen elements.

Folks love a romantic fairy tale or a cozy mystery, but hate a story spoiler. That’s the hazard I’d face on being tutored by the Wizard. He might teach me what appears real and solid is a photonic illusion formed by billions of invisible atoms, with their electrons arranged in mostly empty space. If I returned, I’d have to testify that there’s much more to life than meets the eye.

I’m not sure that would go over too well; most people don’t like their illusions messed with.

Maybe I’ll just go for the brass ring. That’s much safer than getting crucified for revealing the truth.


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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