Southern Seen — Shades of the past
By: Larry McGehee
Political polls come with election year territory. For some strange reason, polling is called “canvassing the voters”.
To us old-timers, “canvassing” had an entirely different meaning from “polling” or “surveying”. To us, canvassing either meant rolling out the canvas awnings on houses and storefronts, or putting up the tents for summer circuses, carnivals, or tent revivals, or heading for the lakeside with an old pup tent.
So, excuse us if we snicker when you tell us you are “canvassing the voters”. The image of tarpaulin?draped citizens is a little heavy to bear.
The canvas canopies of our youth have gone the way of the buffalo nickel. They were replaced by aluminum awnings, which were replaced by window unit air conditioners, which were replaced by central air conditioning.
The few circuses that remain have mostly moved indoors into large civic centers??also air?conditioned. It’s been a long time now since youngsters lined the railroad tracks at dawn to help a circus unload and unfold its tents, hoping for free passes to the show. Circuses have folded their tents like the Arabs and silently stolen away.
Sometime back around 1955, my two best friends and I, home from college, attended a big tent revival on the west side of town. It was Youth Night, and the high schoolers streamed down to the front stage to the strains of “Just As I Am”. We thought they were all down there, but the choir kept singing “one more verse”. It dawned on us that they were waiting for the three of us to come forward. When the minister stopped and asked that every head be bowed as he prayed (for we three), we darted out the side flap of the tent. Then we compounded our sin by going to a tent carnival over on the east side of town.
As for carnivals, some are still around, but prefer shopping malls and parking lots to the old fairgrounds or sandlots of the past. A few tents survive at carnivals, but mostly they seem miniature relics of the mammoth carnivals we recall from the Memphis Mid?South Fair??a few rides, a few concession stands, a few games. Many are self?contained in converted trucks and trailers??no tents required. Most don’t even have a sideshow that needs a tent. Where have the fat lady, the sword?swallower, the bearded woman, the two?headed calf, and the exotic dancer gone? With the coming of the two Disney parks and all the “Six Flags” places, the carnival has become civilized and rooted??ironically uprooting the old traveling shows in the process. Can you imagine anyone playing the old walnut shell-game or shouting “Hey, Rube!” at Epcot Center?
The same rooting/uprooting has taken place in tent revivals, too. Now we have Bible Universities and Glass Cathedrals and go to revivals by television. Canvassing now means passing the collection plate, not putting up the tent. The sawdust trail is long gone, replaced by stain?proof carpets and waxed floors. Pity the poor preacher??fire and brimstone were easier for a lost soul to understand under a canvas tent on a humid July night.
And as for camping, one has only to drive by one of today’s trailer parks to see there’s no tenting tonight on the old campground. Avenues of metal homes on wheels, hooked to water and electric and sewer services, stretch like instant suburbs with instant neighbors, a far cry from wilderness camping of the past. No mosquito is safe in such places.
So, too, with political tents. Used to be we gathered for free barbecue or watermelon under huge canvas canopies to hear election?year promises. Nowadays, “canvassing the voters” only means poll-taking. Political tent promising has been replaced with repetitive use of the word “tentatively”. We have become spectator by-standers to the political process and are missing the thrill of participating in the game.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Messenger 2.26.08