I recently read a brief story about a local organization that once included cakewalks in its annual fundraising event. This reminded me of an event that helped to shape my cynical nature.
I am sure the local volunteers run an honest cakewalk, but not all of them are like that.
When I was a lad, I attended the annual fall carnival at my elementary school. One of the events in which I participated was the cakewalk.
I didn’t need a cake, but it seemed more interesting than the cheap plastic trinkets that were awarded as prizes for the other games.
I had paid my money and was standing on a square waiting for the event to begin when I overheard a guy whispering in conspiratorial tones to the woman who was running the thing. He was trying to convince her to let his repulsive little spoiled daughter win (although he didn’t phrase it quite like that).
The woman resisted at first, but he was persistent. He said his daughter really wanted to win a cake, and he was willing to pay for it in order to make her happy. Giving her everything she wanted was his usual policy.
In the end, the guy slipped the volunteer some cash, and the music began.
The other participants and I trudged from one numbered square to the next, while the sickeningly jolly music played on.
By a remarkable coincidence, when the music stopped, the unpleasant child won the cake, and the devious father fawned over her.
I was too shocked to say anything.
I remember being stunned, not just because of the fraud, but because it was my Cub Scout den leader who bribed the volunteer. He was a guy I had looked up to, and he was supposed to be setting a good example. I suspect that is why my disillusionment was so intense.
I was also mad as hell. I had very little money in those days (not much has changed), and by the time I overheard the fiendish plot, I had already ponied up the ante, just like everyone else who participated. It wasn’t that I expected to win, but I was still naive enough to believe there was an outside chance I might win. It changed things completely when I realized I had spent some of my hard-earned dough on something I had no chance of winning.
I was numb as I walked around the circle, going through the motions, waiting for the music to stop, knowing what the outcome would be.
Lest anyone get the impression this was some sort of tragic event, I should point out once I got over my initial disappointment, I realized I had learned an important lesson that day, and I was fortunate to have learned it at such an early age.
I was young and idealistic when that evening started. From that day forward, however, I never trusted a game of chance, and I never blindly trusted anyone in a position of authority. I suppose I should thank the dirty shyster who scammed the cakewalk, because he taught me some valuable lessons and contributed to my future career.
At the time, I wanted to kick him in the groin, but in retrospect, I realize he did me a huge favor.
The lesson was even more powerful because the Scout leader who perpetrated the dastardly deed was such a paragon of virtue. I had listened to him preach for hours about always being prepared and doing the right thing.
It was an enlightening experience to learn that his idea of doing the right thing meant doing the right thing for his family, and everyone else could go to blazes.
He and his wife were the kind of squeaky-clean individuals who, now that I am older, naturally make me suspicious.
They reminded me a bit of the parents on “The Brady Bunch.” I had been a guest in their home many times, and everything there had to be perfect. Appearances were everything to them, and I never quite felt comfortable there.
The tawdry version of a cakewalk in which I participated that night was a fortuitous experience.
The lessons I learned, although painful at the time, were valuable.
Since that night, I have never lost a nickel on any carnival midway.
My distrust of adults in general, and authority figures in particular, has served me well over the years.
I once believed people were innocent or virtuous until proven guilty. Now, I assume people are up to something, or have ulterior motives, until they prove otherwise. It is a subtle, but important difference.
That simple game at a kids’ carnival opened my eyes and led me to question those who would try to pull the wool over my eyes. The sooner any of us learn that lesson, the better off we will be.
I still enjoy cake, but these days, I bake or buy my own. The free (or potentially free) ones come at too dear a price.