No getting out of Frontiertown
We are from the West, and we are in the East, walking around a town representing the West. In Ocean City, Maryland, in 95-degree weather and miles inland from sea breezes, I slump on a bench and rest my elbow on a rounded plastic cactus whose arms contain ashtrays. Nearby chat three young men swathed in long coats, jeans and cowboy boots.Frontiertown is a tradition for us. Rituals, I have read, provide a child with a sense of belonging. One book said they can be as simple (and doable) as just having Wednesdays be pizza night, while msn.family says to start traditions when your child is a baby, preferably before: “as you discover that you’re pregnant.”Our household started out behind in the game, but apparently we’ve compensated, because the rituals are taking over.Every year on our annual beach week with my family, my sons get, serially, boardwalk custard, fries, and birch beer; go with heroic Uncle Ted on sickening amusement-park rides; eat at Mickey’s Crab House; and, with their younger cousin Sam, dress as cowboys or bandits for a portrait at Old Time Photo. Even at 9 months old, Sam sat carefully still. “I’m smokin,'” he told me this year, thrilled, motionless except for one waving finger on the hand holding the cigar.I’d thought we might be over Frontiertown at this point, though. Until Teddy, 11, said, “Mom, we haven’t done all the things we always do. Like Frontiertown. I’m a little old for it this year,” he averred. “But … I’d show it to Sam.”When we arrive, he can’t resist joining his brother Roy, newly 9, and Sam, 4, in buying cheap plastic guns. Every single little boy at Frontiertown carries one. By tomorrow, two of these rifles will be broken. Later, at home, they will mingle with the other broken plastic rifles from Frontiertown.At the faux train depot, I ask a young man driving by on a stagecoach, on which, every year, we’re robbed of a bag of gold, “Where is this town supposed to be?”He looks at me blankly, and then says, “Maryland.”I try again. “I mean, this fictional town.” He is obviously the twin brother of the driver of the train, on which we’re robbed of a box of gold.”Oh,” he says. “Um, Arizona. Anywhere out West.” He smiles sheepishly and says, “Sorry. It’s really hot.”Frontiertown staff offers various tableaux with shouted lines and noisy gunplay, the fallen smacking into the dust. In the past we’ve seen the Shootout at the OK Corral and a jailbreak. Today, in “The Trial of Lopez,” an extremely white version of a Mexican pretends to nap under a sombrero, then springs up to rob a bank, necessitating another shootout.”They’re so lucky,” breathes Roy. “They getta get shot and stuff.”The first year they went, then 5 and 8, the boys were the perfect age for Frontiertown, a fort-like assemblage of log storefronts. Knowing it was all a game, they still earnestly shouted warnings to the sheriff, dapper in white long-sleeved shirt, vest, and armbands – when a brigand was escaping.On the train today, the engineer hands over the bag of gold, telling Sam, “You’re in charge.” Sam hurriedly stows it under his seat. Moments later, as we chug through woods, robbers stop our train, growling, “Anyone seen any gold?””I have!” says Sam, abnormally cooperative. I’ve seen children decline to give up the gold, clutching and tugging.Afterwards I chat with the young woman in charge of panning for gold, who says that most of the staff stays in apartments above the storefronts. She refers several times, respectfully, to “the cowboys.””Can we take the train again?” Roy asks.We do, and are robbed again. The boys ask in vain to stay for one more shootout. As we leave, a cowboy says, “See you next year.”Alison Osius lives in Carbondale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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