Last night I participated in Wyoming Seminary's "Cannonball For A Cure". In this event students, faculty children, teachers and administrators did cannonballs into the swimming pool to raise money for breast cancer research. Students made donations all week to see which of the adults in the community would have to get in the pool. The natatorium was full of spectators, and the students cheered ardently as their coaches, teachers and dormheads had to walk the plank. Because everyone loves to laugh at the expense of their betters. As the seasons turn from summer to fall, it is likely that carnivals and county fairs are receding into your rear-view mirror. Besides the chance to see award-winning livestock, ride the Ferris wheel and eat every variety of fried food under the sun, these events are often accompanied by the chance to use a dunking booth, which is sometimes the most popular attraction.
The dunking booth, sometimes known as a "dunk tank" is a contraption which places someone on a stool suspended over a tank of cold water. The stool is connected to a spring-loaded mechanism, which when struck by a thrown baseball releases the occupant into the drink. While many people find it fun to sit on the stool and be dunked, especially on hot days, the ne plus ultra of dunking booths occurs when the person getting dunked is a person of some prestige and dignity. Just Google "dunk tank" principal OR boss and if the 75,000 results don't convince you that the chance to force your employer, supervisor, local politician or pushy spouse is a popular American tradition, then I don't know what will.
The reason why everyone loves the chance to dunk an authority figure is because it gives the dunker the chance to feel a sort of equality with the dunkee. What is more levelling than the chance to humiliate someone who is in a position to humiliate you every day? What is more American than the ability to say to someone, "you're not better than me" and then prove it by soaking them in cold water (by throwing a baseball no less)? Americans like to believe that our country is a meritocracy, where people are promoted due to their innate talents, skills and attributes, not on who they are related to, or how much money they have. But sometimes this fantasy is shaken and when we see people who we don't respect in positions of leadership and responsibility we can lose faith. What better way to restore our confidence in America than by showing one of these blowhards that we are "throwhards" and that our skills sufficient to get them wet and embarrassed?
But there is another way in which the dunking booth is like America. At the end of the day, your boss/teacher/principal/police chief/local politician/pushy spouse will climb out of the tank, dry him or herself off, and go right back to being in charge. And the person who paid $5 to throw the ball will be in exactly the same position as before, just poorer. In other words, while we believe in the American Dream (that anyone can make it if they are talented and try hard enough), for most people this "dream" evaporates when they wake up. Either they aren't actually talented, or their efforts are insufficiently zealous, or "the man" is just too strong. Because while there is little in life as temporarily exciting as dunking someone in a booth, the thrill is ephemeral and once past is hard to recall. And the next day the roles are once again reversed.
The world is a complicated place, and life isn't always what it seems. That's why something as seemingly simple as a dunking booth is in many cases a meaningful symbol of how things really are.