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Jousting aboard `flying horses'

WHO wouldn't love a merry-go-round? Imagine. The merry-go-round is all aglitter, from its roof to its floor, as the dazzling steeds prance up and down on poles. All the while the calliope, an instrument of steam and air whistles, plays happy music. Like a knight of old you sit astride your very own horse, brightly colored, its painted eyes flashing and its magnificent mane forever flowing. You seem to be flying as you go round and round. Outside the merry-go-round a brass ring hangs, and whoever catches it wins a free ride.

When I was 5, my father took me to the merry-go-round at Revere Beach in Massachusetts. I was terrified of the huge horses and screamed to the heavens. After a while, I grew to enjoy it and begged for more rides on the ``flying horses.''

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All over the world children have loved the merry-go-round. In England, children call it the ``roundabout.'' In France the name is carousel. In Italy they say carosello. Here in New England we speak of the ``flying horses.''

The first merry-go-round appeared in Paris in the late 1700s. It was built for the King of France and was meant to imitate the tournament. The tournament was once the sport of knights in armor, men who engaged in colorful contests, jousting, riding, turning, and spinning.

The word ``tournament'' comes from the Old French and Latin turnus, which means turn, because the players turned around for each attack.

In the tournament, troops of horses performed, circling and recircling in different ways. There were also riding exhibitions by groups of riders on horseback guiding their steeds as they danced to music.

More than 300 years ago a contraption looking something like a merry-go-round was used to train young noblemen in jousting. The young man sat on a wooden horse and was dragged around by a horse or man. The rider aimed his lance at a hanging ring. This was the first idea of the brass ring. Now we have a brass ring outside nearly every merry-go-round.

In the Neapolitan dialect, caruselo means a ball of clay, and a carosello was a contest in which the players threw balls of clay at each other. In America the first merry-go-round or carousel appeared in Salem, Massachusetts, almost 200 years ago. It was called ``a ring of flying horses.'' After that more than 10,000 merry-go-rounds were built in the United States. By 1980 there were only 315 left. They run by electricity or engines.

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, claims the oldest working carousel in the nation. It is as old as Oak Bluffs, the village in which it was built about 150 years ago, as the ``year-rounders'' will tell you. I have spent many vacations on that enchanting island and had many rides on those faithful ``flying horses.'' Watch Hill, Rhode Island, has a carousel built in 1883 which is sturdy enough to have withstood two hurricanes according to the native Rhode Islanders.

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No one knows who made that first merry-go-round in Paris, but we are thankful that we can still enjoy those magical ``flying horses.''

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