I came across an old diary recently from when I was around 11 years old. An entry in early August reads: "I counted my money today and I've saved $13 over the summer. Can't wait to go to the fair!
It's been quite a few years since I was 11, and if memory serves the last time I was at the county fair was in 1974 or so, when I was in high school. I remember marching students and crowds and big bandstand events involving tractors and race cars. I also remember delighting in the animals (prize roosters, cows, and horses), the camping trailers on display, the exhibits, and of course the midway. At night the sky sparkled with the moving and multi-color lights of the Ferris wheel. Food vendors hawked their goods...sausage and pepper sandwiches, pizza, fried dough...and game vendors hawked their prizes, which could be won by squirting water in a clown's mouth, picking up ducks, tossing rings. There were also "the freak shows" back then, a feature most certainly in the category of politically incorrect today but nonetheless fascinating: hand over a quarter and see the bearded lady, the two-headed infant floating in a jar of formaldehyde, the conjoined twins. I'd spend hours at the fair, which for me was magic, a fun and somehow logical conclusion to summer in a rural place.
My friend Mark is in town this week and on Thursday we went to the fair. I was excited, although I knew somewhere down deep that even though the county fair might not have changed, it would have changed anyway, at least for me. Nothing 40 years later holds the same glow, a glow when I was a teen that probably emanated less from the fair itself and more from something firing in my own head, something having to do with youthful anticipation, bright lights, and throngs of people outside my usual circle, not to mention the possibility of crossing paths with the high school crush of the week. Forty years is a long time, I told myself as we left the house, still secretly imagining the fun we'd have; things will probably be quite different.
In that respect, the fair did not disappoint.
We drove in the same entrance, parked in the same grassy lot. There was the same bandstand, the same tractor pull, the same sky scene of spinning wheel and dive bomber. There was the midway and the food and the animals...roosters and cows (but no horses); a tortoise, a giant hare, some goats, some monkeys, and one cage I didn't go near bearing a sign that read "Watch out, it bites!" The hawking vendors were there selling deep fried butter and jewelry. A polka band played under a tent to a thin crowd of the elderly. I didn't see any camping trailers on display although there might have been some. Truth is, we didn't really stay long enough to find out.
After a sausage sandwich lunch and riding through a highly disappointing "scary" house, Mark and I drifted to the animal tents and got caught in a downpour, complete with wind, lightning, thunder, torrential rain, and hail. Foregoing further examination of strangely fluffy chickens and a few peacocks, we left, slogging back through a rather depressing and empty midway where a man selling tie-dyed tee shirts stood in a puddle, wringing out his merchandise.
Is this grim impression of an old and beloved haunt the fair's fault or my own? In truth I don't think the fair has changed much over the years, though without question I have. Now adult and traveled and, okay, maybe a bit jaded, I can still appreciate the rich texture of such things, husky geese entered by proud farm kids and flower arrangements on display by garden clubs. A shirtless country boy eating cotton candy, holding a girlfriend's hand. I guess the truth is, though, that for me the world has moved on. That stealthy thief Time has changed the angles of my vision, dimming the glow I once saw when, with my thirteen dollars, I arrived enchanted, greeted by pretty lights and all manner of possibilities.
In the car, Mark turned and asked me: "Was the fair always this small?" I just shook my head and drove away, with raindrops on the windshield and cold fried dough in a paper bag.