Recapturing the Essence of a State Fair

SG | Alabama State Fairgrounds, circa 1989. I can’t be sure of the year, but it most likely followed the summer release of Michael Keaton’s Batman because I can be sure of the shoes I wore: purple and white Joker edition converse All-Stars. My brother was in the decidedly hipper Batman edition (black with yellow bat symbols). But I loved purple.

As we walked out of the shadow of Garrett Coliseum — filled with vendor booths, fire safety demonstrations, the DARE booth with McGruff the Crime Dog and the little briefcase full of drug samples — my brother and I entered the midway and immediately fell within the sights of a carny barking from behind his plywood-topped counter. He had a game that he thought we should play. All it would cost us was a dollar to throw dull-tipped darts at his wall of rubbery, under-inflated balloons. The prize for popping one? A sweet, paper-framed mirror with a Trans Am painted on it. Or Michael Jackson, or the Dukes of Hazzard, or a scantily clad lady — the options were staggering.

But we had better things to spend our money on, so we ignored him. And that’s when things got nasty. Craig recalls the incident [I have replaced any obscenities with fair food items]:

He was the definition of grizzled. He looked like an old Hells Angel gone soft and flabby, with stringy gray hair and a patchy white, unshaven five-o’clock shadow. We must have been 20 feet or so past his booth when he snarled something like “Nice shoes, [FUNNEL CAKE]!”

I was instantly consumed by white-hot fraternal fury. I spun around and started striding back towards his booth, shouting “Hey man, [FRIED OREO] YOU!!!”

He rolled his eyes and let out a weary-sounding “Ahhhhh [FRIED OREO] YOUUUUU…” Clearly he’d [FRIED OREO] YOU’d so many people it had lost its luster. I’m sure a flustered 120-pound 18-year-old coming at him was the most boring thing he’d ever seen.

The carny in the booth next to him hushed him with a “Ah c’mon, Jerry,” then turned to us and said “Just ignore him.” Suddenly a police officer was there asking if everything was OK. And as quickly as that, the dark, reptilian underbelly of the fair turned away from us, and everything was back to normal.

That was a defining moment for my brother, when he was able to stand up for me and take on that haggard carny as a young man, no more a boy. For me, it was just scary. The fair had always been a highlight of the year. As a burgeoning optimist, in my mind it never rained at the beach and the fair was an endless playground of rides and prize goldfish (I always won the goldfish). One year before I knew how to write, the moment I caught a whiff of autumn in the air I made a list of all the rides I’d need to ride by drawing them on a piece of paper. My favorites were the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler and the granddaddy of them all: the Himalaya.

My brother has a memory of sitting in that ride with our dad, in the cool of one evening sometime in the early ‘80s, feeling the thrill of acceleration as the cars looped around their articulated platform. Just as they slowed and lurched into reverse, Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” began blaring through the speakers above. Whenever he hears that song, he still thinks about that night on the Himalaya.

But with his terse exchange with the carny — through the taunts of that one dude trying to make a buck — I’d been exposed to a brutal yet universal truth: fairs can suck.

The last time I went to the Alabama State Fair was sometime in high school. A buddy and I were living it up. Hell, we even bought some fudge from a booth in the coliseum. But the night ended abruptly when the cage of some two-seater ride we’d chosen swung open mid-air. There were no seat belts, so we braced ourselves against the walls of our cage, desperately fighting the inertia working to pull us out and down to the parking lot below. We made it out to tell the tale, but not without grinding that sack of fudge underfoot as we clawed for a hold.

After that, it would be a decade before I went to a fair again.

I had high hopes heading into the Virginia State Fair. I loaded my wife and in-laws into the car and made them ride an hour and a half to the fairgrounds north of Richmond. There was some nice livestock and decent food, but something was amiss. It was all too … orderly. Food trucks hugged the curve of a paved path likely designed for that very purpose. Rides were tucked neatly into pockets, practically out of sight of those walking from one enclosed exhibit space to the next. The crowd was decorous and at peace. It didn’t do it for me.

It wasn’t until we had kids that things started to make sense once more. When we lived in Manassas, Virginia, the Prince William County Fairgrounds were mere miles from the house. It was a no-brainer to take our toddler there when fall rolled around, and lo and behold: a faint glimmer of hope returned to my concept of what a fair should be. It was big, but not too big. Organized, but not orderly. Tidy, but not clean. And the crowd was just rowdy enough.

As an aside, that’s when my wife introduced me to funnel cake — how had I never had this before? I’d always been duped by the hollow lure of bear claws or candy apples as a child, completely missing the hands-on powdery goodness that a funnel cake affords.

Last year was our first time at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, which is a big deal around here. We went at it the first time like amateurs, fighting traffic at 5 p.m. on a weekday and slogging through crowds to navigate the sprawling complex. The kids got to bed late with little to show for it.

This year, however, we changed our tack and got in there a few hours before the crowds rolled in. It was glorious. We dined on as many clichés as we could gather, among them fried Snickers, roasted corn and a turkey leg (don’t get the turkey leg). My daughter won a purple unicorn after her first try at a fishing game. My two-year-old son boldly cruised around a track on a monster truck ride. They marveled at an enormous pumpkin spilling over its wooden pallet. They milked a cow. We rode the Ferris wheel and gazed out at the downtown Raleigh skyline, aglow in the setting autumn sun. For them, we were capturing what had made the Alabama State Fair such a marvelous place in the 1980s.

But what clinched it for me was just after our kids had found their perfect vehicles on that monster truck ride (she chose purple and he chose whatever was closest). As my wife and I gazed proudly at them, surrounded by other parents, the dad next to us shouted words of encouragement to his boy: “Yeah, son! Ride the wheels off that thing! Drive it like you stole it!”

Yes. These were my people. This was our fair.

 

 

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