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Archive for August 3rd, 2010

Today is the first day of  our local County Fair.  The Chemung County Fair is in its 168th year and for a good part of my youth was the high point of the summer.  I wasn’t in 4H and had little to do with farming, so outside of quickly racing through the barns to look at the prize cows and chickens, I wasn’t there for any of the agricultural aspects of the fair.

No, I was there for the Midway.  The whirling  rides, the challenging games and the lurid shows— it all conspired to trigger the maximum emotional response for a twelve-year old kid.  Or a thirty year old man with a twelve-year old’s brain. 

Every year at the beginning of August, the James E. Strates train pulled into town, 61 railcars packed with rides and all the paraphenalia it took to put on the spectacle.  Their carnies were easy to spot at that point.  Guys with greasy hair and cigarette packs rolled into the sleeves of their grimy white tee-shirts.  Crude tattoos running up their arms that were deep brown from a layer of  dust and spending their days in the full sun, tending to the machines that ran this carnival.  I always remember a tooth being absent in the smile of many of them.

These carnies would soon have all the rides assembled with their creaking  and spinning parts that didn’t give you the greatest feeling of confidence that they would remain intact as they whipped you through the hot summer nights.  They were adorned with flashing lights that raced all around the rides and many had blaring rock music to just add to the visceral overload of the experience.  I still associate the Foghat’s Free Ride with the Himalaya, one of the more popular rides at the fair.

Then there were the shows with their barkers, their voices crackling over their little speakers as they tried to lure you into see the Gatorboy or the World’s Smallest Horse or some poor hybrid creature (half chicken – half cat!) that you could hardly see and never moved, leaving you with a seed of doubt that it was even alive.  The barkers cajoled, they insulted, they prodded– whatever it took to get you into their tent. 

The biggest crowds were, of course, at the tent with the peep shows with the showgirls. They would parade out a girl with piled hair,  heavy makeup and a skimpy, glittery outfit to tempt the assembled men with the promise  of much more inside.  I was too young to go in and always wondered what really went on in there.  There was a book out several years ago (can’t remember the title or author)  that examined this cultural aspect, the county fair peepshow, and revealed that it was even more lurid than I imagined at the time.

I was a big games guy, trying to win the rich treasure trove of prizes they lured you with.  Off-off brand transistor radios.  Pepsi bottle vases with long stretched necks.  Ceramic unicorns.  More ashtrays than you can imagine.  Oh, I just had to win that stuffed snake doll!  And of course,  the games were almost impossible to win, with their tight, smaller than normal  rims that kicked out your basketball before it could find its way to the bottom.  Or the fruit baskets whose bottoms seemed like trampolines for the softballs you attempted to toss into them.

I could write and write about the fair.  The smells of the midway– Italian sausage and the sugary smell of taffy.  The sounds of the grandstand shows that wafted over the din — the country and rock acts that rolled into town for the day to play on the stage that stood on the inside of the track where harness racing had taken place earlier in the day.  And the people!  Oh, what folks you would see at the fair.  I could write pages and pages.

But I won’t.  Not now.  If you’ve been to a county fair, you have your own sensory memories that fill in the blanks.  If you haven’t been to one, go at least once.  On a hot August night.  But don’t look for me there.  I have enough memories to carry me through.

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