Columns » Bob Lancaster

At the fair



I should warn you at the start that this week's topic is the county fair. So if you're looking for a sexier theme such as pigs wearing lipstick, then you might want to turn back a few pages to our heavier hitters, or to our house pig, who, to mark this new low in campaign discourse, should be tricked out in this week's panel with the crimsonest snout since J. Edgar Hoover's “Mary.” I'll be disappointed if he's not.

The county fair can't compete with pigs painted up like Jezebel, or with football, even this season's Razorback lite variety, or with hurricanes that unaccountably decide to become Arkansas travelers. The fair has no fan base calling itself a “nation.” It's in no hurry to show you its wares, its oldtime earthy truths and values. It doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat or threaten to blow your house down. There are no fair blogs. There's no fair equivalent of the sudden-death overtime. The fair is a Melonville Mayor Tommy Shanks fireside-chat sort of thing, if you remember him and his always idiotic fireside chatter that was somehow nonetheless sometimes comforting.

The fair might be a relic but it can still bestir a slumbrous boonie hamlet at the end of a long, hot summer. When they start setting up those carnival rides and that midway — setting it up in the weedy field, the grasshoppers panicked as always — it brings out more gawkers than a house fire in the better part of town does. Come out to look at nothing in particular. Just checking to make sure a long-reliable recurrence has indeed one more time recurred. The last magnet for a community that itself is pretty much only a memory.

I noticed this time that the midway as it's going up cannot hide a saggy, grungy quality that mocks its own glitzy pretensions, and, true as ever, these are some pretty sad excuses for carnival rides. Disney World this is not.  It's not even Magic Springs, where they've been known to juice up a tame riding experience by hanging riders upside down above the abyss for an hour or two. Only joshing about that, of course. A squirrel gnawing on a wire brought on that mishap, and as far as I know the Magic Springs rides even without the dangle are every bit as exciting as those at Six Flags, where it seems like high-riders are always taking the plunge and buying the farm, although that also is probably just two or three incidents that got blown out of proportion.

The rides at our little fair carnival don't go high enough or fast enough to put anybody at risk, even if the assemblies break down and occupied gondoli go sailing out over the ball field. You might get a shiner or a pump knot, but not anything to brag about or to make your favorite barrister's ears perk up. Anyway, it's not ride quality that matters at the county fair but ride availability in what was just a cow pasture only hours before.

That same sense of perfect satisfaction with low-expectation fulfillment also invests other aspects of the fair. For example, the pursuit of prizes in the midway-booth games, and the pursuit of ribbons in the arts-and-crafts and livestock exhibitions. Nobody attends the fair to make a killing, or even a profit. Well, OK, yes,  Red Crutchfield did, but Red wasn't much of a role model in this context, or in any other context. He'd come to the fair with half a summer's yard-mowing money and drop it quarter by quarter into the glass box with the toy crane with which he tried to pick up and lay claim to enough costume jewelry, Bic lighters, madstones, paperweights, and foam rearview-mirror dice to convince himself that he had struck it rich. He wouldn't seek his fortune with any other crane, either. When urchins tried to persuade him to give them a turn at it, he would scatter them by feigning the onset of a flashback.

I mostly admired Red's philosophy of life, even the 'Nam-addled part, but he was plain off-base in his thinking about the fair. You can't win anything of value at the fair and you shouldn't try. Win a stuffed animal on the midway, and it is almost guaranteed to develop a catastrophic case of the mange before you get it home. Win the prettiest baby contest with your infink and all you'll win besides a scratchy sash and cheap-ass loving cup is the enduring enmity of three dozen losers' meemaws. There was no winner, everybody came out the loser, when Bea Taylor and Clara Edwards warred over who'd be pickle queen, and that's ever the case at the fair.

You have to be content with what it gives you. Knowing that it won't be much.

I have to mention this too. I saw in the paper that one of the officials at our fair this year has the position of goat superintendent. I don't remember ever having been covetous of a job title, but wouldn't that one dress up a resume nicely? Or an obituary?

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