As far as I know, this is a wellspring of memories we haven’t yet drawn from on this blog: carnivals and county fairs. Over the years, I’ve tried to capture some of those recollections, first in an unfocused attempt at a literary short story, “County Fair” (more than a dozen years ago now!), and more recently in a story called “Glory Day,” which is out of the nest and under consideration.
But fairs and carnivals, particularly when we were kids and teenagers. . . . I suspect we’ve all got some fond mental pictures. I think July is when the fair comes to my hometown, so we’re early — but for many of you, I know the weather already feels like July (you fortunate people!). [At least I haven't had to use my kerosene heater for three days now.]
Taylorville is the seat of Christian County, so the county fair is held on our fair grounds every summer. When I was little, Mom would take me out there. Usually we’d end up going at least twice during the week the fair was in town. We’d go after 9:00 p.m., when the attendant opened the gate and admission was free. As we’d drive west down Main Cross Street, we’d start to see a glow in the sky over the west end of town. Then we’d hear the snatches of calliope music, the growl of tractor engines running the rides, and the dozens of intermingled game noises — beeps and tweets and boiinnngggs. It seemed so wonderful and magical to me then — all the lights in the dark, velvety prairie night . . . the food, the rides, the haunted house with weird laughter and screams coming out of it . . . the carnival people with their tattoos, urging people to play games and win prizes. The field’s grass would be pressed down by the tread of hundreds and hundreds of feet, and flattened paper cups and cigarette butts were here and there.
My mom liked to play a game where you put a coin on a color of your choice, and the game-master (usually a tough-looking fortyish lady) would let some random player from the crowd throw a ball into a net, from where it would wander down through a hole onto a spinning color wheel (like a roulette wheel). (Or like Wheel of Fortune.) The ball would stop on a color, and the person who placed a coin on that color patch would win, and all the other coins would get swept up and dumped into the carnival lady’s apron pocket. Depending on the denomination of the coin you’d wagered, you could choose your prize from various hanging tiers of toys. I remember having a medium-sized, pale purple teddy bear that I loved as a very young child; it had come from the county fair.
I’ve been back to the fair as an adult, and it always amazes me how small it is. Was it always so small? Back then, it seemed to stretch on and on. But it’s still somehow fun to go, and find scraps and patches of the old magic drifting here and there between tents, like strands of dandelion fluff stuck to thistles. Even now, I can turn around and hear just the right sound, or catch just the right whiff of something, and the present melds with the past. Things get all Bradbury.
I remember one teenage year on the night of the Miss Christian County pageant. The show was over, things were winding down, and the midway was thinning out. I ran into my friend (we’ll call him “R”), a guy I’d known since gradeschool. We were talking near the all-but-empty grandstand, when who should call out and approach us but the girl who’d just been crowned Queen . . . Miss Christian County! She was a year or two ahead of us in school. She may have been in chorus with us — I’m no longer sure — but of course we weren’t friends. We were geeky guys who played D&D and read books and stuff, and she was this gorgeous person who probably wouldn’t have noticed us in the school halls. (I’m not blaming her; that’s just the way life is, right? Kids — and grownups — move in different circles.)
But anyway, she says hi to us and calls us by name, as if she’s really happy to see us, as if we’re her best friends. We stand and talk and congratulate her. I’m sure R and I are both wondering why on Earth she’s alone after just winning the pageant, chosen as #1 among 30 or 40 of the county’s finest young women.
She asks if we would walk her back to her car. (!) The midway is muddy and uneven in places, and she’s wearing impractical high-heeled shoes and a long evening gown. She hands one of us her giant bouquet of flowers to carry, and she takes each of us by an arm, and we escort her across the fair grounds as it’s all settling down for the night, going to sleep, the engines shutting off, the lights starting, in places, to wink out.
That’s all there is to the story — we don’t save her from a marauding motorcycle gang or anything. We escort her safely back to her car, and she thanks us, and we say goodbye. She drives away, and we go on with our school lives, and I don’t recall that we ever talk with her again. Who knows why she was driving away alone on a night that has to be quite a glorious experience for a Midwest teenage girl? Probably she was meeting up with family and friends somewhere — we’ll never know. The point is, for a few minutes that evening, we two frogs from the pond got turned into princes and defended a princess against darkness and mud.
We had funnel cakes at our fair. There were corn dogs, of course, and popcorn (which no one got, because you could get it year-’round at the theater); there was cotton candy (isn’t that mystifying stuff, the way it just disintegrates when you put it into your mouth?), and there were lemon shake-ups (lemonade with ice and slices of lemon floating around in it). Best of all — the absolute KING of fair food — was something called Indian Bread. It was a local thing: a man named Les C. had a secret recipe for making it. Imagine a big, doughy square of cakey bread — deep fried in a vat, so it gets all wavy — then taken out and liberally slathered with semi-transparent white icing. You’d get that on a big napkin. It was piping hot, so you were in pain as you tore off a piece. For a while, the icing was still liquid and dripping. Halfway through the piece, it would harden into a nice, white, opaque frosting. Les C. has passed on now, but Mom used to play Bingo with his daughter. I asked her at one Bingo session if she had Les’s secret recipe for Indian Bread, and she said, “Oh, yes!” But I wonder if she ever makes it. . . .? I never see it at the county fair any more. We just have funnel cakes, which are a poor vestige.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. I would truly love to hear any memories — daytime or nighttime — of magical (or mundane) fair or carnival experiences that you’d care to tell!