Sunday, August 29, 2010

Carnies, Coasters, and Corndogs--Oh My!

It's fair season all across America and Oregon is no exception. I never experienced fairs growing up, perhaps it was the insulation of military bases, or being in more metropolitan areas, but once Lynne and I moved west we always made an annual pilgrimage to the Evergreen State Fair and this year continued the tradition in the Beaver State.

The Oregon State fair is held in
Salem, the state capital and a shy hour's drive from the house. Our good friend Mark, family-less while his wife and kids are visiting relatives, piled into the back seat with the boys and came along. Hard to tell which of the three enjoy fart humor more.

Is anything more quintessentially American than a state fair? Don't dare say Disneyland--Michigan holds the honor of holding the first state fair in 1849, fifty-two years before Walt was even born and century before Charlotte saved Wilbur with her own writings on the web. The fair showcases everything good and bad about the US--from entrepreneurship to obesity--but most of all it's just a heckuva good time.

First we had to get there. For the last mile or so it was a crawl, bumper-to-bumper traffic to get in the gate and to our parking space at the farthest reaches of the fairgrounds. And no charge for parking. How did the fair miss
that opportunity to make a buck?

Oh, the food! It is impossible, and should probably be illegal, to go to the fair and stick to a reasonable dietary regimen. Look, don't whine at me, you can always bump up your insulin by a couple of units, and God invented cardiovascular surgeons for a purpose.

Ice cream, scones, elephant ears and their super-sized cousin the mammoth ear, corn dogs, popcorn. If it can be put on a stick you can find it at the fair. If it can be deep fried, (never mind if it should) it will be. They were selling fried Pepsi, who even thought of that? And in this great melting pot of ours if you don't want hamburgers, hotdogs or barbeque, you can get Greek, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Polish, German, Italian. Really, shouldn't that be the barometer for getting into this country: is your food good? Then come on in! My apologies to the English and Irish--but you had first dibs, and anyway, you get a pass for beer and whiskey.

To truly enjoy this smorgasbord it helps to ignore the migraine-inducing prices. When the kids each got a one-flavor sno-cone for $3.50 apiece I had to suppress the urge to ask someone how anyone could justify three-fiddy for a cup of ice and high fructose corn syrup. I shut up, took pleasure in the smile on my kid's faces, and thought about how much we had saved by not paying five bucks for the ultra-posh three-flavor version.

The exhibitions were also a blast. I'm not talking about the booths of people hawking Seen-On-TV stuff, though they are fun to watch, little Billy Mayses in the making. I'm talking about the original spirit of the fair: craftsmen and farmers showing off their wares, 4H kids buffing their cow to a fine shine, church-ladies vying for the blue ribbon for best plum preserves. My youngest, Colin, a Legomaniac if ever there was one, loved the display of Lego creations, especially the 1/3 scale model of a Pac-Man arcade game. I liked the cakes, in particular a fondant masterpiece with a Taj Mahal-esque flavor. Seeing this cake next to a less, shall we say "unambitious" creation, Mark pointed to a purple onion dome and said, "wouldn't it suck to see that come in and get plopped down next to yours?" Hey, there's always next year, right?

The fairgounds in Salem have some great buildings, most especially the Oregon State Fair Stadium and Poultry Building Ensemble, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Wandering through, we came across a few young 4H-ers showing their lambs--shorn and cleaner than either of my two sons--and learning the finer points of sheep conformation.
The logger competition was being filmed by ESPN and next door Stihl had an exhibition where you got to try your hand and sawing a simulated round off the end of a log. Think I'll stick to veterinary medicine.

The fair is fertile ground for people watching as well. I heard Spanish, Russian, and Japanese being spoken and saw more ethnic groups than that. Tattoos abounded as did outfits worn by both women and men that should have know better. I'll give the elderly lady in denim shorts, black panty-hose, and sneakers a pass, but just barely. I have less patience for all the dudes in Ed Hardy tee shirts. Really? I may be middle-aged but I can remember the day when it seemed everybody was wearing a black shirt with the Jack Daniels label. Know what time that was? Time to get a new look. And ladies? The slutty biker-chick look is fine, in fact I heartily endorse it--if you can pull it off. Word to the wise: if your skin has more creases than your leather and that butterfly tattoo is starting to look like a California condor, you are definitely not pulling it off.

Of course the boys are there for the rides, and ride they did. Colin is finally tall and brave enough to ride what was called the Ring of Fire in Monroe, and Super Loops in Salem. Watching his expression transform from nervous to joy is one of those experiences that makes being a parent fun.

Heading back to the car when you can no longer see the lights, no longer inhale the smells, you can still hear the fair. The clatter of the rides, the chatter of the barker, snippets of foreign tongues, screams, laughter, and music all blending together to form a soundtrack of America.

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