Monday, August 29, 2005

My Weakness for State Fairs

When I was in 4th grade, my mom insisted that I join 4-H. We lived in a ranch style house in a suburb of Chicago; we kept no sheep, goats, poultry, swine, or cattle, but, still, she insisted--for reasons I have never fathomed. Our 4-H club was called the Junior Wonder Maids, named--I later found out--for a defunct brand of “training bras.” Very odd.*

The meetings were a crashing bore. We sat in folding chairs in a church basement and listened to someone drone on about something. Then someone else would get up and drone on about something else. Since there was no agricultural component to our 4-H group, it seemed that we were supposed to be learning to sew and cook, but I don’t recall any instruction of that sort ever occurring. We never did anything--just sat on our bums and yawned (at least that's what I did).

Until one day. We were informed that we were going to start working on a skit/musical number. We were to sing “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music while pushing two halves of a rainbow together. Each girl was to wear a sash with the name of a country on it. (I was to be Sudan.) The message of our skit was...WORLD HARMONY! So subtle.

Incredibly, at the county fair we kicked the butts of all the other local 4-H clubs as we warbled our way through our saccharine little skit. We swept the top honors, which meant we were ready for the big time: The Illinois State Fair!

I cannot express how thrilling it was as a fourth grader to be able to travel sans parents to Springfield, Illinois in school buses and check in to a Howard Johnson motel. I shared the room with three other girls my age. I remember one of them, who was far more sophisticated than I saying, “I wonder if we’ll see any celebrities?” “What’s a celebrity?” I asked. “You know, movie stars!” she replied. In Springfield, Illinois. Haw! That still makes me laugh.

Anyway, it was totally great. We stayed up until 4:00 AM watching old movies like The Blob and made midnight runs in our nightgowns to the vending machines and had hot fudge sundaes (instead of dinner) in the HoJo restaurant. It really is rather astonishing, but there was almost no adult supervision. I seem to remember someone’s mom popping her head into the room at, like, 9:30 PM to say good night, apparently laboring under the misapprehension that we were all good little girls and would be going right to bed. Didn’t she realize there was a TV in the room and we were going to watch the hell out of it, hopped up as we were on hot fudge and vending machine contraband?

But even better than the TV and all the sweets was the “free day” on the Midway. Again, there was no real adult supervision. Our little quartet (we were the youngest girls in the club) became the albatross around the neck of an unlucky high school member of our club. She was supposed to chaperone us around the Midway, making sure we didn’t get sold into white slavery (or some similar fate). Naturally, she shed us as soon as she possibly could, simply telling us to meet her back at a certain funnel cake stall five hours hence.

So we had five hours in which to gorge ourselves with cotton candy, popcorn, corndogs, sno-cones, ice cream, and, of course, funnel cakes. And! Our participation in the skit had earned us all a free pass to all the carnival rides! In short, it was total paradise for a fourth grader--especially a fourth grader like me who was rarely allowed to eat sugary and/or deep- fried foods and who went through agonizing deliberations at the once-yearly carnival since she only had money for three rides and if she made the wrong choice, well, too bad, because there was no way she was going to wring any more carnival-ride money out of her mom. Gosh, my childhood was Dickensian, wasn’t it?

So I wandered the Midway blissfully, a cotton candy in one hand and a corndog in the other (if memory serves). There was something along the Midway I hadn’t expected at all. Sideshow “Freaks." People billed as the Rubber Man, the Snake Lady, the Living Skeleton, and the Man with Two Faces. These “attractions” were all advertised with the most luridly painted trailers (in which the "freaks" lived?), which I’m sure promised way more than they delivered. Actual old-timey carnie hucksters tried to reel people in. I remember really, really wanting to check the freaks out, but they wouldn’t let kids in. Nowadays, when I think back on it, I find it hard to believe that “freak shows” were still mainstream then (the 1970s). At some point, they were deemed exploitative and that was that. Interestingly, though, this article, argues that the banning of sideshows didn’t benefit the performers, since it deprived them of their livelihoods. Something to ponder. Apparently some of the performers fled to Canada or Mexico, where the PC police must be slacking off at a Tim Hortons or a churro stand, respectively.

Anyway, I had intended to write a post about the freakiness I observed over the weekend at the Oregon State Fair, but I got bogged down with my prologue to the state-fair-going experience (totally necessary, of course). I will recount my latest fair experiences in the next post, with lots of freaky (but nonexploitative) photos!

*Especially when you consider that 4-H is supposed to be co-ed. Our club was all girls. Evidently, the leaders were trying to keep it that way. What boy would join a club named after a bra? So very bizarre.


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