Door-to-Door: Memories of the State Fair

By Pat Lynch

When we were kids in East Sac we waited every year for the California State Fair. The fair brought amazements—beautiful show horses prancing with pure elegance and gigantic Clydesdales clopping along with hair on their hooves, pulling the Budweiser wagon. Our father always admired the size and heft of the Clydesdales (he had some fondness for Budweiser too). We were city kids so the animals drew us. We’d race to the livestock area where waddling, vast creatures mooed and snorted. Peering through the wood slats of fences we’d go from pen to pen to find the fattest pig, the biggest steer, the curliest sheep. We were awed by the cowboys and cowgirls also: casual young people who wore 4H badges and chewed gum and walked right into the pens and patted or bossed the animals.

We went to the flower exhibit. Our father said once, “They put all these flowers out here just for your mother,” and we followed along, studying her as she studied the flowers. But we never lasted long in the flower exhibit. Flowers were abundant in daily life, and we were lured by the exotic. After fifteen minutes we itched to get away. We wanted novelty.

Then the Counties buildings. These were fascinating places. Every single county in California put up an exhibit. Once we saw a mechanical display of liquid gold being poured, over and over, into the tin of a rapturous miner. These were the displays that made us wish we’d been born in the old days, in more exciting times. Never mind that our parents said the present was exciting enough. What did they know? They were too old to understand a need for adventure.

We went to the Arts exhibit. It was fun to choose the best from among the paintings, but we weren’t permitted to do thumbs down because the artist or the artist’s friends might be around, and their feelings might be hurt. One year a large, blue ribbon canvass gathered a crowd. It was covered entirely in grey paint with one blue dot on the upper right. Our father said, “What does this thing mean?” and our mother, who was in charge of cultural affairs, read the artist’s statement and said, “It’s about the warp of space.” This precipitated in me a ferocious giggling fit. I couldn’t stop laughing at the warp of space. Our mother told our father, “It’s her age,” and Kathleen, Moira, Sheila, Danny and Michael stared. Even the Baby, Eileen, looked up from her stroller and clapped, which set off another giggling spasm. The giggling fit finally spent itself but Eileen would periodically look up and clap and I would have to go into fake giggling, which was hard at first, but after a while the real giggles returned whenever she clapped.

Finally we hit the Midway. Here was the true heartbeat of the fair—milling crowds, screeching kids on rides, the Quarter Pitch (a considerable step up from the Penny Pitch at the Sacred Heart Fall Festival where if you tossed a penny into the exact center of a square you might win a candle—no, this was the real thing, with real prizes—huge stuffed pandas and giraffes. Here you saw teenagers holding hands, the girls sometimes proudly carrying a panda or stuffed donkey, proof the boy had won it for her. Dust and cooling heat mixed with the smell of strange foods. One booth sign said, Dare to Eat the Bizarre and claimed to serve fried grasshoppers. Our father said he would order nine grasshopper burgers for us and we yelled and made faces, and our mother said to him, “See what you started?” He surrendered and we ate fried chicken with French fries. It was wonderful at the fair. It was delicious and exciting. We had cotton candy for dessert and ran around everywhere, stared at weird people, stayed together. Dizzy with excitement, we went on nearly every ride, older kids sitting with the younger ones to keep them safe.

There was only one place we couldn’t go, down a long side aisle filled with breathtaking enticements—the freak shows. I desperately wanted to go to there, but our mother forbade it. She said this part of the fair was filled with “seedy” customers who wanted to gawk at people who were fat, or midgets, or had been born with deformities. But it was the word, deformities (a word we abjure today) that compelled me. This year a sweaty. tattooed guy hollered into a microphone that the Tallest Man Alive could be viewed for a mere two dollars. The tallest man alive. Too tall to fit in an automobile or plane. So tall he had to travel in special railway cars welded together so he could lie down to sleep. Who wouldn’t want to see someone this tall? I tried to wheedle our father, but no use: he wouldn’t go against our mother. So I vowed to visit the freak show, one day soon, when I was freed from the shackles of childhood.

Three years later I was deemed old enough to go to the fair with my friend, Gloria. We were excited. We wore makeup and had a lot of babysitting money. We headed straight for the midway and turned down the row to a large tent with a blinking sign: Human and Animal Oddities! Never Before Seen! The tent was a movie theater and we watched a riveting film about a man in India who had a boil on his neck so big that he could no longer sit up. “They try to keep this from us,” Gloria whispered, and I nodded. “They” were our parents and the nuns at Loretto High School.

We went boldly from booth to booth. Then we heard the man on the microphone. “No arms, no legs, no bones in her body. You can see her. Touch her. Talk to her. No arms, no legs, no bones in her body.” We got in line. Who wouldn’t? The microphone man said, “You gals eighteen?” and Gloria said, “Sure,” and he lifted a chain and let us through. We followed a man into the tent. In the dimness we saw a large wood box. There was a hole cut in the top and from it protruded the head of a live woman. She wore purple lipstick. The man who had preceded us squinted suspiciously at her and said, “Why can’t we see you? How do we know you got no bones?” She said she had to be hooked up to a medical battery to infuse her with bone marrow and everything had to be antiseptic, so it was kept in a box. “Public germs could kill me,” she said.

Gloria gasped. The man said, “You got a skull, right? A headbone?”

“It’s plate,” the woman said. “Go on ahead and feel it.”

The man stepped on his cigarette, placed both hands on her head. “It’s plate,” he said finally.

The woman said, as if reciting, “I don’t have arms, legs or bones, but I have a good outlook, and people are so generous. Some day I’ll be whole, thanks to science and helpful strangers.” The man put a five-dollar bill in a wicker basket on a stand. Gloria and I each put in a dollar.

When we left Gloria said, “Let’s get out of here.” We went to the Counties Exhibit and there we felt better. “We’re chumps,” Gloria said, and I said the woman in the box was probably clipping her toenails while we donated to her medical fund. Then we swore each other to secrecy. No parent, no nun, must ever know about our trip to the seedy side.

I still go to the fair. It’s fun to bet on the horse races, and see the hypnotist show. But mostly I like to watch the families and like to see kids running around. And I can always spot teenage girls, off on their own for the first time.

One Response to Door-to-Door: Memories of the State Fair

  1. Ally says:

    That’s an apt answer to an instreeting question

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