Among the many events being canceled due to the pandemic, local fairs will probably be the most missed. When I moved back to Connecticut, I found that you never really leave your birthplace. It was late summertime and when my sister asked if I wanted to “go to the fair,” more-than-half-forgotten memories drifted back.
My hometown was too small to have its own fair, so we banded together with three other small towns in producing the first fair of its kind in Connecticut. The fairgrounds rotated each summer, but eventually a permanent site was chosen. It was just a mile down our road: the parade passed right in front of our house. We dragged folding chairs to the edge of our lawn, close enough to be blasted by the trumpets, to smell the strutting palominos and get squirted by the Shriners in their decorated golf carts.
When you live in a small town and grow up on a farm, the fair is the biggest event of the Autumn onset. My brothers and sisters and I saved our dollars and saved our energy for that special date. I had babysitting jobs and we all sold berries and vegetables by the side of the road — all in preparation for the excitement of losing the money at a coin toss or balloon dart game. When my mother tired of us kids running circles around her during the day, we cajoled my father into taking us again at night. He bought us cotton candy and all the big fried doughnuts we could stuff down.
I wasn’t in 4-H so I didn’t enter livestock in the competitions, although I had a pet chicken named Brown Eyes. Nor was I talented at crafts or cooking, like my mother, so my contributions to the judging tent came from our family garden — decorative gourds, huge pumpkins, Mexican corn. I never won anything but at least I was part of the show.
With my siblings, I tirelessly rode the tilt-a-whirl and carousel. I even dared to go on the upside-down and backwards spaceship — once. But my true love was the pony ride. I rode the ponies long past an age-appropriate period. As the pony trotted around the ring, I pictured myself urging him on to jump the fence. I imagined my steed gracefully leaping to his freedom and the two of us going off to some fanciful adventure.
One year, when money was especially tight, my father announced that he had signed on to clean the fairgrounds. He fashioned sticks with nails for each of us and we wandered around the huge field, stabbing at papers and filling trash bags. The sun was warm, it was still late summertime, and for us kids this was just an extended fair experience.
Laboring alongside us, the carnie workers were tearing down the tents and folding up the miniature Ferris wheel. They were young, well muscled men with tattoos and cigarette packs rolled into their t-shirt sleeves. I watched them with peripheral vision, fascinated with their expertise, their joking camaraderie.
Years later, I experienced Disney World and yes, that was certainly bigger and better than our four-town fair. But it didn’t leave an indelible memory on my childhood. Maybe next year my pumpkin would take the blue ribbon, my pony would jump the fence, and just maybe I’d develop the social skill of flirting.
Next year, next fair.