Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It's the Best State Fair in Our State

And you will know me by the fine sheen of Caroline County dust that covers my body.

Don't mind me, I've just spent the day at the State Fair of Virginia, you know, the one whose residency always means rain? Given today's warm, dry weather and the weeks without any precipitation, I'm just wondering how the climate change-deniers are going to explain this one away.

To join me in taking in a day of agricultural adventures, fryer oil-scented air and midway mindlessness, I'd invited Miora, a willing accomplice and state fair first-timer.

Considering we arrived just before noon, we were completely unprepared for the enormous state police presence at every turn. It made us wonder who's hunting down speeders on the interstates if they're all sitting in their air-conditioned cars watching people park in a field.

And since it was my friend's first time (and my first going in the afternoon rather than late afternoon or evening), we paused to appreciate the row of ticket booths, all of which were actually booths. It doesn't sound like much, but in the constantly evolving 21st century state fair, anything with even the vaguest of ties to what a fair used to be is noteworthy.

To lure Miora to come with me, I'd mentioned the fair's award-winning quilts she could check out as inspiration (or warning) for her own quilt-making. As we strolled quilt to quilt with her explaining different quilting techniques as well as the difference in art quilts and bed quilts, we heard music and a caller, leading us to a corner where square dancing was being demonstrated.

Gentlemen, take your ladies...

All the dancers looked to be social security recipients, but they all dressed the part, with the men's shirts matching their partner's ensemble in some way. The woman in the red skirt had clipped her red-covered cell phone to her belt, making for an anachronistic but well-matched accessory.

The song being played - "I Wanna Bop with You Baby All Night Long" - was delivered by a voice that sounded as old and anemic as the dancers. Clearly they took their demonstration seriously because you've never seen such stoic faces on people dancing before.

To the two little teenagers standing next to us, they must have seemed downright quaint.

"I think it's cute," one said to the other and led her away. No, Miora and I agreed, what was cute was that both of us had been taught square dancing in school as children, but we were pretty sure the Virginia Reel is no longer part of the P.E. cirriculum.

It was only the first of several reminders of our ages.

As dessert fans, we couldn't resist checking out the baked good competition, although the truth was that the pies, cakes and cookies were already looking pretty tired under their plastic coverings on the shelves.

Pointing to a Zip-lock bag of muffins, Miora observed, "There are bugs in that bag!" and moved away quickly. If they look raggedy on the seventh day of the fair, how the hell will they show on the tenth day?

Walking through the hordes of humanity, it was satisfying to see how diverse the crowd was. Prince concert-diverse, even. T-shirts ranged from Nine Inch Nails to Huey Lewis and the News on a kid who couldn't have even been 18. An older couple wore confederate flag stickers on their shirts to show they were idiots proclaim their allegiance to the lost cause.

Headed to a BMX bike stunt show, we passed a futuristic-looking go kart track with a clear sign: "Ride at your own risk." The guy we saw speeding around was obviously not worried about any sort of risk factors as he all but turned sideways on turns.

I, on the other hand, could only stomach seeing the introductions of the first two stunt riders as each one tried to beat his predecessor at making a grand entrance on a speeding bike. No, thanks, I don't want to risk seeing someone splattered on the ground.

The 4-year old kid in the stroller near us had no such concerns, bouncing up and down and squealing in delight at the spectacle he was witnessing. I feel sure that a future adrenaline junkie was unleashed in him as we watched.

On the midway - which looks tired in daylight as opposed to just seedy at night - we watched as a clown named Bozo insulted passersby in hopes of them paying to lob a baseball at his mocking face. "I've made more money than you'll ever see in your lifetime!" he called out to a group of girls after insulting their skill with make-up application.

Somewhere, Don Rickles is smiling down at him.

At the Lean & Toss game, which had a sign claiming it was "close and easy," we watched kids struggle to win. Both of us recoiled at the Cliff Hanger, a ride that required you lay face down and be strapped in booty up, which must come in handy when you have to hurl. We didn't stay to find out.

We came upon the mechanical bull just as a young girl (15? 16?) was signing a waiver to climb aboard. After paying her $5, she attempted to mount and immediately slid over the top and back down to the floor. Her ride atop Bucky the Bull lasted less than 60 seconds before she was thrown to the ground.

As my Richmond grandmother used to say, she may as well have flushed that bill down the toilet, except that at least she had her friend snapping photos so it can become part of her Instagram programming of her life.

In search of more authentic state fair attractions, we walked up the hill to Harvest Landing to check out Heritage Village and the impressive collection of vintage farm machinery. My favorite was the 1953 Farmall Cub which had a simplicity to it that belied how useful it must have been.

Where Miora and I were hit over the head with our age was on the tables showing examples of outmoded technology. Stuff like a wooden manure spreader on wheels, a waffle iron with a cloth cord, a Hamilton Beach milkshake maker from the '50s or red-handled sheep shears.

And - wait for it - a beige rotary phone sat there next to butter churns and wringer washing machines to educate young children with an artifact from the pre-mobile days.

There was an old Underwood typewriter on which a young girl was beating the keys furiously, causing a dozen of them to bunch up so she could no longer type. Musing to herself once it stopped working, she asked, "How do you clear it?"

Clear it?

Oh, honey. I politely showed her that the keys were stuck together and loosened them for her while Miora shared that you could only press one key at a time to avoid such a jam.

It was an interactive history lesson provided by prehistoric teachers.

At the horticulture pavilion we ogled sweet potato butter a few shades lighter than apple butter, plus eggplant preserves and pickled mixed vegetables.

Because it was her first time, we paused at everything that caught our eyes. Tiny children on pony rides, fish tanks holding tilapia, catfish and small mouth bass. We decided against lingering in front of the chain saw sculptor, but couldn't resist worshiping in front of the biggest pumpkin and watermelon, although we disagreed with the winner for ugliest pumpkin. It just wasn't that unattractive to take top prize.

When we finally couldn't go on without eating, we scored chicken-on-a-stick, vegetable lo mein and, because it's not State Fair without it, lamb-be-cue from the Virginia Tech extension booth. Sitting under their tent, shielded from the bright blue sky, eating and sipping lemonade, we marveled at the American slice-of-life snapshot you get from the fair.

It's a far cry from our insulated Facebook world of like-minded people.

That's when we heard the guys at the table behind us pontificating on high school athletes who take a knee during the anthem. "It's disrespecting the coach and the school!" one guy announced. "Any of my boys do it, they're off the team for good!" said another in a tone that meant he wasn't kidding.

Really? Just outside the tent, the flags were flying at half mast for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting and you're still harping on that?

You see (and hear) all kinds of people at the State Fair. You hear square dance callers say things like, "Ladies in, men sashay!" You get a lesson in how to grind corn for corn meal from someone who does it for a living. You teach a youth that not everything can be cleared. You ignore ignorance.

And you eat lamb-be-cue and it is good.

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