Monday, September 3, 2007

In All Fairness...

In All Fairness

In notes past, I have described several cherished memories—cross country meets, the Easter Sunrise Service, choir tour and summer haying. More bittersweet, but no less a staple of my life is the fair. Indeed, the Northwest Washington Fair is an important ingredient in the lives of many.

For one week every year, the sleepy, conservative, Dutch town of Lynden awakes with a jolt as over 250,000 tourists, hailing from every corner of the Pacific Northwest and beyond pass through the city’s fairgrounds. Not only is the Northwest Washington Fair the biggest annual event in Lynden, it is one of the biggest fairs in the Pacific Northwest.

Farmers gather from near and far to display their finest livestock and produce. Local artists, weavers, collectors and photographers exhibit their creativity. And an audience of several hundred thousand watches the whole thing.

Although a large carnival section, and the allure of fairground exploration draw many people in, it is the Grandstand shows which provide the primary entertainment for the week. Twice on Monday, in the afternoon, and again in the evening, is the Demolition Derby.

The time-honored tradition of controlled car-crashes attracts a massive and truly diverse group. It is an interesting symptom of the human condition that so many people, young and old, male and female, urbanities and rural-dwellers, want nothing more than to watch cars careen headlong into each other.

I don’t understand it, frankly. I cringe every time I think about that sickening crunch of metal against metal. Perhaps that is just me. Many more people seem to derive enjoyment from it. One hilarious example, and case-in-point that people of all ages love the demolition derby is my Aunt Esther (Note: She's actually my Grandma's Aunt. Everybody in our family calls her Aunt Esther.) Aunt Esther is 94 years old, and due to waning mobility in recent years, decided not to attend the fair for the first time in 30-some years. Her greatest regret? That she would miss the Demolition Derby.

Many bands and musical groups have performed at the grandstand, for better or for worse. Most years, the quality leans toward “for worse.” Several years ago, the fair board invited the Beach Boys to sing. At the last minute, the Beach Boys canceled, due to one of their members sustaining a back injury. So, in a stroke of genius, the fair board called in a member of the top echelon of the music industry: an Elvis impersonator. His name was Randy “Elvis” Frisky, and he hailed from the paradise on Earth that is Las Vegas.

Sarcasm aside, I simply cannot respect anyone who makes their career out of imitating someone who is dead (although I guess some would claim that Elvis is still alive. But that doesn’t matter, I don’t respect those people, either.). As bad as Randy “Elvis” Frisky was, The Beach Boys were not much better, when they did end up coming to the fair the following year. As it turned out, to advertise themselves as the Beach Boys was a half-truth (or more accurately, a one-fifth truth). Only one member was an original Beach Boy (he was the one who injured his back the year before; he was getting on in years), and the rest were little more than glorified impersonators.

Quality continues to be an issue: only several nights ago, I listened to Ted Nugent sing from my family’s horse display behind the grandstand. For those of you who are not familiar with Ted Nugent, which is likely, he is an aging, bitter man, who had achieved modest fame as a hard-rocker in the 70s.

I did not pay attention to what he was singing for the most part, although several things he said in between songs could not be ignored, not even by a large population of deaf, elderly Lyndenites sitting down to dinner in their homes (if the wind is right, the sound from the grandstand show can carry up to five miles). At one point, Nugent stated that he had promised to keep his performance PG-13 rated. Then he screamed “Free machine guns for the kids!!!” and proceeded to let loose with a stream of curses and profanities. After he finished, there was the creaky sound of several thousand collective jaws dropping, and then silence.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if an angry mob had chased Nugent out of town with torches and pitchforks. Apparently, nobody filled Nugent in on where exactly he was performing. While these worst-case scenarios do happen, there have also been many pleasant surprises throughout the years.

Nearly 12 years ago, Johnny Cash sang at the grandstand, Garth Brooks made a surprise appearance eight years ago (my uncle, who was listening from our display, thought aloud that it was a talent-less Brooks impersonator), and Rascal Flatts performed four years ago. Undoubtedly, there are still quality performances to come.

I should probably explain why I am even writing about the fair in the first place. I am a farm kid, and although I grew up complaining constantly about this fact, it is a background of which I am immensely proud today. As it was a hobby farm (my parents work full-time jobs in addition to owning horses), they never asked me to do the work that many farm kids do when the farm is their parents’ livelihood. They did, however, always ask me to help at the fair.

18 years ago, my parents built several outdoor stalls along the pony and draft horse barns, in a pleasant central location roughly 50 meters from the grandstand. From a young age, I have contributed in whatever way my parents needed: as a kid, I brushed the horses and spent time in the stalls with them to demonstrate what friendly family horses Haflingers were. It should be noted that I did not necessarily believe this claim at the time; I had my doubts about Haflingers after an incident when I was five years old in which a careless mare had trampled my legs while I was sitting out in the field.

As I got older my responsibilities grew. I became responsible for cleaning stalls at the fair and answering questions about the horses. I will not hide the fact that I often came up short in what was expected of me at the fair. That is not what this note is about. This note is about how my view of the fair has changed throughout my life so far (despite how little actually changes about the fair itself), and the various events, which mark those changes. For example, a child’s perspective on the fair is fundamentally different from that of a teenager, which is fundamentally different from that of an adult.

The fair as a veritable smorgasbord-orgasbord-orgasbord: The Childhood Years

Whether or not we will admit it years later, each of us loved the fair unquestioningly as children. And why shouldn’t we have? From a young age, children ingest an almost-sickeningly romanticized view of the fair. The classic children’s movie, Charlotte’s Web, comes to mind. Specifically, the scene where the nasally-voiced, morally ambiguous rat Templeton embarks on a musical eating spree in the fairgrounds after dark. Sure the food has congealed, the lemonade has fermented, and Templeton ultimately eats five times his body weight, but let’s be honest: Fair food has never looked better.

Carnival rides only serve to seduce children further. A child can spend countless hours repeatedly riding the merry-go-round or bumper cars, and may never tire of running through the fun house or riding the gigantic slide. Of course, we just stuck to the kiddy ride section, only occasionally gaping in mingled awe and fear at such hulking structures as the “Ring of Fire” and “The Moonraker”. Fortunately, the imposed height limits, represented by oversized wooden hands, provided us with a legitimate excuse not to chance these intimidating rides.

We also saw carnies differently as kids. We automatically assumed that carnies must be the happiest people on earth. I suppose we imagined that carnies lived on a steady diet of cotton candy, caramel apples, and corndogs (which at the time sounded pretty good), and that they spent all of their spare time riding the “Tilt-a-whirl” for free. Truly, we thought carnies led la dolce vita. So it was that my teenage years proved a rude awakening from this idealized view of the fair.

Starting when I was eleven, I accompanied my mom into the fair at 6:00 am every day for morning stall duty. Rather than spending several hours of several days at the fair brushing the horses, visiting such exotic animals as Holsteins, pigs, goats, and horses of various shapes and sizes, and riding kiddie carnival rides, I would spend at least twelve hours a day, for all six days, sitting at my family’s horse display, cleaning up after the horses as the need presented itself.

This was the year that the novelty of the fair truly wore off for me, and I realized that the fair was not just fun and games. Even my childhood penchant for junk food came back to bite me. One morning, I had purchased my favorite fair-week treat: a root beer flavored Sno-Cone.

I took a big bite off the top. My savoring of the simple combination of shaved ice and overly-sweet root beer-flavored syrup was cut short by a most unusual sensation. It felt as though there was a small piece of paper on my tongue, except the piece of paper seemed to be moving—crawling, in fact. This sensation was followed almost immediately by an intense stinging along the tip of my tongue. Spitting out a mouthful of partially melted Sno-Cone, I discovered the culprit: an extremely angry hornet sputtered on the concrete, rustling its sticky wings irritably.

Stomping repeatedly on my tongue’s attacker, I swore loudly. Or at least, I tried. The expletive stopped dead when it reached my mouth, because my tongue had swollen to what felt like the size of a bean bag. I ran over to my mom and attempted to explain what had just happened: “Mah tug! Mah tug! A hoe-net thtug mah tug! Id wah in mah thno-code ad id thtug mah tug!” Perhaps it was my imagination, but I believe I saw my mom stifling a laugh as I delivered my tearful account of the unpleasant event.

But then, it must have sounded hilarious: Imagine Sylvester the Cat of Looney Toons fame suffering from a head cold. However, after the one flicker that betrayed my mom’s amusement at my plight, she skillfully rearranged her features to express the motherly sympathy and concern I had expected in the first place. She quickly produced a small bottle of Benadryl, and gave me the maximum dosage. Ten minutes later, I was out cold, in the fitful sleep that only drowzying medications can induce.

I awoke six hours later at home (I hadn’t even remembered the ride home), my tongue still sore, but considerably less bean-bag-like. At that moment, I swore off the habitual consumption of fair junk food. Mind you, I would still eat meals at the fair, and treat myself to the occasional snack, but only once in a great while. Even now, 10 years later, I’m still not comfortable eating Sno-Cones, and will carefully scan it for hornets before eating, on the rare instance that I do so. It was this painful event that ushered in what I shall call the second stage of fair-life: the teenage years.

The Slide is Right: The Teenage Years

Now, the title “teenage years” is a bit of a misnomer, as it really lasts from age 12 to age 17 (at least that is how it played out for me). Gone are the idyllic visions of caramel apples and painted carousel horses of childhood. Yet, the teenage outlook was, in my case, still fundamentally immature. I would muck out stalls begrudgingly. I felt as though horses were not “cool,” and that the work was beneath me.

In the spirit of adolescent laziness, I would generously allow others to handle stall duty, if possible, and spend the day sitting around with friends. Socializing became my primary objective during fair week. My friends and I would sit around our display’s canopied table and chat idly. Often, we would talk about girls, gossiping about who was going out with whom, and speculating on the dramatic details of these short-lived junior high/high school relationships.

We played hours of “silent football”, a game so random and complex that I won’t even try to describe it, sufficed to say that the loser would be required to complete ridiculous dares of the winners’ choosing. One example was the time that my brother had to approach a stranger and shake his hand, saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” This statement apparently rang false with the heavy-set gentleman who had been the object of our dare, and he responded with a several-minute rant about the government: “The government?! Let me tell YOU something about the government!”

One year, my mom rented CB radios to keep in touch with one of our cooperating farms that had their own display set up several barns over. Of course, my friends and I were more than happy to utilize these glorious inventions for the purposes of entertainment. Mostly, we would interfere with the other people on our CB frequency: One time, Callie Haan made a date with several other kids on our frequency who were also at the fair. She arranged to meet them at Fountain Square at 2:30. As they described in painstaking detail how tall, muscular and handsome they were, we noticed three short, scrawny, greasy, thickly-bespectacled kids walking past our display, talking on their own CB radios. It took us a split second to realize that their mouths were moving in perfect synchronization with the voices on our radios: These were Callie’s tall, handsome dates.

Fortunately, they did not notice us, not even when several of us snorted loudly in an attempt to hide the tidal wave of laughter that was threatening to break out. At a quarter past two, we gathered a short distance from Fountain Square to see if the trio would show up. Sure, enough, they showed up ten minutes early, each fumbling nervously, wiping their sweaty palms on their high-water pants and glancing around twitchily in the anticipation of meeting an actual girl face to face.

At this point, Callie, who felt bad, decided to step forward and confess that it was all a prank. Of course, it didn’t end in complete honesty—Andrew Dickson also stepped forward, pretending to be Callie’s boyfriend, and told the very-frightened looking kids to stay away from her. We all enjoyed a hearty laugh at the time, but looking back, our little prank wasn’t funny at all—actually quite cruel. Well, maybe it was a little funny.

It is during the teenage years that one comes to simultaneously dislike and pity carnies. As it turns out, the childhood estimation of carnies subsisting on a diet of fair food was dead accurate, but by this time in our lives, we knew better than to think that such a life was “the sweet life.” We realized that the raucous, outgoing and bizarre quips and antics of the carnies, which had captivated us as children, might just be influenced by over-consumption of alcohol.

This revelation came to me one time when I happened to walk past the gigantic slide in the carnival section. The carnie taking tickets beckoned me forward in a loud voice, speech slurred: “Welcome to the slide is right!” I stopped in my tracks and shot him a look of complete befuddlement. He must have felt pressured to follow up this invitation, for he added what he evidently thought to be a fitting punch-line: “WITHOUT Bob Barker!” I did end up riding the slide that time, but mostly out of pity for the ticket taker, who was laughing unrestrainedly at his own joke, and who, I surmised, was completely hammered. As I departed, he called after me: “Don’ ferget to have yer pets spayed and neutered!”

My pity for carnies occasionally wandered into the territory of irritation and dislike. One unforgettable occasion, I was riding the double-ferris wheel with my brother. Several minutes into the ride, a putrid chunky liquid rained down, splattering our heads and shoulders. Someone on the upper ferris wheel had succumbed to nausea, and their aim had been true.

Fortunately, my brother and I had strong stomachs (Some people would not have been able to endure the smell, and would likely have touched off some horrific peristaltic chain reaction. The ride seemed to go on forever. My first indication that something was amiss came when, in glancing at my watch, I realized that the ride had continued five minutes longer than it should have. Looking down, I could see our carnie, 30…20…10 feet below, enjoying a corndog with the carnie from “The Octopus” which was out-of-order.

Frantically, I began to call out every time we descended to eye-level with the carnie, in a futile attempt to get his attention. Unfortunately, the general noise level at the carnival—a mixture of excited screams, loud conversations, blaring music, bells and whistles—swallowed up even my loudest pleas. After finishing the corndog, the carnie decided to have a smoke, and apparently felt that he couldn’t stop our ride at the same time.

By now, disgruntled fair-goers who had waited for too-long in line were shouting angrily at the carnie, who merely blew out long puffs of smoke as he stared dazedly into space. Finally, after close to 17 minutes, the carnie stopped the ride and let us go. My shirt and hair caked in dried vomit, it was all I could do not to tell the carnie off. However, I was a skinny 14-year-old, and this fellow looked as though he had survived several vicious bar fights, so I thought better of it.

When reality chooses to present itself, it hits hard, and plays dirty. The teenage years are when a person realizes that the fair is not all it is cracked up to be. Despite the feeling of let-down that accompanied my transition into these teenage years, I found just as many redeemable aspects to fair-life in some of the most unlikely places.

That’s Fair to Say: Redeemable Aspects of the Fair

As I have labored to establish in previous writings, I am not a morning person. I will grant, however, that there are few settings as peaceful as the fair first thing in the morning. The roads are empty on the drive into town, and the sunrise casts a pleasant golden glow over the pavement. The morning air, brisk and refreshing, rouses even a slow-riser like myself.

The stalls are always dirtiest first thing in the morning, and require several loads of sawdust. Additionally, the display needs to be swept heavily after the sawdust truck passes through. Somehow, none of this matters, because the morning atmosphere is so contagiously enlivening.

After the work is done, our morning crew migrates seventy-five meters northeastward to Kathy’s Coffee. While I enjoy both Woods and Starbucks, I am not afraid to say that neither can hold a candle to the beverages at Kathy’s. Kathy has watched my brother, my sister and I, and a number of our friends grow up in the ten years that we have worked the morning shift. Each year serves as an informal reunion of sorts, as we bring Kathy up to speed on what each of us have been doing since the previous fair.

Amazingly, Kathy is able to keep track of not only our names, but also our favorite drinks. I tend to go with coffee—usually, a 20 oz. Vanilla Latte--as it gives me energy for the day ahead. My brother, Ben, and Andrew Dickson, on the other hand, order Italian Sodas.

Through trial and error over the last decade, they have made a crucial discovery in the field of Italian Soda making: the power of white chocolate. While it is uncertain who ordered a white chocolate Italian Soda first (Ben claims that he did, while Andrew maintains that it was himself), one thing has become clear: White Chocolate can be combined with just about any other flavor to make for an exquisite Italian Soda. Ben describes it as the “hydrogen bond” of Italian Soda chemistry (in future writings, you will come to see that this is a typical Ben-ism).

As Ben and Andrew endeavor to expand their hypothesis every year, Kathy responds in mild amusement: “So, what’ll it be this morning? 16 oz. White chocolate with…?” The resulting concoctions are so flavorful, I have even broken my long-standing coffee tradition on several occasions to try such delicious combinations as White Chocolate Raspberry and White Chocolate Orange, on my brother’s recommendations.

As we walk back to the stalls to enjoy a breakfast of donuts or biscuits and gravy from the nearby PTA booth, Ben and Andrew swap notes on their respective experiments. They have even recruited apprentices to test the hypothesis in as many ways as possible: Chris Vander Haak ordered a Blackberry Hazelnut Italian Soda, and effectively proved that without the base of White Chocolate, negative chemical reactions can occur (the drink was terrible).

I guarantee that the next feature of the fair week I plan to discuss will sound downright weird to the uninitiated: Coloring books. Years ago, my mom purchased coloring books and crayons for my sister to work on during the long stretches of down time at our display.

Several days into that particular fair week, I opened one of the coloring books, and in a fit of boredom, defaced it. Using a dark pen, I was able to embellish and change the pictures in the coloring book in such a way that my changes looked as though they had been part of the book originally. Ben, Andrew, Brent Lindquist and several other friends quickly followed suit, and soon our family’s display developed a reputation for what was surely a bizarre image: several high school guys sitting around a picnic table working intently on children’s coloring books with black ink pens.

By modifying the pictures and captions, we were able to disfigure even the most innocuous coloring book with our twisted brand of humor. Coloring book characters would sprout extra limbs or faces, Winnie the Pooh would become a political parable of epic proportions, Dick and Jane would become a violent grudge match, and Sesame Street would become a gang of freakish mutants (which is saying something, considering that Muppets are freakish mutants to begin with). Rather than describe the details of each coloring book we distorted, I shall provide several examples of our artwork:

Cookie monster is stricken by "Grover Growths"

Bears may attack aggressively when surprised

I wish I could say that I have outgrown this odd tradition now that I am practically out of college, but alas, the de-facing potential of each new coloring book is too strong to pass up. I suppose that the coloring books serve as an outlet for my bizarre sense of humor, especially after several long days of doing nothing but sitting around, cleaning stalls, and eating fair food. I just shudder to think of how my children will one day approach coloring books with my shining influence. Maybe I’ll find less intrusive ways to express my sense of humor. But probably not.

What can be fair in farewell? The “Responsible Adult Presence” Stage

Between high school and college, the fair scene changes drastically. For junior high and high school students, the fair is a chance to reconnect with friends and classmates after a long summer break. Friends compare class schedules in an attempt to determine who will be in their classes, and dream up elaborate schemes for the upcoming school year, all the while enjoying carnival rides and playing CB radio pranks on unfortunate victims.

The shift that occurs between high school and college is abrupt—there is nothing gradual or easy about it, no harbinger to prepare students for the next stage. The fair is a much more somber occasion for college students. Where they once compared class schedules and schemed with friends, they now bid those old friends farewell, and spend fleeting moments with their families before heading out into the “real world.” The fair literally shifts from being a place of “hellos” to a place of “goodbyes.”

It is for this reason, I think, that so many college students simply stop going to the fair. Some find themselves leaving early because school starts early. Others occupy themselves with summer work, or vacations that take them out of town. This is part of the process of moving on, and it is both healthy and necessary.

As I worked this year, I noticed that there are many high schoolers, slightly younger than me, who chat and scheme idly as I did, and many young couples only slightly older than me, pushing strollers containing young children, who absorb the garish sights, sounds, and smells of the fair for the first time.

Precious few college-aged people, though. I avoided the fair as much as possible after my first two years of college. I, like so many others, found work that would call me to be elsewhere. The time I did spend was not especially helpful to my parents, either.

This year, my parents were confronted with a dilemma: several girls who had been diligent workers and talented trick riders were going to be absent after three years of immeasurable help. As my parents contemplated their busy work-schedules for that particular week, and how little time they would be able to devote to the fair, I did something that defied every instinct of laziness or negativity that I’d held toward the fair for so many years: I volunteered to work at our display for the whole week.

In response, I received a unique promotion: I was to be the “adult presence” at the stalls in the absence of my parents, responsible both for cleaning the stalls and supervising several high-school aged workers. I am proud to say that I worked harder at the fair this week than in any previous years.

Despite my hard work, I fudged on the responsibility aspect on at least several occasions. Late in the week, we found a toy bow with suction cup arrows abandoned on our display’s picnic table. While the safe suction cup arrows provided modest entertainment, greater possibilities presented themselves in the form of a wooden stick.

For lunch, David Vander Haak and Ben purchased the meal that had become the talk of the fair for the week, alligator on a stick (the alligator tasted like deep fried clams, but the alligator is irrelevant, it is the stick which is important to the story). David, like any honest 14-year old male, decided that it would be a good idea to sharpen the stick into a crude arrow, as this would be much more fun to shoot than the harmless suction cup arrows.

Ben, who was supposedly another adult presence, agreed, and even helped to sharpen the stick. Being the other responsible adult in the scenario, naturally I watched in mild amusement.

I watched as Ben, Chris and David all tried to hit the poor apple, which had been chosen as a target. I watched as several stray shots pierced the tablecloth. I watched as the arrow punctured a full water bottle. I watched as the arrow twice sailed out of our canopy, settling near the feet of passersby, miraculously maiming no one. I even took a shot myself, and hit the apple dead on, piercing it to the core (imagine if any of the stray shots had hit the passersby. Yikes!).

The concept of being a “responsible adult presence” is one that I am still working on. Later that day, David decided to play with our industrial stapler. It was fool-proofed to prevent staples from shooting out, and would only launch a staple if applied to a surface of some sort. In an attempt to shoot a staple, David inadvertently provided an adequate surface: his finger. The result was a small hole traveling through his fingertip and out his fingernail, where the staple had punctured, and his older sister Emily (my co-“responsible adult presence” for a good portion of the week) confiscating the stapler for David’s own good (even with a hole in his finger, he was laughing about the whole situation, and trying to take the stapler back so he could try to shoot a staple again).

Perhaps “responsible adult” status can only be achieved through such trials and errors, but it is unfortunate when the trial is a staple gun, and the error is a puncture wound in David’s finger.

The fair is a bittersweet beast, to be sure. It is a place where young children can ride painted horses and eat bag after bag of fluffy sugar. It is a place where teenagers can talk incessantly about members of the opposite sex, play pranks, and mock carnies. It is a place where people like me can try to figure out just what “responsible adult presence” means.

For all of its quirks and foibles, I do appreciate the Northwest Washington Fair. Although I still defaced several coloring book pages this year, I spent even more time writing this essay. Is this a sign that I am growing into the “responsible adult” role? I’d like to think so. I was even able to put my five-year-old bitterness about Haflingers aside and enjoy several evening rides in the outdoor arena.

The fair is truly one of a kind. It is an event that defies physics: Even though the individual days drag on and on, the week as a whole is over in the blink of an eye. Nowhere else can fourteen hours spent doing virtually nothing be even remotely amusing, as the fair can be, at some of the most random times. I am, however, glad that it only comes one week a year. As I recover from the long, exhausting week, and steady diet of fair food with a semi-relaxing road trip, I can only imagine what next year will hold.

Thanks for reading!
God Bless,
Nate G.