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County Fair!
Airdate: September 1969

Show Description
I STRUGGLED FRANTICALLY to my feet, spilling Diet Pepsi over the front of my brocade smoking jacket as I fl ailed about. There wasn't a second to lose. Lurching forward, grasping for the knob, I fell heavily over the coffee table. On hands and knees, I scrambled forward, hoping to kill the TV set before it was too late. With a groan, I realized that once again, I had lost. The late-Iate-movie curse had struck again. I sat back to accept my fate. I was trapped by one of the worst ever, a bucolic horror that I had taken care to avoid, when it was first released, by walking on the opposite side of the street from any movie-house that played it. In a sky-blue suit and straw skimmer, Dick Haymes stood framed against the movie version of the Indiana country-side, dotted with quaint corn shocks and tinted with lurid oranges and greens, at the entrance to an archetypal Hollywood state fair. A few minutes later there was the mandatory Old Gramps perched atop a sulky in the big trotting race, and The Girl, rosy-cheeked and beribboned, who watched walleyed while Dick soulfully serenaded the Indiana moon. Vainly I watched for a single glimpse of the Indiana fairs I had known - the Indiana fairs nobody makes movies about - but it never came. As Haymes warbled on, his eyes twinkling with boyish sincerity, my own grainy movie of a real Indiana fair began to unwind in memory. As the scene opens, Schwartz, Flick , Junior Kissel and I are standing around back of the Sherwin-Williams paint sign in a misty drizzle. We are discussing current events, as was our wont. Schwartz had found half a can of Copenhagen snuff in the weeds, which we had all tried. After sneezing and gagging violently for 15 minutes, we took up our conversation where it had been interrupted by Schwarz' discovery. The dialog begins: "My old man says if you on the whip too often, it scrambles your brains and you can't think good anymore," said Flick, whose nose was running copiously as a result of the snuff. "And it stunts your growth." "That must have been what happened to you, Kissel," said Schwartz, spitting out a shred or snuff between his teeth. "That's why you're such a shrimp. You musta rode that thing fifty limes last year." Kissel, a full half head shorter than any of us, said nothing at this, realizing that it was the truth. "Well, I don't care what your old man says, Flick," I said. ''I'm gonna ride on the whip-and the caterpillar, too. There are so many things that stunt your growth and make you crazy, you might as well do it that way as any other." My wisdom, as usual, was profound. The rain drizzled down steadily, carrying with it its full load of blast-furnace dust and other by-products of the steel mills and oil refineries that ringed the town like iron dinosaurs. We wandered down the alley, kicking Carnation milk cans into imaginary goals as our conversation dragged on. "One thing I'm gonna get is one of them red taffy apples!" Kissel shouted as he rooted around in somebody's garbage, looking for another can to kick. "My old man says they stunt your growth, too. That red stuff clamps your teeth together so you can't grow good," said Schwartz as he pretended to sink an imaginary basket against a sagging backboard hanging on one of the garages that lined the alley. "Yeah, well, your old man should know. He's about three feet tall," Kissel lashed back, cackling fiendishly, as Schwartz threw a half-eaten potato in his direction. The next scene is a couple of hours later. My old man, my mother, my kid brother, Randy, and I are sitting around the kitchen table eating meat loaf, mashed potatoes and red cabbage. The old man takes a swallow of his beer and says, "It doesn't make any difference to me if you want to look at the quilts and raspberry preserves, as long as we get to see the first heat." "Then Randy and I'll meet you two after the races," said my mother as she got up to put the coffee on. My kid brother immediately began to whimper piteously. "You can have a taffy apple," she said to him from the stove. He stopped sobbing. "One of those red ones?" he sniffed. "Any color you want." That was enough for him. "Well, kid...." The old man batted my arm. "We'll watch Iron Man Gabruzzi give 'em hell tomorrow." As far as he was concerned, county fairs were dirt-track races. All that farm stuff was for the birds. I went to bed happy. My brother and I whispered back and forth about the great stuff that would happen the next day. He was a Ferris-wheel nut who would have been glad to spend his whole life going around and around on a big wheel that creaked . Come to think of it, that's as good a way to spend it as any: ''I'll get that son of a bitch yet!" my old man's voice hissed suddenly and venomously through the darkened house. Gawhang! Whap! Gawhang! Whapl Gawhang! Whap-whap! My parents' bed squeaked dangerously as he leaped up and down on it, batting away at his old enemy. Every night in the late summer and early autumn, mosquito squadrons flew miles from the swamp to seek him out. The minute the lights were off, they dove to the attack. Flying in tight formations, they strafed again and again. The old man loved every minute of it. Fighting mosquitoes was his favorite sport. He slept with his personal fly swatter always at his side; he also had a loaded flit-gun, but he preferred the swatter. It was more sporting, somehow. 'Whapl Whap! Bang! Something crashed in the darkness. "Got the bastard!" He laughed exultantly. The battle was over-until the next hot puff of air brought in reinforcements. Our screens served only to keep the more enormous mosquitoes out of the house, allowing the smaller, lither, angrier types free access. During the second lull between attacks, I drifted off to sleep. ZZZZZZRRRRIIIIINNNNGGGGGGI The alarm clock blasted me hysterically into consciousness. Gray Saturday-morning light filled the house. The old man cursed and muttered sleepily as my mother padded out into the kitchen in her bathrobe and curlers to get the scrambled eggs started. An hour later, we were in the Pontiac on the way to the county fair. The ill-fated Pontiac was an inexplicable interruption of the old man's lifelong devotion to the Oldsmobile. He was an Oldsmobile man the way others were Baptists, Methodists, Catholics or Holy Rollers. He later recanted after this episode of backsliding and returned to the fold with the purchase of a 1942 Oldsmobile station wagon that appealed far more deeply to his flamboyantly masochistic nature. A block or so ahead of us, Ludlow Kissel's battered Nash, loaded with kids and Mrs. Kissel (who weighed 360 pounds and read True Romance), struggled toward the fairgrounds. His Nash laid down a steady cloud of blue-white exhaust that hung over Cleveland Street like a destroyer's smoke screen. Junior Kissel peered out of the grimy back window, grinning wildly. "Old Lud is sober. That makes the second time this summer," said my father as he struggled with the Pontiac, which had started shimmying again. It had bad kingpins. Ten minutes later, we were out on Route 41, bumper to bumper in the great tangle of cars all headed for the fair. The sun rose higher over the distant steel mills. Steadily, the temperature and humidity rose until the sky was one vast copper sheet. We inched along like an endless procession of ants across a sizzling grill. In the front seat, my mother fanned herself with a paper fan marked ORVILLE KLEEBER COAL AND ICE - REASONABLE. The flat fan was cut in the shape of a lump of coal. It had a wooden handle. She always kept it in the car for days like this. "WHAT THE HELL YOU DOING, JERK?" barked the old man, head stuck aggressively out the window, at the driver ahead of us. His neck was red from sweat; his pongee shirt clung limply to his wiry frame; and his drugstore sunglasses dripped sweat as he glared through the heat waves and exhaust fumes at the idiot ahead. "SLEEPING JESUS, YOU GONNA PARK THAT WRECK OR DRIVE IT?" "Little pitchers have big ears," my mother intoned automatically, gazing placidly out her window at a Burma-Shave sign. The old man's latest curse - one of an endless lexicon - was a new one to me. I filed it away for future use. It might come in handy during a ball game or an argument with Schwartz. It was now well past noon, but we were getting close. Far ahead, we could see the enormous, billowing cloud of dust that rose from the fairgrounds. Excitement mounted in the Pontiac as we shimmied closer and closer to the scene of a ction. Suddenly, with a great hissing, scalding roar, the radiator of the car ahead boiled over. Drops of red, rusty sludge streaked down over our windshield and spattered on the hood. "OH, NO! FER CHRISSAKE, NO!" The old man pounded on the steering wheel in rage as the lumbering Buick wheezed to a halt. The driver, a beet-faced man wearing a stiff blue-serge suit and a Panama hat, stumbled out of the car and raised the hood. A white cloud of steam enveloped him from head to toe. "Goddamn it! There goes the first heat. Son of a bitch! Gimme a bottle of pop." Silently, my mother opened a bottle of Nehi orange and handed it to him. She passed one back to me and gave my kid brother another. I felt the stinging carbonation sizzle through my nostrils as I guzzled the lukewarm contents. Ahead, the other occupants of the Buick had gathered around the car and were fanning the hood with somebody's white shirt. The steam rose higher into the heavens. The car behind us began honking; then others joined in. This only bugged the old man even more. Out the window went his head. "SHUT UP, YOU JERKSI" he yelled at the line of cars. They honked even louder. The Buick was not the only car giving off steam. Several others had begun to percolate in the heat around us. The crowd ahead had begun to push the Buick off the road, like some great wounded whale. There is nothing deader than a dead Buick. Finally, we were able to squeeze past the stragglers and once again move on toward the fairgrounds. A biplane towing a red-and-white streamer droned over the line of traffic: FISH DINNER ALL YOU CAN EAT $1.69 JOE'S DINER RTE 6. We were so close now that the sounds of the fair began to drift in over the roar of motors: calliopes bleating, whistles, merry-go-round music, bells ringing, barkers. Two cops in short-sleeved blue shirts waved the cars in through the main gate and past a cornfield to the jam-packed, rutted parking lot just inside the grounds. Flushed and sweaty, these two men faced the pressing horde of hissing, steaming, dusty rattletraps with the look of men who are struggling with a totally uncontrollable force that threatens to engulf them at any moment. One blew his whistle in short, sharp blasts that matched every breath he took. With his left hand, he seemed to gather the cars in a steady hooking motion that pushed them on past his right hand, which moved like a piston in the air, shoving the heaps through the narrow gate. The other cop, taller and sadder, stood astride the center line of the asphalt road and glared slowly and deliberately at each car as it rolled past him. The old man, by now totally hot under the collar, muttered barely audible obscenities as we drew abreast of the first cop. "What was that, buddy?" The cop's voice was level and menacing, cutting through the racket of the Pontiac's piston slap like an ice cube going down your back on a hot day. Instantly, an electric feeling of imminent danger whipped through the car. Even my brother stopped whining. "Uh .. . pardon me, officer?" The old man had turned on his innocent voice, which always sounded a little like he was slightly hard of hearing. He stuck his head out the window with exaggerated politeness. "Did I hear you call me a son of a bitch, buddy?" The tall cop was approaching the side of the car, his eyes piercing the old man like a pair of hot ice picks. "Uh . .. what was that, officer? Sir?" "You heard me." A ham-like hand rested authoritatively on the door handle; a heavy foot clunked solidly on the running board. The line came to a halt behind us. ''I'm sorry, officer. What was it you said, sir?" "Did you call me a son of a bitch?" "Oh, heavens no! Mercy me! Why, good gracious, you must have heard me sneeze. I am troubled with hay fever." The old man sounded amazingly like an Episcopalian minister. He sneezed loudly into his sleeve as a demonstration. I had seen the old man get out of many a tight squeak before, but this performance topped them all. I drank it in, knowing that I was seeing a master at work. My mother said nothing through it all, just looked nervously pathetic, which seemed to help the old man's act. "OK, buster. Just watch yer lip, y'hear?" "Why, bless my buttons, officer, I certainly will. Yes, indeed! That is fine advice. Heavens to Betsy, I certainly will." With a flick of his wrist, the cop waved us on. The emergency was over. The old man let the clutch out so suddenly that the car jerked heavily twice before lurching forward. An elderly, toilworn Chevy pickup truck carrying a farmer, his wife, seven kids and a Bluetick hound had stalled just ahead of us. The old man, out of pure reflex, muttered: "Son of a bitch!" Realizing he wasn't yet out of earshot, he covered it with a loud, juicy sneeze. It grew hotter and hotter in our little oven as we waited for the farmer to get the Chevy moving again. At last we got inside the chicken-wire fence and past the little box office where they took the old man's two bucks, the price for an afternoon of untrammeled bliss. My father shoved his hat onto the back of his head while he fished frantically inside his coat pocket for his pack of Luckies, a sure sign that he was reaching the boiling point. "Holy Christ, wouldja look at that!" Ahead of us, waves of heat rose from a long line of motionless cars that stretched toward the distant parking lot. They had the look of cars that hadn't moved for maybe two hours. People sat on running boards; fat ladies fanned themselves in the shade; kids ran in and out past spare tires and around radiators; and guys with pushcarts selling hot dogs and Fudgsicles moved up and down the line, doing a roaring business. Two cars ahead of us, a lady was unpacking a lunch basket and spreading bowls of potato salad and jars of pickles on a blanket that she'd laid by the cornfield. A tall man in shirt sleeves and a straw hat chomped contentedly on a sandwich. "Would you kids like a peanut-butter sandwich?" My mother began rummaging in the paper bag that held our lunch. To the left of the line of cars was a high board fence plastered with red-and-yellow posters, From behind it, suddenly, surged a tidal wave of deep-throated roaring, followed by clouds of dust and the smell of burning rubber and castor oil. My father hunched over the wheel in excitement. This was his home ground, SSSSSKKKKKRRRREEEEEE ... KABOOM! For an instant, something blotted out the sun. One of the picnicking ladies stood frozen, holding a bowl of cole slaw. The sandwich eater stared heavenward, his mouth poised open in mid-chomp. The old man, who had just tilted a can of beer toward the sky, stopped short, foam dribbling down his shirt front, eyes bugging out in amazement and delight. The top of the board fence disintegrated with a stupendous crash and there, gracefully airborne high above the line of jalopies, a bright-blue racing car with a big number 12 on its side arched overhead, trailing smoke. The white-helmeted driver, his green goggles glinting in the sun, looked perfectly calm. It was all in a day's work. One wheel flew crazily ahead of him on a solo flight. "JESUS CHRIST! THERE GOES IRON MAN!" the old man yelled as his favorite member of the racing fraternity disappeared in a cloud of dust and oil spray into the cornfield off to our right. A great cheer came from behind the shattered fence as the crowd roared its approval of Iron Man's spectacular crackup. That's what they came to see, and Iron Man gave it to them. As the line of cars inched toward the parking lot, we could see a tow truck dragging Iron Man's lethal Kurtis-Offy Special back into the fray. Iron Man himself, wearing blue coveralls, sat nonchalantly in the cockpit, waving to the crowd. Dirt-track racers are not ordinary mortals. "GO GET 'EM THE NEXT HEAT, IRON MAN!" bellowed the old man. "Boy, ain't he a pisser?" This was my father's highest compliment. "Little pitchers have big ears," my mother said again. "Well, he is." My father knew a pisser when he saw one. At last we were parked, between an ancient Willys-Knight and a Cord owned by a prominent local Mafia finger man who ran a mortuary on the side as a kind of tie-in. "We'll meet you by the band shell," said the old man. He was in a hurry to get inside the arena. "Now, you be careful," my mother told me, as she did, so often. It was a phrase that ran like a litany through her life. She dragged my kid brother off in the direction of the quilt tent. My old man and I headed for the track. Five minutes later, we were in the stands, immersed in the roaring mob that had come from miles around to cheer the mayhem and carnage on the dirt oval below. I sat hunched next to a gaunt, stringy, hawk-faced farmer who wore a broad-brimmed straw hat low over his eyes. His Adam's apple, as big as a turkey egg, bobbed up and down in excitement as he watched the racers. He rolled Bull Durham cigarettes automatically with his left hand as his elbow dug into my ribs. His wife, a large, pink, rubbery woman, breast-fed a baby as the races roared on. Dirt-track racing is as much a part of an Indiana county fair as applesauce, pumpkins and pig judging. Down below us, Iron Man Gabruzzi-back in action, his famous blue Kurtis-Offy a little dented from the previous heat-battled it out with his arch rival, Duke Grunion, who drove a battle-scarred yellow blown Ford special, and a field of lesser competitors. Round and round they careened, throwing up sheets of yellow dust laced with the blue smoke of burning oil and scorching tires. From time to time, a car would leave the pack, slewing sideways, and bounce into the rail, trailing even more smoke than usual. The mob leaped to its feet, bellowing bloodthirstily, and then squatted again, waiting for the next near catastrophe. Over it all, the tinny voice of the P. A. announcer kept up a running commentary of feeble jokes and trivial observations. Hot-dog vendors squeezed up and down the rows, passing out the franks as fast as they could slap them between buns. The old man was in seventh heaven, cheering wildly every time Iron Man moved ahead of Duke Grunion on the far turn to corne whistling down the straight, his battered old Offy screaming. The 100-Mile Dirt Track Championship Race is as fiercely fought as any Grand Prix, and in some ways is far more exciting. The last lap saw Iron Man and Duke battling it out on the homestretch, both sliding high on the banked oval, flat out, with Iron Man zooming across the finish line a half car ahead of Duke. The checkered flag rose and fell; the crowd cheered insanely as Iron Man, waving jauntily from his cockpit, took his victory lap, saluting the crowd. He had won 150 bucks for an afternoon's work in the hot sun. We filed out of the stands and headed straight for the bandstand, which was at the center of the fairgrounds. Inside my head, the roaring of the race cars continued, blotting out the sound of the crowd. I would be hearing them in my sleep for at least a week. My nose burned from the gasoline and alcohol fumes. "I gotta have a beer." Racing always made my father very thirsty. . We stopped at a stand while he guzzled a bottle of Blatz and listened to the other dirt-track fanatics yelling about how great the race had been. I drank a Nehi orange, my fifth of the day. Already my stomach was starting to ferment. My mother and kid brother were waiting at the bandstand when we finally showed up. "I gotta go to the toilet!" whined Randy. My brother always had to go to the toilet, especially when there was no toilet around. On either side of us, open sheds filled with rows of soft-eyed cows and jostling farmers stretched into the distance. "Go behind that truck. I'll stand guard." The old man had handled this situation many times. My brother scooted behind the truck and emerged a couple of minutes later, sheepishly. "I wanna see the pigs!" he said. "So do I," I seconded him. I always liked to look at pigs, and still do, for that matter. There is something very satisfying about the way a pig looks. They were housed in a tent next to the cows, which were kind of dull. Row on row, the porkers lounged casually, completely at ease with the world. I have never understood why the pig is an animal whose name is used in derision. He is intelligent and kindly, often benevolent, in fact; in short, totally with it. In the center of the tent, under floodlights, an enormous white hog with black spots graciously accepted the applause of his admirers. GRAND CHAMPION, the sign read, and above his bed of straw hung a large, trailing blue ribbon attached to a blue-and-gold rosette. Below it was a plaque: BIG HORACE. He had eaten half the ribbon. His tiny red eyes peered out at us jocularly. He was a champion and he knew it. Lesser pigs grunted and rooted in pens all around, but Big Horace was the star. We stood silently before this regal beast for several minutes. "I bet that baby'd make great bacon," my father finally said in a quiet voice. A look of reproach flickered over Horace's mighty face as he glanced in our direction. We moved on with the crowd into the prize-goat tent. Photographers were popping flashbulbs around a luxuriant, silken-haired Angora with a set of wicked-looking horns. Beside him stood a short, fat 4-H girl wearing a green beret and holding up another blue ribbon. The goat tent was among the gamier exhibits, but exciting. Goats are unpredictable, and from time to time one would try to climb out and go after some kid's taffy apple. Goats always have fancy names. This one was Prince Bernadotte Charlemagne d'Alexandre of Honeyvale Farms. The 4-H girl stared solemnly at the cameras while the bulbs popped on. The goat just chewed and looked bored. We wandered along with the dusty crowds, looking at turkeys, ducks, rabbits, sheep, guinea pigs and chickens. It was in the chicken tent that an enigmatic event took place. In one corner, a heavyset lady wearing a green shawl sat on a camp chair next to a large, fancy cage containing a single white, efficient-looking chicken. Atop the cage was a sign: ESMERALDA KNOWS. "'Would you folks care to have Esmeralda tell your fortune?" "Yeah! Yeah! I want my fortune told! Waaaaaa!" My kid brother went into high gear. The chicken hopped around in the cage and clucked knowingly. How much is it?" asked my mother warily. "Only a dime. Just ten cents to learn the little boy's fortune." The chicken pecked at the cage, waiting to go to work. My mother reached into her carryall with the picture of Carmen Miranda on it, fished out a dime and handed it to my brother, who grabbed it eagerly. "Put the dime into the slot, little boy, and watch the chicken tell your fortune." My brother walked up to the cage, his face inches away from the chicken's beak. The two stared at each other for a long moment. A small crowd was beginning to gather. He dropped the dime into the slot on the side of the cage. At that, a ladder dropped from the roof inside the cage. The chicken scurried up rung by rung, clucking madly. At the top of the ladder was a box containing folded slips of paper. The chicken picked one out with its beak, hopped back down the ladder, eyes rolling wildly, and dropped the slip of paper into a chute, releasing a half-dozen grains of corn. Cluck-cluck-cluck waaaaaakl It gulped them down hungrily. "There. Esmeralda has told your fortune," the lady said to my brother. I noticed that she had a mustache. The slip of paper had dropped into a small tray outside the cage. My brother grabbed it and read the message aloud: " 'You are unwise in your in-vest-ments. Care in the future will ensure your success.' " My mother laughed. "Esmeralda was right. You spent your entire allowance last week on Fudgsicles. See?" My brother glared angrily at Esmeralda. After that, I had no desire to hear any smart talk from Esmeralda about my life. "OK, you've had your fun. Now there's something I gotta see," said my father. "Wait'll you see this. I read about it in the paper." "What now?" asked my mother as we started after him. She knew better than to fight the inevitable. "Hairy Gertz saw it yesterday and he said you wouldn't believe it." "Well," said my mother, "if Hairy Gertz said that, it certainly must be something!" "What do you mean by that?" my father shot back. Hairy Gertz was one of the old man's bowling buddies, famed throughout the county for his collection of incredibly gross jokes. My mother didn't answer. "Anyway, I want to see it." He went over to a dozing cop and asked him directions. My father came back, beaming. "OK, here we go. Follow me." We did, and a couple of minutes later were waiting in line in front of another tent. "Wait'll you see this. You won't believe it!" My father rubbed his hands together in anticipation. The crowd snaked into the tent in a long line. Finally, we were inside. Big floodlights hung from the tent poles. In the middle of the sawdust floor, there was a roped-off square. "What is it?" my mother asked as soon as she got a look at what was on the platform. "What do vou mean, 'What is it?' Can't you read' the sign, stupid?" A sign hung over the astounding object that had moved even Hairy Gertz to speechless wonder. The crowd stood in reverent silence. Occasionally, someone snapped a picture with a Brownie, hoping that there was enough light to enable him to preserve this magnificent exhibit forever in his book of memories. The sign, hand lettered in gilt on fake parchment, was draped with an American flag. It read: THIS GIANT 47-POUND, 10-OUNCE INDIANA PUMPKIN, BEARING A STRIKING LIKENESS TO OUR BELOVED PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, WAS GROWN BY HOMER L. SEATRUNK OF R.F.D. 2, NEW JERUSALEM, INDIANA . MR. SEATRUNK PLANS TO PRESENT THE PUMPKIN TO PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT. "How d'y like that?" my father said softly as the four of us stood before the great pumpkin. Someone behind me muttered angrily, "That nut is ruinin' the country. I know what I'd do with that pumpkin!" "Shhhhhl" several indignant patriots hissed back. There was no doubt that it was one of the high points of the fair. Another sign said that Mr. Seatrunk himself would make a personal appearance at three P.M. to give a short talk on how he figured God had created that pumpkin in honor of the President. He would also give free autographs. "I told you this was worth seeing," said my father as he wound one of the knobs on his trusty camera. Now, how wouldja like to go next door and see the world's biggest cheese?" The same cheese, I have no doubt, has been on exhibit at every fair I ever attended. It wasn't much to look at; when you've seen one, you've seen them all, even if it weighs two tons. A sign read: THE MILK FROM 2000 COWS FOR ONE FULL YEAR WAS REQUIRED TO MAKE THIS CHEESE. IT WOULD MAKE OVER 422,000 CHEESE SANDWICHES. This kind of stuff really got to the old man. He snapped more pictures and walked all the way around the cheese, examining it from every angle. All it did was make my kid brother hungry again. It was late in the afternoon now and the crowd was really warmed up, moving in straggly columns around huge, black-wheeled tractors, cultivators, threshing machines and other agricultural exotica. Salesmen, the collars of their shirts opened, ties hanging limply, shouted over bullhorns as we wandered dazedly amid the shuffling throng, kicking up bread crusts and paper cups as we eddied on. ''I'm hungry," my brother droned, his voice barely audible above the uproar. "You 've just gone. You'll have to wait," said my mother, pushing the damp hair back off her forehead. "I don't have to go ! I'm hungry!" Randy never gave up. "You heard what your mother said." My father got into the act. "I said I'm HUNGRY!" "You're what? You've had three taffy apples, four hot dogs and two root beers. That's enough for a while." "I wanna PICKLE!" As it happened, we were passing a stand where a guy in a red vest and a white chef's hat was selling giant dark-green pickles from barrels. People eat strange stuff at county fairs. "I want one, too!" I said. We all bought pickles in wax paper and rejoined the moiling mob. My pickle must have weighed two pounds. Every time I bit into it, it squirted down the front of my shirt. It was getting dark now and 50 times more exciting as the bright lights began to flash on. I washed down the tart, puckery taste of the pickle with some cold buttermilk from a paper cup with a picture on it of a red cow wearing a green hat. My knees had begun to ache from the endless trudging through sawdust and over piles of debris. On either side of us, a sparkling ribbon of spinning yellow wheels, blue-white neon lights and hot orange flames under cooking grills stretched to the horizon. Guys with leather jackets and great mops of carefully combed, greasy hair ranged through the crowds, looking for fights and girls. On a high platform, two blondes wearing silver helmets sat on the saddles of enormous bright-red Harley-Davidsons. They gunned the motors deafeningly, sending thin blue exhaust smoke into the crowd that stood around the platform with glazed eyes and gaping mouths. "Dee-fying death every second, straight from the world championships in Paris, France, Melba and Bonnie stare into the very jaws of eternity!" yelled the barker. BBBBRRRROOOOOOOMMMrdMMM! BAAAARRROOOOOOOMMMM! Another cloud of acrid smoke drifted out over the mob. The barker spieled on: "There is time for just one more big show tonight, just one more! Never in your life have you seen anything to equal THE DEVIL RIDE!" BAAARRROOOOOOM! BBBBBRRRRRRROOOOOOOMMMMM! "Bee-ginning in just one minute. In just sixty seconds! Beautiful Melba and lovely Bonnie stare into the jaws of death!" The two blondes, thin-faced and pallid, peered out from under their spectacular helmets, chewing gum steadily as they gunned their Harleys. "I gotta see that!" This act was designed for my old man. Anything that had to do with roaring motors and crash helmets hit him in the vitals. Add the fact that these were skinny blonde women, another weakness, and you had big time showbiz, as far as he was concerned. 'With a couple of final, provocative roars, the two raced down the ramp and disappeared through a doorway outlined in yellow with a string of colored light bulbs festooning a blood-red Devil's face with green eyes. We followed close behind my father as he elbowed his way through the sweaty throng of daredevil fans to the head of the line inside the tent. We found ourselves standing at the rim of a circular pit ten or fifteen feet deep. The noise was deafening; the wooden floor vibrated and creaked under our feet. The air was thick with burning gasoline. Down in the pit, the two motorcycles boomed round and round, chasing each other madly in faster and faster circles, rising up the curved walls until they were riding almost horizontally under the chicken wire that separated the Harleys from us. A white-faced, blue-veined minister, his high collar spotted with catsup, stood next to us intense excitement. Kids ran wildly in and out of the crowd, throwing peanut shells at the riders as they screamed round and round in their tight spiral. The old man peered down into the maelstrom, pounding the rail in excitement as the motorcycles accelerated faster and faster. "DEFYING GRAVITY ON THEIR SPECIALLY BUILT HARLEY-DAVIDSONS, MELBA AND BONNIE WILL NOW PERFORM A DEATH-DEFYING FEAT NEVER BEFORE SEEN IN THE UNITED STATES!" shouted the voice on the P. A. system over the racket. Down in the gloom of the hell pit, the exhausts trailed smoke as the motorcycles rode abreast. "MELBA AND BONNIE WILL CHANGE MOTORCYCLES AT TOP SPEED!" The crowd hunched forward with expectancy. Even the kids were quiet. The thunder of the motorcycles had reached the point where no more sound could be endured. The whole structure - the floor, the guy wires, the back teeth, everything - vibrated to the scream of the Harleys. Down in the pit, there was a quick shuffling of bodies and it was done. "Fer Chrissake, how d'y like that! I wouldna' believed it!" said the old man to no one in particular. The minister, his black hat hanging at a rakish angle, applauded frantically. Once again we were out on the midway, 50 cents poorer but infinitely richer in worldly experience. My mother, who was eating a piece of watermelon, said plaintively, "I haven't seen the quilts yet." "I wanna go on the Ferris wheel," whined my brother for the 298th time. "I thought you were gonna see 'em when we went to the races," said the old man, ignoring him for the 298th time. "We went to the cookie tasting instead." "The what?" "The cookie tasting. Over by where they were having the artistic flower arranging." The old man said nothing and headed for a three-story-high orange face that laughed madly under a sign that read FUN HOUSE. He hoped that by not answering, she would forget the quilts. "Mrs. Wimple has a quilt in this year," she persisted. "Bernice Wimple, from the club." My mother belonged to a dart-ball club that staged mysterious contests in the church basement every Thursday. Bernice WimpIe played for the La Porte, Indiana, Bearcats, a legendary dart-ball team. "It's a Thomas Jefferson quilt," she continued, wiping a watermelon seed off her chin with a paper napkin that said HAVE FUN in blue letters over an American flag. My father, realizing he'd have to say something, stalled for time: "What the hell kinda quilt is that?" "Well, it's a patriotic quilt that has the face of Thomas Jefferson on it, done in cross-stitch." "Oh, well! That I gotta see!" said my father sarcastically. After a ten-minute search, we finally found the tent with the quilt exhibit, under strings of yellow light bulbs. The quilts were tacked up all around, stretched tight, so that their designs could be admired respectfully from behind a rope by the motley throng of art lovers. Mrs. Wimple's entry was among them. We stood before the 6' x 9' portrait. "He looks a little cross-eyed to me," the old man observed accurately. "I think it's very pretty. Mrs. Wimple worked seven years on it." We peered at the third-place ribbon it sported and moved on to look at the others. The winning quilt had a stand to itself. It bore a spectacular portrait of Old Faithful on a yellow background framed by purple mountains and surrounded by a herd of animals: a moose, an elk, two bighorn sheep, a bunny with pink eyes and what appeared to be a hippopotamus. Above this scene in Old English-style red, white and blue letters was the following profundity: The Beauty of Our Glorious Land Is Surpassed Only by God's Blessed Handiwork. - Roswell T. Blount, LL.D. "Now, that's what I call pretty," said my father solemnly, reading the inscription. We all agreed that it was pretty. Most of the quilts ran heavily to such patriotic themes, except for one that had a ribbon for UNUSUAL SUBJECT-HONORABLE MENTION. It was a full-color portrait done on a background of grass green. The eyes of the subject, staring beadily out from under his familiar cap, stopped the old man dead in his tracks. "Well, I'll be damned. I'll be a son of a bitch!" We stood in awe before this transcendent work of art. "I never thought I'd see Luke Appling on a quilt!" Sure enough, it was a ruddy likeness of old Luke himself, the foul-ball king of the American League. My father, a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan, was visibly moved. Under the picture streamed the legend, woven in golden thread: BATTLING LUKE APPLING ALWAYS FIRST IN OUR HEARTS (I wonder what a genuine Luke Appling quilt would go for today in the chic, high-camp boutiques along Third Avenue in Manhattan.) "Let's go, all you great lovers, all you he-men," barked a man in a purple derby at the next concession. "Let's see what kind of man you really are. Show that beautiful girl you're with just what kind of man you really are. Here you are, here you are, here you are, here's your chance to get up and really ring the bell. Everybody wins. It's good healthful exercise and everybody wins. Ring the bell. I said everybody wins. All right, you lovers, show that little lady what kind of muscles you really got. Ring the bell." We joined a circle of gawkers at the foot of a 3D-foot pole that had a wire running up its length, with a big gong at the top. At the bottom was a round metal plate. The pole, candy-striped red and white, was marked with gradations. Beginning at the bottom, they read: CASPAR MILQUETOAST LADIES' DIVISION BETTER EAT YOUR WHEATIES AVERAGE NOT BAD WATCH OUT FOR THIS GUY And way up at the top: WOW! A REAL HE-MAN. A huge, rosy-cheeked, curly-haired tractor-driver type, wearing Sears, Roebuck pants and a checkered cowboy shirt, stepped into the arena. "Let's see how the young man swings. Look at those shoulders, folks, look at those arms! Swing the hammer nice and smooth; hit it right on the button. Let's see you ring the bell." The barker handed the behemoth a big mallet. His friends jeered and snorted noisily in derision. "Belt the hell out of it, Caleb!" one yelled. "Aw, come on. He cain't make it past the LADIES' mark. He ain't got no lead in his pencil" The crowd snickered contemptuously. Caleb grabbed the handle and swung wildly. K-THUNKI The iron weight rose feebly up the cable and fell back with a clank. "No wonder yew cain't make out with Minnie!" hooted one of his friends. Caleb spat on his hands, swung again. The hammer whistled. KER-THUNK! The weight rose higher this time, almost reaching the AVERAGE mark halfway up the pole. Caleb looked thoughtful, as the distant sound of the merry-go-round calliope switched from Alexander's Ragtime Band to The Valkyrie. It was, indeed, a Wagnerian moment, the twilight of the gods. He peered upward at the gong, which now seemed twice as high as it had before. He kicked the dirt like a batter digging in at the batter's box, wiped his hands on his trousers and once again grabbed the mallet. His biceps rippled under the tight-fitting cowboy shirt. Dark circles of sweat stained the armpits. His back arched. This time, he swung the hammer from the ground, then up in a great, swinging arc. K-THUNK! The metal weight drifted up the wire, slowed and stopped at CASPAR MILQUETOAST. "Man, yew better quit before that thing don't move at all!" Caleb dropped the hammer, his face bathed in sweat and red from humiliation, paid the barker and left the arena, a broken man. I had a suspicion of what was going to happen next. If there was ever a sucker for that kind of thing, it was my old man. "I think I'm gonna try whacking that thing," he whispered. "Now, don't make a fool of yourself." My mother was always afraid of his making a fool of himself. She had good reason to be. "Aw, just for fun. I mean, what the hell." "All right, you lovers, you saw cousin Caleb get all the way up there to AVERAGE. Let's see how you can do. Ring the bell, ring the bell, who can ring the bell?" As Caleb snarled at the Greek chorus of hisses and boos from his corn-liquored buddies, the old man stepped into the clearing without a word, gave the guy a quarter, grabbed the hammer and swung. K-THWACK! He didn't hit it with anywhere near the thump that Caleb got into her. But: ZZZIIIIIIIIP ... BONG! The iron weight raced to the top and rang the bell so loud it could be heard a block away. "Y'see that, Caleb? That there guy's got lead in his pencil!" The nasal bray of rustic wit opened up again. "The little man wins a box of genuwine Swiss-chocolate bonbons. All ya gotta do is have a good swing. Who's gonna win the next big prize, all you lovers?" My father, stunned at his totally unprecedented success, grabbed the box of chocolates amid he applause of the rabble. The last we saw of Caleb was the hammer rising and falling at two bits a swing, being milked by that barker for every cent he owned. This moment was to become a sacred gem in the family archives. The more it was told, the greater the feat became. Caleb grew into Paul Bunyan, and the old man's hammer swing rose to Olympic proportions. It wasn't until I was 16 that I read an article in Popular Mechanics and discovered that the barker operated the thing with his foot. The old man, fortunately, never found out. As we moved from one marvel to the next, my brother and I began to list heavily to starboard; we hadn't stopped eating since we stepped onto the fairgrounds: homemade popcorn balls, red, white and blue, made by the 4-H; girlscout cookies; French fries; boiled corn on the cob dripping butter; Nehi orange and Hires root beer; peanuts; pumpkin pie; hot dogs; pickles; American Legion Auxiliary crullers; baked beans on paper plates; lemonade; Ladies of the Moose angel-food cake: taffy apples; and a thousand free samples, including Purina Chick Chow, which my brother and I both ate avidly. Added to this was the real specialty of any Indiana fair-homemade black-walnut chocolate fudge, displayed in thick, fly-crawling slabs at stands operated by beaming Kiwanians wearing funny hats and badges. We also scoffed down about five pounds each of a peculiarly native candy called vanilla angel breath, an airy concoction so cloyingly sweet that a bite-sized portion could rot teeth at 50 paces. A fundamental ground rule of the county fair was that kids could have anything they wanted to eat, just this once. Steadily, we chewed our way toward Armageddon. Barkers on all sides hawked everything from horse collars to Mystic 'Mohegan Indian Squaw Korn Kure. We paused briefly while my old man hurled lumpy baseballs at battered wooden milk bottles, his blood rising visibly as the balls bounced off the canvas at the rear of the tent. Other athletes strained and grunted, their hard-earned cash winging into the canvas with dull thuds. A shelf held the possible booty: cerise Kewpie dolls with enormous red-feather fans, stuffed pandas, shiny china panthers with clocks in their stomachs, souvenir ashtrays in the shape of mother-of-pearl toilets - a veritable king's ransom. The proprietor, a short, round man with a gray chin, played them like rainbow trout. "Y'got a nice arm, son. Let's see you lay it in there. Show the little lady how the big-leaguers do it. Look at that arm, folks! He's tossin' a real knuckler. Three balls for a quarter. How 'bout you, little lady? Try yer luck." 'While my father was winding up, the man handed three baseballs to a skinny girl about II years old. She quickly bowled over three milk bottles and still had a ball left. "Pick any prize y'want, little lady, any prize!" The sweating yahoos threw with renewed vigor, dollar bills cascading across the counter. The II-year-old picked a Kewpie doll and left. It wasn't until the next day that we found out she was the daughter of the guy who ran the joint. We saw them in Joe's Diner eating shredded wheat. It was getting late. Our feet were coated with chewing gum and popcorn, and we were covered with a thick layer of finely powdered yellow clay. I knew that somewhere on the grounds Schwartz and Flick and Kissel were doing things that they would lie to me about the next day. Now we were deep in the heart of the thrill-ride section of the fair. The Ferris wheel reached high up into the dark sky, its spokes outlined in colored light bulbs, jerking upward and stopping and jerking upward again. It loomed over us like a huge illuminated snowflake. "I wanna go on the Ferris wheel!" Randy whined for the 317th time. This time, he was not to be denied. My father bought a ticket from the man in the little booth. Off my brother went through the turnstile and into a wobbly car the color of a grape. A minute later, he was laughing down at us and sticking his tongue out as he swept up ecstatically into the night. Every few seconds, the wheel would stop and unload a car. We stood around and waved every time he went past. Finally, the grape car stopped at the bottom. We could see the attendant in blue coveralls swing the gate open. He seemed to be arguing with the occupant. The attendant finally hollered out to the guy in the box office: "HEY, JAKE! THIS KID WON'T GET OUT!" "Oh, fer Chrissake, what now?" the old man muttered. "NOW, YOU GET OUT. YOU HAD ENOUGH," said the attendant. "WHAAAAAAAA!" The attendant reached in and wrenched him out, fighting and kicking every inch of the way. My father took over the battle, dragging him out into the midway. "I WANNA GO ON AGAIN!!" he screamed, but to no avail. The big wheel started up without him as we moved on to the next attraction, Randy struggling at every step. We tried to hurry past a merry-go-round swarming with little kids and mothers, but it was no use. Randy threatened to throw himself under it if he didn't get to ride on it. I stood with my father as he whirled round and round beside my mother, sitting on a black swan with a yellow beak. He tried to do a headstand as The Man on the Flying Trapeze played over and over and over and over. After the sixth ride, we managed to pull him off. He emerged slightly pale but still game. We ate a red candy cane apiece, thus setting the stage for total disaster. My father never went on rides unless they were real gut busters. He had ventured unflinchingly onto roller coasters so violent as to turn away strong men, quaking in fear. He spotted one of his old favorites, an evil contraption known as the Whirligig Rocket Whip. We had been warned of its presence long before we arrived on the scene. Screams of horror and the flashing light of the emergency ambulance led us to the killer ride of them all. At every fair or amusement park, there is one ride that is the yokel equivalent of the main bull ring in Madrid. This is where callow-faced youths and gorilla-armed icemen prove their virility to their admiring women. The Rocket Whip was a classic of its kind. It consisted of two bullet-shaped cars, one yellow, one red, attached to the ends of rotating arms. It revolved simultaneously clockwise and up and down. At the same time, the individual cars rotated in their own orbits. The old man, spotting the Rocket Whip, strained forward like a fire horse smelling smoke. "Are you sure you should go on that?" My mother held back. "Aw, come on. It'll do the kids good. Blow the stink off 'em." She didn't answer, just gazed up in fear at the mechanical devil that was now about to take on passengers. The yellow car rested near the ground, its wire-mesh door invitingly open. He bought three tickets from the operator, who sat near the turnstile in a rocking chair, the control lever at his side. "Let's go, kids." We piled into the car. It was simplicity itself; two hard metal seats and a bar that clamped down over the laps of the occupants, so that their bodies didn't become actually dismembered. We sat stationary for a long moment. High above us, the occupants of the Ted car gazed down at us-upside down-waiting for Thor's hammer to descend. The man yanked the lever and it began. Slowly at first, we began to spin. The landscape outside our wire-mesh cage blurred as we gained speed. We leaped skyward, up, up; paused briefly at the top of the arc at what looked like thousands of feet above ground level, then plunged straight down. Just as we neared the earth, we were whipped upward again. By this time, the car caught by enormous forces, had begun spinning centrifugally on its own. We were trapped in a giant ice cream separator. There were brief flashes of dark sky, flashing lights, gaping throngs, my old man's rolling eyes, his straw hat sailing around the interior of the car. "Oh, no, fer Chrissake!" he yelled. A shower of loose change - quarters, nickels, dimes, pennies - sprayed out of his pockets, filled the car for an instant and was gone, spun out into the night. "Oh, Jesus Christ! No!" he yelled again, as his brown-and-white marbled Wearever fountain pen with his name on it, given to him by the bowling team, flew out of his pocket and disappeared into the night. Higher and higher we flew, swooping low to scream upward again. My kid brother, chalk white, whimpered piteously. I hung onto the iron bar, certain that my last hour had arrived. My head thumped the back of the car steadily as it spun. "Ain't this fun, kids? Wow, what a ride!" shouted the old man, sweating profusely. He made a grab for his hat as it sailed past. "Wave to Ma, kids! There she is!" It was then that the operator turned the power on full. Everything that had gone before was only a warm-up. Our necks snapped back as the Rocket Whip accelerated. I was not touching the seat at any point. Jackknifed over the bar, I saw that one of my shoes had been wrenched off my foot. At that moment, with no warning, my kid brother let it all go. His entire day's accumulation of goodies, now marinated and pungent, gushed out in a geyser. The car spun crazily. The air was filled with the atomized spray of everything he had ingested for the past 24 hours. Down we swooped. "Blech! My new pongee shirt!" Soaked from head to foot, the old man struggled frantically in his seat to get out of the line of fire. It was no use. I felt it coming, too. I closed my eyes and the vacuum forces of outer space just dragged it all out of me like a suction pump. From a million miles away, I heard my old man shouting something, but it didn't matter. All I knew was that if I didn't hold onto that bar, it would be all over. We gradually spun to a stop and finally the wire-mesh door opened. My feet touched the blessed earth. On rubbery legs, clinging weakly together, the three of us tottered past the turnstile as other victims were clamped into the torture chamber we had just left. "Great ride, eh, folks? I left you on a little longer, 'cause I could see the kids was really enjoyin' it," said the operator, pocketing the last of my father's change as we passed through the turnstile. "Thanks. It sure was great," said the old man with a weak smile, a bent cigarette hanging from his lips. He always judged a ride by how sick it made him. The nausea quotient of the Rocket Whip was about as high as they come. We sat on a bench for a while to let the breeze dry off the old man's shirt, and so that our eyes could get back into focus. From all around us we could hear the whoops and hollers of people going up and down and sideways on the other rides. There was one across from the Rocket Whip that my kid brother, who had great recuperative powers, had to go on. We didn't have the strength to stop him. It was a big barrel made out of some kind of shiny metal and it spun around like a cocktail shaker on its side. The people were screaming and yelling; their skirts were flying up, their shoes falling off. Randy loved it. We hung around and waited until they threw him out. It was late now and getting a little chilly. It seemed like we had been at the fair for about a month. We sat on the bench while the crowd trudged past us, chewing hot dogs, lugging jars of succotash that they had bought at the exhibits, twirling sticks with little yellow birds on the ends of strings that we could hear whistling over the calliope on the merry-go-round, wearing souvenir Dr. Bodley's Iron Nerve Tonic sun visors, carrying drunken cousins who had hit the applejack since early morning, wheeling reeking babies smeared with caked Pablum and chocolate. Long-legged, skinny yellow dogs with their tongues hanging out kept running back and forth and barking. It had been an unforgettable day. "It sure feels good to just sit for a while," said my mother as she took off one shoe and dumped out some popcorn. The old man didn't say anything. The unlit cigarette still in his mouth, he just sat and watched the crowd move on, with his hat pushed back on his head. We sat like that for about IS minutes, getting our wind back. "Did you feel a drop of rain?" My mother looked up at the black sky and held out her hand. The old man looked up. "Nah. You must be sweating." "I felt a drop," I said, sticking my hand out. The only one who didn't stick his hand out was my kid brother, who didn't care whether it rained or not. He just squatted at the end of the bench and went back to whining, which he always did when there was nothing else to do. "Stop that! You're getting on my nerves!" said my mother, poking him in the ribs to shut him up. ''I'm tired." He had that high-pitched, irritating sound that he was so good at. "You know, I think it is raining." The old man made it official. People started to hold newspapers over their heads and duck under awnings and into tents. "Well, we might as well call it a day," announced the old man as he stood up and stuck his shirttail back into his pants. "Let's head for the car." We were a long way from the parking lot, which was over on the other side of the race track, about four miles away. We slogged doggedly through drifting mountains of candy wrappers, cigar butts, apple cores and cow flop; past tents full of canned lima beans and crocheted doilies, sweetheart pillows and gingerbread men, past shooting galleries and harvester machines and, finally, as the rain was really beginning to come down hard, we reached the car. We joined the procession of mud-splattered vehicles inching painfully, bumper to bumper, toward the distant highway. "Y'know, I think the fair was even better than usual this year." My father said the same thing every year. "Yes, the quilts were better this year," my mother agreed. "I think Bernice should have won at least second prize, though. The quilt that won wasn't that good." "Oh, well, you know there's a lot of politics in that quilt business." The old man always figured there was politics in everything. ''I'm hungry!" Randy was at it again. He'd had an empty stomach ever since the Rocket Whip. "We'll all have meat-loaf sandwiches when we get home," said my mother, wiping the steam off the inside of the windshield with her handkerchief, so that she could see out. * * * A Right Guard commercial featuring two French Foreign Legionnaires hiding behind a sand dune snapped me back to the real world. I glanced at my watch. My God! It was 20 after four. Another goddamm night shot in front of the television set. The closing credits of the movie came on, superimposed over the never-never dreamworld of Dick Haymes' state fair. I stood up, my knees cracking like twin castanets - an occupational hazard of late late movie addiction. Hobbling over to the set, I reached down and snapped it off. The picture quickly shrank to a tiny dot in the middle of the gray screen. It lingered for a moment, glowing at me accusingly, as though I had killed it, and then disappeared. I was ready to hit the sack. Or was I? No, there was something I had to do. What was it? I felt a peculiar, unnamable yearning from deep within me, a gnawing emptiness. I smacked my lips, and suddenly I knew. Marching purposefully to the front closet, I threw on my coat and headed out the front door into the empty streets on a lonely quest. I had to have a taffy apple.
This story was reprinted in the book "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories And Other Disasters" and was Slice 6 of his taped collection "Shepherd's Pie" According to Shep this story was based on a trip he took to the Flemington Fair in New Jersey
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