Monday, November 9, 2015

Vinegar Fries and Cowpies

The Delaware State Fair was in my hometown, and while growing up in the fifties, it was a highlight of many of my summers. School let out during the middle of June and the hot lonesome days of an only child dragged by until the last week of July, fair time.

My clearest memory of a particular fair is when I had an actual job and earned my own money to spend on whatever I wanted. Local businesses set up shop in special sections of the fair, usually near the agricultural and farm displays. A mobile home company parked a couple models in one of these areas and enticed fair-goers with signs and smiling salesmen to wander through the shiny, new homes on wheels.

Each morning until lunchtime, my job was to keep these brand new trailers clean by sweeping and dusting and sometimes mopping up tracks from a surprise rainstorm. The showers cooled things off and left the air rich with an earthiness, but afterwards the sun shone down with a vengeance and soon returned the mud to dust.

I can’t remember exactly how much I received for my stunning service, but I do remember thinking it was a fortune. It was my very first job. Being a fair employee, I didn’t have to waste money on an entrance fee; I could stroll right in proudly displaying my employee pass.

Receiving payment for my labor each day, I couldn’t wait to spend it on rides, sweets, and those win-a-prize for your prowess thieves, um games. I tried my hand at the ring toss to win a stuffed monkey, attempted to pitch a nickel in a plate for a real live goldfish, aimed a very small ball at some stacked milk bottles for a huge panda bear, and targeted a moving duck in a watery canal for a prize of my choice. However, hauling around prizes was not a problem since my athletic abilities were practically nil.

I paid to gawk at the bearded lady exhibit and stared in open-mouthed amazement at the eardrum-shattering motorcycles roaring around inside a wire globe. I bought walking sundaes that melted down my arm in ninety-plus degree heat, pulled off gobs of cotton candy with that sweet, over-toasted smell, burnt my mouth on juicy hotdogs that had rolled round and round on metal warmers for hours, and gobbled vinegar fries, my very favorite of all. My mouth waters now as I imagine the crispy, salty, sour crunch of those hot fries lying on my tongue and squishing between my teeth.

Small fans on counters blew the smells and made non-hungry customers search for their origins. Food smells permeated the air like watercolor on wet paper. Nobody strolled the circle of the midway without food and drink at some point. Even the diesel smell of some of the engines used to power rides did not dampen cravings for fair food.

Other parts of the fair had fans, not to circulate the smells, but to get rid of them. In the heat of late July, farm animals are not dainty critters. The cattle, horse, hog, sheep and fowl barns housed nature with all its good and bad odors, but a kid my age hardly noticed anything bad about the fair, even the pesky abundant flies. Cowpies were just another scent, no better and no worse than the nose-tingling sweet tartness of warm cherry pies in the 4-H barn.

Sometimes I would meet up with schoolmates, and then I would have enough courage to go on rides like the whip, the octopus, the tilt-a-whirl, and a very tame roller coaster. I was more of an eater than an adventurer, and once I remember the two being too close together with a not very happy result. Hot dogs and being spun in a circle through the air do not agree with each other, but I won’t go into specifics on that one.

No matter what happened, nothing dampened my childhood romance with the fair, and I never stopped looking forward to a daily new adventure during the last week of July. And it continues to make others happy, one thing from my childhood that hasn't changed.

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