Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

December 9, 2012 – Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

I’ve got my feet back on U.S. soil. Thousands of miles, an ocean, and time have separated me from a land I was only barely getting to know. It’s hard to stop my mind from thinking, “Only yesterday I was in Spain” or “Just a week ago I was in Rome.” Texas is my stopping off place. I’ve left things at my parents’ house that I need to collect before heading off to a cooler, damper climate. I’ve got family to hang out with and friends to visit. It’s a place to reset, catch my breath, and step off from. Although I no longer live here, and don’t necessarily want to, it’s home.
The same way Arkansas is still home to my grandparents no matter how many decades they’ve been away from it.

Sometimes home means: where you come from. So I’m home.

Texas in October has fewer mosquitoes, less smothering humidity, a lower temperature and the State Fair. There’s no State Fair that equals the State Fair of Texas. I’m saying this with all the unbiased authority of a fourth generation Texan. It’s true.

So, when two days after returning Stateside Kirk asks me if I’d like to go with him to the Fair it’s an easy answer to say sure.

The State Fair of Texas is childhood. It’s wide-eyed me and my five siblings, not knowing what to look at first, tripping after my parents through the Arts and Crafts building with the amateur photographs, paintings, watercolors, hand stitched quilts, homemade jams bedecked with all those blue ribbons for first place, reds for second, whites for third and the heartfelt yellows for Honorable Mention, past the car showrooms where if we were lucky we got to sit inside and smell that new car smell, and by the demo booths where we could learn how to make waffles, French fries, and burgers on the same griddle, sharpen knives, buy unbreakable plates or be shown how to cook the perfect bowl of rice without cooking. It’s the smell of funnel cakes, corny dogs, and fried everything. It’s the alluring, hanging bags of pink cotton candy made with sugar that seemed to melt in my mouth just by looking at it. It’s the giant Ferris wheel turning slowly round, it’s the Flying Bird Show, the Sheep Dog demonstration, the petting zoo.

The State Fair of Texas is autumn; it speaks to me of seasonal change more than an equinox, more than a solstice. It’s hard to know if the smell that hints of cooling days, longer nights, shifting falling leaves is  brought on by the tilting of the earth or something more innocent, more tangible, and much safer than the carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes—something as nostalgic as a yearly Fair. From anywhere in the world the smell of dampening leaves, chill-bit air can send me straight to homesick and take me back in time.

And here I am. A few big drops of rain hit the ground as Kirk and I head through the gates. Hold off a little longer, I think. Please. We’re in time to catch The Killdares’s, a Celtic Rock band and Kirk’s friends, show—if the rain doesn’t put a stop to it first—and early enough to walk around before they start. As we make our way through the park we collect free toothpaste and energy drink samples from the outdoor booths, make a quick run through the car showroom, and duck through the doors into the magical world of the Arts and Crafts building.  

It seems smaller than I remembered. A little more commercial. A little less magical. But that’s just me looking out at the world with older eyes. The magic still lingers in the corners of the room like a shy ghost, I can just smell it beneath the aroma of fresh roasted nuts, it’s in the gaze of a child that walks by me hand-in-hand with its parent.

Where else are you going to see sculptures made out of butter? Seriously.

I smile as I look around. “The State Fair to me,” I tell Kirk, “is the Arts and Crafts room, the stockyards, and Big Tex.”

Kirk comes every year and often more than once to catch the different shows and events; it’s habit, tradition, part of fall. He’s even got jams with Honorable Mention status here in the Arts and Crafts building and he’s won bigger ribbons in years past. For him, this is just another outing to a familiar spot where he’s a participant (while I’m just an observer), so he’s willing to keep pace with me as I retrace the footprints of my childhood.

After we’ve made it around the entire room, we go back outside. Up ahead a grey cowboy hat competes with the clouds for sky time. Everything is bigger in Texas, right? Big Tex, true to his name, is certainly big. He’s the endearing and somewhat creepy mascot of the State Fair of Texas. I stand with my head leaned back, looking up, waiting for him to move his hinged jaw and say, “Howdy, y’all, I’m Big Tex.” From this far down I might as well be a child again. He’s still grand.

Kirk chats with one of the truck show guys and I snap pictures of Big Tex. The clouds shift and a few drops of rain splat on the cement, a streak of lightning breaks the darkening sky, a distant clap of thunder sounds. 

After a while, Kirk checks his watch and we head over to the stage. Although the rain can’t decide whether to pour down or not, there’s just enough water to disagree with electrical equipment and to cancel the Killdares’s show. Kirk helps the band bring in the equipment from the state and I try to stand someplace out of the way.  

When everything is back inside Kirk and I go into the band’s break room and linger with them for a while. I’ve met some of the band before. There’s the quick catch up on How are yous and Hows it goings and some comfortable chit chat.

From here Kirk and I are going to get vegetarian food at Kalachandji’s Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant and Palace and my stomach is voting for sooner rather than later. Kirk seems to feel the same way. We say our goodbyes and see you laters and go.

Having remembered my What Makes the Fair the Fair to Me list, Kirk steers us to the stockyards on our way out. I say hi to the chicks and ducklings, look over the fence at the goats, walk down the milking cow row and lean against the fence to stare at the impressive 1335 pound Champion Big Boar Boris. He’s asleep and we let him lie.

We’re almost back to the car. We’ve made it to the exit gate where two Fair Park staffers are standing. “You just missed Ronald MacDonald!” the guy tells us.

Kirk and I exchange a glance. I smile. Neither of us really feels any worse for the missing.

“Have a good night,” I tell them, or they tell us.

I look back over my shoulder at the purple, blue, and red lights illuminating the Ferris wheel. 

A quasi-rainy evening isn’t the most happening time for the State Fair, but it’s enough to remind me of days long gone and a childhood that, although not perfect, was just about as close to perfection as a childhood could get.

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