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Judith Kirkwood's USA: A Fair To Remember

I was born and bred to be an Illinois State Fair brat. I went to the fair every year growing up, just as my parents did their whole lives. The dust that powdered my bare legs was the same dust that had settled on Lincoln's shoulders (or so I was told). I had a vague understanding that the Illinois State Fair was for the people, by the people, and of the people. I wouldn't have traded a week at the fair for a vacation in Disneyland because this was where I belonged.

The fair was just beyond my grandma's fence in the north end of Springfield, Illinois. We lived and breathed the rhythms of the fairground from the moment we arrived and parked the car in the makeshift parking lot in her backyard. I could hear the drone of the generators through the car window, feel the buzz of excitement as soon as my feet touched the ground. At night the double Ferris wheel twinkled in the sky and a phosphorous glow hovered over the field between the house and the street to the Main Gate. I fell asleep to what sounded like an orchestra warming u —high calliope notes, whistles, whirring dings, and the faint melody of the Merry-Go-Round.

During the day I roamed the fairgrounds with my sisters and cousins, defying gravity on the Round-Up, watching storms gather from the top of the double Ferris wheel, puking behind the restrooms, and sneaking in to see the pygmy horses. We had to move carefully to avoid tripping over the giant hoses and coiled wires that spilled over the ground like steaming intestines. We also had to watch out for the carnies, burned and brown, eyeballing anything in shorts, and the come-ons from the tattooed workers manning the coin toss games.

We spent most of our money on rides, of course—getting scrunched on the Scrambler and hanging upside down in the Bullet. When we tired of rides, we scoured the Exposition Building for free samples: combs, rulers, paper fans, pencils. We watched demonstrations of chopping machines, had our handwriting analyzed and our names engraved on souvenir jewelry or hats. We sat in the grandstand, blissfully deafened by drum and bugle corps. And then tramped the barns, checking out lop-eared rabbits and spotted swine, hoping to run into a prancing horse in a blind alley.

At some point, we would run up the ramp on the side of the Illinois Building to the open air deck at the top and locate Grandma's brown house in the patchwork of surrounding streets and yards. We hung over the edge, flapping our arms as if she could see us, as if we could fly straight to her. Then we were off again, sliding down the steep hill into Happy Hollow.

After supper, Grandma went back to the fair with us. We dropped by the horse shows at the Coliseum, watched salt water taffy being pulled out and stretched, or rode the tram around and around in the cool night air, all the way out to where the fair workers pitched their tent and trailer city. It was a calm, hypnotic prelude to the excitement of cars skidding out of her yard at night. After the last fireworks, we could count on a drunken crash or two under our window.

In the morning, we waited impatiently for the gates to open so we could do it all again. We stood in huge crowds for salt water taffy not because we liked taffy, but because it was what you did. We went to the fair to lose ourselves in the mass of humanity lined up to see the world's fattest pig and to find ourselves in rituals that have persevered over centuries of pilgrimages to agricultural fairs. It was my birthright, my heritage. It was fun. It was familiar.

My grandmother died some years ago. After we sold her house, there was no place to stay when we went to the fair. I thought I was off the hook. I began to dream about a summer respite at a spa in Switzerland or even a romantic weekend at a bed and breakfast inn on the shores of Lake Michigan.

I don't want to spend the hottest days of the year walking through webs of cotton candy and risking heatstroke in livestock barns. But come the second week of August, I find myself wandering down the path into Happy Hollow past the Tilt-A-Whirl and Funhouse. I go to see the cow made of butter and pay hucksters to shout out guesses about my weight and age in hopes that I'll get a cheap stuffed animal. I'm part of the crowd that moves down the main drag like an organized riot, thirty abreast, brushing past the shantytown of booths in a jostle of kinship.

Every summer, my kids threaten mutiny if I drag them to the fair again. But I have only to dig in my pockets and throw some quarters down for the coin toss games to regain their affection. Who needs a spa or lake breezes in August? I'm creating a legacy for future generations as sweaty strangers line up elbow to elbow shouting encouragement and curses, hoping to land a quarter on a plate and win a prize.

These people have known me all my life. They remind me of my grandmother, great aunts, and cousins I haven't seen in years. They remind me of my father, walking around here as a young man with a smart girl he was crazy about who still makes him laugh after 60 years together.

At some point, I get a lump in my throat that can only be dissolved by a pronto pup and a lemon shakeup. And next thing you know, I have an inexplicable urge to head over to the livestock barns and touch a newborn chick.


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