Tuesday, January 1, 2008

State Fair

This essay was originally published on Drunkstuntmen.com 9/10/2007

How curious is it that a simple two word name coupled with music can have such an emotional impact?

State Fair.

It is one of those events that brings out the best and worst in people. It can be something to which we look forward, especially as children. It can be a magical place where a simple two dollar toy can release you into a magical fantasy world where Pirates and liars and thieves rule and you are the chosen one who will bring order to the chaos.

Little Jimmy Redding is swinging his plastic sword overcoming an imaginary foe, another little child named Daisy is happily holding her father's hand. It is just the two of them. Who knows where Mom is, perhaps in a burned out building in the South end of Springfield, or if she is lucky in rehab or jail. But this is Daisy's time with Daddy and has been for quite some time. He smells the warm, velvet aroma of funnel cake, beaming down at his princess as she looks up at his larger than life frame. She smiles at him skipping along to keep up with his long strides grateful for every moment she spends with him.

She sees another couple who are arguing. Kerwin is missing a few teeth and looking pretty shabby. She is named Mona and is holding her own child who is trying to cry as quietly as possible, hiding behind her and clinging to her mother's leg. She cries quietly because she knows mommy's new boyfriend doesn't like it when she does that, especially when he is drunk. But it doesn't matter, this was the last straw, Kerwin is history. By the time he gets to feel his hangover tomorrow morning Mona will be gone. The happy little girl looks away from this scene back to her daddy. He reads her body language and reassures her that she never has to worry about that kind of crap again, by pulling her in close and giving her a little squeeze…a gesture that clearly tells her that it is okay to feel sorry for the other little girl, but also indicates that she will grow up with that kind of chaos as a faded and distant memory, so distant that it might have even been a bad dream.

Those kinds of instances and memories can make a State Fair such a somber and sorrowful place in the midst of calliopes, parades, and colorful entertainers with petrified smiles. In the agricultural building, Walter Bukowski, a 55 year old man, is pushing a wheelchair. His Father, Waclaw, has his hand on the arm rest of the chair as his once strong and confident fingers shake and twitch from errant misfired electrical impulses sent from his brain. He is feeble and tired, but happy to once again be in the farm building.

The smell of the manure and hay - the sight of Holsteins, sheep, and a sow who patiently lays in wait as her piglets suckle, rejuvenates him as he is brought back to a time when he was a younger man and the standard which set the bar in this agricultural display. He disregards his body as his mind takes him to the happiest places in his life. Not back to the steppes of the Carpathian Mountains in Austria but here in this grizzled and historical building thankful that he is here one more day to experience this with his loved ones.

His son fights back a tear as he remembers the once immortal figure he is now guiding through his waning years. His own precious memory has him walking next to the tall man in the cowboy hat and boots and leading his blue ribbon winning heifer back to his stall after displaying it in the building across the way, the Coliseum, where they had seen so many hockey games.

They would sit in the box seats leaning over the edge as Dad confidently led his livestock through the competition. They would be sitting in the same seats where "Coliseum Charlie would sway behind his tower of empty beer cups drunkenly swinging his tee shirt above his head cheering for the Indians as Eddie Shore looked on in disgust and yelled for him to put his shirt back on. At least his feet weren't on the seats.

Walter looked aroundWas it this stall where they used to camp out with the cows? Perhaps it was even that stall right over there ... Yes, he is sure that was the one. But does it matter which stall it was? He knows in his gut that this is the last time he and his dad will be at the State Fair together. He wonders why he has to live with this painful memory, because he feels like missed the boat, after all, he has no child with whom to share this wonderful experience. He could still have children perhaps, but they would never know him to be as strong as their grandfather was.

He looks at his sister who seems to be preoccupied with her own distant but similar memory. She is thankful that her daughter is holding her Grandfather's hand, the one that doesn't twitch. She is thankful that she didn't leave the farm to go for the big paycheck like her younger brother did, taking a job as an engineer with one of the technology companies on Rt. 128 near Burlington. She was the "good daughter" who kept the family farm going and turned it into her own thriving business. She was thankful that her brother was here for a change, so she didn't have to push the chair all day. She couldn't bring herself to say "Dad" She pushed "the chair."

Crowds of people clamor out of the State buildings with their bags of fried clam cakes and spun maple sugar treats just in time to watch the parade pass by. Behind the Budweiser clydesdales, their barking dalmatian and green, purple and gold bedecked Mardi Gras Krewes riding on their floats with their satchels of "throws," a local American Legion troop proudly marches.

All of the members of the color guard fought in the Big War. The younger veterans, the ones who were spit upon when they came back from their war, marched behind them grateful that they have been finally been accepted and recognized for their contribution to democracy. But the Big War, WWII, was the one that claimed so many victims after the white flags came out, long before anyone knew what post traumatic stress disorder was and what it did to a lot of these proud men who fought for our Freedom.

They look sad but determined, honoring the 2000 of their comrades who are falling every day. With veterans passing at that rate, eventually as with every war, the last remaining veteran will be buried, hopefully leaving behind a free world even though it was unrecognizable to them when they passed . A world that looked so different than it did in the days when they knew who their enemy was on the beaches of Normandy, in the air above Midway island, or a in a ruptured and sinking PT boat in the South Pacific.

Across the fair on the midway, the first little girl we encountered, Daisy, grips her Father's hand tighter as a very shady looking carnie allows his diseased brain to focus on her and stare just a little too long. It is a stare we just don't want to think about, but are forced to endure more often than not, as we read horrifying accounts in the daily newspapers. Again, Dad's intuition kicks in as he utilizes every vestige of his scary biker image to stare down this vile predator.

Yes, he is a loving and sensitive father, but those boots have seen their share of ass kicking. Very few people, other than Phish bassist Mike Gordon, can identify with or better yet, live to tell what can happen when an outlaw biker thinks you are getting inappropriate with their underage child.

The carnie however, was no rock star and his balls shriveled as Dad did not relinquish eye contact and moved in his direction, forcing the carnie to run back into the safety of his filthy trailer.

Sitting on a bench nearby, two of the local ladies from the Lion's Club dining hall comment to each other on what they just witnessed. They had been keeping an eye on this fellow and agreed that the carnie was going to get his ass kicked if he didn't cut out his shameful staring.

Behind the Lion's Club volunteers, who were enjoying a large and sinful looking cream puff, was Kerry the corn dog vendor. His run of bad luck was over. The weather had agreed with him this week and he ended up with a good location across from the midway. He doubled what he thought he would take in for his efforts.

Oh, was he tired. But he was happy. He didn't have to punch a clock. All he had to do was deal with the customers and hope to get out of the parking lot alive with his receipts. He made enough money to take care of the past due mortgage payment, He had been scared…Wednesday was the day. Now he was going go to the bank two days early with a payment which would bring him current.

He smiled at his two children who were in the food cart with him frying the dogs and mixing more corn batter. In their eyes their dad had the coolest job in the world. He smiled once again and hugged them both. He was listening to a song appropriately titled State Fair by The Drunk Stuntmen. Inhaling deeply he took it all in. He loved every bit of it. The memories, the stories people would tell him. The different accents and dialects he encountered, and that was just from one county in Eastern Mass.

He loved all that the fair represented. The fears of the young child going down the giant slide or stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel for the first time. The hopes of others that their hard work would pay off in various competitions and a blue ribbon emblazoned with the words "Best in Fair" would rest on the mantel next to the ones Grandma had won years ago.

He loved this song for what it represented to him. It took him to places he had not been in years and projected him further down the time line than he could ever have imagined. He felt he knew the band. He saw them one night at an outdoor theater in Northampton. It was oppressively hot and muggy, and raining. The spot light trained on the stage cut through the night looking like a pie shaped ray of a movie screen on which was projected a black and white surrealistic piece of grainy celluloid, which looked very unlike the falling raindrops and bugs they actually were. In his mind this was the beginning of the movie he was experiencing now as he saw the fair roll along. He felt like he was watching the song, witnessing the fair on that magical wedge of silver.

It was so muggy that night, the black flies were landing on his bald head and drowning in the sweat and moisture. He had to keep wiping them off with a soggy napkin in his pocket. A situation like this would normally be intolerable to him. He did shudder when Bow Bow, the bass player said he inhaled a bug through his nostril. As uncomfortable a situation it could have been, he was mesmerized and transfixed on the happenings on stage. This was Northampton, he was at a free show and what he was hearing was more like what you would expect from Pink Floyd which you had just paid $75 to see. And they were even short a key player, who had a commitment out of town.

The band was just like him. They worked their asses off, because that is what they did. Maybe they would get the big payday one day, but until that happened he was sure they would keep doing what they were doing . They were the best he had ever heard. They were a band which was tucked into the corner of a local bar but had fans world wide. A band with a cool name he just happened to hear on a college radio station one night during his commute home. He saw them and noticed they had a heart and soul which could fill a theater. They just needed the right break just like the one he had gotten. Maybe their break was forthcoming as Mitch Easter, the guy who did REM's first two albums was slated to produce their next release.

Two years ago Kerry's kids didn't know him. He was always working in that restaurant and that was killing him. What is the point of being the best chef in the Valley if you are going to be a distant memory to your children. You might as well work yourself to death if you are not going to be available when you are alive.

Now he and his kids sell corn dogs laugh and joke about the customers who were challenged to various degrees either from alcohol and over stimulation or the ones who were best described as morbidly obtuse. Now they could spend precious minutes, hours and days with each other. Learning and teaching each other life's simplest lessons and figuring out the difficult lessons together. Oh, life is so much simpler and rewarding. Good life and good times with family, good music and a couple of games of horseshoes every now and then. A life second to none at the State Fair.



Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats

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