My 8- and 10-year-old nephews visiting from the Big City had never been to a county fair. Maybe in their rich county in their rich state, they didn't have them.
What would a county fair would look like in their well-to-do suburban part of the country? All the carnies probably wear khaki slacks and have degrees in child psychology, while ours all look like they're sex offenders hiding from their parole officers. You don't have to go into a tent to see the tattooed man; he's running the Whack-a-Mole booth and seems quite disappointed that the marks, I mean the customers, don't get to whack real moles. In the leafy suburbs, fairgoers may actually win some of the large stuffed animals at the ring-toss wagon. At a real county fair, no one ever wins.
And the rides! The nephews had never seen such rides. Apparently Disney World and Six Flags don't have rusty, old, shaky contraptions that look as if the peeling paint is the only thing holding them together. They didn't seem to notice any difference between Disney's ultra-modern Space Mountain and the aging, battered, used-looking king of our midway, the Scream-a-Thon. I looked around to see if there was a sign on it that said, "Guaranteed to make you vomit or your money back!"
No doubt the county fair ride inspector gave the Scream-a-Thon a thorough going-over before it was approved to be operated by the finest temp worker minimum wage could buy. It probably takes years and years of training, as well as passing a tough test, to earn a license to run something like this. Then I remembered that we voted to cut things like ride inspectors in last year's election to lower property taxes.
Well, if an 8-year-old can ride it, how bad can it be? I'll get on with him. What a baby ride, I thought, not very fast but a little bit jerky. By the time I realized it had just been loading other suckers, it really started to spin. The centrifugal force was trying to rip the pacemaker right out of my chest. As our cage violently spun around, we went from queasy weightlessness to queasy multi-G forces in milliseconds. My lunch was screaming, "What's the matter with you? What were you thinking?!" A week later and I'm still queasy, but the 8- and 10-year-old went on to do all the other the rides. Twice.
Then they asked me, "What's a Demolition Derby?"
"Oh, you don't want to see that," I told them, steering them away from the grandstand and towards Fried Dough Alley. I carefully explained to them how noisy and smoky and crowded and dangerous it is to watch guys crash cars into each other as fast and as hard as they could. "Half the time the cars burst into flames and the firemen run to put them out," I said. The more I told them how violent and life-threatening it was, the more they wanted to go. They insisted that if they didn't see the Demolition Derby they would surely curl up and die, that their lives would never be worth living, that they would never live up to their potential and would probably end up going to a state school instead of Harvard.
"But first," I said, "We have to get something to eat. Your parents will kill me if I don't feed you." When the healthiest thing at the fair is a deep-fat-fried avocado, there's not much point in trying to eat healthy. The kids went for the donut sundae. Now I'm thinking, maybe their parents will kill me because I fed them. "Aren't you afraid that will spoil your dessert?" I asked, but no one answered.
The Demolition Derby was everything I told them it would be and worse. After half an hour of solid engine noise and the crunch of metal on metal, I was longing for the peace and quiet of the Scream-a-Thon.
On the drive home, through their yawns, they both pledged to become derby drivers instead of hedge fund managers, no matter what their parents thought.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.