It’s been a long time since I went to the fair. When I say “the” fair, I don’t mean Dubuque County’s, but the Mississippi Valley Fair, in my hometown of Davenport. What I still love about that one is its location – right smack in the middle of town, across from shops and gas stations, close to houses, just down the road from my high school.
There were other things going on at the fairgrounds, of course, just like here. One of the few things my dad and I did as a twosome was watching stock care races and tractor pulls. They were so loud, we could here them from our house. I went with my college roommate to see Eric Clapton there, a daytime concert with little fanfare, no huge stadium, and a perfect rendition of “Let it Rain.”
But it was the summer fair, the real deal, that drew me and my friends there. That was the whole extravaganza – rides, games, kids showing livestock, home cooks competing for best strawberry rhubarb pie or canned pickle pigs’ feet, raucous concerts, food both junky and grand, and probably twenty-seven other things I’m forgetting. The fun house! The carnies! The creepy side shows!
That’s where I learned the hard way that my stomach was not cut out for anything beyond the tamest of roller coasters. Even watching my sister on the Tilt-A-Wheel made me queasy. I did love the food, and had no trouble stuffing it all down. The lemonade, garnished with an entire lemon half, was the best. In those days, you could only buy cotton candy once a year at the fair, not at the mall (which had yet to be built) or the grocery store. That still feels wrong.
We went during the day when I was a kid, and at night when a friend finally got a car and a license to drive it. My memories are of motion, of lighted rides going up and down and of packs of friends cruising around, scoping out the action and all the other kids. Something was going to happen; we just had to keep our eyes open.
One summer, something did happen. It was unexpected, and it changed my life forever. My best friend Gail and I went to the fair with our boyfriends, Gary and John. They were nice guys, both athletes; Gary on the baseball team, John running track. We weren’t sports groupies, Gail and I, with interests much more aligned with the school yearbook and newspaper, but we liked to watch them play. We double dated every so often, going to parks or hanging out with other friends. Pretty innocent stuff.
That hot July night, the other three wanted to go on the Ferris wheel, but I knew it would kill me, so Gail stayed on the ground with me while the boys went up and around. They were sweet that way, not afraid of looking goofy and less than macho. (I don’t know where Gary ended up, but John and his wife were both nurses.) So there we were, two girls in their prime, probably wearing short shorts and smiling at all the boys walking by. Then, there they were – two other guys we knew from school. Dave played football, and Chris was a swimmer, as well as a track teammate of John’s.
Looking back, I can see that they were just kids, no less goofy than our original dates, but at that moment they appeared infinitely older and more compelling. So as John and Gary spun obliviously on the wheel, we allowed ourselves to be seduced. We went home with the boys who brought us, but after that, we had a new set of boys to double date or, more often, to make out with in cars two-by-two. It’s a golden memory, this moment of meeting a sweetheart at the fair, even though he stole the distributor cap from my car on his way out, just to get my attention. It would have made a great story to tell our children, if it went that far.
Gail’s new relationship lasted through senior year, but she left for college unencumbered. I, on the other hand, married that boy, that young man, that dangerous person with the temper and addictions to cigarettes and alcohol. More’s the pity. I did break up with him soon after moving into my freshman dorm, telling him, “We never have any fun.” The fair was fun, but it was downhill from there.
The only other amusement park I went to after that was Disneyland, with Chris, at a time when our marriage was so violent he beat me up in the car between San Francisco and Anaheim. But our kids had fun. As we walked out of the Journey to Mars ride, Allison thought we had actually gone there. After I divorced their dad and moved here, they went to the Dubuque County fair many times.
Now that it’s almost fair time, I won’t pass judgment on the decision to open it up in the midst of the pandemic. People love their fun, their freedom, their chance to go a little crazy, and it’s a wonderful thing, the way all those workers make this magic appear every summer. If you go, be careful. Wear a mask, keep your distance, and enjoy a ride on the roller coaster for me. But if you meet someone new there? Think twice. Maybe what happens at the fair should stay at the fair.