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Russel Lee: At the Imperial County Fair, California

"Everybody heads home a winner anyway!"

I feel confident that I have no idea how to describe The Southeast Washington Fair and Rodeo, though I've attended this celebration for more than sixty years. The "Fair" seemed enormous and exciting in my youth, a vast playground of unusual sights and experiences. Rides, sure, but also animal barns where the farm kids would camp out with their prize stock and walk around with straw in their hair. In the old days, the Midway was a place of awe and petty crime where carnies and unlikely charlatans took the usual advantage of gullible townies. One of those sharps correctly named my first-grade teacher's first name, an astounding feat made more remarkable by the fact that her name was Pearl. What were the odds besides impossible? That single transaction convinced me to avoid betting on anything ever again. The odds are very likely somehow invisibly in someone else's favor.

The modern-day Fair seems tame, down-right lame in comparison.
The farm equipment's much bigger and even more intimidating than it ever seemed in my youth. These days, the typical farmer drives a tractor that costs more than the average Lamborgini and features functional satellite navigation. The operator watches movies on his onboard high-definition video screen while working. Then, each operation hired a squad of farmhands in season, and every damned one of them would show up at the Fair front gate on Friday night with a farmer's daughter in hand, headed for the big dance held in the echoey space underneath the grandstand or the rodeo in the arena. True love might be discovered at the top of the Ferris wheel or near the end of a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

The Pavilion, a vast conical barn, held exhibits ranging from one sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventists to one of my mom's painting or sewing projects. It took guts for her to exhibit her stuff, and she won some ribbons. They remodeled the pavilion a few years back. It used to stand as if egging some disastrous fire to start in it. Now, it seems safer but less attractive. The Fair hires decorators to hang curtains to separate exhibit spaces. It seems comparatively bloodless. The usual gang still exhibits: the political candidates, the bathroom remodelers, and the right-to-lifers offering actual proof of the rightness of their perspective. They only ever attract partisans. They deal in unmentionables in public.

Both political parties maintain Fair booths. The Repuglicans, once a respectable party, maintain a year-round prefabricated booth on wheels. The Muse and I happened upon their setting up ritual last night and couldn't help ourselves from listening in. They began their efforts by standing, saluting The Flag, and reciting The Pledge of Allegiance in reverent tones reminiscent of a fascist rally. They continued with an indoctrination session where booth workers were instructed in how to respond to various sorts of heckling and disruption. I couldn't see where they would find a leg to stand on and seriously considered stopping by to ask if they were offering instruction manuals for inciting insurrections. The Muse suggested she'd need a few Repuglican votes to win her bid to get elected to Port Commissioner, so I stifled.

The Dems create a more pop-up presence, a tent rather than a trailer. The Dems maintain the role of minority here, though the Democratic Party utterly dominates our State government. Last year, some Future Farmer stole the head off of The Dem's cardboard Biden. The Dems tend to get open derision from ignorant citizens who watch more Fox News than could possibly be good for anyone. In the old days, political parties gave away stickers that would end up on car bumpers and every nearly flat surface on the fairgrounds. This year, The Fair Board has banned stickers of any size or shape. We live in a world pre-empted by altogether too much prior experience.

My innocence largely defined the Fair of my youth. I had not then ever thrown up into a garbage can just off the Midway. I'd never taken a sweaty-palmed date and been expected to show her a good time spending my paper route profits on rides and games of chance. I'd yet to grow cynical with experience and learned to set my expectations into underwhelm mode, thereby foregoing the anticipation that was always the Fair's most significant product. Of course, it never once lived up to even the more modest of my expectations, but I still felt compelled to return every year until I moved away and even traveled to come back during Fair week after I'd gone.

Anyone who grew up in a small American town suffers from a life-long case of Fair poisoning. We were infected early, and we remain wary. We know those turkey legs are unspeakably filthy, yet we buy one anyway and inevitably choke it down. We quietly lust after the ice cream bar cut from a half-gallon square, dipped into dark chocolate, and then rolled in chopped peanuts. There was never better than the humbling corn dog, a fundamentally abominable food slathered with mustard destined to drip down my shirt front. Late, after the rodeo lets out, but before they close the front gates, the facade falls like scales from a fair-goer's eyes, and one sees what a miracle the whole affair might have always been. Of course, it's a clip joint. It steals everybody blind, and they gleefully submit to the robbery. They head home with a rumbly tummy and miniature pirate flag, which seemed like plunder when they'd won it after spending only five dollars on ping pong balls to play that shady game of chance. Heads, they win! Tails, I lose! Everybody heads home a winner anyway!

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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