Bridging generations amid the timeless Americana of the county
fairgrounds in my hometown, Cobleskill, sit quietly now,
occasionally hosting lesser events—car shows, horse competitions—and
waiting for that epochal week in August when they will spring
to life, as they have done for 128 years, to serve the purpose
for which they were designed. I imagine it’s a similar story
in nearby Altamont. But the fair will come, inevitable
as the harvest, and then, like some kind of spontaneous
civilization, all of the angular, towering architecture
and throngs of people will be gone—a lost Atlantis that
has seemingly sunk into the dust and clipped grass. Maybe
a few enterprising kids will slip under the grandstands
with a metal detector, their spare shouts of coin discovery
the only remnants of once-clotted humanity.
me, the fair is lodged in summer memory like an exotic wilderness
of the senses: grease-drenched wafts of fried dough intermingling
with sizzling sausage and onions. The ebbing shrieks of
people swooping through the air in colorful machinery. Clusters
of teenagers with shining eyes parading the neon expanses
of the nighttime midway. The ear- piercing whine of tractor
pulls. Lazy livestock swatting tails at flies, blissfully
unconcerned with the proud bows above their stalls. Elder
townsfolk tucked into muggy grandstands, placidly fanning
themselves in the midday heat and patiently awaiting Roy
Clark (or, in a leaner year, im- personator Shania “Twin”).
Sugar- bottomed cups of tart, fresh-squeezed lemonade.
The county fair is certainly a hallmark of summer for many,
and it just might be one of the last universal and quintessential
Americana experiences, like a monstrous, living folk-art
piece—with all of the rurality and kitsch that implies.
And let’s face it: Despite a rapidly progressing world,
the basic format—whether you’re in Altamont, Cobleskill
or elsewhere—has remained largely unchanged over numerous
decades (though the fundamentally fashioned experience does
seem to adapt to and blend with contemporary culture; I
don’t need a crystal ball to predict that a few SpongeBobs
will be won this summer).
It’s also an interesting cross- section of local humanity,
from halter-topped and Harley-shirted beer guzzlers to farmers
settling in for a week of competition to the designer- pram-pushing
suburbanites piling kids out of the SUV. And for one week—for
better or worse—we are drawn from our various strata and
subcommunities to rub collective shoulders in this surreal
temporary village (and to spend loads of money).
As a parent, I’ve rediscovered the fair. I was truly “over
it” for a time, reliving it only in sepia-toned memory.
But bringing my kids for the first time, my perspective
had shifted. I found the midway was no longer an innocuous
wonderland, rife with adventure, but a series of nuts and
bolts and intricate pieces of machinery that must travel
from town to town and be constantly reassembled—their exact
safety specifications reliant upon the scowling, sunburnt
man of questionable hygiene leaning absently on the ride
throttle (and eyeing a passing patch of teenage girls).
These are now your own children’s temporary protectors,
lowering bars and clasping safety chains with distracted
But it breaks your heart a little and you chasten your cynicism
to see your 3-year-old daughter drifting along with wonder-filled
eyes on her first ride, a bubble-shaped helicopter that,
from its faded age, looks to be the same one you rode on.
Your new fairgrounds identity is constantly reaffirmed,
as sleazy game buskers preface pitches with “Hey, Dad .
. .”—their comments becoming gradually more emasculating
as you drift on past.
As a kid, after the rides, I would usually play “I Got It,”
that ball-tossed game of chance (like Bingo with red rubber
balls). I do the same with my 6-year-old stepson, but anxiety
rears its head as my usually level-headed stepson’s plan
of two games swells to a dozen, all of his junk-food allotment
squandered in Ahab-like pursuit of a plastic sword or Nerf
football. For a moment, I flash to the wife’s prodigal,
crazy old man, his horse-betting sheets laid out before
him, and worry about latent genes.
But ultimately, of course, it’s just a boy with an idea
in his head, no different than I was (probably a whole lot
better). And I can’t help but notice, as my idea of a traditional
family route moves through “Progressland,” that my children’s
eyes glaze over and they fidget much the way I did when
my dad, in this same building, got wrapped up in discussions
over water softeners and solar panels.
And there’s an inkling that perhaps my apprehension in this
simulacrum of the larger world, the county fair, is representative
of the kind of parent I am becoming: overprotective and
looking for every bugaboo in the world closet. Even my 2-year-old
seems to look at me disconsolately, as if to say, “Lighten
up, Dad,” as I clutch him for dear life atop a merry-go-round
In my linear seriousness of purpose, we end up in the livestock
barns, where a monstrous mother pig suckles her young. This,
I indicate with a wave of my hand, is the wonder of life—a
grand finale for the day. “Can we go on more rides?” my
daughter asks me, with big eyes.
So, inevitably, it’s back to the midway, where I begin
perhaps to get over my own baggage and enjoy the fair via
my children’s careless enthusiasm. After all, the fair is
a childhood we can share. My kids’ and my childhood worlds
may be incommensurate in many ways—mine devoid of the Internet
and filled with miles of helmetless bike rides and the pre-cable
joys of Happy Days. But the county fair, in all its
remarkable consistency, is a psychological childhood landscape
that we can share, for better or worse.