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Come On, Dad
Bridging generations amid the timeless Americana of the county fair

The 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.

For 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 interest.

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 steed.

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.

—Erik Hage

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