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Enjoying the fair the way it is

POSTED August 8, 2007 9:59 a.m.
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I had a chance to visit the Stanislaus County Fair about six times during the 10-day run, both as a reporter and as a fair-goer.

I caught three concerts - the Big Daddy Weave/Mark Schultz concert as well as the REO Speedwagon concert and Adbacadabra (ABBA tribute).

Always a fan of REO, I never had the chance to even see what those guys looked like. I confess that I was a bit shocked at their appearance. You have to remember that I'm thinking back to 1979 when I was a senior in high school and so I was imaging rockers who still have dark hair. Lead singer Kevin Cronin looked much older than his 55 years of age but he could still could belt out the familiar songs that made them famous.

Rock stars change but many have observed that the county fair doesn't seem to change much. One comment that invariably comes up is, "It's the same old thing every year."

Yeah, there is some truth to that statement. Having grown up in Stanislaus County, I've been going to the fair since the 1970s and not much has changed. My 18-year-old son was incredulously heard me remark that I recall seeing the waterfall in the horticulture building when I was his age. "This was here back then?" he quizzed. Little has changed to the physical plant since I was a kid, I informed him.

This is a generation with higher expectations for entertainment than the one I grew up in, or even the one my parents grew up in. After all, we have come to expect the biggest and most extreme rides at our amusement parks. We want Disneyland to always outdo itself. Those who visit Knotts Berry Farm today could care less to see the old western town but want the gut-churning roller coaster rides.

Frankly, I'm glad that the fair has changed little. Even though I have seen many fairs, I always look forward to one.

You cannot go to a fair without bumping into your neighbors or somebody that you know. Some times you bump into people you haven't seen in years. If anything, the fair reminds you that the county, despite all its growth, is still small enough that you see people you know. While waiting for the Adbacadabra concert, I spied former state Senator Dick Monteith, now a county supervisor, sitting two rows in front of me. We struck up a short conversation about music and then politics. I went off to buy an ice cream cone, which prompted him to do the same. Where else but a county fair does an exchange like that happen?

If you're looking for the thrill of a Disneyland scale amusement park, county fairs aren't going to satisfy you. But then again, county fairs are a different venue altogether. Sure, there's the midway, perhaps the greatest attempt to separate you from your money. (Come on, a $25 wristband to ride rides in "unlimited fashion" for a few hours?). I do find amusement in the antics of the carnies (are those teeth missing because of crack?).

Okay, so the rides are not the best, nor look the safest, nor the most affordable, but the fair has given many of us unparalleled exposure to some great entertainment. Many of us don't have the time to get away to Tahoe or Sacramento or the Bay Area to catch music acts. The fair in Turlock has given me the chance to see country legends Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Johnny and June Carter Cash, the Oak Ridge Boys, Ronnie Milsap, the Gatlin brothers and Mel Tillis, and even pose for photos with Dottie West and Johnny Lee. I've also done backstage interviews with Charley Pride, Glen Campbell and Waylon Jennings.

The fair offers so much more. I like to study the people. You see the middle-aged couple stop by the spas and sigh at the prices, then walk on. Another dream shattered.

You see the squeamish city folk take a look at the pig roasting over the open coals at one of the food booths, a reminder that as an ag community we have a lot of people separated from realities of where food comes from.

There's the parade of teenage girls, trying to get away with wearing the least amount of clothing in a display that screams, "Notice me and how insecure I am." Come to think of it, I saw a lot of not so young women doing the same and the not so young guys doing their share of noticing.

You see the beer drinkers, oblivious to the fact that they're blocking the aisles, bombed out of their skulls as they drown the work week away.

You see the young kids excitedly pointing out chickens or cows in the barns. Or the grandmas who melt at the sight of something they saw as a kid: baby chicks nestled under a heat lamp. The moms who are enthralled by the sight of the huge mama pig with its piglets competing for a chance at a meal.

Fair goers tend to flock to the more popular attractions while completely missing the quieter ones. One must slow the pace down and take a contemplative stroll through the exhibits of apple turnovers, Lego creations, paintings, photographs, FFA wood projects and trailers and, yes, fruits and vegetables. It's a distinctly American experience to see a blue ribbon award attached to your neighbors' preserves or an award planted atop a slice of pie like the flag stabbed into the surface of the moon. There's the nudge, too, that says "I need to enter something in the fair next year."

But the fair wouldn't be the fair without the animals. Seeing animals reminds me of younger days when I had more to do with them. This year I got to study, for the first time in my life, a yak, a camel, a water buffalo and an ostrich (the fair's theme was Summer Safari).

Frankly, I could have done without the pig unloading his bladder on my shoes (and possibly on my back) as I was interviewing Ceres 4-H member William Bailey but that's the hazards of a reporter!

Today, a whiff of sawdust anywhere reminds me of the county fair in late July and August. I can lay landscaping bark in my own yard and its scent takes me to Turlock.

The fair is truly an institution and despite cries that nothing there ever changes, I'm thankful we still have one - and a good one at that!

How do you feel? Let him know at jeff@cerescourier.com.
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