»  The Straggler, No. 26

December 13, 2004

  Fall Festival


Off to the Fall Festival on an October weekend, each of us with a different motive:

Dad—To escape from the election campaign for an afternoon.

Mom—To buy pickles.

Nellie (11)—In the hope of meeting friends, so they can shriek "Omigod!" at each other while jumping up and down and flapping their arms.

Danny (9)—To ride the rides.

To deal with the pickles first: There is a store a couple of townships away that makes superb pickled cucumbers. We never actually go to the store, I don't know why; but each year they have a booth at our own township's Fall Festival, and we go and load up on garlic pickle, dill pickle, cajun pickle, and horseradish pickle. We are a pickle family. I was raised in the old English tradition of a huge joint of roast meat for Sunday lunch followed naturally by cold meat remains garnished with cheese and pickles for supper, and again on Monday — "Resurrection Day," as my mother rather irreverently called it. My wife spent her childhood in the Chinese province of Szechwan and doesn't consider that food has any flavor at all unless it blisters the roof of your mouth.

Pickles purchased and safely stashed in the car, we head for the rides. This isn't Great Adventure, of course, just a travelling carnival with a dozen or so large pieces of equipment and some side booths. The crowds are tremendous, though. Half the township seems to be present. There are long lines for all the rides, even the ones Danny, our rides authority, pronounces "lame." Mom, however, has a bold technique of waiting on line for one attraction while the kids ride another, then pulling them into her line just as the custodian is opening the gate. This only works if you are female and petite; when I try it, a fist-fight very nearly breaks out. Thus declared redundant for place-holding chores, and with a vestibular system that will not tolerate anything that rotates at high speed, I have nothing much to do.

Standing around idly, watching these throngs of ordinary Americans — non-elite, non-metropolitan, suburban and country folk (I live in the outer-outer fringes of the New York suburbs; there's a farm down the road) — I am struck by the great variety of physical types I see. I'm not talking about "diversity." There isn't actually much of that. Not many black Americans seem to go to Fall Festival, though I have no clue why this should be so. Nor do any but the teeniest proportion of the festival-goers look identifiably Hispanic (which I take to mean Amerindian or mestizo), though there is a large Hispanic population center a couple of miles away. There are plenty of East Asians, though — another data point to add to my developing theory that East Asians are the most easily-assimilable of all immigrant groups.

But no, I don't mean that kind of "diversity," I mean physical types: short, tall, straight, bent, pale, florid, blond, brunette, ecto-, meso-, and endomorphic, smooth and hairy, confident-looking and querulous, orthodontized and snaggle-toothed, erect and round-shouldered, oh-boy! lovely and oh-Lord! ugly, knobby Breughel peasant faces and soft pampered beauty-parlor ones, silver-haired Sicilian grandees, Irish both red and black, long-jawed Levantines and moon-faced Balts, strutting young bucks with pumped-up muscles and frail mottled old ladies who kissed the boys coming home in '45. What a parade of humanity! There is something about seeing people en masse like this in all their weird and wonderful variety that fills me with tender regard for my species. (That remark should not, of course, be taken as signifying any intention to disparage or denigrate other species.) Homo sap. are not such a bad lot.

That needs some qualification. You go to a carnival, you're going to see carny people. Where do they come from? Is there some ranch out in the Mojave desert where they breed these surly, slack-eyed, pony-tailed, tattooed, nicotine-stained wretches? (I'm gambling here that there are no carny people among the readership of National Review.) Where is Gordon MacRae? But milling around with my fellow citizens like this in a spirit of aimless work-evasion has put me in a good humor, and I can even smile at the carny people — especially with four half-gallon tubs of spicy pickles waiting in the car.

Other mysteries bob around in my idling brain. Looking at the rides, I wonder how on earth such contraptions survive in our lawyered-up society. Every so often one reads in the newspapers about someong being scalped, crushed, dismembered or eviscerated by an amusement-park ride. This is not surprising when you see the ancient, rusty devices shaking and juddering through their terrifying motions. I suppose they carry huge insurance premiums. That would certainly account for the startling ticket prices.

As cheesy as these holiday carnivals are, as little as there is to be said for them on a cultural level, they appeal to a conservative temperament. They are, in fact, conservative affairs, unchanged in most respects across the half-century I have been attending them, points of stillness in a changing world. I first shot a rifle — well, an air gun — at a fairground booth. I took my first girlfriend to a fair, and won her a huge stuffed-animal toy by an impressive display of marksmanship. (Should have claimed it back at the break-up.)

And back beyond the personal stretches the historical, for something of this kind has been going on for centuries — millennia, very likely. I imagine housewives were buying pickles at the fair, girls going to meet their coevals, boys to experience something thrilling, and Dads to escape their work, back when 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre. Michael Henchard, later the Mayor of Casterbridge, sold his wife at a fair not unlike this one: "among the peep-shows, toy-stands, waxworks, inspired monsters, disinterested medical men who travelled for the public good, thimble-riggers, nick-nack vendors, and readers of Fate." I don't imagine a wife sale would go over very well in 2004 America … but at least I have got away from the election campaign for an afternoon.