Random Ephemera

4 Lessons I've Learned at County Fairs

I love fairs and carnivals, and always have. I grew up going to the Fort Bend County Fair almost every year until I hit my thirties, and still try to visit it when I can. I have many vivid memories of that fair and others, but they've also taught me a few lessons over the years. It may sound silly to some folks, but a county fair can teach a person a few things about himself and life.

4. A Fair Is a Microcosm of Many Cultures.

A good fair, such as Fort Bend County's, becomes a gathering place for lots of different types of people, and a lot of them use the event as a way to show off certain things that might not be obvious elsewhere. People-watching is one of the best things about a fair, and many local cultures are represented. I always take time to check out the exhibition halls where local artists display their work. Almost without fail, that proves to be interesting, with arts and crafts being displayed that cover many styles and mediums. Local bakers compete with some interesting results, too, and these glimpses into the many interests other people have are illuminating. Fort Bend County's Fair has a rodeo and lots of country music concerts as well as a huge livestock show, so there are also plenty of traditionally "Texan" activities for visitors to explore. 

3. I Learned That Cheap Thrills Are Plentiful and Fun.

Probably the most appealing aspect of a fair is the opportunity to experience the types of cheap thrills that a good carnival environment can offer. As a kid in the '70s and '80s, I would look forward to exploring the midway, longing for some new experience that might await me. When I was younger, the rides were a big part of that appeal, but so was that sense of wonder and the unexpected. A carnival is like a small and very strange village that moves into town for a short while, allowing fair-goers a chance to escape from the everyday responsibilities of their lives. Most carnivals, including the one hosted by the Fort Bend County Fair, are family friendly. The safety of visitors is of primary concern, and any "danger" that a guest might sense is just part of the image — people tend to seek out things that seem a little scary. That certainly was a large part of the appeal of getting on certain rides, and paying to enter some of the sideshow attractions I encountered over the years. "Giant Russian Man-Eating Rats!" "The Two Headed Cow!" "Spidora — The Woman With The Body Of A Spider!" Sure, the thrills were cheap, but they were still a lot of fun.

2. I Learned the Difference Between Luck and Skill.

Rides and sideshow attractions weren't the only things drawing my younger self to the carnival. There were also the games, sprawling out in a continuous line of booths covered in flashing lights. The appeal of most of them seems almost primal, a sort of drive to be rewarded for a show of skill that most people only think about when a fair rolls into town. Could I throw an off-balance ring over a bowling pin? Could I shoot out a red star on a target with an air-powered, fully automatic BB gun? Would I care about these abilities or need them at any other time of the year? No, probably not. And the prizes...Why was a large stuffed, pink gorilla suddenly something I wanted so badly? I have no good answer for that. But a carnival can make some people think and act strangely.

Playing carnival games taught me a few valuable lessons early on, though. After playing a strange game with a large stationary roulette wheel, where I chose a number and then a rat was released to walk around before deciding to duck into one of the holes located at each spot, I realized that the real rat being led along was ME. While most carnival management companies don't allow outright cheating anymore, that doesn't mean that the games out on the midway aren't really hard, far more difficult to win at than they appear. It also doesn't mean that the darts handed out to pop balloons are universally balanced or sharp, as I quickly discovered from watching several bounce right off their intended targets. A player's ability to squirt a stream of water into a plastic clown's mouth or to knock down a pin could be a demonstration of skill, or it might just be a nice run of good luck. Life is like that sometimes.

1. I Learned That You Never Know Who You Might Meet.

Because of the community aspect of a county fair, a person may very well run into someone he knows but hasn't seen in a while. Over the years, that has certainly happened to me many times. Then there are the new characters a person might run into at a fair that he or she almost certainly won't anywhere else. For instance, in the late '80s, I was on a double date at the Fort Bend County Fair when my group happened upon a sideshow attraction that drew our attention.

Huge, garish banners advertised "The Lobster Boy," and were accompanied by paintings of a young boy with bright red lobster claws on both his hands and feet. "Alive And In Person," another banner read, and we were hooked. By 1988, human oddity freak shows were extremely rare, since societal concerns had shifted toward a more sympathetic view of people with certain physical conditions, so we expected the "Lobster Boy" to be a young guy wearing fake claw gloves. My group eagerly paid admission, and were ushered inside the banner-draped door, to discover that what awaited us inside was a trailer home that looked like it could belong to someone's grandparent. There was a La-Z-Boy in the center, and that's when we met Grady Stiles, a famous sideshow performer, who had been touring carnivals billed as The Lobster Boy for many years. He'd been born with ectrodactyly, a rare birth defect that left him with two huge claw-like fingers on his hands, and two similar digits on his feet.

Stiles was in his late fifties when we met him, and was friendly with a well-practiced smile. As we left the trailer a few minutes later, I sensed that our dates were suddenly quiet and mildly shocked. They hadn't expected to encounter a person with a real physical condition, and the experience had killed their mood considerably. Years later, I found out Grady Stiles was notoriously abusive to his family, even killing his daughter's boyfriend, and eventually his cruelty led to him being murdered himself. Still, my encounter with the man had been an interesting one, and a throwback to a previous era of carnival life that had been swiftly dying out. I've met a lot of interesting people at fairs and midways over the years, but none of those encounters top that one. It was a true lesson that wherever life takes us, there will be interesting people along the way, and it happens that a carnival is a pretty good place to meet them.

The Fort Bend County Fair will offer visitors many unusual and fun activities, and it runs from September 25 through October 4.
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.