Off the Beaten Path: A Childhood Love-A-Fair.

This month the State Fair of West Virginia will once again open its gates in Fairlea. I hope most of you are familiar with it. I know I sure am. You see, when I grew up, the State Fair was my neighbor. It was right down the street from my house. I used to think how lucky I was. Not many kids lived within walking distance of the State Fair! And it was a big deal to me and my friends and family. Heck, it was such a big deal that the kid next door once tried to claim that my dad’s land was actually owned by the State Fair. Now, I don’t know what that was all about, but as you can imagine, it sure made me angry, and it shows just how much of our time we spent thinking about the fair! Photo above: @lpreinke

Heck, my sister STILL counts down the days till the fair every year, and she’s 64 years old!

And we started thinking about the fair EARLY let me tell you. Months in advance. We’d even start counting down the days a couple of months before. (Heck, my sister STILL counts down the days till the fair every year, and she’s 64 years old!) My family lived on the east side of Fairlea, East Fair Street if you can believe it, up on the rise where you get a good, commanding view of the fairgrounds. Well, at least you did from the roof of old man Green’s shed. He was our next-door neighbor, and it was to his property that we went every summer, drawn to the spectacle of the carnival’s rise like the acolytes of some arcane religion.

We were never disappointed in anything we saw, but we always watched breathlessly as the star of the show’s towering form rose to its full height: the DOUBLE FERRIS WHEEL!

After grabbing a few green apples from Mr. Green’s tree (ironically enough now that I think of it!), we’d open the door of his shed, wiggle around the old grinding wheel (used to sharpen all manner of implements deadly to invading hordes of garden pests) and ascend to the roof via a narrow little doorway high up above the shelves – just like a secret trapdoor I always thought. There we would watch as fields of windswept grasses slowly transformed into a panoply of light and sound over the course of a week. Each day we charted its progress, always alert for some new metallic creature we had never seen before rising from the midway. Sometimes this happened, but more often than not it was the same collection of nausea-inducing terrors that we had always known and loved. We were never disappointed in anything we saw, but we always watched breathlessly as the star of the show’s towering form rose to its full height: the DOUBLE FERRIS WHEEL!

No, my cup of tea was something more genteel. For me it was always the SWINGS!

Absent from the fair for decades now, the double Ferris wheel was pretty much everybody’s favorite it seemed, mine included. I mean, sure, I never RODE it or anything, but it was thrill enough for me just watching OTHER people ride it! I remember reveling at the sight of that upper wheel coming barreling over the top, the poor saps chained to its wildly gyrating seats obviously trying hard not to let their prayers be audible to their friends. As for me getting on it, well that just wasn’t my cup of tea, that’s all. It’s not like I was afraid or anything. No, my cup of tea was something more genteel. For me it was always the SWINGS!

And what long days they were. We’d spend ALL day, EVERY day at the fair!

The 1970’s incarnation of the swings was much bigger than those used today. I remember how it felt, pulling the bar down over my lap and waiting to be whisked up into the sky, looking up at where the chain was attached and thinking, ‘Well, I guess these guys know what they’re doing.’ As it spun up the seat would start to angle out to one side, like some pendulum gone awry. Higher and higher it went. Faster and faster. If the chain did break at this point, you might just be able to pass off your will to some kid riding the Skyliner before everything went black. Ah, but I was free up there. Just me and The Doors. Come on Baby Light my Fire. Yeah, that’s right – they were still playing that song on rides in the late 1970’s and boy did I ever love it. The pulsating lights, the swirling pageant of people below me, all set to Manzarek’s hypnotic organ. Those, my friends, were the days.

And what long days they were. We’d spend ALL day, EVERY day at the fair! Yes sir, all day out in the blazing sun with nary a drop to drink or a crumb to consume. We were too poor for that. Too poor to ride many rides too, come to think of it. Well okay, so they did have a water fountain, but what kid wants to drink water? Of course, it did help that we were so close to home, where we could pop in to wet our whistle or feed the bottomless pit.

One fat Gyro and the Wall of Death and I’m out of there.

Nowadays, I go to the fair and barely last 2 hours, and that’s in the relative cool of the night. One fat Gyro and the Wall of Death and I’m out of there. Speaking of the cool of night, what happened to it? I remember actually having to wear a jacket many times. I think the fair was held the last full week of August until 1988, so maybe that’s it. But could one week really make that much of a difference in temperature?

I’ll be the guy with tzatziki sauce all over his face holding out a tip for the lunatic.

Anyway folks, those are my memories of the West Virginia State Fair. (Yes, I know it’s actually called the State Fair of West Virginia, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as well. Anyone want to start a petition?) I still live in Fairlea, on the same street, and I haven’t even made it over there a couple of years recently. Wow, what a change aging into decrepitude makes. I do intend to go back this year. That is if I can maybe smell Gyros wafting on the Fair Street air or hear the sounds of some lunatic riding a motorcycle up a wall. Maybe I’ll see y’all around over there. I’ll be the guy with tzatziki sauce all over his face holding out a tip for the lunatic.

Until next time, watch where you tread, and maybe, just maybe, you might sometimes want to go OFF THE BEATEN PATH.

– Barry Pyne, HashtagWV #134. August 2021. Contact the author at offthebeatenpathman@gmail.com

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