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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Heading Back to the County Fair of Days Gone By

This post 1st appeared yesterday in another blog we're writing - There's Always a Price to Pay. If this blog entry makes you nostalgic, click here for a list of county fairs this summer in the DC area.



I saw online today that the annual Cumberland County Fair is underway once again. Now I won't be going to the fair this year. It is too long a commute from Washington, D.C. to South Jersey.

But the fair had quite an effect on me during my formative years. It offered an exhilarating, exotic, stay-where-you-are travel adventure, a week-long glimpse into a world that was as foreign to me at the time as were the places I read about in Classics Illustrated or my science fiction collection.

When I was young, the fair was held on a large piece of land in my Bridgeton hometown. Off the dusty midway, you could ride elevated, spinning, dipping rides that delivered thrills I though were reserved for astronauts in the Mercury space program. For even more chills, there was the House of Horror. I imagined myself getting trapped in the House of Glass maze until some tattooed carney found me after closing.

Then there was my favorite place on the fairgrounds - the Side Show, where giant wind-waving banners and fast-talking, ticket-taking barkers promised mysterious strangeness never seen by modern man, let alone a pre-teen boy growing up in rural Upper Deerfield Township.

Who wouldn't want to see a bearded lady or a wild man from Borneo or a child with the skin of a reptile and the face of a lizard?

I was fascinated by the freaks and the geeks. They didn't fit in. They were outsiders. I found myself rooting for them. I envisioned that after the fair closed for the night, they all gathered together to laugh at the "normals" who handed over their dimes and quarters to be shocked and feel superior.

In my teen years, my fair focus changed to 2 ideas that were to dominate that time of my life - music and sex, or more accurately, playing music and contemplating exactly what is this sex thing I am supposed to be figuring out?

Frog Ocean Road - that's me in the center
The fair always held a Battle of Bands. One of the first live shows I ever played was in 1966 with my first band The Livin' End. My college-era band Frog Ocean Road debuted at the fair. I don't remember too much about that performance, but that probably has more to do with the substances we were smoking and ingesting that day rather than the passage of more than 40 years.

Nowhere did those concerns of music and sex join more directly than at the fair's one adult attraction - the strip show. The big tent for that forbidden show was located at the far end of the fairgrounds. The show was called The Coppertone Review. It featured scantily-clad girls who would gyrate and disrobe to the pounding horn-driven rhythms of the Coppertone Review Band. A few times a day, the girls would come outside the tent, displaying just a hint of the promise of what was inside. They would pose and dance for a few minutes to the band. Then the entire group would disappear back inside. You could often find me there, grooving to the band and lusting for the possibilities the girls' represented.

In my 16th summer, I borrowed an ID from an 18-year-old friend and finally headed inside the Coppertone tent. I don't remember everything about that night, but I remember enough. The mayor of Bridgeton, along with other town elders I recognized, were already inside. The featured performer was Chili Pepper ("She's Too Hot to Handle"). Ms. Pepper spent much of her stage time wiggling and writhing on a black-and-white zebra skin rug. I kept hoping for her pasties to fall off or her black g-string to slip. But they never did.  One-half hour later, I was back outside. I had seen my first strip show. And Chili Pepper and the other girls had reaffirmed a valuable life lesson - the promise and mystery of what is beyond the curtain (or, in this case. the tent flap) is often much greater than the reality delivered.

Toward the end of my teen years, the fair moved from Bridgeton to its current location in neighboring rural Deerfield Township. At that site, I had my most memorable fair encounter. My best friend at the time Tom Glass and I decided to sneak into the fair. We had plenty of money to buy tickets, but getting in for free sounded much more exciting. Besides, we were trying to be bad boys.

Tom said he had been told about a place in the outside fence where we could sneak under. We hitchhiked to the site and walked through the woods to the fence, where we found the place to wiggle in. Tom went first. Just as I was crawling through, we heard the sound of a horse. A fair officer was approaching on horseback. Tom dropped the metal chain-link fence on me and took off. The officer dismounted and got me untangled. I was covered with dirt and my shirt was ripped. He ordered me to follow him to the fair office.

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
As I walked across the fairgrounds, I tried to see myself as Steve McQueen in the classic World War II movie The Great Escape. But it wasn't working. Steve McQueen had been trying to break out and I had been trying to break in. I might think I was cool, but McQueen actually was. And, unlike McQueen, I had a mother and father who would be furious with my actions.

Inside the office, I was questioned by fair officials. There was a single lamp on the table, but they never shined it directly in my eyes. Finally, they told me they were going to let me go with a warning if I would promise to tell others not to try to sneak in. Of course, I agreed. I was pretty sure Steve McQueen would have agreed, too.

I went back to the fair a few times after my teenage years, but it was never the same.

Things change. And the more time that passes, the bigger those change become.

Today, the rides at the fair pale in comparison to those at Disney or Great Adventure. It is politically incorrect to stare at freaks and geeks in side shows. Anyway, you can do that for free whenever you want to on the internet. People hesitate to hold events like Battle of the Bands for young people any more. There is too much of a chance somebody will bring a gun. When you have Pornhub and other graphic XXX-rated sites, who needs The Coppertone Review?

And if you want to be a bad boy (or girl), just call up your video game copy of Grand Theft Auto 99, steal the fast car of your choice, drive to a simulated fair, and blow away half the crowd there. You won't even get dirty or have your shirt rip. I'm just not sure what kind of memories you'll be making.

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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