The County Fear

One of the great things about county fairs is their consistency. From Maine to Marin, this summertime perennial blossoms in
communities across the land with an iconic collection of sights, smells and sounds.

A county-fair fan from 50 years ago would, aside from advancements in electronics, find little changed today. Amid the aisles of the arcade, tattooed barkers with Runyonesque faces woo strolling couples or families toward games of chance (mostly the chance that you’ll drop a pair of Jacksons winning your cutie or your kid a $10 stuffed monkey).

The rides, garishly festooned, but with their industrial underpinnings unabashedly on display, all do one of two things­—spin or drop you to the point of nauseous delirium, with the only variation depending on your height or your tolerance for sustained physical inversion.

Permeating everything is the smell of fair food, a not unpleasant bouquet of charred meat, scalded sugar and beer gone bad. The scent clings to your clothing and reminds you much afterward of your indulgent dalliance with a crusty-skinned turkey leg the size of a ham or a candied apple with bulletproof coating or a diaphanous blue swirl of cotton candy.

It is after a meal like this that, perhaps emboldened by the carbohydrate rush hitting the bloodstream, some fairgoers head for the roller coaster. Once you’re aboard the brightly colored coaster cars and riding the yellow rails toward the edge of the first, and biggest, drop, reality returns. There, directly in front, is the fear­—and the fun (such a thin line between the two). Many scream. Others face stonily forward. And some just choose to endure and plunge blindly ahead.