Jenkins: State Fair offers a view of others' lives, and our own

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2013 

They wanted prizes, of course. Walking down the midway at the State Fair empty-handed is akin to going to the prom alone. As “Pops” to these four, I had work to do. I have no skill at the common midway games such as the basketball shooting or the target games or the ones where you try to stand a pop bottle up on a board slanted at 45 degrees. I had to go to the one game where I’m considered something of a ringer.

I’m 61 years old, but bald on top and white-haired around the sides and in the mustache. Thus, the age-guessers always have been bedeviled by me. And so we stopped at one, two, three, four such stands. The lowest guess was 66, the highest 70. By 1 p.m. Sunday, the four kids, three girls and a boy, were loaded up with gremlins and dolphins and swords and plastic trumpets, their prizes spilling over into the arms of their parents. King and queens of the midway.

And I couldn’t help but hope, that some years hence, when they’re out there with their own youngsters, perhaps they’ll reflect on that afternoon when Pops cleaned out the age guessers.

A midway memory

They’re being forged on the fairgrounds every day. For many kids the fair will be the first, and maybe the only time they’ll be up close with goats and pigs and turkeys and cows. For others, there might even be the seed of a career as a builder of banjos, or jewelry craftsmanship, or art or another occupation discovered in the Village of Yesteryear.

The fair opens almost all the worlds of possibilities, after all, because it mirrors all those worlds in North Carolina. A job fair and a history fair and a sociology fair, if you will.

But there are true lessons. I noticed my young ones studying, worrying even, about the kids they saw in wheelchairs. They looked as well at all cultures, watched the way other parents interacted with their kids. They are inclined by nature and by parenting to be sensitive to others, and it was obvious they clearly were aware of those children less fortunate than they. Still it was good they saw that courage comes in all ages.

Lessons from the midway

I thought of the day, back in the 1960s, when my father and I went to the fair on its first Sunday morning as part of our annual ritual when I was between the ages of about 6 and 12. We always got there when it opened, just the two of us, walked the midway, got some ice cream and went home.

One year, in the mid-’60s I believe, there was a Ku Klux Klan booth, with hateful blather coming from the loud speaker. My father looked disgusted, and I asked him about the black families walking past. “It’s wrong,” he said. “They never should have allowed this.” Sometime later, he and some others of like mind had a chat with fair officials about it. That was the only year I recall seeing that booth.

Yet one more good and bad memory, on the midway. My father will be gone 10 years next week, and he was righteous until the end.

Another youngster I thought about Sunday is 24 now, and still he remembers. That time we went to the State Fair and he milked the goat and saw the farm kids entering their animals in contexts for prizes. He grimaced when he heard a few of them talking about their daily ritual of getting up to take care of the dairy barn, milk the cows, check on the goats.

I expect that sometimes he thinks about those youngsters and renews his respect for them and decides maybe life isn’t so hard, after all.

To spend a couple of hours along the midway is to see all our neighbors, in the largest sense, in one place. On their faces are their struggles, and holding their hands are their precious ones. They find joy in that midway escape, maybe the only feeling like that they’ll have all year. And some of their kids will find as much happiness in a free trinket as others will know with a huge stuffed animal.

Yes, watch the midway and learn, learn that there are many differences between us and many similarities. The good poor father is no different than the good rich father. The good mother is universal in patience and kindness, no matter her station. Joy in new discoveries is the same in all children. And some of the fun at the fair, as in life, costs nothing at all.

And people aren’t always as they appear to be. Ask a few midway age wizards about the kid who took ‘em down.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service