The Shenandoah County Fair of my youth was a safe haven for quality family entertainment. Alcohol, gambling and nudity. Oh yea, and bear vs. man wrestling. During that one week of the year, you could join family and friends in a toast of liquor out in the parking lot or grab a beer from the hidden keg of a local vendor; place a ‘behinds-the-screens’ bet on the harness races or play the dice game at the far end of the midway; then watch totally nude women perform obscene acts with inanimate objects while standing behind the safety of a canvas tent, obscured in the eyes of God and your wife. But those days are gone. The society of those simpler times has crumbled and all that we’re left with now are livestock judging, rubber duckies, and cotton candy.
But dark clouds are forming again, as the fairground prepares to host harness racing, as it has for years, but this time with parimutuel gambling. Where have all the good Baptists gone?
On the day that quality family entertainment died, Mitch and I were planning on meeting up with friends at the Fair later that evening. We were both working at the time, so the $2.00 admission fee wasn’t an issue. But we could make it one. Mitch’s Grandmother lived near the livestock stable end of the fairgrounds, so we could just sneak in and save the $2.00 for a greasy cheeseburger or sump’n else. Besides the guilt of breaking a Commandment, there were two obstacles to overcome in order to achieve entry. A four-lane divided interstate highway and a six–foot rickety fence topped with barbwire. So after a few beers and a daily dose of “The Gong Show”, we headed off to the V.I.P. entrance. Idiot drivers with reliable cars hadn’t been invented yet, so crossing the interstate at dusk wasn’t all that difficult. Crossing that fence wasn’t as easy. Cut-off blue jean shorts were fashionable at the time, but not great fence scaling gear. As I swung my back leg over the barbwire, one evil barb pierced the skin of my upper, inner thigh. So upper and inner, that I almost had to consider moving my singing career to Vienna and joining a different type of boy’s band. But, there were no arrests and I could still spawn, so it was worth the $2.00.
We nonchalantly entered the back door of the livestock stable, using the maze of animal stalls to elude a potential trailing posse of FFA members. Our actions mimicked Butch and Sundance backtracking across a small stream to create a confusing trail of hoof prints, except that our stream was cow piss.
After the clear sign was given, we headed up the midway. To the left was the all-important, concrete restroom facility. To the right, was the main grandstand area. As you passed the grandstands, on your right you’d find a realtor handing out brochures, Chip’s leather shop, and a series of food stands operated by local civic groups. If you hung out at Chip’s on the right day, at the right time, you could drink free draft beer, gamble on the trotters and eat a BBQ pork sandwich, the food proceeds helping your local community. Chip kept a 15 ½ gallon keg of cold beer for personal consumption, hidden behind the leather chokers and wristband display. Before you could blow the excess foam off of your beer, a gang of little girls would come by with baskets of numbered paper slips. One dollar, one paper slip. And you had just placed a bet on the next horse race. The mothers of the girls were the syndicate kingpins, the dads were too busy flipping burgers.
As you continued down the midway, you’d find the usually merry-go-rounds, rigged games of chance, and vomit inducing adult rides like the Tilt-A-Wheel. Located halfway down this menagerie of madness was the Number-1 midway attraction of all time. Fat Albert. Not some fat kid, but a source of entertainment, wallet-lightening, and stuffed toys. The concept was easy. A large, horizontal Wheel of Fortune had holes at the end of each colored section. Quarters were bet on the corresponding colored squares of a surrounding table. Fat Albert, a white rat, was inverted in a tin cup at the hub of the circle. The carney spun the wheel, rang a bell, and removed the cup. Fat Albert staggered/ran off to the safety of a colored hole. If the rat went down your colored hole, you won. But that wasn’t the true source of the entertainment. It came from the carney himself. He graced our fairgrounds for years. Average height, slim build, dark, weathered skin. Kindda looked like William Dafoe in a t-shirt and jeans. Always with a microphone headset and sucking on a Marlboro, he was the king of the ‘inside talkers’. No matter how hard you tried not to look up as you passed by the stand with your girlfriend, a quick glance was always met by his eyes, even across a crowded stream of fairgoers. And then the verbal snare took hold. With a bellowing, gravely bark he began “Step right up! Place your bet! Win your girl a teddy bear! Round and round she goes! Where she stops, nobody knows! There goes Fat Albert!
If that wasn’t enough animal cruelty for one night, there was bear wrestling. The top card of the evening was a match between a drunken plumber named Jerry and a de-clawed, muzzled black bear. Jerry had the girth advantage. The bear led in the smarts department. Fifty dollars were awarded to anyone that stayed in the ring for five minutes. Except, of course, the bear. He was probably paid in body parts.
But there existed an even bigger draw of people to our little Country Fair. An attraction that made working in the fields all year seem worthwhile, helped bring the troops of local church congregations together in protest, and allowed many an adolescent boy to skip directly into manhood.
During this tender period of my life, I waited tables at the restaurant of a local motel. At around 10 A.M. one morning, I was alerted from the kitchen by the sound of the front door closing. In the dining room, I found two young women sitting themselves at a table. One black, one white, they were both dressed in silky tops, fluorescent spandex pants and high heels. It was my lucky day. When I mistakenly asked if they saw anything that they liked, they both giggled and stared a hole through the crotch of my khaki slacks. I wasn’t that good in math class, but TWO girls dressed like hookers PLUS Day TWO of the fair equals Hoochies. Hoochie-Choochies.
At the far end of the midway (near the entrance with a toll charge) stood three large tents. Set back-off of the beaten path, the tents were closer to the retirement home across the street than they were to the midway. Bright lights pulsated with the loud music, drawing dozens of men like moths to a porch light. In an unexplained phenomenon, while waiting on their husbands, the wives of the men stood around in small groups, holding the hands of their children while exchanging pie recipes and knitting techniques. In between shows, the girls danced on the stage out front of the tent, helping the MC talk the men out of five dollar bills. Inside the tent was an intimate affair. Hooting, hollering and screaming as Tootsie Pops changed flavors in a quick dip of the stick and a removed John Deere ball cap was christened by a devote Hoochie’s holiest of holys. Not that I was there. That’s what I was told.
With a fine mist falling, Mitch and I stopped at a midway game to try our ’luck’ at a new game. As we sipped on drinks from the parking lot cocktail bar, we handed over dollar after dollar, in hopes that the two dice would add up to a winning number. Sounds a lot like a game of craps, doesn’t it. But that would’ve been illegal. Over the shoulder of the roller, I can see a bear slapping the crap out of a staggering man. Over his other shoulder, I see two scantily dressed blondes dancing to the Hendrix classic “Wild Thing”.
The day… quality family entertainment…died. So bye, bye Miss Hoochie, Choochie Pie…put a Band-Aid on my fence wound, and my fence wound went dry…
Hey, that could be a song.