Al Batt: A good fair is America’s great public square

Published 11:22 pm Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Tales From Exit 22 by Al Batt


I spent 20 minutes watching a salesman peel potatoes.

Time went by faster than $5 at a fuel pump.

A tot wore a T-shirt reading, “I’m the reason we can’t have nice things.”

I’ve worked at fairs for 100 years.

How is that possible? I’ve put in a lot of overtime.

Fairs never fail to show me something I’ve never seen. That’s not easy to do. I’ve seen a man roping gophers. My father placed a clothesline around a 13-lined striped squirrel’s burrow entrance and then whistled. The curious rodent stood from its burrow. My father yanked the rope and caught the gopher, the University of Minnesota’s golden gopher. He whistled up a gopher and roped it.

I entered a fairgrounds one day for work and found a long line of people snaking toward a building. It’s hard not to get in a line. I was near the Panhandle of Oklahoma on a hot day with the sun beating down mercilessly. I saw a long line of cattle. The cows were standing in single file in a straight line. I had an urge to join the queue. The bovines were in line to take advantage of the shade provided by a towering wind turbine.

Back to the line at the fairgrounds. I got in that line. A number of people followed behind me. I felt like the pied piper of people who stand in lines. I became he who stands in lines. I asked the man immediately ahead of me what we were standing in line for. He didn’t know, but reckoned it was for something really good. I spent a considerable amount of time in that line before obtaining a cloth bag promoting a college.

I chewed a piece of bubble gum. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d chewed bubble gum or any kind of gum. Why did I chew this gum? Because a vendor in the Rube Building gave it to me. There might be no such thing as free lunch, but there was free gum. People like free stuff.

I remember stopping at a tiny village in Alaska. It had a small store. It wasn’t a general store. It was more of a corporal store. It wasn’t staffed, so purchases were on the honor system. You bought what you wanted or needed, marked your purchases down on a notebook and left your money. Everyone who came into the store, whether they bought anything or not, was offered a free spray of insect repellent and a piece of gum. I didn’t see anyone turn down that largesse.

One time we went to the state fair and I got separated from the rest of my family. The fair was bigger when I was smaller. I was of that age where throwing up was part of a ride experience and had evidence of that on my shirt. I found a police officer and told him I was lost and needed to find my parents. He looked at me and said, “I’ll do what I can, kid, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s a big fair and there are lots of places for them to hide.”

Fairs are where you can hear something like the following conversation.

“The music was good this year.“


“I said the music was good this year.”

“Just a minute. Wait until I take the plugs out of my ears.”

Fairs last a few days. That’s so if you eat too much on the first day, you’ll have time to recover and repeat. Deep-fried everything is available. Vendors are kind enough to put most things on sticks so fairgoers can get enough fiber in their diets. Cotton candy is ubiquitous. The Brits call it fairy floss. I’m pleased I don’t see any cotton candy hotdogs.

I was in charge of a building at one fair. I placed a number of “No parking” signs by the doors to that building. If cars parked there, it was impossible to swing the doors shut, which meant that I couldn’t close the building and head home until that driver returned.

“Can I park here?” asked a man.

“No,” I answered.

“What about those other cars that are parked here?”

“They didn’t ask,” I said.

Chubby Checker was 76 years old and had been doing “The Twist” since 1960. He put on a Grandstand show and even though his innards had to be twisted, he stayed long afterward to have his photo taken with fans. I appreciated the rocker’s kindness.

It’s the fair way.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday and Saturday.