Monday, September 12, 2016

Up the Lake: Childhood Fair Years- Part 1


(With an update added today! Vocal Trash returning next year! YAY!)
Heading up to the Duchess County Fair was an annual excursion from Up the Lake for an insanely large number of us (or a number of us large insane people) during a great many years in my youth. I’m not sure how it began, but one thing is for certain:

Our parents were far better at getting children suffering from Up the Lake levels of exhaustion out of bed in the wee hours of the morning than we ever were. 


As the supposedly responsible adults, there have been some years we’ve counted ourselves lucky if we made the fair by lunch time.  Our return home invariably involved carrying some of the younger Fair goers in our clan directly into bed in a limp and floppy state.

As kids, in stark contrast, there were years after a full Fair day and dinner stop when we’d get back to the Lake in time to hit the beach for a sunset swim.

In other words, our folks got us up early.

I have no idea how early as it was well before my visual systems or most of my rational thought processing functions were on line.

I do know, on those late August mornings as I trudged up the hill to the outhouse through the Gorillas in the Mist level fog, it was the only time I was cold Up the Lake before going on blood thinners.

With morning rituals completed, enough families went on the journey to yield an extended line of cars pulling out of the gate, punctuated by a loud “WAGONS HO!!!!!”

The cry came from Nick's Dad, George- inevitably in the lead car because no one could keep up with him anyway.  That’s why we always wanted to ride with him, as it was a much safer experience of exciting speed than anything on the Midway.

There was no hard and fast rule about which car we young ‘uns rode, but there were two guidelines.

1)  We didn’t travel by family, but by age group.  Nick, Skip and I were in the back seat of one car.  The girls slightly above our age were in another vehicle (and never closer to us than that car distance throughout the day if they could help it) and the younger kids went in a third. There were some early years where a pack of older Joe’s were in a separate car as well.

2) Any potential victim of carsickness was stapled to a window seat.


We’d leave insanely early enough to have time to feed the entire normally woodland based horde at McDonalds on the way, and still make it there for Fair opening time.

To appreciate that insane earliness, this was not the one nearest the Lake we’d hit on abortive attempts to rekindle this tradition when we began returning to the Fair.  It was the Wappinger Falls McDonald’s, three quarters of the way there.  None of us were conscious enough to eat before that.  Honestly, the truest evidence of our lack of being our usual rambunctious selves was that our folks could get us all into the restaurant, filled up with random McCholesterol items, and back into the vehicles with minimal delays, injuries or property damage.

In our youngest years we stayed with our parents the whole day for our safety. In retrospect, we should have stayed with them in our teen years for the Fair’s safety, but (once more) I get ahead of myself.

Early Fair memories are kind of a blur of moving en masse through packed shopping barns, tempting ride and game filled Midways, and odoriffic animal pens.

The old time construction equipment, blacksmithing and woodworking displays were always a big draw, and remained so for our children.

Embarrassingly, I need to admit that another nearby area I enjoyed back then, and up through adulthood, was the garden displays.  There was something about getting a peaceful, organic stroll through beautiful floral and Zen like patio displays that served as a relaxing counterpoint to the chaos of the rest of the day….

But if you tell anyone I’ll have to kill you.

The equally long lasting travelling zoo, sponsored by the Rod and Gun club and featuring small cages and focus on taxidermy seemed like a unpleasant throwback to the years of the Bronx Zoo’s long converted to office space “Hall of Horns and Heads.”   The less time dwelled upon it the better.

In the vendor barns, there were a series of items I would look at year after year, purchasing them one at a time over our visits.  Invariably, they were five bucks a piece, and something that was usually advertised in the back of a comic book.

This is where I purchased my pair of working metal handcuffs, which proved their value as part of an exploding Halloween KISS costume and in a Mother’s Day talent show magic act in fifth grade. (That was the same year of the Wrinkle in Time parody play.  Oddly, the performing bug vanished to be replaced with total and abject stage fright after that up until college.  Puberty does weird things sometimes.)

Another item long sought after and eventually obtained was my “switchblade” comb.  The reason behind that should be obvious to anyone else who grew up in the Seventies when it was impossible to be cooler than “The Fonz.”

Looking back on it, the most amazing “toy” I got from the “five dollar bin of gags” vendor was the “electric shock lighter.”  Unless wielded by the Joker, the typical joy buzzer is far more dependent on surprise than a true jolt.  The wind up action causes vibrations and noise that are reminiscent of a zap.

Shock lighters on the other hand, are battery powered.

Newer versions are far more user friendly than the one I obtained- featuring small watch batteries to deliver, again, something more startling than voltage based.

I had my lighter in top working condition for an excessively brief period of time.  The reason was simple. It was powered by a full size Double-A battery which was connected to an equal sized coil of thin copper wire wound extensively and repeatedly around a magnetic core.

The electromagnetic feedback loop formed when the “ignition” button was pressed delivered enough power to insure a scream from the holder, and a dropped Fair souvenir for me.

This litigation heavy society removes far too much fun from the lives of our children. Now there is no way they could purchase a toy that could so easily be converted into a functioning pacemaker.

Asking out parents for money to buy ridiculous and dangerous items was one reason we didn’t mind being with them in the barns.  Another was insuring we were all together for the old time photo shoots. These adventures in having sepia tinted images taken of ourselves whilst donning cowboy and gangster costumes that got used by up to forty thousand sweaty Fair goers a day were mandatory in the innocent days before digital photography, high quality home printers, Photoshop, and massive increases in bedbug and head lice populations.

The goal of those images was to always look as stern and serious as possible, as we took on the personas of various rough and ready periods in American history.  Maintaining that demeanor became darn near impossible after the first year.

My sister was in a Southern Belle dress and I was in a Confederate Cavalry uniform.  She stood next to the chair, straight faced, prim and proper.  I put on my best scowl, placed a hand on the hilt of my saber, and sat through the chair.

No, that wasn’t a typo. The chair cushion popped out, and I did a Civil War reenactment of sitting on the toilet with the seat up.


My hat and uniform went askew as I waved my arms and legs desperately, while my butt was the only part of me nicely framed for a picture.  Thanks to the wrapping of the line in front of the booth, I was the main entertainment attraction of the area. (Maybe there is a good reason for the stage fright after all.)  Once I was popped free of my predicament, returning to the required facial expressions became difficult for us and the next thirty people on line.  Since the same chair graced the booth on each return visit, memories served to destroy our straight faces on an annual basis.

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