We’re at the Warren County Fair on a humid August night and I feel like a real Front Royal resident now that we’re about to see the Greased Pig Contest, the Spectacular Thrill Show, and the Globe of Death.
Jose is not as enthusiastic as I am about the fair. He doesn’t share my childhood memories of south Jersey’s Cowtown Rodeo, with its dust and horses, or of the Fuzzy Few Carnival in Hummelstown, PA. His eyes are already itching from some pollen or other allergen—probably the dander of penned up animals.
Straightaway, I drag Jose and Maggie to the Greased Pig Contest. Jose frowns as we tromp across muddy grass to the building I’m sure houses the porkers. The funky smell and high pitched squeals tell us we’ve found the right place. We work our way into the crowd around a large ring. About 20 kids sit on hay bales lining the inside of the fence. In the center, six adults shield something with large sheets of plywood—whatever it is does not sound happy.
A man in a checkered shirt walks around the ring pouring oil on the kids’ hands. At the announcer’s call, the boards lift and 20 screaming bodies run at the group of suddenly exposed young pigs, who take off in every direction. Kids grab and lunge and scramble as the crowd shouts. “Remember, if you catch a pig, you get to take it home,” the announcer says, “and Southern States will kick in a free bag of feed for every one caught.”
A skinny girl of about 13 grips the hind legs of one animal and holds on tight, her face exultant and determined. She shoots her arms up in triumph after a judge appears and takes the pig from her. As all the pigs are carried off by their ears and legs, a woman next to me says to her husband, “Shouldn’t PETA know about this?”
As I watch, I wonder how many of these kids are growing up on farms, helping to raise animals. Most everyone I know is completely removed from the places and the people who create our food. Maggie breaks my train of thought then, whining that she wants to “go to the rides NOW!”—so much for fascination with the natural world. The prize-winning cows, goats, sheep, and pigs hanging out in their stalls near the ring will have to wait.
On the way to the rides, while Jose stops at a Port-a-Potty, I make Maggie slow down long enough to watch the Thrill Show. Though I couldn’t wait to see this event, I quickly discover that two Cirque Du Soleil performances have ruined me for small-time circus acts. Still, watching the beautiful spangly trapeze artist on her rope swing, I can feel my gut flutter just like it does when I contemplate riding the Ferris wheel.
Suspended from a crossbar set atop two wobbly poles, the Thrill Show lady flies wildly hundreds of feet into the air with no net, much higher than any playground swing. Her husband on the ground holds a long rope, which is attached to her swing—he whips it back and forth to fling her higher. They are both blonde and perfect as are their two little girls who do tricks on the trampoline. I have a sudden realization that part of what makes Cirque Du Soleil work for me is the dark European existentialism that underpins every performance.
With Maggie tugging, we wind our way through the crowd to the midway. Maggie gets me on the giant slide twice and on the bumper cars once. I feel bad that both Jose and I are too scared of heights to tackle the Ferris wheel with her—Maggie will just have to wait until she is old enough to try that on her own.
We’re a bit shocked at the price of all this—in a matter of minutes we’ve shelled out over $30 for ride tickets on top of the $20 we paid for admission. Were carnival rides always this expensive or are we just cheap?
While Maggie rides the mini-roller coaster for the third time, I take a peek at the Globe of Death. It’s a big black metal cage set into the ground. Inside, two motorcycles rev their engines then drive very quickly around and around, up and down and over, just missing each other. A busty hostess wearing black satin short-shorts announces each trick. I saw the drivers earlier as they sat by their trailer slumped in lawn chairs—they looked like they’d just woken up.
There’s something deeply satisfying about the roar of the engines as they travel the tight space of the ball. I feel complete, then, having witnessed every major attraction the fair has to offer on this particular night.
After I return to the mini-rollercoaster, Maggie wheedles one more ride out of us. As the sun sets, we line up at the ticket booth again, paying pay $3 for each of us ($9 in all) to try not to spin inside a fiberglass teddy bear.
It’s hot inside the bear. Jose and I grip the metal table between us determined to keep the sucker from spinning wildly. This ride works just like those giant teacups—the bear sits on an arm that pulls us in slow circles—we can handle that part. Then, if you are young or insane, you can make the entire bear revolve wildly by moving the little table/wheel inside.
When the ride is over, Maggie is seriously disappointed. “That was not fun,” she says.
Yes, but we survived and no one vomited.
Finally, it’s time to get a snack and leave for home before we break the bank. I buy a Gatorade from a slightly pudgy boy of about ten who sits behind a small cooler. He looks at me as I pull out some cash and says, “You live around here?”
“Yeah,” I reply slowly.
“Is it gonna rain?”
“I don’t know,” I say, surprised.
“Well,” he says, “look how dark it is over there and how light it is over there.”
I follow his hand as he points. “Uh-huh.” But it doesn’t look like a storm to me—it looks like dusk, a bruised and beautiful dusk.
I take a swig of the Gatorade, hand it to Jose, then go stand in line for a $6 funnel cake. The sign on the trailer says you can get Bavarian Crème or Cinnamon Caramel Apple topping. The photos of funnel cake covered in glop turn my stomach. When I get to the window, the grim-faced attendant says in monotone, “Powder on that?”
Maggie and Jose stand beside metal stadium seats and watch a bit of a country singer while I pay for our snack. Maggie is sad that we don’t have time to climb up and sit on “that kind of seats.”
People crowd the gravel pathways as we try to make our way back through several fields of parked cars to our van, carrying the precious funnel cake like delicate treasure. I notice a guy in a t-shirt with this sentiment on the back: “Violence may not be the best option, but it’s still an option.” The words appear above some kind of sword and skull combo covered in blood. I wonder offhandedly how much he knows about real violence and what he thinks he may need to be violent about. Maybe I don’t want to know.
As we walk, I realize we may not be as eager to come back next year—haven’t we gotten our fill? But then I gaze back at the blue, pink, and yellow carnival lights. I like being out in the night air with the scent of funnel cake rising from the plate in my hands. And I know that six year-old Maggie won’t tire of the rides for years.
Then there are the events from earlier in the week that we missed, that someday, as good Front Royal citizens, we must experience—the tractor pull, the demolition derby, the monster truck show, and last but never least, the midget wrestling matches—well, maybe we can skip that one.