Sonn: City kids at a country fair


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It’s late summer in Iowa, which means funnel-cake stands and carny-operated Ferris wheels are going up in virtually every part of the state. It’s a time that conjures a lot of memories and some nostalgia among regular fair-goers. Being a lifelong resident of the suburbs, my experience with fairs — small-town fairs especially — is quite limited.

On July 26, I went to a particularly small-time fair in Benton County (total population 26,092) with a couple of my friends. One is from tiny Newhall, Iowa, the other from the suburbs like me. So the group’s resident country boy essentially had the interesting and amusing task of being a Sherpa for us city kids at a country fair.

Our expectations were high and, looking back, probably unfair. We had a very romantic, old-fashioned picture in our head of old ladies and their prize-winning pies, children in pinwheel hats frolicking on a carousel, of carnival barkers gathering a crowd to see a bearded lady. In our mind, the county fair looked a lot like a turn-of-the-century traveling circus.

Once we arrived, I quickly realized that we had been wrong. There were a surprisingly small number of sweet old ladies and cute children; there were no bearded ladies at all.

But there were pigs, goats, chickens, bunnies, horses, cows galore. The farm animals on display were, apparently, one of the fair’s premier attractions. There was a little arena where we had heard there horses were doing something interesting, but all we found were some horses and their riders were loitering aimlessly in the dirt. It was all very tedious.

Even where there was some degree of spectacle, it lacked a certain glamour that we city kids had, for whatever reason, expected.

In the fairgrounds’ auto-racing arena, some kind of stuntman drove a truck through a burning wall and then blew up a Pontiac while he was sitting in it. This was doubly impressive because the stuntman in question was an understudy — the guy who usually does the stunts was in the hospital.

(Oh the irony.) Then a bunch of trucks raced around the track with a variety of paraphernalia attached to their rears.

After that, sufficiently entertained but underwhelmed, we shared a funnel cake and left.

The magic we’d expected didn’t seem to be there. My fellow suburbanite said she expected the fair to be bigger, like something out of the movies. Probably like Danny DeVito’s circus in Big Fish.

But our disappointment is more a reflection on ourselves than on the relative quality of the Benton County Fair, which I suspect is pretty similar to county fairs all over the country. Our expectations were the product of ignorance, based on two decades of movies and television and the classic stereotypes about the idylls of country living.

Our disappointment in the fair can tell us how little we actually know about the places we’ve never been and how much of what we believe about the world is based on a set of stories and myths we’ve always just accepted as the truth.

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