In the world of country fairs, real means dream

The Ulster County Fairgrounds are so positioned in relation to the Village of New Paltz – down and to the left, keeping tempo with the north-flowing Wallkill – that it seems as though a spirited rebellion is encroaching from the south and sociopolitical chaos is imminent when things are popping  there and the fair is in full swing. The sky flashes in a sulphurous arrhythmia. A mashup of screams, blasts, grinding machines, summer thunder, and jingoist country rock sweeps around the bowl formed by the Shawangunk Ridge, the Catskills, and Illinois Mountain. In the imagination, it won’t be long now until our little village, wild in its own hedonistic way but relatively stable through the years, will be overrun by some mad grassroots skirmish making its way up from, I don’t know, Pine Bush.

And isn’t the Ulster County Fair a sporting kind of war, a ritualized affirmation of gas sports and the blue-state reach of country music situated ironically, perversely, in the progressive capital of the county? You’d think we snowflakes, sheeple and ineffectual PC chumps would steer as entirely clear of it as of any old Gun, Truck, and Jerky show. But we don’t. We flock to it. It’s our fair, too 

Same can even be said of the wonderfully refined, season- ending Dutchess County Fair in Rhinebeck, where the meats are grass-fed and the dunking-booth clown issues barbs as witty as those of Rabelais (to whom he actually may be related), but the rides are every bit as concerning and the booth games every bit as rigged.

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County fairs ritualistically and temporarily transcend and heal the chasm between the two Americas, reminding us not only of our actual, functional commonality and our necessary interdependence, our business, as represented by livestock, produce, county offices, and the parts of the lizard brain stimulated by explosions and speed, but more importantly also through the use of a simple but powerful myth: the past.

Midways, those cheap pop-up cities of the night (by daylight mere propped corridors of trampled rubbish, gas spill and wood rot) would lose every last volt of magic were they ever to employ a single instance of technology more modern than the very late Victorian. For therein lies much of their spell: fake cities designed to fool our great-grandparents, not us, patched and re-patched (absolute frugality serving, as it often does, the higher purpose of historical continuity), and, we pray, routinely and scrupulously inspected by local certifying bodies where such bodies still exist and still own the requisite knowledge, but still run by roustabouts, rounders, and off-grid road dogs, effectively unchanged since the days, in the late 1920s, when my father’s uncle Stanley left his house and family while my father played in his yard. 

My father said, “Where are you going, Uncle Stanley?” and Stanley said, “To the store.” My father asked, as he often did, “Can I go with you?” Stanley said, “Not this time, Jack.” No one saw Uncle Stanley again for years and years, until some people thought they recognized him, weathered and vacant, passing through town with the carnival.

And so it is about me now, my past, but what’s not? This is my fair, always falling on my August 3 birthday, and redolent with memories of each phase of my life, but especially of the teenage years, dropped off here to wander aimlessly on my own — my virtuosity — while pining for some girl whom I just assumed did not pine reciprocally, my other virtuosity.

What I wanted was a fair that winded on forever, an actual nightmare city to go get lost in, never to return to my life of inhibition and disappointment, joining Uncle Stanley in a terrifying vision of freedom.

The rides, the games, the music, the stunt shows, the animals, the educational outreach, and the presence of law enforcement burning some confiscated marijuana. My college professor father, Jack, responded, “Oh, that’s what that is!” The mysterious magic of the fair lies not in the parts but the gestalt.

“A real country fair,” a local TV ad once declared, the emphasis a seeming dig at the high-fiber, old-money affair across the river. But as we have established, in the world of county fairs, real means fake. Real means dream. My county’s fair only ever disappointed me in that its city of night did not extend in all directions, unfolding in never-ending variety and surprise, through danger, through distortion, through dream.

In retrospect, that was a lot to ask. It is a good old fair.

Mere months after being pressed into service as a military-run mass-vaccination site (and an efficient and friendly one at that!), the Ulster County Fairground reverts to its nominal purpose this summer, from August 3 through August 8, to the delight of many.

There will be racing pigs, chainsaw carving, a stilt walker, fireworks on Wednesday, circus performers, and a number of other artifacts of a shared past that may or may not have actually happened. There will be music by Sass and Brass with Daryl McGill, Neal McCoy, Emily Ann Roberts, The Son Brothers, Roots & Boots Tour, and Exile. All concerts are included in the price of admission to the fair. The popular carload night is Tuesday, August 3. For a complete schedule of attractions, visit ulstercountyfair.com.