I almost died this weekend. That is, I’m pretty sure I did.
Attending the 93rd annual Mississippi Valley Fair was as depressing as it was nostalgic. When I was a kid, all the rides were huge and colorful, with flashing lights, and smiling operators. For a couple of weeks in the late summer, we practically had our own amusement park in Davenport, Iowa. Maybe things have gone downhill since then, but I have a feeling my young eyes just didn’t notice the chipped paint and rusted safety harnesses in those days.
As a young’un, I couldn’t pick up on the pervy vibe coming off the guy who ran the milk bottle game. I was as yet unaware of the depravity that lurks behind the scenes of every fair, carnival, and amusement park that has ever existed – by necessity. I’m pretty sure it’s the only thing keeping the carnies sane. Hours upon hours of whiny adults and screaming children in 90+ degree heat, every day, would destroy the psyche of a Navy Seal.
The ride that almost killed me was called the Kamikaze. I’m not sure if that’s ironic or the exact opposite of irony. A surly young man with a sunburn and coated tongue secured my sister and I with a safety bar that appeared to have been cut from a security fence with dull hacksaw. Then, he lowered the hard, plastic harness and closed us in a cage. I saw this ride every year at the fair when I was a kid but was too scared to ride it, as it whipped riders around and up-side-down at tremendous speeds. I’m a big believer in facing my fears, however, which is how I found myself, fifteen years later, buckled in to this nightmare machine with a culturally insensitive name.
Spoiler Alert! I survived. Barely. Listening to the ride creak and squeal as it flung me around almost gave me a heart attack. It made the same moaning and shuddering sounds the Titanic made when it was sinking and Kate Winslet was swimming around E deck trying to find Leonardo DiCaprio.
Actually, all of the rides made that noise – the noise of tired, ancient steel that’s survived forty summers of abuse at the hands of fair patrons and workers who would rather be doing anything else, anything at all. It’s sad when you realize the idyllic moments of your past are colored by the ignorance of youth and the sentimentalism of time. The county fair is less a vestige of Americana and more a stomping ground for rednecks and sex offenders. Maybe they’re just not profitable enough anymore to warrant post-Cold War attractions; that might explain why I paid eight dollars for a disappointing corn dog (hand-dipped my ass) and a cup of way-too-sweet cherry limeade (it was pretty much cherry kool-aid with a slice of lime in it).
Sigh. Oh, Mississippi Valley Fair, where did you go wrong? Or were you always this trashy? At least Iowa has the Clay County Fair, which is one of the best in the country. And it’s in September, so there’s still time! The Clay County Fair is in Spencer, which is in the Northwestern part of Iowa. Granted, this is one of the areas in the state where you’re most likely to find members of the crazy, bible-thumping, education-spurning, reactionary set, but it’s beautiful country and the corn dogs are legit. Just be polite to the locals and try to avoid engaging them in conversation beyond the weather, the corn crop, and REO Speedwagon.