Evan's Eyes

Web Log Entry #0081, Saturday, August 21, 2003: Day 278

Anchorage Sunrise: 6:27am Sunset: 9:36pm High Temp: 65° Low Temp: 50°

I knew it was imperative that I go to the Alaska State Fair when I realized that my birthday, May 25th, is shared by Jeanne Crain, the actress who played Marge Frake in the 1945 film version of Rogers & Hammerstein's. . . "State Fair"! Is that an Omen (1976, with Gregory Peck), or what?

You'd think that the Alaska State fair would be around the state capital, which is surprisingly not Anchorage, but Juneau. Since Juneau is hundreds of miles from most of the state's population and cannot be reached by road (one must fly or boat there, although the Alaska Legislature is considering proposing a tunnel between Anchorage and Juneau), the next logical thing would be to hold it in Anchorage, but this is Alaska. The State Fair is in Palmer, because "that's where the State Fairgrounds are." So Stan and I drove to Palmer.

We quickly realized that there's not much else to do in Alaska in late August, when we saw the huge parking lot FILLED with cars, and RVs. Now, I like State Fairs as much as the next person (actually, I don't, but we'll cover that later), but I just couldn't see taking the motor home to STAY at the fair for a week or two. To each his own, I guess. At least the RV people were already inside, and not shuffling with us through the surprisingly dusty parking area to the dauntingly long line of eager fair-goers waiting to buy tickets. My distaste for crowds made me consider fleeing, but it would seem a waste to drive all the way to Palmer and not even make it through the gate. So we went in.

For some reason, one of the first things that we looked at was a booth of aerial photographs of Alaskan towns. The larger sizes (about 1' x 4') were amazing enough in their color and clarity to make one think they actually NEEDED a picture of a tiny Alaskan town they'd never been to. I know from my trip to Fairbanks that Nenana wasn't much to look at from the ground, but from the air it looked GREAT. Even with the free bonus mailing tube, I passed, and we moved on.

We then toured the barn with the textiles, models, jewelry, drawings. . .and photos. Quilts are only moderately interesting to me, but I had a good time looking at the photographs and trying to figure out why the judges awarded prizes to the winners. Some were obvious; the "judge's pick" winner in the scenic category was a forest path where the interplay of light and objects morphed into a large, reptilian eye staring back at you. Others winners were mystifying, unless the subject of an otherwise mundane portrait was the judge's grandchild. That would explain it. This is Alaska, after all.

We walked through the "Wild Science" exhibit (think "Suitcase OMSI"). One thing that surprised me was the number of armed children. (I suspect due to George W's hobby of invading other countries, this year's popular State Fair souvenir is a plastic replica M-16 rifle, which looks exactly like a real assault rifle with a red bit at the end of the barrel, so NOBODY could confuse the two.) Then we saw the NASA Starship 2040 trailer. I had been looking forward to this. It's a traveling exhibit that depicts what commercial space flight might be like in 2040. Here's what I could tell:

  1. In the Future, informational messages will be drowned out by the roar of diesel generators, so nobody will know if they're being paged or if an emergency evacuation has just been announced.
  2. Too many people will be packed into a single narrow hallway while they wait for small children to get bored with playing with controls that do nothing.
  3. It will be muggy and stuffy while they do this.
You may gather that space travel in 2040 will be disappointing, but I did like the "beds" tucked vertically in a nook just off the hallway. Without gravity, a bed isn't a mattress, rather a device to keep one from floating around the room while asleep. Of course, I'd hope that I wouldn't be sleeping in a busy corridor. As everyone knows, astronauts are Nature's practical jokers, and someone peacefully bobbing against the wall as they slept combined with a Magic Marker would only lead to waking up with indelible glasses and a mustache that weren't there the night before.

Leaving the science exhibit and rejoining the crowds streaming by gave me a chance to reflect on why State Fairs exist. County and State Fairs were started in the US to supposedly mitigate the mind-wrenching boredom of rural life until television could be invented, but actually were a conspiracy by hucksters who were tired of traveling door-to-door in areas where neighbors were miles apart. They announced competitions for oversized vegetables, champion livestock, craftworks, and baked goods. Farmers and their families who were going to raise vegetables and livestock, make quilts, can fruits and vegetables and bake pies anyway, figured they might as well compete (since they all secretly suspected that they were the best at all of them, anyway). When they arrives at the "fair grounds" they found not only the aforementioned competitions, but freaky side shows, frightening but somewhat safe rides, booths selling indigestion-producing food items and best of all, glitzy but virtually unwinnable Games of "Skill!" Compared to a day on the farm, it was a dizzying whirl of excitement, and while the yokels went home with empty pockets, they happily clutched their cheap stuffed animals and prize ribbons and started dreaming of next year's fair.

As we followed the crushing flow of people, I considered what DID I want to see at the fair? I'm really not interested in farm animals, prize-winning or not, and their aroma was bad enough OUTSIDE the giant barn that housed them. I hadn't tried to grow any giant vegetables, and how many times does one need to say "now THAT'S a large cabbage"? I don't eat most of the foodstuffs offered from the booths. I don't need any of the "fantastic" products offered by the vendors. I know better than to expect winning the games of "skill," and if I went on any of the rides, I'd spend the next hour miserably playing my own private game of "Will Evan Hurl?". So after going to all the trouble of getting there, I remembered why I don't go to State Fairs. I wasn't having much fun, and there were way too many people.

Despite this, I HAD to check out the Rat Race. This may be the last year it appears at the fair, because it's a charity event where people bet (up to whopping 50 cents!) on one or more of about a dozen colors. The carny (actually a volunteer normal person) spins a big, flat wheel with holes around the edge, and releases the gerbil. Yes, gerbil. (I assume nobody in Alaska can tell the difference between a gerbil and a rat, so I didn't say anything. And besides, calling the booth the "Gerbil Race" isn't a pun, and it would only confuse people, since there's just one gerbil and it doesn't really race.) So anyway, once released, the gerbil runs to a hole and ducks into it, and of course, the people who bet on the color surrounding the hole chosen by Mr. Gerbil win! Well, "animal gambling" is illegal in Alaska, so the Government's going to shut it down. I watched for a while, to see what sort of social danger this activity presented. I thought it might be animal cruelty, if making a gerbil dizzy is cruel, but Mr. Gerbil seemed blasť about the whole thing. I did notice a tendency for him to choose black, the color that paid out the least. Now that I think about it, he never chose any other color, so the whole thing might be rigged. This didn't seem to deter the crowds, since they kept cheerfully plunking down their quarters on all the colors. Perhaps a really determined gambling addict could rid himself of the family fortune over the course of the fair, but to me it seemed mostly harmless. The good news is that this is a perfect issue for the Alaska State Legislature. They love spending months debating simple things that should take about ten minutes between proposal and vote. They have a year to draft multiple versions of legislation making an exception for the Rat Race, bounce it around in committee, finally send it up for a vote, discuss it even more, and maybe even hold a special session after the regular session closes in order to finally approve it before next year's fair. Then congratulate themselves on acting wisely for the public good. Ask an Alaskan, they'll tell you it's true.

My peak Fair Moment of 2003 came as we were heading for the exit gate. Walking through the rides, the crowds parted for a moment, and I saw a grandmotherly woman, staring up at one of the rides, a slight smile on her face as she held her purse and a plastic M-16. It was beautiful; Granny with a Gun. Maybe she was holding it for a grandchild on the ride, maybe she just had always wanted a plastic replica assault rifle, I don't know. If I had my camera ready, I might have gotten a photo to enter in next year's fair, which might be enough to make me want to come back, after all.

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© 2003 Evan M. Nichols