San Diego, California -- The plastic tubing pulsed with white fluid pumping like blood through an aorta. A woman squealed: ''Goat milk! I can't believe it!'' She was ecstatic. ''I've never seen anything milked!'' What about cows? ''No. Look at that! Fantastic!''
She really was happy to see this goat in its hand-made wood stock, its udder hanging down full as a shopping bag. What she had to say might be applied to a thousand state and country fairs across the country this summer.
Do you ever get the feeling that nothing's real in life any more unless it's on videotape? We spend more and more of our time living in what computer programmers like to call virtual reality, a kind of simulated electronic existence. Who makes or raises anything with their own hands? What's real?
''Wonderful!'' said Ruth Smallberg. She was attending the Del Mar Fair, in San Diego County. ''You only see this when you come to the fair.''
Another family edged up. The mother wheeled the baby stroller in front of the goat-milking demonstration. The father knelt down and snapped a photograph of wife and baby in front of the goat. Evidence. Real life here.
It's come to this: hand-made, hand-raised things now seem more strange and other-worldly than the yawning House of Mirrors, or the Crazy Dance spinning pods or even the Falling Star swing from hell.
''People ask a lot of really stupid questions,'' said Pam Ciesla, wearing a Desert Shield T-shirt. Muscled and tan, she was wrestling a goat. The goat was doing a backward rump toss through her arms.
''People ask: 'Does it hurt the goat?' She locked the goat into the stock. ''And they ask: 'How often do you milk 'em?' ''
''How often do you milk that goat?'' asked the man with the camera.
Ms. Ciesla hooked her thumb in his direction. ''See?''
The question didn't seem so dumb.
Ms. Ciesla lives in Norco, in Riverside County. She raises goats on a piece of property half in the country and half in the city.
''My children don't have time to get into trouble. Too many chores. A year ago, we bought a membership to a video club, and we haven't rented a single tape. No time.'' She snapped the goat's teat into the tube. ''I get half the football team at my house. They want to drive the tractor. I tell 'em, 'You want to drive the tractor, you load the manure spreader.' ''
Out on the Midway, I bought a cinnamon roll and a carton of chocolate milk and sat down at a table and overheard a woman telling another woman her fantasy: that she would kill her husband if she could get away with it.
I kept moving. The pavement seemed to jump with the bass notes of rock 'n' roll; screams came from the Fun Zone. I stopped at the video game parlor and met a 23-year-old in a black baseball cap and black warm-up jacket. His mustache drooped down black and he smoked a cigarette with authority. He seemed very young.
He works at the fair, operates one of the rides. I asked him if he'd been over to the animal end of the fair. ''Yeah, I like animals,'' he said distractedly. He was waiting to climb into Atari's new Race Driving capsule, a reality simulator.
''See this one, you can pick the car you want, the track. It's like driving a real racer. You can feel the turn in the steering wheel.''
He squeezed himself into the capsule, dropped two quarters onto a slot, turned the key, and was off. Watching, I felt my stomach roll as he dropped the roadster into third and flew over a hump and screeched into a turn -- and the city was far off, glowing at dusk, and he leaned hard into a turn and the car heaved up, up, up . . . and tipped the guard rail, and then he was flipping over and over, the windshield shattering . . .
Back in the agricultural section, I talked a while to a blacksmith and his wife, who work out of a rolling blacksmith shop. In Nickerson, Kansas, Ted Salyers is a working smith: blade smith, a farrier, a coppersmith, a certified horseshoer. A few months a year, he tours the West's big fairs, hired to demonstrate the reality of smithing.
''Kids see in 3-D,'' Ted said. He was smudged and stolid and bearded. ''They can see the thing take shape, but the parents can't.''
He took a red-hot horse nail and began to pound on it, the pounding ringing across the grounds, above the Midway's rock 'n' roll. ''The fair's got too commercial, but people got burnt out on the glitz. Now they're coming full circle. People want to see the largest ear of corn.''
Well, maybe. The agricultural and arts and crafts buildings aren't exactly packed now. Still, while the numbers might not be there, the intensity is.
FTC He handed the nail to his wife. ''Hot?'' She shook her head. She checks his work for him because his hands can't much feel heat or sharpness anymore. He handed it to me. He gives these away. It was a key-chain ornament, with the delicate face of a wizard.
''We're right next to the calf-birthing pen,'' he pointed out. Nearby, a calf was standing, wobbly, its cord still hanging wet and red.
''One o'clock yesterday, the fair PA system announced a calf was being born. Sixty thousand people. Seemed like most of them stampeded this way. They come buckin' outta the barn. To see a calf being born! Can you believe that?''
Richard Louv is the author of ''Childhood's Future: Listening to the American Family.''