Step Right Up, Folks! Celebrating The Sights, Sounds And Soulful Bovines Of The State Fair

August 30, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

Let me begin by confessing that I really enjoy the Maryland State Fair, which in some circles is akin to confessing you really enjoy dabbing a little bootblack under both eyes and picking off toads with a .22.

The relentlessly hip may sneer that the 111th edition of the fair, which began its annual 10-day run yesterday in Timonium, now threatens to achieve the quaintness factor of an "I Like Ike" button.

Yet these people have never spent 45 minutes, as I did a few years ago, riveted by the action at the Guess Your Age and Weight! booth.

Running the show was a large, amiable man named Glento Beckett, who offered to guess the age (within two years) and weight (within three pounds) of fair-goers for 50 cents.

If he guessed wrong, the person won a picture frame, which is not the most exciting prize in the world, but better than, say, a coat hanger.

It didn't take long to realize I was in the presence of true greatness. In the span of three-quarters of an hour, Glento was bested by only one person, an elderly gentleman in a dapper brown suit.

"I guessed the guy was 65," said Glento forlornly.

And his real age?

"Eighty-one."

Why that lying little weasel! If that guy's 81 years old, then I'm . . .

"No," said Glento, hands upraised in a gesture of magnanimity. "He showed me his driver's license."

Glento, Glento, Glento . . . well, it happens to everyone, son. Nolan Ryan loses an inch or two off the fastball. Sinatra suddenly can't hit the high notes. Bob Hope doesn't kill 'em in Vegas anymore.

And Glento Beckett looks at an octogenarian and thinks: 65, tops. The eyes are the first thing to go.

The wonders of the Guess Your Age and Weight! booth aside, the fair still offers a heady mix of game booths, rides, wonderful food, arts and crafts exhibits, agricultural contests and animals who can lift your spirits or chill your soul (more on that later).

If confession is good for the soul, let me say this: For the record, I am not known as a frequent and passionate visitor to the jellies and jams exhibits, or the 4-H egg preparation contest, or the most unusual-shaped squash contest, or any demonstrations that have to do with hooking, weaving or spinning.

But I will look in on the crowning of the Maryland Farm Queen, where I once heard an official inform a fair-goer in icy tones that "this is no beauty contest, per se."

Contestants are judged on such things as agricultural expertise, personality and speaking ability. And while it probably will not further a young woman's cause to bear a striking resemblance to Ed Asner, it would hurt even more if she were found to be uninformed on the latest sheep-shearing techniques.

I will also visit the Cow Palace, the musty, cavernous arena where -- you talk about confessions -- I once locked eyes with a huge Holstein and had what could be labeled, for all intents and purposes, a mystical experience.

This was like something out of a Stephen King movie ("Cow!"). I had taken the kids to see the cows when this one cow began staring at me. Unnerved, I decided to stare back. The cow kept staring. And I kept staring. This went on for about two minutes, which, if you've ever had a staring contest with an animal, is an eternity.

It was almost as if the cow was trying to send me a message. And the message, near as I could figure, was: What are you staring at, white man?

I left the area pale and shaken, and did not calm down until we went to see the pigs. Say what you will about pigs, but at least they seem happy to see you.

If you have children, you will inevitably be dragged toward the sights and sounds of the midway. Here, many of the game booths and rides are staffed by the kind of people who would not look terribly out of place sprawled face-down on the sidewalk with their hands cuffed behind them and a policeman standing )) nearby with a shotgun.

The whole thing can be expensive. In lieu of actually visiting the midway, I have often thought of tossing my wallet down a storm drain, thereby achieving the same effect, although in a lot less time.

As it is, plan to be assailed every few feet by some wild-eyed cowboy who emerges from a thick cloud of Salem smoke to shriek: "Hey, hey, hey! Knock over three cups, win a teddy bear! How 'bout you there, boss?!"

At the risk of whipping the reader into a frenzy of anticipation, last year I visited the "Pay $2 -- See the World's Largest Rat!" tent and came away . . . well, impressed doesn't begin to tell the story.

As you can imagine, the people in line to see this particular attraction did not exactly look like the staff of the Yale Law Review.

One or two had pronounced facial tics and the rest had the grim, vacant look and sloping forehead of the terminally dimwitted. Needless to say, I felt quite comfortable with the group, to the point where I had to check the urge to exchange phone numbers.

As for the rat itself, well, he looked dead to me. OK, maybe not dead. But he wasn't exactly turning cartwheels or playing the accordion, either.

I even tried locking eyes with him once or twice, hoping to capture the same karma that had enveloped me at the Cow Palace, but he apparently wasn't up for it. (I say "he," but of course it might have been a female rat. I didn't get that close.)

Then it happened. Sensing that the rat's ennui had caused an almost ineffable sadness to descend over us, the fellow next to me (Snake, I think he said his name was) said, "Y'all ever see this?"

At which time he proceeded to -- you won't believe this one -- pull his lower lip all the way up to his nose!

Well. You talk about making an impression. With that our little group filed slowly out of the tent, speaking in the hushed tones of people who have undergone an experience from which they will remain forever changed.

Happily, I found many of these same folks later on the Tilt-a-Whirl, where, it probably goes without saying, we had ourselves a time.

KEVIN COWHERD is a columnist for The Sun.

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