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No fair? No fair!
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No fair? No fair!

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Bill Perkins

Several weeks ago, the board of the National Peanut Festival decided to cancel this year’s festivities in light of the coronavirus pandemic. A din of complaint immediately rose in the community, followed by an online petition calling for the board to reverse its decision.

I understand the discontent. Many people have been working toward the festival all year. Scores of young ladies have been practicing their poise, presentation, and ability to field questions on the fly, hoping for success in the two NPF pageants. Their parents have shelled out hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars on coaching, dresses, and photographs.

They aren’t the exception. Kids in school Ag programs have been grooming their animals for show, and have also encountered expenses. Many of them planned to participate in the calf scramble and greased pig contests with the hope of catching an animal to raise for the coming year.

Then there are organizations like church groups and band boosters that built their budgets on anticipated proceeds from the sale of funnel cakes, chicken nuggets, and fried delectables during the weeklong fair.

However, the board — wisely and with great courage — erred on the side of safety. Following social-distancing protocol on the midway is impossible; to proceed would be a liability nightmare.

My first reaction was not about the board’s wisdom, or the financial concerns of pageant parents and concessionaires, or the frustration of those who’ve worked hard to get their livestock ready for competition.

Instead, I thought about all those kids who’ve been looking forward to going to the fair, and how devastated they must’ve been to find out it’s been cancelled.

I don’t remember my first Peanut Festival, but I know it came long after my first parade, which I always enjoyed for its clowns and balloons that must’ve inspired Marge Simpson’s ultra-beehive hairdo. I looked forward to the floats, pretty girls, and Shriners on minibikes with tasseled fezzes. My favorite things were the Carver High School Marching Band with its flashy drum major, and the DHS Marching Tiger Band, with bass drums that would resonate through my little chest. I’d wait for the Couch Construction cement mixer that churned out peanuts, and jockey among other kids scrambling into the street for a good position behind the chute to gather up a stash in a shirttail pouch. Then, I’d move quickly toward my seat, because the next in line were the horses, which left a trail of something I wanted no part of.

One of my earliest parade memories involves my little sister, Susie Q, who was a toddler at the time. She was not quite 2 years old and in a stroller, and one would have thought she was too young to appreciate all the shenanigans going on around her. She took in the pageantry around her with wide-eyed amazement as toddlers do, and homed in on a soft drink vendor walking along the edge of the crowd, passing drinks to those who beckoned him. When he crossed over to our side of the street, she raised her hand and hollered:

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“Hey Coke! Ahhh — me!”

People nearby turned and stared at the curly blonde in the stroller, and then every man within earshot started digging in their pockets. “Here, get that baby a Co-Cola!” someone shouted.

Susie Q gnawed that waxed paper cup all morning.

The parade wound through downtown streets, not along Main Street as it does these days. Parade-goers were closer together, and it seemed like every warm body from 10 counties was gathered on the sidewalks of Foster and St. Andrews streets. It’s difficult to quantify the crowd. I once asked longtime Eagle and Progress reporter Vic Bubbett what sort of formula was used to gauge the size of the crowd. I told him I imagined someone counting the number of people sitting outside one storefront, and then multiplying it by the number of storefronts on the block, and blocks in the parade, and so forth. I didn’t even get the sentence out before Vic was shaking his head. “Noooo,” he said. “Nothing that complicated. I don’t know what others do, but I look at what was reported last year, and then add 10 or 20 percent to it.”

So the 1.4 million people expected for the parade this year will be disappointed. I won’t be one of them; I haven’t been in a decade or more.

While we went to the parade every year, we didn’t go to the fairgrounds until after my older sister Kathy started school. My parents never mentioned a fair, figuring if we didn’t know about it, we wouldn’t throw a fit for them to take us. Once Kathy started going to Selma Street Elementary, the cat was out of the bag, because kids in her class were already getting excited about the fair when school started in September.

For a kid, it was a wonderland. I was in awe of the giant painted tarpaulins advertising a two-headed cow, or a bearded lady, or the girlie sideshows for those with a spare quarter and lustful intent. Despite pulling our parents hither and yon, and setting up a howl for every ride and game of chance we passed, we get a stop at the “Pick-up-a-duck” booth, a spin on the merry-go-round and before long, excruciating walk through the arts and crafts exhibits that was only slightly better than a trip to the fabric store.

When I got a bit older, I’d save up my paper route money and go to the fair as many nights as I could con my parents into dropping me off and picking me up. I would muster the courage to get in line for treacherous rides like The Zipper so that I wouldn’t be picked on at school for being too chicken. They left me queasy, particularly if I’d already had boiled peanuts, corn dogs, cotton candy and several iterations of fried dough, and I would stake out convenient places to slip off the midway and behind a tent if the nausea overtook me.

If I had any money left, I’d burn through it at the sucker tents — the ones where you try and try and fail and fail, until the barker gives you a break by awarding you a small prize. I once won a case of Zero candy bars, and stashed them under my bed. All 24 were gone within a week. I haven’t wanted to even see a Zero bar in 45 years. I’m afraid if I ate one today, I’d soon be looking for a carnival tent to duck behind.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of The Dothan Eagle. E-mail: bperkins@dothaneagle.com.

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