Brian Chilson

The Observer and Spouse got out to the Arkansas State Fair the other evening thanks to a couple of free tickets and a parking pass we’d scored, the latter helping us bypass the $10 parking fee they’re now instituting just to get in the gate. Is sawbuck parking a new thing? The Observer’s mind is getting a little squishy in our old age, and we may have skipped the fair entirely last year, so we can’t quite remember.

October being our favorite month, our dance card is usually full up to the point we’ve skipped the State Fair entirely a time or three. This year, though, Junior is off to college and his old gray-headed Pa and still-fabulous Ma are empty-nesting it whenever he doesn’t decide to come home and clean out the cabinets like a starving refugee. With all the good stuff on Netflix long since binged and the cats brushed and the laundry caught up, we decided to do the grand tour of the Midway.


The Observer has had a love affair with the fair since we can remember. Our Pa, a roofer who clung to the hem of respectability his whole life, used to let his wayward sons skip school sometimes to accompany him to the State Fair on a midweek afternoon, Pa chowing down on buttered popcorn and funnel cakes dunked in powdered sugar before stepping to the air-powered BB machine gun booth to cut out the red star from the paper card with surgical precision. While the guys stoked on Rambo movies would step to the line and loose an ear-splitting barrage, Pa trickled out a few shots at a time — ra-tat! ra-tat! ra-tat! — snipping out the star bit by bit, until not even the slippery carny who ran the place could talk himself into believing he saw a lingering speck of red. The Observer walked the midway with more than one big ol’ bear thanks to Pa’s skill with a shootin’ iron.

The fair has changed and not changed in the intervening years, grown bigger but simultaneously smaller. To Yours Truly at 13, rushing through the Hall of Industry, collecting sacks of pencils, Rice Board stickers and pamphlets on the dangers of driving around railroad crossing gates, the fair seemed vast, colorful, beautiful, maybe even a little dangerous to a kid being reared way out in the sticks of Saline County. These days, it’s only huge in The Observer’s mind. We mused as much to Spouse over lemonade and a foot-long corn dog after walking the Hall of Industry, packed with quackery, candy apples, fancy knives, rebel flags and earnest politicians. In our memory, that room is Walmart size, so big it had a horizon, concealing wonders. Today, we realize we could throw a bottle cap from end to end without much trouble. Such is the human condition, which you’ll find out soon enough if you don’t know it already: The past is huge; the present is so very, very small. When the Trumpies cry “MAGA,” that’s the impossibility they’re really asking for: Find a way to make my present as big as my past.


Still, the Incredible Shrinking Fairgrounds notwithstanding, the cheerful couple strolled the damp, neon-lit dark, eating our overpriced fair food on a stick. We listened for the ra-tat! of the BB machine gun booth. We ogled the rides both of us are too chicken or too wise to ride, and watched the hearty backwoods youngsters shampoo and blow dry their competition goats under the yellow light outside the show barn. It was a grand old time.

Once, as a boy, we told Spouse there in the dark, we paid a whole buck to see the World’s Biggest Horse at the State Fair. The guy running the tent was a stringy, sunburnt cowboy. As we walked around the tarp barrier that kept the curious from stealing a look for free, we were greeted with an elephantine, dust-colored rump that towered far over our head.


“Turn around here so we can get a look at ya, Jimmy,” the cowboy said. At the sound of his name, the vast horse shuffled around in the tiny space, turning a head as long as the bucket of a steam shovel, and looked at Yours Truly with snow globe eyes. We can still remember that moment pure and whole: the boy from nowhere and the horse as big as God, regarding each other. Or can we? Can a horse even BE as big as the one in our memory, there on the magical midway? We’re not so sure anymore. But we’re also kinda glad we’ll never know for certain.