"Ride the Gravitron on an empty stomach

The 150th Indiana State Fair begins today, officially signaling the end of summer, the beginning of the school year and the annual migration of farmers, carnies, hicks and other assorted Hoosiers into Indianapolis.

I’ve never been a farmer or a carny, but I’ve been a hick of long-standing and, for me, the State Fair is like Woodstock was for hippies. It means 11 days of fried food, rides whose primary thrill is wondering whether a bolt will fall off it and wonders too numerous to mention.

Even looking through the guide for the fair makes one anxious for it. How can you possibly schedule your time adequately?

Unlike some events, the State Fair plans it out so that at least two or three cool things are happening at the same time, all day and all night, for 11 days. Should you check out the sheep barn or go see Raven Symone in concert? Should you examine the prize-winning cattle or ride the Gravitron until you puke?

So many choices, so little time. The fair starts with a high note on Wednesday, when you’re faced with choosing between such marquee events as the 150th Anniversary Cheese Sculpting Event or the Watermelon Seed-Spitting Championship.

At 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Wednesday, there’ll be an exhibition of honey extraction. For some reason, bees and beehives have always fascinated me. In fact, I almost participated in the theft of several hives when I was a drunken college student.

I fantasize about a time where I own a huge tract of land and keep squadrons of bees, training them to attack my enemies on command. So every year at the fair, I approach a beekeeper and engage him in conversation.

“Man, I’d sure love to have as many bees as you,” I say.

“Yup,” the beekeepers always say.

“Is it a lot of work, keeping a hive?” I ask.

“Yup,” they always say. Beekeepers are not the most outgoing of people, I’ve discovered. The fraternity of beekeepers must be a closed society where only the truly dedicated know its secrets, like Rush Limbaugh listeners.

Of course, there’s no group more exclusive than carnies. Carnies look at the world the way I’d like to. Everyone they meet is instantly pegged as a mark, a fool or some kind of cop.

It’s not an inaccurate viewpoint. Who else but a fool would spend $50 trying to win a $2 stuffed animal? Who in their right mind would pay $5 for a deep-fried Twinkie?

Another wonderful thing about the fair is its utilization of the most efficient kind of mass transit on earth: the tractor-pulled tram. How wonderful would life be if you could get on a tram in Broad Ripple and then, three hours later, hop off at Monument Circle?

The tram is a godsend for tired legs at the fair. One can only look at pigs and try and pick up hot carny chicks for so long without getting fatigued, you know. The tram takes you on a circular feast for the eyes, from the roasting ears of corn to the agricultural buildings to the midway. It’s a bargain for only 50 cents.

The other wonderful transportation option for the fair is the State Fair Train, which takes passengers from Hamilton County directly to the fairgrounds at a dizzying snail’s pace. The ride there is a lot of fun. The passengers are happy and anxious and ready for fun. The return home is hell, with broke, sunburned cranky people yelling at their children to just shut up. Riding the train is like spending a year in Appalachia with the Peace Corps.

A cop friend of mine once told me that he’d figured out the perfect crime: robbing the State Fair Train on its way into Indy. The cars are packed with people holding big wads of cash, the train moves so slowly that you could jump off and make an escape and it’s a crime no one expects.

“It’s way easier and way more profitable than a liquor store holdup,” he said. I’m pretty sure the Fair Train is pretty well-guarded these days, and it would take a pretty twisted mind to steal some kid’s cotton candy money, but hey, it’s your life.

More than all of the rides, strange foods and exhibits, the State Fair is really the only tie most of us have to our state’s rural history. It’s where you can get face-to-face with a farmer from Frankfurt or watch hundreds of high school band kids pass out in the summer heat.

It’s where you can tour a pig barn for half an hour, step outside and walk 20 feet and get a barbecue sandwich. You can pet a fuzzy lamb and then buy a giant lamb chop a few feet away.

And it’s where countless happy childhood memories are formed, memories of balloons and countless people and family fun. Yes, our State Fair is a great State Fair and I plan to take in as much of it as possible.

Just don’t puke on me on the Gravitron.




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