County Fair Oddities

Entering into county fair competitions can lead to some very strange places. On a whim I checked out the website for our county fair on a Thursday morning.  I thought it might be fun to go that weekend, so I clicked around to see what was interesting.   After the usual pictures of rides, midway games and farm animals, there was a list of competitions with links to their entry books.  I clicked a few of them out of idle curiosity.  

There at the top of each category booklet was the date the entries for all the competitions had to be turned in  and it was that same day by 7pm at the county fairgrounds.  For Multnomah county, that means Oaks Amusement Park, 8 minutes from my house.   Naturally, I spent my lunch break that day at the local MegaMart printing out my favorite photographs and buying card-stock to mount them on.   I spent 20 minutes in the hot midday sun using the back of my car as a craft table picking out flattering colors of card-stock and taping pictures on them to ‘mount’ my pictures. It looked… weird and amateurish, but it met the criteria in the Official Officious Fair Photography Booklet.  I made it back to my desk after my lunch break with 2 minutes to spare.  The second I finished work at 5pm I jetted across town to pick up a beach bag as my second entry.

You may be wondering why I had a beach bag waiting at home to enter in a county fair.  It’s because I wanted something completely insane again and making it was the least infuriating option.  Last fall I went to Hawaii for a week and I wanted a beach bag.   Nothing elaborate, just something cheery that would do what *I* thought a beach bag should do: hold my swimsuit, towel, wallet, sunblock, iPod, book and a water bottle in a reasonable manner.  You know where this is going right?   I want my wet swimsuit and towel to go in the bag without ruining my book.  I want my phone, wallet and iPod to be easily accessible instead of sliding inevitably  under every other damn thing.  I don’t enjoy looking like a harebrained idiot fishing for gold in the bottom of my bag when I try to pay for something.  Also, if I get my bottle of water out of my bag, I don’t want it to catch on the leg of my spare underwear and slingshot it across the tour bus to land on the tour guides ex-Army-Ranger head.  What?! It’s hot and muggy in Hawaii, sweat happens and I am not putting sweaty underwear back on after I go swimming.  

Anyway, you absolutely can buy a bag that does all the ridiculously unreasonable things I wanted, but they cost between $400 and $1,000.  If I had that much money laying around, I’d be spending a second week in Hawaii.  So I designed a bag that did what I wanted and got all the fabric from garage sales and goodwill bins.  It was a fun quest to find materials that were both pretty and not so icky I couldn’t bear to touch them.  No, I’m not being squeamish, the Goodwill bins can be a biological adventure requiring gloves.  I spent about $15 on supplies and even scored a batch of heavy duty zippers from goodwill.  The bag worked great on my trip, but that’s another story.

Off I rushed to the fairgrounds through the remains of rush hour with my pictures and beach bag.  I pulled into the creepy empty parking lot and considered driving directly back home.  There’s nothing quite like sitting in the only car in a vast lot and looking into an empty, silent amusement park at twilight.  Well, there’s nothing quite like it outside of the opening minutes of a horror movie.  I kept hearing Sam’s’ voice from Supernatural saying “And Clowns can Kill!” as I wandered around the empty amusement park.  Eventually, I saw a folding wooden sign with “Entries” blazoned on it and an arrow pointing to the main hall.   Hoping it was, in fact, the county fair competition entries instead of the lure to the gory first death scene in the movie writing itself in my head, I went up the stairs into the hall. Inside was stiflingly hot.  It felt like hitting a heat wall going through the front door – there was no air conditioning, or event fans.  the only air movement was from people walking around.  Perfectly normal, alive, not-zombie people were doing frantic setting-up things all over the place.  I stood there sweating and reading the 2 dozen signs posted, hung or draped around the building trying to figure out where I was supposed to be.

All around the giant hall, there were volunteers sitting at paper covered tables surrounded by oddly organized piles of handmade goods.  Each volunteer looked like some kind of feudal lord surveying their crafted competition fief – complete with a cardboard sign hanging vaguely overhead showing the name of their particular estate: “Preserved Foods”, “Quilts”, “Textiles”, “Unknown organic items that took 80+ hours of work to do something unrecognizable as art”, etc.  With every second, it looked less like a killer clown movie and more like Green Acres.  Queue new mental soundtrack.

I approached the lady of the Textiles domain and after hearing my petition to enter my beach bag, she told me my entry would go better with sewing.  I rambled around the hall until I found a trio of women surrounded by piles of cheerful, but unidentifiable, fabric items.  They sounded like they were having a fabulous golden girls reunion and asked what I was entering.  When I described it, they popped open their newspaper print fair manual and huddled around as the shortest one ran her finger down the columns until they found the categories my bag was closest to; hand sewn bags or a reclaimed fabric category.  There was also a reclaimed yarn category…which i didn’t know was a thing and I’m intrigued by.  The merry trio decided I should enter the reclaimed fabric section and filled out the paperwork for me.   

When they were done, the golden girls sent me to the photography table in the center of the hall.  Four big tables with one frantic volunteer in a green 4-H shirt in the center muttering and trying to figure out where her predecessor had put all the paper work.  I told her I had photographs to enter and without ever looking up from the piles of papers she was shuffling, she handed me a form with a big 4-H symbol on the top.  I asked if she had any not-4-H forms and her voice got even more vague and confused.  We had a strange circular conversation about whether I’d filled out paperwork which started and ended with me saying ‘If you tell me where the form is, I’ll fill it out’.   She finally looked directly at me and in an annoyed voice said ‘are you a member of 4-H?’  Since I’m closer to 40 than 14,  I told her no.  After a thoughtful pause I told her the women at the sewing area had sent me directly to her.

With that flash of irritation that happens at every volunteer run event anywhere in the world she rolled her eyes and pointed to where the grown ups are supposed to enter their photographs.  Remember the vaguely hung signs?  For photography it was behind a constructed backdrop where no one could ever see it.  Because photographers are supposed to be psychic – I didn’t know until that moment, but I’ll do my best to fake it.

Inside the hidden photography section was a volunteer sitting quietly at a table looking tolerant.  It’s the look people get when they’re embarrassed by their family, but saying anything at all would just make the situation so much worse.  There were 3 women trying to put entry labels on their photographs.  One woman was sitting just a smidge too close to the volunteer – shared arm-hair-space too close.  Two giant tables, lots of chairs and she needed to sit that close.  He was frozen in place with his arms locked to the paper tablecloth while carefully answering all her questions about the photo tags.  The photo tags, mind you, get your name in the space labeled bafflingly ‘name’, a 3-5 word description of the photo on another line and a standard code for the category you’re entering.  Then you fold it in half and use that modern marvel cellophane tape to attach it to your photograph.  They’re just not complicated and she was working soooo hard at asking him questions.

The other two women were at a different table and trying very hard to be brave: terrified of trying something new and babbling in fear sort of brave.  Neither of them had ever entered a photography contest and were egging each other on to get all the tags filled out correctly.  They tried to get me to help, but their fright at getting something wrong started infecting me and I resorted to telling them to ask the volunteer.  I’d never bloody entered a picture before either and I wasn’t nervous about being judged until I listened to the two of them.  I’d have felt bad about redirecting them, but I figure the two frantic women were probably still better company than the too-close woman.

I got my entries tagged and turned in and escaped to the much cooler breeze outside.   Back through the empty amusement park to my lone car in it’s giant parking lot.  Either everyone else in that building rode their bike, or there’s a parking lot on the other side of that park that I never did find.  Or I did walk in and out of a horror movie and no one in the building was real.  Probably not though.

We came back that weekend to play at the fair and I felt like a little kid hunting for my entries all over the main hall to see how I’d done.  Past the dozen handmade aprons, after the biggest zucchini competition and opposite the chocolate cake display I found my beach bag and it had a big blue ribbon it!  There might have been a little dancing around while my husband laughed.  Then I wound around the temporary wall maze covered with all the photography entries looking for my pictures.  There they were among all those other lovely pictures with a red ribbon on one and a white ribbon on another!  It’s amazing how those little ribbons can make an adult giggle and dance like a 4 year that’s just been handed a giant lollipop.  We spent several hours playing around the fair afterwards, riding rides, eating terrible food and maybe once, sneaking back in to admire my ribbons when no one was looking.  

There’s a 4 hour window on Sunday right after the fair closes when all the entries have to be picked up.  I raced away from a lovely BBQ with friends to pick up my entries before they shut down for the night.  The volunteers were trying to be polite, but they needed a sign at the door that just said: “We’re exhausted, we don’t care anymore, please take your crap and go so we can get home and sleep”.  When I collected my photos after it was all over, that same tolerant volunteer guy was there.  He made sure to let me know that my pictures probably would have done better if I’d matted them properly.  I explained about the cardboard and the rule book and he sighed that volunteer sigh and said he knew.  He’d already fixed the rule book for next year.  I wondered how long he’d had to be polite to too-close lady on entry day, but I couldn’t think of any way to ask that would have him laughing instead of tiredly flinching.  

Off I headed home with my $10 prize money, 3 ribbons and an odd mini cross stitch kit.  I’m hooked on using fairs as deadlines to get craft projects done now.  I get shiny ribbons for doing things I already want to do.  Why didn’t anyone tell my inner magpie about this before?  I think I’ll try the State fair while I wait for them to mail me next years competitors handbook for the county fair.

Published by

Vivien NicUldoon

Vivien lives in Portland Oregon with two cats, a smart dog, a happy dog and a brilliant husband.