Big Tex, as seen over a half-eaten cone of cotton candy at the State Fair of Texas.EXPAND
Big Tex, as seen over a half-eaten cone of cotton candy at the State Fair of Texas.
Jim Schutze

My Day at the Fair, From Trained Porcupines to Indian Motorcycles

When I go to the state fair, as I did yesterday with my wife, I’m looking for three things: something the same as always, something different, and something really and truly fun. I have to have all three, or I’m not going.

Yesterday, my two same-as-always things were just exactly the same as they have always been. The first was Elke’s sausage plate with kraut and lots of hot mustard at Hans Mueller’s German booth. The second was cotton candy on a cone. (Please never ever even suggest putting it in a plastic bag.)

All of Mueller’s sausages, bratwurst to Polish, have that perfect crack of the skin and mellow interior that make every bite a delight. The sauerkraut has exactly the right body and tang for me, and, you know, the really weird thing is that all the rest of the year, I can’t stand sauerkraut.

A good, fresh cone of cotton candy is a one-sitting snack for me. I take that pink sugar right down, I do, before it loses its aura. When I gaze over the top of a half-eaten cone of cotton candy and see Big Tex in the distance waving howdy in a sky of wispy, white clouds, it as if this life and the afterlife have for one brief moment melded into a unity.

My wife insulted my sensitive palate by sitting right next to me and eating a funnel cake while I was gobbling down my perfect cone of cotton candy. A funnel cake! Can you imagine anyone actually eating a funnel cake? It’s just so state fair! I said nothing, of course. But I ooched over a few inches on the bench and looked the other way — at Big Tex, in fact — so people wouldn’t think we were together.

I could tell you about the thing I found that was different, but I’m afraid you’d think I’m weird. Oh, well, that horse vacated the barn long ago, didn’t it, so I’ll just go ahead with it. At the fair this year, the entire Hall of State is given over to an exhibit about World War I. As it happens, I have this thing about old uniforms, from World War I up into the early years of World War II.

This has to do with my having taken up sewing, which I know is way too much information. I do apologize. But my sewing has to do with my trying to cheap out on repairs to a sailboat and to some camping equipment and so on. I taught myself how to use a sewing machine in a very rudimentary way. If I made a shirt for you and you wore it downtown, you probably would get stopped by the cops. Just a few questions. But I can sew up a ripped tent or even make a serviceable cover for a rolled-up sail.

At any rate, some years ago when I started sewing, I found myself in a military museum devoted to the Pacific campaigns in World War II, and I was stunned by the tailoring and stitchery in the uniforms, both American and Japanese. This stuff wasn’t being cut by massive, computer-driven machines in China, which I guess is the point. The uniforms were designed, cut and sewn by actual human beings, craftspeople who really knew what they were doing. The ones I saw in that museum were beautiful work.

The darts, pleats and tight stitchery in an American Army Reserve uniform from World War I make it a work of art.EXPAND
The darts, pleats and tight stitchery in an American Army Reserve uniform from World War I make it a work of art.
Jim Schutze

The exhibit in the Hall of State includes quite an array of uniforms from different nations, and almost all of them exhibit this same degree of fine craftsmanship and almost uncanny design. You won’t believe how suave and svelte a Red Cross woman doctor’s uniform was and how beautifully made.

And guess who has the only sloppy, crappy-looking uniform in the whole exhibit? You’re not going to believe this. The French! A French WWI infantryman’s uniform looks like something you’d see if Mother Goose got a gun.

That remark, by the way, was meant to convey no disrespect whatsoever to the actual Mother Goose, who is performing several times a day in the children’s area on the far side of the lagoon and who looks way better than a French infantryman in World War I.

But something happened after that in French national culture. It’s like, after World War I, the French said to themselves, “Zut alors! Nevair agayn will we luke like ziss!”

Oh, and the World War I camping stuff. It’s so elegant. Soldiers had these little leather dop kits with razors and combs and cool little screw-top containers for all kinds of male toiletry items like talcum powder and lotion and hair oil. This stuff makes everything at REI look, in comparison, like it was made for taking care of a dog.

I assume they had way fewer clothes back then, and the clothes they did have probably were prized possessions. But when they were all shined up and ready for a parade, they must have been so much more elegant than we are today. I go to the airport, and half the people walking by me look like they’re in the circus.

Oh, and if you do go to the World War I exhibit, be sure to go look at the Indian motorcycle on the upper level. I know it was a horrific war, and millions of people died awful deaths. I’m not saying the Indian motorcycle offsets any of that. I’m just saying — oh, wow. To be wearing a really slick, stitched up, darted and pleated American Army Reserve uniform and to be able to ride around on that machine: It’s almost enough to trade centuries for. Plus … and this is a very dim memory for me and obviously I never even think about this stuff at my age … but I do have to imagine that that motorcycle with that uniform had to make a really good combination for getting dates.

My fun thing this year — and I am talking really fun — is the animal show called “The Wild West Pet Palooza” in the Band Shell. A company called Joel Slaven’s Professional Animals in Orlando, Florida, produces it. It does shows for SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, the Jacksonville Zoo and others. It has been at the State Fair of Texas for four years, but for some reason I never saw the show until this year.

I don’t want to give away the plot or anything, but it involves all kinds of cats, dogs, pigs, porcupines, doves, pigeons and parrots running and flying around like crazy. And the best thing is that a lot of the dogs and cats are rescue animals.

After the show, I talked to one of the performers — human, of course — and I told her I had noticed that between shows when the animals are all backstage and supposedly resting, the dogs erupt in these huge barking outbursts, and then they go silent. I asked her what that was all about.

She said, “Somebody walks by the dog cages with a pig.”

Walking around later, I thought about it: “So here are these brilliantly trained dogs. Onstage they perform wonderfully with the pigs and the porcupines and the cats running all over the place. But when they’re backstage on their break, a trainer walks by with a pig, and the dogs all start yelling, ‘PIG! PIG! PIG!’”

So they’re brilliant performers, but they’re still just idiots like my dogs. Somehow that thought put a coda on my day. We got on the DART train and went home with one more State Fair of Texas under our belts.

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