October always reminds me of a day off from school and a corny dog. When the leaves begin to change I remember my childhood impatience with my father’s mandated tour of the cattle barn before any rides, any games on the Midway, or a Fletcher’s corny dog. So, we took the boys down this year to placate my love of the Texas State Fair.
Texas has had a rough time in the national news of late. Whether it was Governor Perry, the Bush presidency, Jerry Jones, or just the national media’s obsession with a particular brash caricature of Texas, it was time to counter the boy’s perceptions with the truth. My grandparents would turn over in their graves if I let their great-grandchildren think Texas was that caricature.
Is Texas western or southern? For me the best definition of a westerner is Ernie Pyle’s description of Sergeant Buck Eversole in Pyle’s “Brave Men.”
He shook hands sort of timidly and said, “Please to meet you,” and then didn’t say any more. I could tell by his eyes, and by his slow, courteous speech when he did talk, that he was a Westerner. Conversation with him was rather hard, but I didn’t mind his reticence, for I know how Westerners like to size people up first.
Pyle goes on to explain that it was only after talking for days with Eversole about ranches and the West that Pyle got to know him.
That is not a Texan. There is nothing timid in a Texas handshake. I have always believed it was because Texas is also southern – a former Confederate state. One of the more humorous moments in a day can be observing someone from the East learning this basic fact about Texans. It happens when they meet.
“Tony S. from Brooklyn, how ya’ do’in?”
In the East regardless of the accent it is common to ask how someone is doing as a form of “hello”.
“Well Tony, I’m doing right poorly. The damn heifer got out this morning and we’ve been out all day looking for her. It really upset our day – we even missed our regular tee time. Plus, the wife is still upset over that last trip up to New York to see you fellas – I didn’t bring back the right pair of those shoes she wanted …”
In the South if you ask about how someone is doing, they actually think you are interested in how they are doing. Either that or they enjoy shining on Yankees masked behind a good old boy exterior. Texans, like westerners, take their time measuring you but that outward brash immediate friendliness is pure South.
As soon as I put out the word on social media that we were coming into town for the State Fair our two-day trip was inundated with invitations. I have long ago gotten used to my trips back East being a rash of rescheduled meetings and last minute cancellations. It is de rigueur in New York for people to move you around their day or week if they get something better. In Texas nobody ever cancels and you need to be careful about accepting too many requests, because you will have to build into your schedule time for “how ya’ll doing”.
And all that Texan carries into the State Fair. If you come in the main entrance you will encounter “Big Tex”, a giant talking statute in a huge pair of blue jeans and cowboy hat. His puppet like “Howdy Folks, I’m Big Tex, Welcome to the State Fair of Texas” is sprinkled with more marketing messages than I remember, but otherwise he is the same. Everything is bigger in Texas including the mascot of the country’s largest state fair founded in 1886.
After arming myself with tickets for rides and games, the boys made a beeline for the Midway and the Ferris wheel. Children can get priorities backwards. While they towered above us, Dad and I enjoyed our Fletcher corny dogs. No single flavor makes a Fletcher’s corny dog different. It is the combination of a corn meal buttery and coarse as fresh sweet corn and hot grease right out of the skillet that separates it from a mere corndog. It is worth the flight just for a real corny dog.
The rides and Midway games took over the children – a stream of roller coasters, log flumes, haunted houses, animal oddities, rubber ducky games, and BB machine guns (it is Texas). I hate to admit that my father was right, but forcing the kids into the cattle barn, the natural and Texas history museums, the car show, and the creative arts exhibit is essential to both a budget and avoiding a Disney experience. Somehow it was odd justice that the six-month brutal drought in Texas broke two hours into the rides. I pushed the boys out of the rain and into the cattle barn for a judging of “beef master” cattle.
Dad was able to strike up a conversation with the winner across the corral fence and that is when it struck me. We had literally spoken to a hundred people from every conceivable background and race in two days in every conceivable setting. They all said “please” and “thank you”. If we asked someone about himself or herself, they asked about us, and that conversation took a few minutes. We learned all about the beef master and the 4-H program that not only produced the champion but a route to college without loans. It was not western. It was not southern. It was Texan.
And the kitsch is great at the State Fair. We had to visit the creative arts to see my college buddy’s third place win – two packs of Cowboys playing cards? Really, that is art? It was only when I saw the butter-sculpting exhibit that I realized well somebody thinks its art, because that took awhile to lump and sculpt.
It was two incredible days of the Fair, TexMex, barbecue, old friends, and a lesson in what Texas is really about. Whatever you think about President Bush or Governor Perry, tough immigration, lax regulation, or other policy, remember that is base politics. What Texas is really about has a much longer history. And it is all on display once a year surrounded by incredible food, great weather, and arguably the friendliest and most self-reliant people in the USA.