The Ottawa County Fair … the sunbaked, annual, end-of-summer celebration of food, music, rides, farm animals and carny games. It was an aimless, all-day, all-evening event of wandering around the fairgrounds. It always seemed to me to be the biggest, longest party of the summer.
Held for a week on the sprawling fairgrounds located between Oak Harbor and Port Clinton, it was the last blast of summer. The last of the good times before the unforgiving timetable of the real world kicked in before fall.
Soon the whistles of the football coaches would signal the end of summer and a gentle reminder that school was just around the corner. But for now, the week was filled with life-long memories of being a kid in the middle of the county at the end of another summer. No matter how old you were or how many times you had been there before, you are always a kid at the fair.
The 4-H kids, in addition to the farm families, would all be present having driven in from the corners of the county to display their projects. Their prize livestock and finest crops were in the competition for bragging rights. People would arrive for the nighttime concerts in front of the grandstand; there would be harness racing, live radio broadcasts and when you were young, non-stop flirting with people you’d never seen before and probably would never see again.
Sure, it was corny. You weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. It was all supposed to be fun and maybe a wink to the past. Maybe it was to be taken with a grain of salt so that you could escape for a few days from what was really going on around the world. Nothing that took place during those few days of the summer was ever meant to be permanent except for good memories forever ingrained into our conscience.
Nothing extraordinary about any of it.
Except for everything.
As a young child, the highlight of each summer was marked by the annual county fair. For several days in July, kiddie rides, games of chance, concession stands, and fun houses were erected in the heart of our county. When I was really young, unlike some of my friends who would go to the fair every day, I was usually only able to get to the fair one day during that week. I looked forward to it for months. I look back at the time now and realize that my anticipation for the event was much more exciting than the real thing. When my day finally came around, I spent the day shoving cotton candy in my mouth, riding the giant swing ride over and over and going to look at all the animals.
At the end of the day, I’d crawl sleepy-eyed into the backseat clutching cheap trinkets won playing everyone is a “winner” carnival games. It was the highlight of my summer.
As my summers accumulated and I advanced towards junior high, summer life became all about friends. My small group of friends and I rode our bikes all over town on long summer days creating our own adventures to shake up this small-town life. Life was filled with little league baseball, Teagarden’s pool and most importantly… the fair. These were the most important aspects of our summers. However, there was an underlying strange realization, we were just starting to discover but not ready to admit just yet, that girls weren’t so yucky after all.
Summer still ended with the fair. But instead of playing games and riding rides, the focus had shifted. We now walked around the fair. We walked in packs. We were all just walking around trying to look cool.
However, there was strength in numbers. Even though not one of us would ever admit to it, our pack walked around hoping to run into the group of junior high girls that were gathered safely in their own pack. We would walk until we grew tired. Tired of daring each other to do outlandish acts. Tired of acting like little immature kids. Tired of trying to act like we were older than we were.
The truth was… we really wanted to go ride the rides like we did when we were little.
But here we were suspended somewhere between childhood and being a teenager. It was all wrapped up in the security of living in a place and time where time seemed to stand still. All the people and all the houses that surrounded you were as familiar as the things in your own room. You believed it would always stay the same.
The dreams of life beyond the town limits of Oak Harbor were still off in the distance. But as much as we believed, something deep inside of us knew the truth. Slowly, a change was happening. Soon enough, little league baseball would end and we would be made to face the reality that only a few of my friends would continue to play baseball in high school.
I wasn’t one of them.
I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I walked out of my childhood and into the next phase of my life. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to stay there in the comfort of the summer nights of Oak Harbor. But I knew I couldn’t. I was now fourteen. I slept under a roof that belonged to someone else and in a bed my father bought. Nothing was mine, except my fears and the growing knowledge that not every road was going to lead home anymore.
Things were changing. I would hear some of my own friends start to talk about making plans on leaving the safety of our hometown. I started to hear the other side of growing up in Oak Harbor. The negative. In my mind, the place was perfect, almost sacred.
Looking back, I know it wasn’t perfect and obviously not sacred. It was clear that my feelings were found in a place that was caught up in the reluctance to move from the 1950’s to the 1970’s.
Before I knew it, I found myself in high school.
Going to the fair was now focused on running into other kids from school and seeing who had coupled up or broken up over the last few months, triumphs or casualties of summer.
We no longer walked in packs. I would usually just hang with my best friend Bryan Blakely. It kept the competition down and I would not have to be embarrassed by that one friend that always acted like an idiot.
During fair week, when the sun went down, that magical familiar feeling of youth slipped over me once again. Those exciting feelings of not knowing what would happen next would overwhelm me. I could not help but think that there was the possibility that the crush you had might see you and smile at you.
When it looked like no one was around, I worked up the courage to go on the Kamikaze, a ride that shuttled you in giant, nauseating upside-down loops. I screamed at the top of my lungs while “Do Ya” by the Electric Light Orchestra blasted through the ride’s crappy speakers, and I felt like a badass.
At the time, there was no greater disappointment than on the last night of the fair when they packed up and left town with all your wishes still unfulfilled.
That last night at the fair in 1976, in the darkness of night, Bryan and I walked home from the fairgrounds. Our ride left us, and we had no choice but to walk the four miles back to Oak Harbor. At sixteen, the premise of walking home on a hot summer night seemed to be perfectly logical. It was so dark that it seemed you couldn’t see past your next step. The only light coming from the moon.
We took our time. There was no need to hurry. It didn’t seem like there was that much to go back to.
Bryan and I talked about everything on that long walk home. We talked about our childhood, our families. We talked about music, what we liked and disliked. We talked about girls. We talked about our future. He told me what his plans were for his life. Bryan wanted to leave the tiny confines of Oak Harbor, Ohio, as soon as he could. He wanted to see the world and the sooner the better.
For me, I wasn’t exactly panicking about my plans. I don’t think up to that point in my life I had ever given a second thought about what I was going to do with my future. I was just sixteen years old. To me, the future was for someone else to worry about.
We had walked almost all the way to town when suddenly Bryan and I stopped talking. It seemed as if there was nothing left to say. I wanted to stay there, in that night, but I knew I couldn’t.
Things were about to change again.
Walking through that neighborhood I grew up in, I realized that there was a time I knew every family on the block, their kid’s names and the names of their dogs. But most of those families were gone now. The ones who stayed were not the same. The world was moving on.
Only the porch lights remained the same.
Eventually, I made my way home and walking past each one of those homes, I started to realize something. I was beginning to understand that in each home, with its Ford parked out front, white bread on the table and TV set glowing blue in the falling night, there were people with stories. There were families bound together by the pain and the struggle to make it in life. I was just starting out on my journey to figure out what life was about. Growing up in Oak Harbor, protected by the outside world, I wasn’t even sure I knew what “real” life was anymore, but I knew I had a lot to learn and my quest to finally find it was a long way off.
Walking up to my driveway, I noticed what a beautiful night it was – lit by the moon. The world smelled fresh and clean. I turned the handle of the front door and opened it. Like always, there was my mom sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. As I walked into the room, she put her paper down and stood up. She gave me a big hug. She never said a word and neither did I. We didn’t have to, for at that moment I felt like a kid again. Life and all its responsibilities were knocking on the door, but for tonight, they would have to wait.
There would be other nights that summer where we would hang out and try to be cool. We always failed. But the sad truth is there wasn’t ever another night just like that one.
Our brotherhood was forever etched in stone and would never end, but when that summer ended the remaining high school years that lay ahead would find Bryan and I moving in different directions. Once school started we never hung out again, at least not like we did before. The last time was that last night at the fair.
Bryan and I didn’t really accomplish anything that night. At least that is what I thought at the time. He and I would talk about it over the years when we would see each other. I spoke about that last night at the fair and how we never went to the fair again… at his funeral.
It’s been well over 40 years ago since that “last night at the fair” and I still have not been back to the Ottawa County Fair.
Like all good memories… that night and the long walk home will always be set in my memory and in my heart.