We haven’t always had luck at the state fair. I’m not really sure why we keep going back, except that my youngest son loves the barns full of animals. For sure, the animals are the best part. Still, even as the agricultural aspect of the fair is dwarfed by the midway, each year we try it again, and each year, we learn more hard lessons. Except for the year when we finally got lucky.
On our first trip seven years ago we won a fish. Some might say that is lucky, especially because games at the fair are notoriously hard to win — more on this later. But once our “fair fish,” as we initially called him, was placed in the aquarium with our other fish at home, it became something of a troublemaker. And when I say troublemaker, I mean he chewed up our other fish limb by limb and one eyeball at a time.
“There was a massacre in the fish tank, Mom,” my son Ford said at the time.
He wasn’t kidding.
For a long time afterward, the fish from the fair swam alone in the big tank. We changed his name to Sharky. Eventually we bought a “friend” for Sharky, and he ate him, too. Sharky lived a few more happy months alone, and then one day we found him floating at the top of the tank.
That was the end of our fish-keeping experience.
Obviously, the fair did not know they were giving away the meanest, baddest fish in all the sea when my son threw a yellow plastic ring around a soda bottle, but the fact that Sharky had come from the state fair was always part of the story.
The next year when we went to the fair, the boys took their own money for the games. My middle son, Owen, who has always had good precision and aim, was especially saving his money for one of the dart games, where he was sure he’d win a high-quality prize — like another fish.
After three darts and $6, Owen had not hit the target. Games at the fair always look easy, but somehow they are really magic tricks. How does anyone win these things?
The game attendant handed Owen three more darts and with a kindly smile asked, “Do you want three more shots?”
“Sure!” Owen said, suddenly perked up by the attendant’s generosity.
He shot the three extra darts and missed again.
“That will be six more dollars,” the attendant said.
“But I thought you were giving me those,” Owen said.
The attendant held out his hand for the money, and Owen paid up.
After Owen walked away with only $3 left in his pocket, I went up to the attendant and said, “Come on, that was his own money, and you made it seem like you were giving him three free shots.”
“Rules are rules,” he said.
Owen has never been back to the fair again. Sometimes I envy him.
I returned to the fair this year with my oldest and youngest sons, Ford and Lindell. Ford, now almost 16, vowed not to spend any hard-earned money on cheap games and prizes that never measure up. But Lindell, 9, is still too young to know better. Just like his brothers before him, he was mesmerized by the chance to win such fantastic toys by only throwing a ring onto the neck of a soda bottle.
On the midway he played games, and sometimes he won. Usually he thought that meant he’d receive one of the high-quality toys hanging from the ceiling. But, nope, he had won one of the tiny, cheap toys hidden behind the counter. They never show you those up front.
“For just six more dollars, he can try again,” one attendant said. “Each time you play you have a chance for a better toy.”
We walked away angry but still not wiser.
Further down the midway, a young man offered Lindell the chance to win a toy by catapulting a rubber shark into a bowl of water. Lindell decided to give it a try.
“It’s kind of hard, though,” the attendant said. “Maybe you should practice first.” He handed Lindell a pile of sharks.
The game did prove to be really hard. Even I couldn’t get the shark into the bowl. But the attendant kept giving Lindell more chances for free, and he coached him through using the catapult until another customer walked up.
“Sorry, buddy,” the attendant said quite sincerely. “The rides are a lot of fun though.” I think he would have even given Lindell a free prize, except the attendant probably knows those are junk, too.
“I think I’ll just go see the animals,” Lindell said.
We thanked the attendant for being so kind to a 9-year-old with a pocket full of allowance. And as we walked away, headed toward the animals, for the first time, I felt lucky at the state fair.
Maine writer and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.