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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 18, 2011

A young man’s walkabout
The Altamont Fair brings people back to a more relaxed time

By Jordan J. Michael

ALTAMONT –– I was hoping not to see anyone on their cell phones while walking around the Altamont Fair on opening day. For the most part, I didn’t. However, I was guilty of sending a few text messages.

When you’re inside the fairgrounds, nothing outside of that space really matters. Sure, the human brain never stops having thoughts, but the fair can be a total immersion experience.

There are so many things to look at, touch, ride, learn, and eat. Today, everyone is distracted by new technology, but what came before all of that?

Al the Artist, from Tuscon, Ariz., was sitting in his 1960s Elderado “people powered vehicle.” On the back it said “Fastest DRAW in the West.” He was drawing a caricature of a girl, who was trying to keep the sun out of her eyes.

His vehicle wasn’t even close to a full sized car. It looked to be only the dimension of the hood with wheels and a bunch of other quirks. Al the Artist, whose real name is Al O’Brien, was practically sitting at ground level.

“It’s light-weight and low,” said O’Brien, who does his drawings for free. “It gives me a better angle.”

O’Brien’s wife, Cindy, paints. She met her husband in Cooperstown, N.Y. where they both grew up. We got talking about how the world has changed.

“Fairs have changed like everything else, but you don’t really see it here,” said Mrs. O’Brien, at the Altamont Fair for the first time. She was amazed by all of the horses that were on the grounds as well as the little villages. She said that churches and Kiwanis Clubs used to have booths set up in the past.

“Wireless phones don’t work when it’s crowded,” Mrs. O’Brien said, pulling out her device. “Everyone’s too busy.”

However, Tuesday was quiet. It had rained all of Monday into the next morning. The grounds were muddy as all muck, but the skies cleared and the sun shone. It’s like the atmosphere knew the fair was beginning.

Smart engines

A real throwback was the Antique Farm Machinery Museum. An assortment of steam engines were all running at once, each making its own quirky noise. It’s almost impossible to walk by without taking a good look at the machines.

The engines at the fair are models from the 1890s on up. These machines eased some of the labor burden for farmers.

Brandon Pena, a steam engineer from Albany, sat next to his small port steam engine. Every couple of minutes, he would walk over to a pile of wood and throw it into the machine. Inside, the fire raged.

The belt-driven antique is the smallest of its kind, preceding most of the others by years. “It’s still the most powerful form of locomotion,” Pena said. “Steam engines are still smart, especially with where oil prices are right now. But, I’m not saying we should go and cut all the trees down, either.”

A large wood-splitter nearby crushed a huge log. A big iron wedge came down, easily splitting the wood in half.

“We can still educate people about the times that have gone by,” said Pena. “People lose site of practicality. Things are more complex than they should be. We can be self- sufficient.”

Andy Tinning, who was tending other engines, said that the aim of the fair is to show people how things used to be. “These machines attract attention,” he said. “People see how they work.”

“Everyone worked really hard before all this equipment came about,” said Wayde Bush, of Altamont. “I think we’ve gotten lazier since.”

Carnival games

There seems to be a misconception about carnival employees. Several carneys told me they’re not trying to rip you off; they’re trying to make a living like anyone else with a job.

Granted, some of the games are difficult, but not impossible. I picked up a baseball and threw it at one of those upside-down glass bottles. The bottle broke and I didn’t even throw that hard.

“Some people tell me that these games are impossible to win,” said Dwayne, who works at a stretch of nine game booths called Smitty City. “Is anything really impossible?”

The answer is no. Plus, you could win a sweet prize.

“My job is to make sure that people have fun,” said Rabbi Eroderson, who was born in Israel. “Kids will leave with this huge stuffed animal. They’ll remember that forever.”

Eroderson said that he covers up his original Israeli accent with an American accent so that people don’t make fun of the way he talks. I didn’t understand this. He should just be himself.

“This job is really fun,” Eroderson said. “When you’re a kid, you want to work at a carnival. I’m living that dream right now.”

Steve Walker, who has worked carnivals for 15 years, said that he labors for a company that would never scam people. “I work games that people always win,” he said. “I have a conscience and I have kids. You can’t rob a kid.”

Having heard all sorts of stories, Walker said that times have changed for carnivals, too. Striker inspections are in place to save the public from possible trickery.

“The ball fits in the hoop,” said Walker. “People have gotten smarter.”

Oh, the calories

Fair food is bad for your health, but good for your soul. After eating a heaping plate of ribbon chips (nacho cheese, sour cream, chives, bacon bits, and jalapeños), all I had to do was not eat for the rest of the day.

Across the way, from where I was eating, an old woman was enjoying a sausage with peppers and onions. She made a “yum” noise when she bit into it.

Finally, I ran into a man who was running a booth called Guyfood. He said, “It’s food guys would make if their wives would let them.” I left with one of his brownies that had five different chocolates in it.

After enjoying the brownie, which was decadent, I wondered, “Why couldn’t a woman have baked this?”

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