It's Fair time again. Whenever I think of the Knox County Fair, I always think of my Grandpa William G. Watts. It was he who introduced me to the Fair and instilled in me a love for it that has surpassed half a century and half a country.
Grandpa's life was not easy. As a steam-fitter at the C.B.&Q. roundhouse, he spent his day in the gloom of that storied edifice -- usually in the sooty bowels of some locomotive, removing and replacing old steam pipes. He would come home black as a chimney sweep and had to enter his house on Mulberry Street through a side door which led to the basement. There he would strip to the skin and scrub himself until he was ''pink as a baby's bottom,'' as he described it, before donning a robe to go upstairs and climb into fresh clothes for the evening.
For relief from such toil, Grandpa saved at least a week of his vacation time every year for the Knox County Fair. While he liked to go every day, Grandma did not; and so, when I was old enough, I was a willing recruit as his companion.
Grandpa's major reason for going was the harness racing. Grandma found it too tense for her nerves, so while he sat watching in the grandstand on the first day, she'd tour the display sheds to check out the flowers, sewing and food entries. They might eat supper at one of the concession booths, but she was unlikely to do much else. She didn't care for the rides (''too nerve-wracking''); and the carnival midway with its freaks, funhouse, games of chance and girlie shows offended her.
None of these offended Grandpa. After all, didn't he have a pin-up picture of Mae West over his work bench in the garage? And he'd peer at a freak anyday though he rarely played the games of chance, like knock over the milk cans. He knew how rigged they were -- even for a former left handed catcher who once hit a triple off Grover Cleveland Alexander -- and got two ribs cracked by a payback fastball his next time at bat. But he could be persuaded to ride the Ferris wheel with me. After all, wasn't it loyal to ride the invention of a man from a famous Galesburg family?
But Grandpa's real love was trotters and pacers.
I would walk from Blaine Avenue down Pine Street to his house right after lunch so we could go early and see the horses in their barns at the west end of the fairgrounds.
Unfortunately, Grandpa was not a good driver. He never really learned how to operate the clutch on his gray 1939 Chevrolet. He'd rev up the engine until it nearly howled, then let the clutch fly. Our heads would snap back as the car leaped forward; but it rarely stalled, and we'd be off down Mulberry for Grand Avenue and the drive to Knoxville on Route 150.
Somehow we always made it unscathed, though my mom used to worry every time I went somewhere with Grandpa -- for fear she'd get a call from Cottage Hospital or the State Police saying we'd wound up in a ditch somewhere. She always asked before I left the house if I were wearing clean, undamaged underpants -- just in case.
At the fairgrounds, we would park close to the main gate and then walk down to the barns to see that day's horses. On the way, Grandpa would purchase a program so he could check on which ones were running.
Then we'd go into the straw-smelling dimness of the stables to check the entries up-close. There were little hand-lettered signs with the horses' names by the stalls; and we'd stand and talk to the trainer or a stable hand or even the horse itself, moving slowly through the barns until the first post time.
Sometimes Grandpa would tell me why a horse looked good or bad to him, and I often wondered why. There was no legal betting and I don't even remember him betting informally with anyone in the group of ''horsemen'' we sat with in the grandstands. Others might -- but not Grandpa. (Maybe he promised Grandma?) However, everyone talked horses, so Grandpa may simply have been touring the barns for conversation fodder.
After all, the horses were pretty much second-rate. Even I could see that. A good one stuck out like a swan among geese.
But there were a lot of Hanovers and Siskiyous -- good racing names -- and they put on a good show. They'd warm up, do a post parade, then warm up a little more. A big convertible with a folding gate on the back would pick them up at the head of the stretch; and a man in the little tower at the finish line would talk to them over the public address system to align them. Then they'd come racing by the start/finish line. If it was a good start, off they'd go. If not, he'd ring the brass bell in the tower and send them on around to try again. A good start meant the gate car would accelerate, folding the arms of the gate against its sides, then pull over on the back stretch to let the horses run.
The harness drivers were generally older men -- some in their 70s. The cars then had bigger wheels than today and required a cool head and a steady hand. Horses had to maintain their gait; breaking into a gallop was forbidden. These wizened wizards of whip and rein rarely weighed very much -- maybe 140 pounds soaking wet -- but they could sure move those horses.
They were competitive, too; sometimes carts collided. I remember once between races going to the first aid tent at the east end of the grandstand to talk to an elderly driver who'd gotten kicked or stepped on in an accident. He was upset -- not by his bloody forehead and bruised arm but because the young attendant wanted him to scratch from the rest of his afternoon's horses and go get xrays in Galesburg. No way. He wanted his rides and his money for them. Skinny though he was, he was all whipcord. Do today's drivers at the Fair still have that kind of spirit?
I can remember those muggy, hot August days as if they were yesterday. The smell of Grandpa's cigar. The sour-sweet taste of Fair lemonade. Caramelized corn in a box. I've never lost the delight -- but they're only memories now. Even the Hambletonian has moved east from DuQuoin. No way I can get a fix, either. California fairs don't favor harness racing; and I think the Golden State is the worse for it.