“Yes, we’ll go to the State Fair next Saturday,” my father said. “We’ll take the family and drive to Dallas.”
The words were right – the ones I wanted to hear – but my father’s tone was flat. I could tell he didn’t really want to go. He was reluctantly agreeing to the trip only to please me. And, of course, it did please me since going to the fair was something I waited all year to attend. Who didn’t love the Texas State Fair?
I couldn’t wait to see Big Tex, the giant mechanical cowboy who boomed out, “Howdy;” or spend time with my brothers at the flashing orange and green neon-lit Midway with its giant Ferris wheel and wooden roller coaster. Daddy had always loved the automobile show with the newest models of cars and trucks, and Mama had always insisted that we go into the Creative Arts Pavilion filled with award-winning home-canned vegetables and fruits, along with displays of quilts and needle work, artwork, and ceramics. We all liked the livestock exhibitions featuring cows, pigs, goats, sheep, poultry, rabbits, donkeys and horses raised by the stars of 4-H Club and the Future Farmers of America. Yes, going to the State Fair was special; a once-a-year event that merited the 55 mile drive to Dallas from our little town of Bonham, which was right on the Texas/Oklahoma border.
I knew, however, that life was tense at my house at this point. Though my older sister was married and doing fine, my two oldest brothers were at out-of-state colleges and I’d heard Daddy complain about how much money they were spending on clothes and alcohol. Also, my brother George, who was still in high school, was starting to get in trouble for drinking too much, and my little brother Sam, who was in elementary school, had recently gotten caught sneaking out at night. Worse yet, my mother was gone all the time with her work as a college teacher while taking classes to get her Ph.D. in Psychology. So, Daddy was taking care of the home fires pretty much alone. I hadn’t gotten in trouble and didn’t want to. My brothers were providing plenty of everyday drama in our family without me throwing more fuel on the fire. All of this made going to the fair feel even more important since it would be a fun family outing, something we needed badly.
The weekend before the big trip, our local county fair began. Of course, I wanted to go out to the Armory for this event since in a town of 7,000 there’s not too much extra excitement. I remember my father saying as he drove my friend and me out there, “Now, if you make me wait when I come pick you up at 10, then there will be no State Fair trip.”
I thought that was odd for him to say. He was never a hard-liner. He was known for his easy-going ways. But as a teenage girl, I didn’t think much more of it. “Of course, Daddy, don’t worry. We’ll be right here in the parking lot waiting for you at 10.”
The evening went fine, seeing friends and riding rides and having fun. I glanced at my watch at 9:45 and decided that I had time for one last ride before heading for the parking lot. But the ride went longer than I expected and getting to the spot we’d agreed to meet Daddy took much longer than I’d planned since the crowd was thick. We arrived at the car at 10:10.
“Where have you been?” my father snapped as we climbed into the car. “Didn’t I tell you not to be late?”
I tried to explain, but he just shook his head. “No. I told you exactly when to be here and I told you the consequences if you weren’t. We’re not going to the State Fair next week.”
I couldn’t believe it. Daddy was never like this. He might be mad for a little while, but he always cooled off. But this time, I wondered if things were different. His mouth was set hard, stone-like, something I wasn’t used to seeing.
Of course, I did my best over the next couple of days to beg, plead and cajole a change in his decision, but for perhaps the first time in my life, my dad would not be persuaded. “I am sick of my family not taking me seriously,” he said. “You were late and we’re not going.”
And the next Saturday came and we didn’t go. My mother was busy with school, my brothers went off and visited their friends, and my dad went out to the sale barn for a while to check on business, and then returned home. I sat in my room, aware for the first time in my life that my father had been looking for an excuse not to go to the Fair and I stupidly had provided him with one. He hadn’t wanted to go and we didn’t. I realized in that moment that my father had not been straight with me. He could have said, “Len, I don’t feel much like going to the fair. Life is tough right now. How about you go with one of your friends and her family?” But instead, he had agreed to go, then pounced on an opportunity to renege.
Now as a parent myself, I am greatly aware of how little fun going to a public event with children can be, especially if there is going to be a crowd of people. There’s always the fear of someone getting lost – and in my family that happened every year – not to mention just how tiring it can be to go from ride to ride and exhibit to exhibit. But the truth was deeper than that. My father was feeling out of control with his sons and his wife and had a need to exercise some limits on behavior. Unfortunately, my ten-minute tardiness triggered a “That’s it!” reaction and left me sitting in my room alone on the day I had anticipated with such pleasure.
I also can now see that my dad was very sad. My mother was emotionally gone and his closest brother had died just the year before. My father was living in his own personal hell and trotting off to the State Fair was no doubt the last activity that interested him.
As for me, that year signaled the end of a family tradition. We never went to the State Fair again. Two years later, I graduated from high school, and my father died of lung cancer in February of my freshman year at the University of Texas.
Did I forgive him? Of course I did. But did I feel bad that he didn’t just tell me the truth about how he felt? The answer is yes.
But now I can’t help but wonder if my dad just didn’t have words for all that was happening. Or maybe he was afraid if he told me the truth, it would break the dam on his tightly held feelings and he’d tell me more than I could handle.
Either way, one of these days when my husband and I are in Texas in October, I want to go back to the State Fair. I want to see Big Tex and head for the Midway, though I understand the wooden roller coaster has long since been torn down.
Life is imperfect and so are parents. Who knew that Saturday night would end an era? Perhaps the era had already ended and I just was too young to realize. That is probably closer to the truth. That “No,” was just the outward sign of my mother and father’s invisible disconnection, and I was the only person in my dad’s life who he knew would accept his line in the sand with a simple, “Okay.” He knew because he never had to doubt that I loved him. I certainly did, and always will.