Bob Neal

Thomas Wolfe’s last novel, published after he died, was “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Its lesson is simple and clear, yet we humans try again and again to override it.

We settled on this farm 41 years, 132 days ago. We had a second home, too, of a sort. The Fryeburg Fair. For 21 years, we ran a food concession there, and for at least eight nights each year, I slept in a camper on the grounds. That’s 168 nights, nearly half a year.

Every year since giving up our food booth, I go back to the fair. Tuesday, as we drove  down through Norway, Waterford, Sweden and Lovell, I felt I was going “home again.”

I knew better, but  . . .

Background. Fryeburg is easily Maine’s best fair, better than many big state fairs in the Midwest and South. Most vendors do well there, so they come back year after year. Some years only two or three “spots” come open on the midway. Enough of us have “carnie” in our blood that there are always plenty of applicants for those few empty spots.

My return visit each year is a nostalgia trip, a trip to a comfort zone. It is a trip through the prettiest part (arguably) of Maine at the prettiest time (not arguable) of the year. It is a trip to rejoin a community that comes together once a year for a few days.

Not this year. Walking into the fairgrounds, I ran into the midway superintendent who had offered us our first vendor contract in 1988. He said getting ready for the 2021 fair had been his biggest challenge yet. As he rattled off the names of vendors who hadn’t come back, my heart sank. Everyone I had come to see had left the fair, it seemed.

Vinnie wasn’t at his pizza stand on the corner. Ed wasn’t down the street with his huge pretzels — mustard with that? — and Tom wasn’t frying his truly “Jumbo” doughnuts. Pam wasn’t there with the coffee that got vendors through early mornings and late nights. Someone else sold pizza in Vinnie’s spot, but didn’t have Vinnie’s plastic flamingos in the yard. Someone else was selling doughnuts in Tom’s spot, but they were just Dunkin’ size. Someone had “Cookie Mama’s” trailer and spot, but it wasn’t Pam.

Back to Tom Wolfe, whose character George Webber, a writer like Wolfe, revisited his hometown — Wolfe’s hometown was Asheville, North Carolina — only to find the folks back home hated him for what he had written about them, albeit in fiction form.

But that’s not what stuck with me 60 years ago when I read Wolfe. My lesson learned but often ignored was that while I had left home for somewhere else, folks at home hadn’t stood still. They changed. Home changed with them. As did Fryeburg, my second home.

I knew that, but  . . .

Talking with a goat farmer, eating a turkey wrap, admiring huge oxen, seeing my old friend Marquise, who oversees the men’s room next to Old McDonald’s Farm, it occurred that the fair is a microcosm, writ small, of changes COVID-19 has wreaked on all of us.

Way more vendors than usual left their spots. And I know at least four people who want to leave their spots, that is, their homes. None of them talked pre-COVID about moving. Now all four are disenchanted with Maine, Oregon, Wisconsin.

The new-look vendors — here I admit a bias in favor of my buddies who used to sell at Fryeburg — don’t seem to measure up to the vendors I knew. This mirrors the difficulty stores are having filling their shelves. They are still open every day, but stores offer less.

Gatherings may be thinning. Sunday’s gate at the fair was 19,000, down from 25,000 in 2019. (No fair in 2020.) Tuesday’s senior-day crowd seemed smaller than I remembered. Again, the fair may be a proxy for smaller crowds such as live events and stores I visit.

Not everything I see in the larger world shows up in microcosm at Fryeburg. I saw none of the nastiness that I saw, for example, at a store near me that displays a ventriloquist’s dummy wearing a mask with a sign that reads: “This mask is as useless as Janet Mills.” The dummy wears a LePage for Governor cap. I no longer shop at that store. Lots of reasons to criticize Gov. Mills, but no reason to make it personal.

A good reason that we nostalgia trip is that there were things back along that we loved. Places, friends, jobs, family, routines. The pandemic has unsettled them all, and the resistance we see to masking and to vaccination may be a form of denial. On another level, the resistance we see to democratic principles and practices may be a thirst for simpler ways of doing things. Life in 2021 would be complicated even without COVID.

If we deny that the pandemic and 2021 are real, we can pretend that we still live in that placid old world that used to envelop us. Nostalgia blinds us to the realities that a) that old world wasn’t so warm and fuzzy as we’d like to remember, and b) that old world has changed, too, and even if we could go back, it wouldn’t be the same.

I knew that, but . . .

People ask Bob Neal if he misses farming. His stock answer, repeated often on Tuesday at Fryeburg, is that he misses the fair most of all. If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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