What I learned at the West End Fair

It’s been a few years since our family was able to get to our county fair, which actually is called the West End Fair, for the West End of Union County, PA, where it is located, near Laurelton. (The actual county fair apparently was canceled a long time ago near our college town, the former grounds of which are now the Farmers Market.)

We got there Tuesday night and it was as if timeless, as I commented to our sons, who nodded in agreement. For Tolkien fans, it was a bit like a timeless Elvish encampment, but Northern Appalachian-style (maybe a farfetched comparison, but considering that some claim Tolkien modeled the Shire on Eastern Kentucky, maybe not so much so…).

A Statler Brothers act featured four older gentlemen in red-white-and-blue suits singing on the stage numbers like “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I’m Proud to be an American.”

As the twilight deepened into night, the roar of the tractor pull event, and the lowing of cattle and bleating of sheep and goats in the livestock pavilions, mingled with the rush of carnival rights like a tilt-a-whirl. Strings of Italian lights made the fairground into a magical land with the bright marquees of food trailers.

The Gadsden Flag was flying at the Republican booth.

We stopped at the chocolate malted marquee, and I had to explain to my teenage sons what a chocolate malted is (the family concessioners, in a concession to the times, kindly also had signs explaining the same).

The Gideons handed me a pocket New Testament with book of Proverbs, which has a small American flag on an inside front page, King James Version.

The crowd of all ages was mainly white, apparently rural, with a few people of color, and all seemingly congenial.

I was in my black riassa, cassock, and skufia, my Russian Orthodox Deacon garb, and ran into a couple families from our Church in the darkening shadows amid the carnival’s twinkling lights. I only got some curious looks, no hostile ones.

“I remember hearing the original Statler Brothers live with Johnny Cash,” commented one of the fellow parishioners I met, who like me has gone from “heartland” American to being a Russian Orthodox Christian in America.

Talking with her husband, we agreed on how special the evening there was. It reminded me of a Ray Bradbury novel, and the carnivals he wrote about in his native Waukegan, Illinois, my home country, far from here in the northern Appalachians, but also set in a heartland American culture.

In writing this now, though, I reflect now on how Bradbury (whom I had the privilege of interviewing a few times about those childhood memories) put a touch of horror into his carnival scenes, especially in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Death stalks us even in high summer at carnival time, the Nazgûl are in the wings even at Woody End when the Hobbits have a safe night out with the Elves in the Shire.

However timeless even the West End Fair may seem to be, it is a passing moment, and an old American heartland culture it represents, however deeply rooted, is at least as deeply challenged as is rooted today. Like the old Irish otherworld stories, where time seemed to stand still in the fairy mounds, there is always an escape back, whether forced or desired. Friends told us that people were missing from the fair that night, gone to a National Night Out event to provide a “space place” for children to go in a neighboring rural county, and to a school board meeting in the nearest larger town featuring arguments among parents, taxpayers, and activists over issues such as Critical Race Theory.

The hostility I receive for my “exotic” faith in central Pennsylvania comes more, ironically, from the “cosmopolitan” college town in which we live, complete with its academic Russophobes, who celebrate difference in words but not in fact, than any trouble from what the latter’s progressive denizens would label unfairly the insular benighted rural West End of the county. Our college town’s community rituals lack the church stalls and Gospel music found at the West End Fair. Instead they celebrate a raw kind of ideological political power and privilege (cloaked in radical utopian ideology), which ironically reflects more the materialistic Vanity Fair condemned by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress than the rural farmland celebration with its signs of faith.

But even at the West End Fair, as our friends and I discussed briefly, we now wait for another historical shoe to drop, like the Roman poet writing of waiting for the barbarians to arrive. There is no safe refuge in country life or old time carnivals in these undefined latter days, however refreshing they may be in their best qualities, anymore than in Elvish gatherings in Tolkien’s woods with Mordor on the march. Troubles are here, too, sin and the cyberworld reaches all of us, here as much as anywhere. Deep troubles stalking the world today and slouching toward Jerusalem lurk in the Fair’s shadows as well, demons that troubled Dostoevsky before the coming of the Communist holocaust to Russia at work within America as much or more as anywhere else.

Yet even more so do God’s love, His protecting grace and angels, and the protecting veil of His holy Mother, cover us in this and every place.

Pray that we may all find shelter and refuge and enduring joy in the Church of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, within His Body. May we with God’s help further the spread of the Orthodox Gospel in today’s rootless America, which like all mortal realms stays not the same and will not last, but still can find a deeper spiritual unity, sobornost, only in Him. As ancient hymns of our Church proclaim:

O Lord of the Powers, be with us, for in times of distress, we have no other help than Thee.

How great a God is our God, He is the God Who worketh wonders.

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