The Iast time my husband Jack and I took our kids to the Del Mar Fair was three years ago. Now I remember why we don’t go every year. Three years ago, our older son Johnny had just been born. I bundled up my tiny two-week-old boy and pushed him around the fairgrounds in the stroller. Our daughters, Lucy, Angela, and Rebecca, were 21 months, three, and five, respectively. Jack took Rebecca and Angela to ride the least-scary rides in the kiddie zone. Lucy wandered around the botanical exhibits with her grandparents. We ate a disgusting lunch — giant corn dogs and Australian batter-fried potatoes swimming in ranch dressing — and drank sodas as big as pony kegs. After a few more rides, we bought
cotton candy and ice cream and a balloon for each of the girls. We stayed for five hours and spent nearly $200.
For the last two years, Jack and I have gone by ourselves. Both years, we got a babysitter and ventured out in the evening. Last year, we left the fair feeling a little bit guilty. “Next year, we’ll definitely bring the kids,” Jack said.
“Okay,” I agreed.
That’s how I found myself inching our van down the Via de la Valle off-ramp of I-5 at 1:30 the Tuesday before July 4. Rebecca, Angela, and Lucy sat in the far back seat straining to see the top of the Ferris wheel. “I see it?'’ Rebecca exclaimed with manic excitement. “I see the Ferris wheel!”
“Are we almost there?” Lucy asked.
“We’ll get there as soon as we park and walk to the O’Brien Gate,” I told her.
“How long will that be?” Angela interjected.
“Soon, I hope.”
In the middle seat, Johnny sat beside ten-month-old Ben. “Where’s Daddy?” Johnny asked.
“He’s going to meet us at the gate,” I told him. “Daddy had to work today.”
“And I’m going to ride a motorcycle,” Johnny said.
“And a truck,” Rebecca chimed in.
“And the ponies,” Angela nearly sang. Ten minutes later, we were inching through the dirt toward our parking spot. “How far away do we have to park?” Rebecca asked anxiously.
“Pretty far.” A scruffy, sunburned man in jeans and an orange vest waved us into a spot beside the riverbed. The cars whizzed by on the freeway a hundred yards in front of us. Behind us, the fair seemed a distant mirage.
“Do we have to walk?” Angela asked. “Yes,” I answered.
“Why can’t we take the shuttle?” Rebecca pointed to the open-air shuttle at the parking lot’s far end.
“By the time we get to the shuttle stop, we’ll be halfway to the gate,” I told her. While I spoke, I unloaded our enormous double stroller from the rear of the van and started loading it with the diaper bag and our picnic dinner and the sweaters and sunscreen and water. “And it would be too hard to unload the stroller and fold it up just to ride a short way.”
When I had smeared sunscreen on everyone’s arms and necks and faces, I popped Ben into the stroller’s front seat and locked the car. “All right,” I cheered, “here we go.”
I led my little parade down the long dirt road to the underpass and up toward the fair. Three days earlier. I’d broken the little toe on my left foot by accidentally slamming it into the base of Ben’s high chair. My toe ached. I limped. “All I need is a bandage on my head and a Flute, and we could do our own little Revolutionary War reenactment,” I thought.
Rebecca held Johnny’s hand and encouraged him. “Come on, Johnny,” she said. “Daddy’s waiting for us.”
“And I can ride a motorcycle,” Johnny said again.
Jack waved to us from beside the sand sculpture outside the O’Brien Gate. “DADDY,” the kids all shouted and ran to him. Ben pounded his fat white hands on the stroller’s front tray and kicked his legs.
“Did you have to park very far away?” Jack asked.
“About halfway to Rancho Santa Fe,” I answered.
“Me, too. At least we’re here.”
The next five hours disappeared in a blur of farm animals, kiddie rides, and junk food. The three girls clambered to ride every ride. Jack purchased the tickets and doled them out. “You each get to ride ten rides,” he told them. We ended up buying more tickets. I lost count of the rides they rode.
Johnny chose his rides carefully. He selected only those attractions that involved pseudo-motor vehicles: motorcycles, trucks, racing cars, bumper cars. Each time he climbed into the driver’s seat, his sweet little-boy face took on the look of a man prepared to stare death in the face. Only when the ride had begun did Johnny’s face relax into a smile.
Ben spent the entire fair trying to climb out of the stroller or twist out of Jack’s or my arms. We finally let him crawl around in the dirty hay and dust on a deserted stage beside one of the funhouses. I followed Ben around and grabbed the hay and discarded straws and soda cups out of his filthy hands before he stuffed them into his mouth.
We walked back to the car around dusk.
As I drove out of the parking lot, Rebecca asked, “Can we come to the fair next year?” “Maybe,” I answered. “Or maybe we’ll come every other year.” Every three years would be often enough for me.