Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mississippi Magic in Cabin 24

(If you've never been to the Neshoba County Fair, well, there's nothing in my experience to compare it to. It's a beautiful thing...No words, not even this beautiful picture from "Southern Living," can quite capture it...)

Last Friday night I slept on what was trying to be a couch in the kitchen/den/storage room/dining room of a cozy wooden cabin on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the state of Mississippi.

The cabin is 18 feet wide by 30 feet deep and a short two stories high with a balcony, all appropriately weathered, all lovingly updated since World War II. You could build the whole thing right now for only a few thousand. Yet one day a well-to-do doctor, standing right there in the wood shavings off the porch, offered to cut a check for nearly half a million dollars to buy it.

“Not for sale,” the family said. Twice.

This cabin rests on uncommon delta dirt.

Above me, 18 people slept that night. In nine beds. I had the downstairs to myself. Me, two ice boxes, three ice chests, two big containers of chicken spaghetti for the Saturday party, a tiny bathroom that played big, and a window unit that hummed and cooled.

All around me – in more than 900 cabins on these fairgrounds outside Philadelphia, Miss. – this same sort of deep-night country opera was on tap, naps before another day at the annual Neshoba County Fair. It’s more reunion than event, more houseparty than campout, more seasoned veteran than Flavor of the Month. The Neshoba County Fair acts like it’s been there before.

And it has been. For more than a century.

For years I’d told Stan I’d accept the standing invitation to something he’s been attending each late-July red-letter week since he was born, posting up there in Cabin 24 on Founders Square, the cherry location in this hot-fudge-sundae of a fair. The family got this spot when Stan’s dad helped get the fair up and going again in the late-1940s. Founders Square is 80 yards or so per side; 74 pastel-colored cabins outline it. The pavilion is in the middle where bands play and politicians stump and pastors preach.

We sat on the porch until past 3 a.m., two hours after the band had shut down and the casual fairgoers had been herded out and the children in their pj’s had climbed upstairs.

“In the morning, the flea market will be here,” Stan said. And sure enough, at 6 a.m. I walked outside to find the square chalked like a football field. A man selling wooden spoons needed to borrow our rake. It was like watching a circus smoothly set up. By 8, you could buy a T-shirt, jewelry, a porch swing or an oil painting.

From the porch, I could see the Ferris wheel to my right. Behind me in the giant grandstand, triathletes were running where the rodeo had been the night before, where the Mule Pull would start at 2, harness racing Sunday, the beauty pageant Monday. And all over the fairgrounds, people were walking up to another day of…whatever this is.

And at night the lights would come on and the cabins would twinkle and carnies would bark and all of your senses would have to work overtime to capture it, even a little bit.

How do you explain the taste of bubble gum to someone who’s never had it? How do you explain parenthood to someone who’s never held their own flesh and blood? You can explain a water spout; it’s harder to explain the wind.

“Just a day like all the others,” Stan said toward evening. “Paradise in deep disguise.”