Life Lessons from the State Fair of Texas

Life Lessons from the State Fair of Texas
by Sally Jones

“Howdy folks, this is Big Tex.  Welcome to the State Fair of Texas.”  This is the greeting that the giant “Big Tex” statue begins each announcement, at the Texas State Fair.  His deep booming voice can be heard far across the fairgrounds, and being so tall – well, his location is the natural place for friends and family to meet after being separated.
Do you have a special place to gather with friends and family when you’ve been feeling lost or separated?  Where is that place for you?
This little talk will be about some of the adventures that the members of a UU Congregation had over the course of several years at the State Fair of Texas.  I hope you will take a few moments as I pause now and then, while telling just a bit of their story.  See if you can find a personal “life lesson” from their experiences, in addition to some I might suggest.
As it is here at Davies and with many groups, members are always looking for fund raising opportunities.  Thanks to the suggestion of a friend of a friend, our previous congregation was presented with an interesting challenge in 1982; to be counter help at the Lil O’ Donut booth at the State Fair of Texas!  Beginning wages?  $4.00 an hour!
Here are two things for you to consider:  What has touched your life by an action of a friend of a friend?  And, when was the last time you stopped and wondered – “What in heck am I getting myself into?”
After explaining the set-up as best I could to the board and congregation, we decided to give it a try.  We made the commitment, and then moved into fine tuning the details as we went along.
I’ll bet you have done that – perhaps many times. Does one stand out for you?
Our “yes” to helping staff the donut booth in 1982 turned into an annual event for seven years!  Some of the things we dealt with included:
Getting people to volunteer and scheduling workers
Working out the logistics of parking and transferring parking passes
Long walks to the booth
Sore feet, being too hot, being too cold
Getting really tired, and eating too many donuts!
At first we were just extra help in the booth.  The business was primarily staffed by the owner and his wife, her sister and brother who came from out of state to help, and their good friend.  He was the friend of a friend who originally called me.
But as the years went on, we did more and more.  Our profits increased.  We eventually had a year where we ran the booth for them.  This included making donuts, coffee, popcorn, taking deliveries of supplies, and handling the receipts which by then were tickets instead of cash.  We had donut making training sessions in our church kitchen the month before the fair started, and got a checkmark by our names when we became “qualified”.
The donuts were cooked on the spot at the fair.  They were cake donuts, so we had to learn how to mix the thick batter and get it into the hopper.  The batter gets released, plopped one at a time into a narrow tank of hot oil to cook on one side, then is flipped over to cook on the other side.  Then out they come, are put into bags and are sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar!  Yummy when fresh!  While we were learning, our church kitchen smelled like donuts, and of course we had to eat the practice results.
Do you have a remembrance of the smell of something special and good?  Interesting, isn’t it, how it stays with you for so many years?
Now I will share a few experiences from working at the fair that have remained in my memory.
During the year we ran the booth, we let our youth help. Some were as young as 12, I think.  Of course adults were there with them.  One of our members worried that the young people were being taken advantage of – child labor and all that, but they LOVED it!  I remember giving my teenage son a hug goodbye once, there, and someone remarked how rare it seemed to them, that he wouldn’t resent it!  And our daughter at about age 12 excitedly coming home and saying “Mom, today I served a cop!”
Please take a moment to identify a time when you were young and might have had a chance to work with adults and your peers on a special project.  Or as an adult, to work with teens.
Mentoring just “happens” sometimes, and new skills can be learned.  A feeling of pride and self respect can come from being trusted with responsibility.  It’s a great gift.
The dress code was kind of casual – after all, it was the fair.  We often wore our church T-shirts. But we did have uniforms which amounted to a cap or hat and an apron.  Have you ever noticed that there is something about putting on a uniform, or costume that tends to change some personalities?
A big building nearby held the car show.  And at the car show were beautiful women who posed with the cars, handed out literature, and well, just stood around being beautiful.  But they did take breaks, and while they walked to another building, passed by – out a short distance from the donut booth.  Let’s just say the uniform gave otherwise shy or reserved guys the courage to try to entice the car show women to “come on over” even to the point of offering free donuts.  And once in a while they did!
Have you or someone you know had an experience with a change of costume changing a personality.. even a bit?  Very interesting, and kind of fun.  It gives one a chance to see another side or aspect of someone that has been hidden.
Here’s a little story:
One quiet weekday afternoon I stood at the counter and watched an elderly couple slowly making their way toward the fair’s exit.  They stopped and had a long conversation.  Finally as the woman stood firmly in place, arms crossed, the man came over to the booth and bought a bag of donuts.  This was while we were still taking cash instead of tickets.  He paid with dimes.  As he was leaving I noticed that they were old dimes – the kind made with real silver.  I pictured that they may have taken their money for the fair from a jar of coins.  Perhaps money that they had saved long ago.  Maybe he wanted, he deserved the treat, but she was the thrifty one.  To me, it was a touching scene to imagine just a bit of their lives from that brief view.
Have you had such a moment of deciding on a treat, or not, with long saved money?  And if you allowed, was it savored?  Was it worth it?  And if not, do you remember how you felt?  Or have you imagined bits of other people’s lives, as I did that afternoon?
One time an older man rode right up to the donut booth on his motorcycle.  We had an interesting chat, and learned that he loved his motorcycle so much, he kept it next to his bed at night – so he said.  We asked how he was able to bring his motorcycle into the fairgrounds instead of parking it outside.  He said “Why, I just ride it right in!  I come almost every day, and they never stop me!”  Pretty spunky, I thought.
When have you pushed through boundaries?  When have you found a way around the barriers?  When and where might you have gone in body, mind or spirit, beyond what others have seen as limitation?  And then what happened?  Is it too late to try again?  Maybe another – a different opportunity will come.  Will you recognize it and take a chance?
Just last summer we were reminiscing with friends about the fair.  One – a man with a doctorate in geology who had worked at a laboratory for a big oil company had helped staff the booth.  The next Monday at work, someone came up to him and said “John, last weekend I saw a guy who looked just like you selling donuts at the fair!  I think John said something like “How about that!”  We may think we have people “pegged” from what we think we know about them.  Who has surprised you when you got to know them better?  And have you surprised others?
Have you ever wondered why some people fail to see and appreciate the beauty you recognize?  Many nights the fair had fireworks, and some years they were visible from the donut booth.  I couldn’t understand why people would ignore the fireworks and stand with their back to them, just for donuts!  Even after they got their donuts.
I must mention some of the “perks” of a job like this.  Free donuts?  Oh, that wore off fast!  Free drinks?  Do you really want ice in your cup that has been exposed to all that dust and dirt?  Popcorn?  A little of that goes a long way.  No, the perks really involved things like —
Good conversations with each other and the customers.
A chance to have an expanded view of humanity.
The wonderful Marine Corps Band that played a few days each year – right behind the booth.
Free entrance to the fair, if you had time and energy to enjoy it.
Money for our church, and stories!  Stories to be remembered and shared, told and retold.
Such as – the Saturday of the Texas – OU football game – that was usually the busiest day each year.  At one game it was a cold and rainy day.  There were so many customers that workers just threw the damp paper money into a big pile up behind the coffee pots because there wasn’t time to sort it and put it in the drawer until much later.
Have you had a fast and furious work experience where there wasn’t a moment to spare – and it all worked out – and you felt so satisfied when it was all over?  Can you recapture that feeling now?  It might be something like “Wow! we did it!”
Yes, we had some interesting times at the fair.  An amazing crew with a wide variety of volunteers including teens, housewives, scientists and engineers, an airline pilot, an ex-catholic priest and our ministers Rev. Frank Carpenter and Rev. Suzanne Meyer.  Nearly everyone who could pitched in to help.  A lot of work went into being in the booth, but a lot also happened “behind the scenes” as they say.  Most of us will never know all the parts of any group endeavor, where many people are involved.  We can only glimpse bits and pieces.  Our lives move along so quickly, we usually don’t take the time to think about it.
I’d like to challenge you to take a few moments at some point in the week ahead to think deeply about something you have participated in with others.  What was really going on?  See if you can identify bits and pieces, elements you may have overlooked.  What were the specific contributions of the others?  And even though you might not be able to express thanks now, to those people whose hard work made it all happen, you can still hold in your heart and mind a sense of gratitude.  If you do, I think you will find yourself enriched on an inner level.
Thanks for taking this little trip to the fair with me today.  And thanks for the opportunity you have given me to think more deeply about a special time in my life, and to share a few of my “life lessons” with you.
To close, here is a bit of wisdom from one of my favorite philosophers, Fred Rogers, who said “Sometimes learning makes you feel good about yourself.”  So.. I wish you a week full of learning!
Sally Jones, July 7, 2013

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