Thousands flock to fair

COSTA MESA — They came from near and far, some carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, others with their children in tow, still others in motorized wheelchairs, phone headsets strapped to their ears.

They came by the thousands between noon and 1 p.m. Friday to receive free admission to the opening day of the Orange County Fair. They came in school buses, on motorcycles, in air-conditioned SUVs that cut corners or rolled through red lights in search of free parking.

If there were ever a snapshot of Middle America on the West Coast, it was in plain view Friday in the overflowing fairgrounds parking lot, where parking assistants in straw hats kept waving their arms in circular motions — as though they were some kind of carnival act, foreshadowing what awaited inside the gates.

By midday, the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway was bumper to bumper as far back as the San Diego (405) Freeway interchange, only it had nothing to do with getting to that body of water called the Pacific Ocean off the Balboa Peninsula.

It was about hot dogs, and corn dogs, and deep-fried Klondike bars, roller coasters and mega drops, and games as simple and time-worn as throwing pingpong balls into gold fish bowls and shooting free throws.

Some came Ventura and Los Angeles to participate in the fun while others simply sauntered over from nearby locales.

Kathleen Pope and her clan of half dozen grandchildren came from Irvine.

"I've been bringing them here since they were tiny children," said a proud Pope, 70. "Every single year, they come with their grandma."

These days, of course, those itty bitty children are now in their teens, some as old as 18 — like Anthony Bruno, who's seen the changing face of the fair and has this much to say, with the utmost sincerity.

"The quality in the gold fish has dropped," he said. "You know that game where you throw the pingpong ball into the fish bowl and get to bring one home if you make it? Well, last year, by the time I got the fish home, they were dead."

But that was last year, and this is this year, the fair's 120th to be exact.

Bruce Johnson, 78,

has been going to the fair, he said, since 1964, when he first moved to Southern California from the small Nebraskan town of Holdrege to become a math teacher here.

A resident of Long Beach, Johnson, who taught for years at Baldwin Park High School, said he mostly comes to see the elephants in the infamous "Have Trunk, Will Travel" show. He also likes to check out the telescopic flag poles, which are generally stronger and more versatile than a typical flag pole, for sale.

"I'm going to see what kind of deal I can get," says Johnson as he ambled toward the gate, a bit slow but still going strong.

The fair even managed to make people forget their troubles.

Talk to Suzanna Scott, and she's not bitter that she was laid off two years ago as a dispatcher in Fullerton and, in effect, was forced to cash in early on her monthly Social Security check at $200 less a month because she's only 63 years old – not 65.

How could she be?

She's at the fair.

"I love the entertainment here," she said, her longtime partner and friend, Tom Burns, 65, by her side, himself dutifully retired from a career as a law firm librarian.

He said he came to the fair for the Australian-battered potatoes, which he said are dipped in batter, then deep fried until "golden brown."

Of course, not everyone was happy to be at the fair. There were a few in the crowd who came because that special somebody made them.

Ah, the sacrifice on a scorching peak summer mid-July day.

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