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Ledyard - The 67th annual Ledyard Fair really, really wants it to be autumn.
From the hay-stuffed orange scarecrows to the garlands of plastic color-turned leaves, it might seem like fall's almost here. But Friday is an undeniably sticky summer night, the tank tops far outnumbering flannel, and fair president Leslie Doe-Koehler says the humidity is drawing a slightly smaller crowd than hoped.
Still, Doe-Koehler says, she's expecting to meet last year's tally of 20,000 fair guests by weekend's end. Judging by the cars parked in long rows on the grass beside Route 117, visible before even the telltale Ferris wheel rises up over the trees, it's hardly an anemic crowd. "Things are looking good," she says, admiring the crowd from near the upper stage, where the high school band and cheerleaders had performed in the opening ceremony.
The chamber choir has been drowned out by shrieks from the Pharaoh's Ferry - a lurching ride on a pendulum path that swings passengers back and forth, higher and higher along its semicircle trajectory. Maybe the choir will perform earlier next year, she says - before the rides start, and the screams.
But like any decent fair, it's the smells that hit you before the sights and sounds.
Manure, to be sure. A good variety of it. But also chili and chowder, butter wafting from plastic sacks of kettle corn, the sugar from cotton candy, the grease from the stand that offers only fried things.
"Oreos!" a little boy announces to his mother, reaching out to the red-striped paper container of golden batter-crusted American ingenuity.
"Can we have a small pina colada?" a blonde teenager asks at the Hawaiian shaved ice stand. Here, the flavor range is exhaustive, from pink champagne to Mai Tai to, strangely, "Ninja Turtle."
"You gotta buy it to find out," says the man behind the counter when asked for further explanation.
Next door is the mechanical bull, red-eyed and cartoonishly menacing, perched on a cushy red, white and blue moonbounce for insurance. This is an American sport.
One brave soul clings to the creature as it bucks to and fro.
"Hold on! Hold on!" her friends crow, clutching cell phone cameras and cackling.
If nothing else, the Ledyard Fair is a diverse slice of life, with no apparent trend to the age, gender or ethnicity of its patrons. A young boy loses a black flip-flop, hopping back on one foot to pluck it from the dirt road; a group of older, baseball-capped boys shoots fake rifles at a game; there are infants in strollers, women with long, lacquered nails, mustachioed gentlemen in suspenders and all manner of tattoos and glasses. Four pairs of cowboy boots make an appearance in the space of 10 minutes.
If you've got good aim but aren't the shooting type, chuck a white ball at a lever to dunk a friend in the water tank; alternately, hook a rubber duckie to win a bee-covered, honey-clutching teddy bear. Here, prizes are as diverse as the crowd - fire-tongued, grinning red peppers keep company with Tweety Birds and as-yet-unnamed species, hybrids or aliens, all covered in a layer of polyester fur.
The Ledyard Congregational Church houses the quieter end of the fair spectrum, the scene for the 4H-Club-esque crowd: quilting and baking, photography and crafting.
Inside, items have already been awarded their ribbons - mason jars of jellies and jams, peach and plum and wild raspberry, with a zucchini relish in first place. Sign-up for the chess tournament is in the building; so are paper plates of shiny bell peppers, squash and pumpkins, eggplant and freshly soil-plucked carrots.
Tiny vases boast a garden's worth of flowers. An amaretto cake gilded with thin-sliced almonds and chocolate shavings atop the pristine white frosting has earned a 95/100 on its scorecard; "AWESOME" is scrawled in all caps beneath, and four exclamation points besides.
By the petting farm and pony rides, a group of quarter-candy containers hold feed for palms brave enough to face a swarm of hungry goats. The moos of cows come from across the way. The camel is silent.
And just past this, the garden tractor pull is under way - a loud, commentated sport with a bleacher-seated crowd, in which some well prepared spectators don noise-canceling headphones around their necks.
"OK, that was 35 feet, 5 inches," someone says over a microphone. Then, "Super Stock tractors, you guys are next."
As sun sets on opening night, the strings of carousel lights grow brighter, the cloud of barbecue smoke plumes higher and thicker. Hungry people eat, thrill-seekers ride, and it seems that any kind of person, really, can take it all in.
The Ledyard Fair, on Colonel Ledyard Highway, runs through Sunday.