I made my way through the gate and down the long, broad walkway into the center of the fairgrounds. It was midmorning and the place was filling now, slowly and steadily, with people walking at a comfortable gait -- strolling as if on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the park, yet with destinations. I, too, was walking without hurry, taking it in slowly, bit by bit, as one does a cool drink on a hot summer evening. I wanted to savor the place, to make the most of the delights I knew were there, remembered from years before: the colors and smells and sensations that make it mandatory for me, along with thousands of others who are similary afflicted, to return as often as possible to the fair.

It need not be a state fair, although this one, in North Carolina, was. State fairs are generally bigger and thus offer more sensations, but you can achieve the same feeling at the tiny Emmet Country Fair in lower Michigan, or the locally famous Fryeburg Fair on the Maine-New Hampshire border, or the Danbury Fair in Connecticut or a hundred others. People who are profoundly affected by these spectacles have favorite fairs, of course, and it should not be surprising that the ones they attended as children should remain the most indelible. For me, it was the North Carolina State Fair, which runs for nine days each October in Raleigh, my home town. I go back whenever I can, and last fall I was there for a full week.

The fair started to absorb me not long after I entered the gate, and the sensations came immediately, as I had hoped they would: Colors in vast abundance; an acre or two of bright reds and greens and yellows and deep mustards sprayed on farm machinery that looked so good here on the fairgrounds but that soon, after a week of hard work, would adopt permanently the color of red North Carolina clay.

Through the colors came drifting the smells of frying meat, mostly pork, and of onions in oil and popcorn and cotton candy, and horse manure and diesel oil, smells that seem unsuited to each other but that, the the reality of the fairgrounds, mix very nicely. And the sounds of a hundred loudspeakers designed more for penetration than for concert quality, their operators urging us to taste, see, ride and, most of all, buy. And behind all the human noise, the unending hum of the big mobile generators, their cables thick as baseball bats.

Up above, there was a blue automn sky without blemish. Lower down, closer to the ground, I saw a scene that would be repeated a hundred thousand times that week: the child, holding tightly to the adult hand that grips even tighter in unfamiliar crowded placed such as this. A child not yet so old that he must hide his awe behind a mask of purported sophistication; his mouth hanging open in a total lack of self-consciousness; his eyes trying unsuccessfully to take in all of it; his face a portrait of both ecstasy and puzzlement, with the tinest touch of fear thrown in. And on the face of the adult who hold the child's hand, traces of the same expresseions. For the fair is one of the few remaining institutions in which we are allowed, even encouraged, to dabble in childhood, to return in a deliberate search for childish feelings, without having to feel embarrassed about it.

I am not talking here about Disney World or other theme parks. A fair is different. It is a celebration , not just a chance to have your picture taken with a hyper-hyped rodent. Fairs once were, and some of them still are, celebrations of the harvest -- of a time when farm people could take a break from their hardest work, when they concurrently had money to spend and were preparing physically and emotionally for the long winter, or even the not-so-long ones of the Southland. People with things to sell were naturally drawn to such events, as were those whose tallents lay in providing entertainment. In North Carolina, it started in 1893, under the auspices of the State Agricultural Society, as a "cattle show and an exhibition of domestic manufactures."

Much of the North Carolina fair is still that, plus a heavy overlay of entertainment. "Fairs have always been trade centers," said Arthur K. Pitzer who manages the Raleigh fair for the state department of agriculture, when I saw him last October. "Then somewhere along the line, the entertainment aspect was added on. What we have now is something that's still a center for trade, but it's done in the middle of an entertainment envirnment."

If a fair is put together properly, it's something else as well. It can come close to reflecting a state's or part of a state's or even a region's very character , its very personality . I know of no other institution that can make such a claim.

The properly run fair can perform this service and another important one as well: It can transport us back into the bittersweet memories of our childhoods, can take us back to the moments when we learned first about freshly roasted peanuts, and Ferris wheels, and dill pickles plucked from oak casks and eaten out of wax-paper wrappers, and fire-eaters, and strippers, and live country music with mountain people who danced so fast you could not see their feet and who played the fiddle at the same time, and balloons that were filled not with ordinary air but with gases that made them rise -- made them tug upward toward the inevitable moment when one of them would gain its freedom and drift boldy across the fairgrounds, steadily gaining altitude, both proud and lonely, while a child wailed below and his parents tried to decide whether they should promise a replacemeant, or whether it was time for the child to learn the lesson that ballons go away.

You do not walk far at the North Carolina State Fair before you encounter organized religion. Business routinely advertise their subscriptions to the Golden Rule, and the Godwin Manufacturing Comapany of Dunn, which makes pickup truck hoists, even has Him or Her on its payroll: "We strive for quality with God as our partner," said its fair banner last October.

Religion becomes most nearly omnipotent in the area of food. It is traditional, at the North Carolina fair, for church groups to rent booths and set up cafeterias and restaurants to feed the multitudes quickly, inexpensively and cheerfully. The food leans toward Eastern North Carolina barbecue, which is decidedly heavenly and which is different from any other in the world, relying heavily on vinegar. For breadfast and walking-around food, the tendency is to sandwiches composed of ham or sausage inside actual homemade biscuits. "The biscuits here are made from scratch," said the man with the microphone who was drumming up trade for the green-and-white-painted joint run by the Cary United Methodist Churches. "Granny's back there at the stove right now." On both sides, rival Baptists and Methodists tried to talk the passersby in, but none had the drawing power of the United Methodists from Cary.

I got the sausage biscuit and ambled toward the exhibits and midway, stopping along the way to watch the people who were watching the Flying Bobs. sThe Bobs, and a similar attraction called the Himalaya, are two popular carnival rides whose success seems largely attributable to the presence in a control booth off to one side of a scruffy-looking youth who operates both the ride and a turntable or tape player. He is a disc jockey of sorts, playing music that enhances the experience of the ride itself (the music is almost totally rock 'n' roll, some of it dating well back into the '50s.) He also controls a siren which blasts off every now and then, and he speaks directly to the riders and onlookers through the ride's sound system. What he says, mostley, is "Do you want to go faster?"

Small canvas-topped kiosks sold cheap jewelry at scattered locations on the fairgrounds, and I was surprised to find that mood rings, which purportedly change their color according to the wearer's mood (but actually her or his temperature), were still a big item even though they peaked as a minor national craze long ago. And I realized that much at the fair is not new at all, and that that is part of the attraction.

The exhibits are the heart of any fair, or at least one of the hearts, and certainly they are the major differnece between a fair and a theme park. The North Carolina State Fair had them in abundance: preserves, in translucent winy colors you will never see on supermarket shelves, displayed proudly beside their blue and red ribbons; champion sweet potatoes, laid out in neat rows like examples of tin-can art, hex signs and "the nation's most exciting hobby -- liquid embroidery." And, elsewhere, a fishing trawler, and a pile of oysters, and tin-, gold-and silversmiths, stoolmakers, glassblowers and a man who made rope hammocks while you watched.

There was a building full of old-time machinery, with plows of every description, each one designed for a specific purpose. A man looked at the 1880 Dixie Plow and said, "My daddy had one of them." And corn planters, peanut planters, cotton planters and a 1900 manure spreader, all of them somewhat out of date now because North Carolina's economy is edging away from corn, peanuts, cotton and mules. And an old green Railway Express wagon (the display was getting perilously close now to ancient things that I could remember, and that made me a little uneasy.)

And exhibits too varied to categorize: promotions for what they call the "new pork," which means skinnier pigs; soybeans; both yams and white potatoes, hyped by two separate growers's associations; all the milk you could drink for a quarter; encyclopedias; and an alarming number of booths at varied places around the fairgrounds that extolled the virtues of some pots and pans made out of a substance named t-fal .

And fire-ant killer; a proclamation that honeybees are the "Angels of Agriculture" (I wondered what happened when the Angels inhaled the pesticide); vacuum cleaners; free hushpuppies from a cornmiller (I visited this one frequently); and, more omnipresent than even t-fal , booths selling vast numbers of brass belt buckles with artwork and snappy sayings on them. They are no doubt, the mood rings of tomorrow.

And, off to one side, well out of the way of the casual fairgoer, was an exhibit called "Heritage Circle." It was a collection of buildings from years ago -- a one-room schoolhouse built in 1887 in Lizard Lick, N.C.; a mule-driven molasses mill; a one-room cabin, and a tobacco barn. In the schoolhouse there were nine benches, each designed to seat two children. It was simple Spartan, and possibly better-organized than most schoolrooms today. A man and his son came in; they both wore blue jeans and running shoes and blow-dried hair.

"If this was a school I sure wouldn't like to go to it," said the kid. He was about 10 or 11.

"This is the sort of school your grandfather went to," said his father. He spoke respectfully. His native tongue, a soft, eastern North Carolina drawl, had been suppressed quite a bit, no doubt from living in the suburbs and watching television.

You could see out the window to the molasses mill, where a mule was hitched to the end of a revolving arm made out of a crooked treelimb. The mule plodded around in a circle, and the arm turned a mill in the center where a skinny farmer in overalls poked cane into the contraption.

What came out was molasses. About once a revolution, the farmer berated the mule for his alleged laziness. The animal obviously knew that the man didn't mean it. At one point the mule came to a complete stop.

"How's he going to get that donkey going again?" asked the child in the one-room schoolhouse.

"That's not a donkey," said his father. "That's a mule. A fat mule." He spoke now with his drawl fully intact, as if it had never gone away.

It was a few minutes later, while lying on a sun-warned carpet of pine straw near the schoolhouse and molasses mill, my back comfortably against a pine tree, watching the mule and the fairgoers that I started to develop my half-baked theory of the state fair. The fair, I thought, was an arena where a community -- a county, a state even a region -- might see both its past and its future displayed; where what had happened and what was going to happen might be judged, appraised, accepted, rejected, tested, discarded, anticipated, embraced, forgotten and resurrected.

Attendance at this arena was painless, certainly more interesting than a stroll through the dusty catacombs of a museum -- the layers of sounds and colors and smells and rides and shows took care of that. The arena was certainly an imperfect one; it would be foolish to assume that all of our intricate problems with the transition from our past into our future would be even hinted at in a few hours of strolling. But surely the fair is almost alone among our modern institutions in its facility for jogging our memories about the past: in helping us understand that there is a very direct connection between what made us what we are today and what our lives are going to be like from now on.

No doubt thousands of people went home from the North Carolina State Fair last year unburdened by overly weighty thoughts of past or future. But I would wager that none of them departed without having considered, if only for a moment, the importance of agriculture in their lives.

Far too often we tend now to think -- wrongly, I believe -- of agriculture as just "agribusiness," to think of it as just another cold, computer-run facet of modern society. It is difficult to get excited about a square mile of soybeans, but it would be wrong to assume that agriculture no longer is important. It is basic to our lives, and it weaves through past, present and future as does nothing else.

And so it became easy to understand how and why I had seen little at the North Carolina State Fair that was fundamentally different from what I had seen five, 10, 20, even 35 years ago. The fair was an exhibition of things that endured and that could be expected to endure a little longer. When we came through that gate, we were looking for things that were new, but we were far more interested in seeing again the things that were old and in recording for ourselves the sometimes subtle ways in which they were changing. Brass belt buckles with citizens' band radio motifs were not around 20 years ago, but surely someone was hustling a yesteryear version of t-fal . I had not yet seen another exhibit that, for me, meant "the fair": the man who parked his car on the fairgrounds, removed its hood, arranged an umbrella and some spotlights over it, turned on a sound system and proceeded to make money hand over fist selling passersby some gimcrack that was alleged to improve gas mileage by 50 percent. But I hadn't seen all the fair yet. James E. Strates Shows have furnished the midway for the North Carolina fair for close to 30 years; that, too, is part of the past and future. E. James Strates, the son of the founder, now runs the show. His carnival travels in 37 railroad flatcars, a baggage car and seven coaches, one of which is a private car for him and his family. Back in his formative days, Strates spent three years in th Marine Corps and more than three years' worth of it rubbed off on him. He keeps his Ray-Ban sunglasses in a case on his belt, and he sports a generally military air. He wears a shirt and tie, as do members of his headquarters staff, who are bushy-tailed young men with the look of Florida condo tycoons or H. Ross Perot aides and who zip along the midway in golf carts while receiving instructions from the Old Man via walkie-talkies.

I asked Strates, in his office compound with its money wagon, potted azaleas, copying machine and white wrought iron fence, why a carny would be wearing a necktie. "Isn't any good businessman in a shirt and tie?" he replied. He glanced ever so briefly at my own facade, which has not had a tie on it since the last funeral I attended. "The people I mix with wear shirts and ties," he said. "So do I." We went off in his Mercedes 300SD to check out a 30-year-old railroad car, an observation-bedroom-lounge car from the old New York Central that a man was restoring and wanted to sell to Strates. The inspection was through but brief and disappointing to the restorer. On the way back to the lot I asked Strates about changes on his end of the state fair business.

"Things are not changing," he said. "Every year, year in and year out, people come back and they want the things they saw last time. You change a little -- you bring in a new ride or some sort of new technology -- but by and large things don't change.

"We're always trying to improve the electrical system. Those generators eat up alot of fuel. We change things like that. But whatever you do, you don't get rid of the reason people come here. You still have to have the flavor. People come here because they want to see what a carnival was like in the past -- because of their memories of what it used to be like."

Out on the hugh midway, the memories were easy to recapture. The games of "skill" hadn't changed (why fool with a sure thing?); the people clogging the midway had the same looks on their faces -- mixtures of awe, anticipation, excitement and embarrassment over being so foolish as to believe what the pitchmen said -- and the rides were pretty much the same.

Some things were missing. I yearned for the Caterpillar, a terrifying ride with a movable, ribbed canvas roof in which I once engaged in about 15 seconds of intense eighth-grade passion before a rider a few seats away dampened things by throwing up. And others I did not especially yearn for but noticed the absence of, like the Girl in the Iron Lung, displaced now by Salk vaccine, and the pickled-human show, which featured various-sized fetuses in large jars. Presumably that one was displaced by good taste.

And inside some of the shows, it was not the same. Even venerable Melvin Burkhart, "the human blockhead," seemed bored as he went through the contortions I've been watching for decades. An adolescent magician and his assistant were straight out of a high school talent show. I didn't stay to see what the "world's smallest, most perfectly formed black midget" did. Across the midway someone was presenting "Girl into Gorilla," one of the finest illusions ever invented. In "Girl Into Gorilla," a lovely young woman in a cage turns slowly into a fake gorilla before the audience's eyes. When done properly, the transformation is delightful and the gimmick undetectable, and it usually ends with the gorilla's breaking out of the cage and rushing toward the crowd, which clears the tent in a hurry. That's the way they did it here, except the presentation was so awful that no one in the audience retreated an inch, and there was much mumbling on the way out about being gypped.

There was, I decided, a distinct lack of what used to be, and in some circles still is, called showmanship . It was lacking, too, in the grandstand performances of Jack Kochman's Hell Drivers, an auto thrill show that three decades ago used to drive me and my friends into frenzies of ramp-jumping on bicycles, with attendant bills for sutures, new eyeglasses and handlebars and the like.

Most of the other performers had no flash . They failed to infect their audiences with a feeling of delight, or awe, or disbelief or anything. Most didn't bother to wear costumes. They just stood there in their blue jeans, bathed in lackluster, obviously bored with their work. I assume the reason is television, which has done so much to destroy the notion that talent can be helpful in show business.

I finally found the showmanship I'd been looking for under a small geodesic dome well removed from the professionals on the midway or in the grandstand. Three times a day the North Carolina Folk Festival presented dancers, singers and musicians of a caliber so high and a dedication so great that I found myself returning for every performance. Much of the music and dance had been born in the mountains, so there was a great emphasis on fiddling and acoustic guitars and the mandolin. And the finest of it all came when the Avery County High School Cloggers mounted the hardwood stage.

Clogging is a cross between square and tap dancing, but the dancers do not necissarily wear clogs or even taps, although when they get going they sure sound like it. The cloggers I saw in Raleigh were as professional a group as could be found on the fairgrounds. Clogging is a true work of art, and I hope it replaces disco as our national dance.

Walking the fairgrounds again: I passed up lunch at Pearl's Palce ("Eat with Local People") in favor of a joint "Owned and Operated by Local Farm Boys." I realized that I had not seen a single pair of signiture blue jeans the whole time I had been at the fair. I went to the tractor pull and could not understand what people liked about it. It seemed that the loudest sound on the fairgrounds was the fellow at the Flying Bobs asking "so you want to go faster?"

The faces at the fair were mostly white, straightforward Scotch-Irish. The blacks came at night and would come in larger numbers on Saturday, the day the fair closed. At the fair, as elsewhere, the teen-agers owned the night. Throughout it all there were the small children, gaping in awe at everything, filing it all away without knowing it.

"I stayed away for three years," said a young woman who had been a child not too long ago. "But I just had to come back. I don't know why I did. I just had to come back. It hasn't changed one iota."

Ordell Perryman, from Ramseur, N.C., was born on a small farm, but he worked 18 and a half years in a textile mill. Then he went into hog farming. He had 15 Yorkshires entered in eight judging classifications this time, and they won five first places, four seconds and four thirds. "Hog prices are what you call depressed," he said as he drank a Sunkist and watched Grand Champion OPE 9-Aleta-21-1 eat her breakfast. "But it beats working in the mill. When you can't see the sun shine, you kind of get tar'd of it. What I do now is much better. I just wish we could unite farmers." If we could, we could make some difference. But there's just no way to unite farmers."

I found the pickled fetuses. They weren't on the midway at all, but in one of the exhibition buildings in a booth run by the anti-abortion people. They may have been plastic; I didn't get too close to either them or the tight-lipped people who were displaying them.

There was plenty of the past, and there was some of the future, and there were some combinations of the two. There was a good deal of curiosity over the several displays of wood-burning stoves, and a father-son auto racing team from Bear Creek, Russell and Darrall Poe, had many inquiries about their kit for cutting gasoline consumption dramatically by turning V-8 auto engines into V-4s. They reminded me of the guy under the umbrella with his hood up, promising a 50 percent savings in gasoline, although I imagine their gimmick worked. The Poes were claiming 30 to 50 percent.

Jim Graham motored up in a golf cart. "Come on," he said. "I've got to go fill a request for a lop-eared rabbit." Graham is the North Carolina commissioner of agriculture, perhaps the state's best-known elected politician, and an imposing advertisement for nutrition, since he stands 6 feet 4 1/2 inches tall beneath his Stetson Open Road and wears size 15 1/2 snakeskin boots. His mission, he said, was to arrange for the visit of a lop-eared rabbit (a breed with very floppy ears) to a youth camp the following summer.

The rabbit barn was full of lop-eared and other forms of what breeders' association calls "tender, delicious, all-white domestic rabbit meat." Soon Graham was holdig the one he wanted, hugging a pretty exhibitor and not incidentally getting his picture taken in the process.

On the way back to his office, Graham was besieged by friendly constituents. Even those who didn't hail him seemed to know who he was. "Things have changed," he said when I brought up my developing theory of the fair. "But I know what you mean. The fair always comes back to the basics, and the basics don't change all that much."

One basic that has not changed, he said, is that the fair is an agricultural thing, even in a state whose economy is shifting away from the soil toward industry and services. "I don't care how many industries we get," said Graham, "or how much the jobs get into the services. You'll never take agriculture out of the future of the state of North Carolina, no matter what, unless you can get the good Lord to take away your belly and change your metabolism so you stop having to eat."

Suddently I realized that the weekend had come. The fair was ending. Saturday morning opened with large crowds and a big increase in the number of temporarily lost children. The laws of supply and demand took over on the midway; I timed the rides on the Flying Bob at 71 seconds each, shortened considerably from the comfortably sluggish weekdays.

By midafternoon a lot of people who had come for the whole day were exhausted. Sit-down eating joints were filled and park benches were at a premium. I asked Doris an H. C. Ward, of Ash, N.C.., why they'd come to the fair, and H. C. replied, "Why? It beats the heck out of me. The thing hasn't changed since I first saw it in 1939." He paused a moment and then added: "Maybe that's why I came back."

I spotted Calvin Klein's name on a brood of three rounded, post-nymphet bottoms. But all the interesting ones still bore the names of Messrs. Lee and Strauss.

The sun started slipping toward the southwestern horizon, its reddish-orange light blending with the artificial colors of the midway and the exhibits, and I climbed up on top of the Dorton Arena to get a view of the entire fairgrounds. It was hard to believe that this was October. The weather had been warm and clear ever since a little rainfall at the beginning.

The auto thrill show ended and a few thousand more people poured from the grandstand onto the midway, which from my vantage point seemed already crowded to capacity. At the other end of the grounds, where the exhibit halls were, thousands of fresh customers were coming through the gates. The pace was still slow, about the walking speed of a parent holding the hand of a small child, and getting slower.

The sun creased the horizon, and its tangerine light became all the more intense. Below, on the midway and elsewhere on the fairgrounds, the electric lights came on -- blues and reds and pinks and greens, fluorescent and incandescent and neon. The volume of the noise rose, as if everyone had turned up his amplifier a couple o notches. The fair had another half-dozen hours to run.

A balloon broke free of someone's hand, probably a child's, down on the midway, and it floated across the fairgrounds below me, rising steadily. By the time it passed my perch it was higher than I was. Soon it would be out of sight. It was unlike the balloons of my youth; it was made of some sort of plastic that looked like shiny metal, and it was shaped like a hart. We did not have balloons like that at the North Carolina State Fair 20 or 30 years ago. But we did have ones that tried to fly away and that occasionally succeeded.