Brinkley's carnival tent featuring "Live Snakes!" and "Monsters From Beneath the Earth!" was squeezed between Hector's Haunted House and Ching Ming, "The Hairless Dog Used for Food in China."
Nothing irritates Brinkley more than unsatisfied customers and on this day, at the Montgomery County Fair in Gaithersburg, they seemed to be everywhere. Brinkley was discussing this when two disappointed 4-H boys, one sporting a yellow ribbon, came out of the tent asking for their quarters back.
This time, Brinkley said, he was going to give his lesson.
"The snakes," one boy said, "they don't do nothing. We even spat on them."
Brinkley leaned over the boys, his eyes narrowing and face glowering, and barked, "They ain't supposed to do nothing! The sign say anything about them doing anything? You wanted snakes, you paid for snakes. Well, goddamnit, you got snakes!"
The lesson, of course, was that at the Montgomery County Fair -- and all fairs for that matter -- what you see is what you get.
The lesson was applicable to both sides of Sycamore Street, the narrow driveway on the fairgrounds separating Brinkley and the rest of the carnival from the more wholesome agricultural arcades.
But on the agricultrual side, with its church bake-offs, sawdust and cattle, prize chickens and rabbits, studded belts and cowboy hats, there was no need to explain the lesson because the show was the thing. Blue-eyed youngsters paraded show horses and sheep aiming for blue ribbons in front of proud parents, their cameras at the ready.
On the caranival side the lure was the thing. Disco music and flashing lights, entrepreneurs barking, stuffed animals and dime-store knickknacks, the Whirl-A-Twirl and the Palace of Wonders.
The fair, which ended yesterday, was two worlds in one. Sounds of cattle and poultry, smells of earth and manure, qualities of freshness and innocence were mixed with screams and sirens, caramel apples and green cotton candy, deception and skepticism.
A 9-year-old girl of freckles and blue eyes, who raised a Black Angus steer to a meaty 1,100 pounds, cries in her father's lap as the steer is sold to Safeway. An old man down the road, meanwhile, a carnival barker, chuckles softly to himself as yet another sucker loses yet another buck.
The fair's two faces came together at the information center, located just across the lane from the United Methodist Church food stall. Here, farm youngsters would come to find out where and when they were to parade their animals. Others also came here from the carnival, to complain about unscrupulous merchants there or receive medical attention for amusement ride bumps and bruises.
The managers of the information center -- 4-H Queen Terry Sudath, Bill Vickers and director George Wills -- considered the carnival a necessary evil.
"Don't get me to talking about those people," Vickers said. "They're just not the best of folks."
"They're vagabonds," Wills added. "This fair is run by and for the good local people. The farmers and the city folk. The carnival people do this all summer. They go from town to town all up the east coast.
"I'll admit," Wills said, "that the carnival is the magnet. People see the Ferris wheel at night and say, 'Oh boy, let's go.' But we'll never let this fair become a case of the tail wagging the dog. It's about agriculture." t
By day the fair is about agriculture. It was started 32 years ago by country farmers who wanted to show off their animals and sell them to local breeders and meat distributors. They cleared the land and built the barns.
Families like the Kings of Damascus, the Savages of Germantown and the Gantts of Anne Arundel, are considered luminaries here, pillars of the "Ag-Side." The 4-H Club forms the core of this side of the fair.
"You've gotta see those kids and their animals," Wills said. "That's what this is all about. The tradition lives on."
Nine-year-old Debra Dice of Derwood is competing for the first time in a 4-H contest. Willy, her Black Angus steer, has reached maturity. Her father bought the steer last October to "teach her a little responsibility."
"It's better than letting her run loose in the street," her mother added.
After feeding Willy twice a day for 10 months, walking him in the pasture, brushing and combing his hide, it was now show time. She paraded Willy around the sawdust floor of the pavillion and came in fourth place out of 12 contestants. Momentarily she was pleased, but the rest of the afternoon she brooded.
"Gotta sell Willy to a lockerroom tonight," she said, a stick of hay in her mouth. "I guess I just love him too much."
At the auction Willy's 955 pounds were sold to a local roofing contractor for $1.15 a pound. This came after a 15-minute delay in the proceedings that came about when a housewife from Chevy Chase became carried away by the bidding over a grand champion 230-pound hog and decided to bid herself. She was given a loud ovation by the crowd when she won the pig with a bid of $5.
The housewife didn't realize, however, that she bought the animal for $5 a pound, not $5 total. After a few hisses and loud moans, the hog was put up for auction again.
"Damn," one farmer drawled, after the woman exited in embarrassment. "Why don't they just sit there and shut up and let us do the work."
That afternoon, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) strolled through the fair, pumping hands and greeting cattle owners. In a white seersucker suit, and red, white and blue tie, Mathias made a beeline through the carnival and didn't slow up until he reached the agricultrual arcades.
Wholesomeness and politics got along well here. The Republican and Democratic Party booths, along with the religious exhibits, were perched, not coincidentally, very near the cattle pavillion and far, far from the funhouses and gyrating rides of the carnival.
"Good to see ya," Mathias said to one farmer.
"Yeah, all right," the farmer replied. "Shaking hands, huh? Well, you seem a little more composed than what's his name, Louis Goldstein. He came through there yesterday shaking everything, even the cows' hooves."
Later Mathias strolled up to 67-year -old George Sewell, who has been cleaning up after the cows and sheep on the pavillion floor for 22 years. After Mathias left someone asked Sewell if he knew who the stranger was.
"Damn, if I know," he said. "I just work here."
At night, long after the politicians, cattlemen, housewives and 4-H youngsters have gone home, the fair belongs to the carnival and the bizarre. Sounds of disco music and rollicking rides echo into the darkness, and sharp stipples of flashing bright lights drift in a haze toward the overcast night.
Now, Brinkley is in his element. He leans back on a stool, his cap lowered over his forehead, and listens to his own recorded voice bark out advertisements on a loudspeaker overhead.
"Live snakes, poisonous snakes, get your tickets now."
Brinkley, 22, has been in the carnival business all his life. His father owned an amusement park in North Carolina. "This is as far north as I'll go with the show," he said. "Yankees are too hard to please."
He remembered the time last year when he had a great horror show here. A man would come out of a coffin dressed as Dracula, and monsters and gorillas would jump out of closets. His help quit, though because late at night when the patrons appeared drunker and drunker, fist fights became too commonplace. They waited for Dracula to rise, then punched him back into his coffin.
"People don't have no courtesy up here," he said. "Down south, folks like thrills. Up here you can't please nobody. And you better be prepared to defend yourself.
"Sideshows, freak shows," he sighed, "we're a dying breed."
After paying 50 cents to see Ching Ming, "the Dog the Chinese Use for Food," a young couple carrying balloons strolled over to Brinkley's tent and, after deliberating a moment, decided to peek at Brinkley's docile water moccasins. Several minutes later they returned discouraged.
"Those snakes look dead, mister," the man said, as the couple walked away.
"Can't please nobody," Brinkley replied. CAPTION: Picture 1, Bob Brinkley displays two drawing cards in front of his carnival tent at the Montgomery County Fair. "What you see is what you get."; Picture 2, Tom Cawood identifies a buyer during cattle auction. One Black Angus sold for $1.15 a pound. Photos By Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post