This weekend I was excited to return to Sedalia, hometown to me and the Missouri State Fair.
I remember fondly the livestock barns and carnival rides, the caramel apples and gargantuan pumpkins. This was the place where — in the disorienting August heat and after aspirating the alcoholic fumes from thousands of drunk people — my wife conceded to date me.
Don’t judge her: The entire survival of the fair is dependent upon poor personal decisions. Once I came home with a thick, tanned leather belt with my name burned into the back.
As I pulled into the parking lot this weekend, I began to reminisce about that first romantic encounter. The funnel cakes and the cotton candy. The corn dogs slathered in ketchup ...
Here's where it all went bad. You won't believe this, but when I got to the corn dog part, my brain blinked and some dimensional shift occurred — I died and went to heaven.
Not that the euphoria created by a corn dog trumps the joy of meeting my wife. But right then, I had her next to me in the car, and I still hadn't seen a corn dog at the fair.
Walking into the fair on Saturday, I quickly realized that many of my theological assumptions about heaven were wrong. First of all, for inquiring minds, the gate was not quite pearly, and the guy taking tickets was not nearly as jovial or professional as St. Peter.
He was rather unkempt in appearance and frazzled in demeanor. Perhaps, being in a perpetual customer service line is not the heaven he had pictured.
I began to get a little nervous.
Why would heaven be so hot? Why was there an ambulance off in the distance? And why did it seem that no matter how long we walked we weren’t getting any closer?
All I wanted was a corn dog.
Maybe hell is eternally walking toward a corn dog stand mirage.
But when I finally did reach a corn dog stand and obtained my little, wonderful, prized, cholesterol carrot, I was relieved. Indulging in corn dogs may have gotten people into hell, but I’m pretty sure if corn dogs are around, it’s not hell. A corn dog from hell is an oxymoron.
Then I noticed there were lots of animals, which seemed heaven-like. There were hundreds of cattle, pigs, chickens, rabbits and teenagers.
I looked around for my old dog, Murphy, but he was nowhere — probably because he had been disqualified at heaven's gate for chewing too many bras and shoes.
I will say, I thought heaven would be more like what I've seen in movies and popular theology. The image of a jeweled crown on the head of a worshipper lying in contemplative prayer was replaced by a lady in a rhinestone hat passed out in the Highway Patrol golf cart.
The traditional sweet melody of a harpist was actually drowned out by a man doing drunken karaoke and playing air guitar. And closer inspection of what I thought was a chorus of angels humming turned out to be 10,000 people butchering a mediocre country song in the grandstands.
There were hundreds of booths with vendors selling everything from cooking supplies to clothes to turquoise jewelry to healing rocks. I personally couldn’t see the market for healing rocks in heaven, but, as I said, logic is suspended at the State Fair.
There was nearly every kind of music there. Not much rap — only some on the carnival rides. Since the carneys have to edit out the parts that denigrate women, there were only two rap songs and each only about 12 seconds long. But those were looped, so it was fair. I saw lots of old friends, which was good, but every one of them said some derivative of, “Wow. You’re the last person I expected to see here!”
That got hurtful after a while. Ronald McDonald was scheduled to be there in a few days, and not one person seemed surprised about that.
However, considering the grace given me, I decided to roll with it. The place was wonderful. People just seemed to do whatever they wanted.
One guy was drawing caricatures; another was so excited about animal heads he sculpted them with a chainsaw three times a day. There were crafters, cloggers, barrel-racers, animal trainers, campaigners, barbecue-ers, shysters and shuttle drivers. There was even a Jimmy John's sub-eating competition.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this means heaven is personalized. Is this only my heaven, built around what I like? What does this vision say about me?
Hundreds of young people at the fair were having a great time wasting other people’s money — does that mean I am subconsciously a liberal?
What does it mean when Justin Bieber plays over and over? And how would I explain the Missouri State Fair Queen contest to my wife?
Fortunately, I don’t think the fair is my heaven. It was awfully hot, the corn dogs weren’t free, and my old enemies, the ’93 Sacred Heart Gremlin soccer players, weren't cleaning the portable toilets with their toothbrushes.
In fact, I’m not sure it was heaven at all, now that I think about it, or at least not the real version. The Biblical heaven seems much better. There must be some reason people never come back.
Heaven must be very expensive, but, thankfully, I’ve heard I can only get in if I let Jesus pay for everything, which works out pretty well for me, especially since I’m broke after this weekend.
Brad Clemons lives in Columbia and likes being the giant stuffed animal his wife brought home from the Missouri State Fair.