It's mid-afternoon at the Dubuque County Fair, and in the southwest corner of the main grounds one of the Chainsaw Chix is finishing up a perfectly acceptable sculpture of the head of an American bald eagle.
Only one Chix is in attendance at the fair this year, an attractive, long-haired and obviously in-shape woman from Hackensack, Minn., named Lisa Foster. The other four Chix are in Australia, Japan, Canada and Germany.
Working five to 10 big fairs each summer, Foster works under a white canopy in the wild heat, clearly not bothered by its wilting effect. Sometimes she pushes her chainsaw into the log looking for all the world like a supplicant dropping to her knees to pray, knees bent low, back arching away from the task at hand, eyes studying the perspective of the sculpture.
Nearby, some obligatory antique tractors stand at attention next to squat, single-cylinder gasoline engines putt-putting, belching smoke into the afternoon heat. A long time ago, these "one-lungers" were used to power any number of once-manual chores around the farm, separating cream, churning butter, sawing logs, etc.
A hundred yards to the north, Garrett Knowles, 11, of the Washington Senators 4-H club north of St. Donatus, Iowa, sits patiently on low bleachers next to the 4-H competition arena. His mother, Vickie, sitting next to him, waits for a veterinarian to check their dog Kinnick before the stuffed-animal-like breed called a Teddy Bear is allowed to compete in the pet competition. Garrett is confident about Kinnick, though he is not really looking forward to chatting it up with judges.
"I have to talk about how I take care of Kinnick," he says, smiling, ubiquitous braces on his teeth.
In the administrative offices, fair manager Jamie Blum takes a moment to talk about the fair, the weather, the presence of Barney Fife on the grounds and the, well, general clutter of her office. "If they don't know where to put it, it goes here," she laughs, eager for a weekend with decent weather.
A few feet away, 2-year-old blond cherub Kate Schuster, of Zwingle, races semi-steadily past cages where beautiful rabbits lie, quiet and content. Her father, Jim, keeps an eye on her, doing what all dads should do, guiding her, yet leaving her alone until she needs or requests help.
Not far south of the barns, Debra Lohr, an air-brush artist from Quincy, Ill., has set up shop. She has been at the fair since 1999 and her small, white-canopied space is a favorite stop for young girls whose parents won't abide a real tattoo. The former high school art teacher specializes in the temporary variety, like the one a guy leaning heavily on 60 had drawn on to his arm on this brow-mop afternoon.
Like any good fair, this fair has its history, and its midway rides. This is not a mystery anyone seeks to solve.
To the east of the stuffed animals, well beyond the delicious smells of Iowa barns, a ride called the Freak Out looks like something out of H.G. Wells, a giant claw-like centrifugal nightmare designed to thrill 16 passengers at a time. Two good-looking young men, who have been in America five months, run the Freak Out, their South African accents adding to the soup of this thing we call a fair, this exotic Coney Island of the Midwest.
Music blasts from somewhere on board Freak Out and a guy who should know better than to ride these things at his age is singing along in full voice with a song from 1987's "Dirty Dancing": "Now I've had the time of my life, no, I never felt this way before."