Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

A night of crowded chaos at the fairgrounds

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Greg Peck
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

I should have known something enormous was brewing when I pedaled home from work shortly before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and saw people already parking as far away as Ruger Avenue and obviously headed to the Rock County 4-H Fair..

My wife, Cheryl, and I live a long block closer to the fairgrounds than Ruger. We can gauge fair attendance by observing how soon people start parking on our street—if at all. Sometimes in recent years, few fairgoers have parked on our street.

We enjoy going to the fair every year. Living only a few blocks away, we can walk over. At least one year, we purchased season passes rather than daily admission.

Cheryl and I had decided to attend the fair Tuesday and eat supper there. I had blogged about the fair on Friday, encouraging attendance and previewing our editorial Sunday that supported the fair. I mentioned several of the well-known country music acts to appear, but not Florida Georgia Line. A commenter suggested this band might be the best of the bunch. I wasn’t aware of this group, but we decided we might check it out.

I don’t recall standing in such a big line to buy an admission ticket previously. It was before 6 p.m., and we stood for 10 or 15 minutes before reaching the ticket booth.

A huge crowd of people was lined up behind the fairgrounds, waiting for the gates to open. We were ordering supper at the St. John Vianney food tent when the adjacent eastern gate opened, and young concertgoers started racing to prime viewing spots in front of the stage. I cringed, hoping no one would get trampled. Some fans started zigzagging past tables in the food tent, using it as a shortcut to reach choice viewing spots.

After eating, we weren’t certain whether to find one of the quickly dwindling grandstand seats from which to watch the show or to walk around and enjoy the many 4-H exhibits. I thought maybe it best to watch the show if this band had so many fans.

It was about 90 minutes before the show, but we found two seats on the end of one row, next to a camera platform, second row from the top of the grandstand. It was a long wait, and the wind cooled us. I suggested I had time to walk home and get jackets and a blanket to sit on. Cheryl thought that would be nice, so I did so.

I was amazed how many people I passed still walking toward the fairgrounds, as well as the hundreds still in lines for tickets. Before leaving home with blanket and jackets, I ushered a young couple into our driveway for a parking spot. We weren’t driving anywhere anyway; might as well do someone a favor.

When the band finally started, it didn’t take long for me to realize this isn’t my kind of country music. Cheryl and I have enjoyed many country artists at the fair through the years—Brad Paisley, Sammy Kershaw and Sara Evans among them. We even sat on the grass in the rain and listened to Willie Nelson sing song and after song.

In my book, Florida Georgia Line was more rock than country band. The ear-splitting guitar music made lyrics we didn’t know largely indecipherable. Sure, I could see that lots and lots of fans around us were singing along and I appreciated their enthusiasm, but I didn’t recognize any of the band’s tunes.

At one point, we watched an ambulance, lights flashing, enter a rear fairgrounds gate and take precious minutes making its way through the crowd to the west side of the stage before stopping, and then slowly looping back out. I hoped it wasn’t a life-threatening medical emergency. Any rescue was obviously a logistical nightmare.

My spot next to the camera platform allowed me to sit and still see the show, and when the band encouraged fans to swing their arms from side to side for one song, I could feel the whole, aging grandstand sway slightly. It was a bit unnerving.

A sheriff’s deputy had ordered some fans to abandon their seats on the stairway adjacent to us, but he left before the concert began. Eventually, fans standing and sitting filled the stairs.

About an hour into the show, Cheryl and I wanted to leave. Besides, a large woman had clawed her way up the stairs, only to stand in front of Cheryl and block her view, and two clumsy adolescent girls behind us had just dumped their water bottle on our heads. Cheryl doubted we could make our way down the crowded stairway, however. I assured her we could, and I led the way, at one point stumbling on someone’s foot and almost falling atop those seated to my left.

When we got off the stairs, we found no exit aisle. With a few other people likewise trying to leave behind us, we pushed to a spot near the west end of the grandstand until we could seemingly move no more. I looked at probably 100 more people packed like sardines between us and daylight and was ready to give up. Cheryl, however, is petite and feisty and was determined. She squeezed ahead of me and pushed open a crack in the crowd that I and the others could follow.

Cheryl and I bought éclairs and then started wandering through the exhibit buildings to the west. We chatted briefly with one supervisor, who told us he heard two busloads of concertgoers came all the way from Canada. Given the size of the crowd, I wasn’t surprised. By 9:20, a young man in another building told us they were closing the doors and we had to get out. It seemed early, but maybe it was for security reasons, I figured, what with the concert about to end.

Early in the evening, I had been delighted to see the big crowd, knowing it would be good for the fair and its financial picture. I wound up frustrated by the lack of a secure exit aisle from the concert, however, and by night’s end I was just glad to be heading home ahead of the hordes of music fans.

The sheriff’s office, to its credit, did send extra deputies to the fairgrounds. A WCLO report today from the sheriff’s office said the crowd—the fair office reported single-day record attendance of 30,667—was fairly orderly despite its size. Sometimes, I guess, it’s better to be lucky than well prepared.

You can read more about the security concerns in The Gazette's editorial Thursday.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook

Last updated: 8:25 am Monday, July 29, 2013

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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