Been there. Done that. It was hard. It was fun. It was harder the first day than the second, and less fun. To this day I can’t hear the words “pork plate” without my PTSD acting up. That’s post-tent stress disorder. You see, I once made 112 pork plates in something like 10 minutes. That’s my story and I am sticking with it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My family, for years, had key destinations each Fun Fest: the parade; the Taste; the Balloons; and the finale fireworks. Our diversion, as usual, was typically food — but a few times, thanks to “the kids,” a concert or the hunt for the medallion were in this or that year.
My parents especially loved going to the parade. Some of Mom’s fondest memories are of she and Dad watching the parade with my cousin Sue Mullins, her husband Wayne and their family from the yard and porch of their home in “the Fifties.” Our favorite balloon-related event was Breakfast with the Balloons. We’d pack a picnic. It almost became a family reunion as more aunts, uncles and cousins joined us each year. Dad would make his signature scrambled egg sandwiches. My Aunt Bonnie (Wallen) Hurd brought country ham biscuits. Cousin Phyllis (Hunt) Manis brought fresh, sliced tomatoes and perhaps some cantaloupe as well. Aunt Leona Clendenin Wallen brought little fried pies. We didn’t always enter the fray to watch the fireworks, instead parking someplace that offered a reasonably good view.
My own earliest memory of Fun Fest is watching the first fireworks display. I am assuming it was 1981. I was lounging, as one did, in the Clown Bar at Skoby’s and someone wondered if we’d be able to maybe see them if we looked out the front windows. Hal Carmack said we’d just go up on the roof and get a really good view and we followed him behind the bar and through a door into the restaurant’s attic. Before we reached wherever one would have gone to ascend to the roof, plans changed and we headed back through the bar, downstairs through the General Store and out into the parking lot, just above the plot of land known as “the Grove.” We actually had a pretty good view, considering the fireworks were going off over J. Fred Johnson Stadium. Icing on the cake: Nan didn’t catch me taking an adult beverage outside.
My second memory: going to a “beach party” concert in the stadium (when they still dumped truckloads of sand on the playing field) with a group of friends including Melissa Dishner Killebrew. It rained.
The AFG Medallion Hunt, in the early years, had a grand prize that included a trip to Walt Disney World aboard a corporate jet. To be in the running for the trip, you had to find one of the medallions hidden daily. You got you picture in the paper, a small cash prize, and your name in the hat for a drawing for the trip.
My brother-in-law Larry Fagans’s brother-in-law Joe Smith (does that make us brothers-in-law once removed?) would take a week’s vacation during Fun Fest and was the Indiana Jones of medallion hunting. As they reached a certain age, my and Joe’s mutual nieces, Allison and Emily (daughter of Larry and my sister Pamela) became obsessed with wanting to find the medallion themselves. So over the course of several years they’d spend at least a portion of the week with my parents, who dutifully got up bright and early each morning to read the first clue and then dash hither and yon wherever the girls directed. They never found it. Emily tells a (possibly apocryphal) tale of her closest call with bagging the medallion. On hearing the first clue one morning, she immediately and with great conviction told “Grammy” and “Popaw” she knew where to look: the Hob-Nob. “Oh, no, honey,” Emily says she was told patiently. “They wouldn’t hide the medallion way over there.” But that, Emily says, is where it was found that day. Just between you and me, I think she’s still not over it.
I’m surprised my parents didn’t take her to the Hob-Nob. Emily at that age was quite persuasive. At lunch one day at a Johnson City restaurant, Emily’s chicken tenders were undercooked. That night at Skoby’s she told the tale so solemnly that our waitress brought her a complimentary Mud Pie to make up for it. And in 1998 Emily persuaded me to brave the stadium crowd so she could see NYSNC. Emily is married now, to Ben Harless. They live just this side of Knoxville. But their first “official” date was a drive to Kingsport for a Fun Fest final-night concert and fireworks (they skipped “Taste” because she wanted to introduce him to Pal’s (Revere Street location, of course).
My time in a “Taste” tent? That was the mid 1990s. For two or three years I worked in the Skoby’s/Pantry tent, instigated by Vicki Cooper Trammell, who would corral potential stringers to work the tent because at least some of the “real” employees were needed at the actual restaurant. I gained a whole new appreciation of anyone who works in food preparation or service. I also learned close quarters and competition can make things heated. At the time, we were selling a “sampler” barbecue pork plate (pulled pork, sauce, beans, slaw and a roll) for $2 or $3. And vendors were supposed to not exceed a specified serving size. We had one-ounce ladles to use when plating the food. Well, my fingers are short, the plastic gloves were long, it was hot, and the pretty girls working the front of the tent seemed to know only three words: “Pork plate!” and “Hurry!”
And everyone else seemed to be busy doing other things each time we were slammed (I am pretty sure they were eating Dove bars behind the tent). So I got sloppy with my portion control. As I finished making that 112 pork plates in less than 10 minutes, there was pork all over the ground around my feet. And before I could think much of that, there was an angry man pointing at me through the back of the tent. “YOU are giving them too much food,” he seethed.
No, it wasn’t anyone from Skoby’s. It was the restaurateur from the next tent over. My customers, their full plates in hand, were complaining about his relatively meager $2 or $3 offerings.
My response to his finger-wagging? “It. Is. FUN FEST!”
And then I went out back and ate a Dove bar.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times-News.