Offensive T-shirt sparks debate

If a support group existed for those addicted to carnivals, fairs and festivals, my family would be founding members. Each year we arrange our summer schedule so that when the Shenandoah County Fair arrives in late August, we’re prepped and ready to go as many times as possible.

The folks who organize the fair do an incredible job of offering something for everyone. Once a primarily rural, agricultural event, the festivities now include everything from a demolition derby to a wrestling exhibition. This year also featured a free circus, a birds-of-prey exhibit, camel rides, and music by REO Speedwagon and country star Luke Bryan. Naturally, it also boasted several large barns and buildings with enough animals to fill an armada of arks.

Can’t you just picture our family walking along on our first night at this year’s edition of the fair?

Mom is drinking root beer from an old-fashioned cool metal mug. I am fighting for my fair share of a funnel cake with my two sons. My oldest daughter is walking a few paces ahead with a friend, no doubt conspiring how to ditch the family for a few minutes of glorious unsupervised fair cruising. My other son is lobbying to go through the Fun House again so he can giggle at the 7-foot version of himself in the mirror and race down the tornado slide from the top floor.

Whiffs and wisps of stray cotton candy float past us. Friends from church shout, “Hello!” from across the clay and gravel path that separates games from food vendors. A playfully angry clown taunts a teenager to try just one more time at the dunk tank. Countless children dot the fair’s landscape.

Then a man with his own family crosses in front of mine. He’s wearing a black T-shirt with bold, block red lettering that is unmistakable. My jaw drops.

The words on the shirt cannot be reprinted here or in most other newspapers or reputable websites. The shirt blasted three variations of the four-letter word parents find most offensive. Actually, not just parents find the word offensive; many sensible youth and non-parents find it equally distasteful.

I stopped and caught my wife’s attention and asked, “Does that say what I think it says?”

My wife took a quick glance and her jaw dropped even further.

Thus begins the internal debate. What do I do? Who wears such a highly offensive shirt in a public place? What is the thought-process behind attending a crowded, family-atmosphere fair with a shirt that offends the vast majority?

My family moved on without me and I watched the man and his family – I can only assume it was his family – navigate their way through the crowds and away from where I’d first spotted him. I considered my options as he was swallowed up in the crowd ahead.

I could confront him and tell him that whatever language he chooses to use in private is his own choice and business, but he loses that agency in public. I could ask him to turn it inside out or invite him to leave the fair. I could offer to buy him a shirt at a nearby booth. I could have done any of those things and hoped in return that he didn’t rearrange my nose, chin or eyes.

What did I do?

Nothing.

I slowly turned away and caught up to my wife and children.

The evening blended into night and we had a wonderful time. We won a goldfish to match last year’s goldfish, and my wife pretended to be excited. I lost several races with my younger children on the slide and blamed the burlap sack. We ate hot glazed donuts so good that even a Krispy Kreme would bow in their presence.

Still, through it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the man and his shirt. If the word popped up once in a movie, it would earn a “PG-13” rating. If the word were used two or more times, it would likely earn an “R” rating. But if the word appears on a shirt at a county fair with thousands of adults and children seeing it repeatedly, a man shrugs his shoulders and turns his back.

Maybe someone else said something to him on that memorable night. Maybe fairground security asked him to leave. I’ll never know if someone more courageous stepped up and did what I could not.

Today, the fair is gone. Not much remains other than a few tents and large swaths of yellow, trampled grass. My children still have a giant smiling banana we won on another night. My wife has a goldfish the kids named Turf.

Me? I have a mindful of pleasant memories, a single regret and two burning questions.

Am I a coward? What would you have done?

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