The onset of fall means fair season here in Ohio, and my visit to our county fair this year was simultaneously familiar and foreign.
When I was a kid, the county fair was the grand finale of my summer. At the time, I was probably annoyed with how much work it was. But what I wouldn’t give to walk through the fair of my youth. I didn’t appreciate it then, but those were some of the best days of my childhood.
As a young 4-H’er, I always had multiple projects to exhibit each year. If you had livestock (I showed cattle) you generally camped on the grounds to tend to your animals and get show practice in the arena more easily. My Dad always brought our small motorhome for me, so I had a nice place to sleep and some privacy. But sometimes, just to be closer to it all, I tossed my sleeping bag on the bales of hay next to my calf’s stall in the cattle barn. At night, the summer heat gave way to a cool breeze that flowed through the open sides of the barn, and I’d fall asleep to the sounds of the fair all around me, and some occasional mooing.
In the morning, I’d feed and water my calf (I only ever showed one at a time). Then breakfast at my favorite food tent where a youth group sold Bob Evans sausage, biscuits, pancakes, and all the trimmings. A kid’s gotta eat, right? We didn’t have money for it every day, but it was really great on the days I was really busy.
Later, it was exercise time, for me and the cattle. I walked a 900-pound steer as if I were strolling through a park with a poodle. Showing an animal at the fair meant a great deal of training – for them and me. So, my calves behaved more like someone’s pet than a half-ton farm animal.
I showed in the dairy beef class and on show days, I had to wear white. I know, right, white clothes in all that muck and dirt? But we weren’t allowed to be dirty and neither were the animals. After a bath came a good brushing and a polish of the hooves. Finally, I had to “bob” their tails. It was a weird practice of teasing the hair at the end of the calf’s tail until it fluffed out like a ball, then folding the ends under and rubber-banding it, upside down, to the tail. Believe me, even if there was a picture, it wouldn’t make sense.
Along with all the work, there was plenty of play. Many of the kids stayed on the grounds without their parents and no one ever seemed to worry about us. In between chores, we were normal kids, playing games, eating cotton candy, and riding on those rickety carnival rides. Once there was even a woman in a cage who turned into a gorilla! How did we survive all that? For one week every summer, I was in my element, one place I didn’t feel like a misfit.
Amidst all the fun, however, I had responsibilities. So, every kid had to keep one ear tuned to the dreaded public address system because, in the middle of a ride on the Scrambler, a garbled announcement would echo across the entire fairground sounding something like this. “Gery Deer, meet your mother at the FFA tent, immediately. Gery Deer, go to the FFA tent.” You see, before mobile phones, if parents needed the kids to somewhere during the fair, we got paged – very publicly. Talk about embarrassing, I can still hear the other kids. “Ha ha, Gery, your mommy wants you!” Oh, the humiliation.
I still miss those days and even then, I had some appreciation for the role the experience played in my young life. One night, just as the fair was closing, I shut my eyes and just listened for a moment as if storing the sounds for later, maybe when I couldn’t go back there again. I remember every moment of my time there. It’ll always be a part who i am, and I will always be grateful.
Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at www.gldcommunications.com.