I like to write about summer in winter. It’s like sending a love letter to future, expressing excitement over an impending visit. Anyhow, a couple years ago I went to the state fair. The first thing I saw on the way in drew a Bugs Bunny-style double-take: Two girls, both about 7, walking a cow.
On a leash.
The cow must have been three times the size of the two girls combined. I would have offered to help but they clearly knew what they were doing. The kids were treating the cow like an untrained, willful puppy.
Next thing I heard was “First Call,” the bugled tune that heralds the beginning of a horse race. I love that sound, so I went off to investigate and found “hog races.” The “hogs” in question are piglets. There was, inexplicably, no pari-mutuel window, but I thought fast and won $5 from the lady next to me.
What is a state fair without funnel cake? (Or ice cream, or beer, or barbecue?) I stopped to talk to one of the food vendors. He was a focused entrepreneur; while I was sitting with him, he took a call on his cellphone: “How much is it? Is it the good kind? I’ll take 30 cases.” He was sitting in a barbecue tent in a black T-shirt and jeans, talking about corn for his roast-corn concession, but he sounded like a commodities trader shouting in the pit at the Stock Exchange.
Ambling around with my ice cream, I found myself outside the Rabbit & Poultry Barn. I braved the tremendous noise and entered.
I had no idea there were so many kinds of chickens.
The birds are divided by type. The varietals have excellent names: Plymouth Rock Silver Penciled, Old English Millefleur, Non-Bearded Splash Silkie, Spanish White-faced Black. Had the names been told to me instead of printed on the cages, I’d not have believed they were real. The array of plumage is astonishing; colors and patterns and poofs that look like something out of Dr. Seuss.
The west wing of the barn is given over to turkeys and waterfowl. One complete row was reminiscent of the optical illusion created by facing two mirrors at one another; just a forever-row of perfect white ducks. I also saw the Grand Champion turkey, a Narragansett. I attempted to alert him to the ephemerality of fame, particularly vis-à-vis the proximity of Thanksgiving, but he ignored me, simply preferring to pace and examine his “Grand Champion” banner. Success changes turkeys too, it seems.
If you look at the fair properly, you can see that it is really two fairs, one built atop the other: The upper layer is the carnival, the one with the neon T-shirts, the Ferris wheel, the livestock pageants, and the funnel cake. The lower layer, the foundation, is the agricultural trade show. There is a lot filled with tractors, on which children climb and play and pretend while their fathers examine the new tractors and discuss specs and costs with salesmen. It’s like the Detroit Auto Show, but with more green and yellow, and stranger vehicles. (Well, to me, at least. I boggled for 10 minutes at a display of commercial-grade riding lawnmowers so complexly futuristic that I had to ask a passerby what they were.)
I was passing through this display lot on my way out to the swine barn, which is quite some distance west of the main fairground, which makes a lot of sense, considering both the buildings and the fair considerably predate air conditioning.
I was walking out there and debating if I wanted a piece of cheesecake on a stick when I was startled by horrific screaming. I prepared to run to the screamer’s aid, but no one else seemed concerned. I nervously tracked down the source of the screeching, and that is when I learned that an angry pig sounds awfully human. Several members of the 4-H Club were washing pigs in advance of their turn in the show ring, and the water was cold. The pigs were vocally unhappy with the temperature.
There was a free concert that night — country music, of course — and fireworks and a parade. I stayed, despite the sticky heat and the country music, possibly because I knew there would come a February when the fair would provide the perfect grey-day daydream.