Friday, July 11, 2008

Fair fun

Despite some rottenish weather today (steady rain all morning that became spottier but still wet this afternoon), the kiddo and I kept our date to join some friends at the county fair. Now, I am a fair girl from way back. Love me some fair/carnival type action, oh yeah. Growing up on a farm, fair season was a Big Deal every summer. We'd take our sheep to show (both through 4-H and in "open" shows) at three or four fairs most summers. We happened to belong to the 4-H Sheep Club of the same county that hosted the NJ State Fair, which meant that we didn't have a separate county fair, just our county shows held earlier in the week of the State Fair each year.

During State Fair week, we pretty much lived at the fairgrounds. (I say "week" but it actually ran ten days long, and we were there for each of those ten days.) It really was a fantastic experience, at least in my "we know I was never, ever cool anyhow" opinion. We'd arrive at the fairgrounds with the first light, well before the fair opened to the general public. We'd work in the barns from morning 'til late in the night, busting ours back showing our animals all day, then wandering the midway in the evenings after the day's shows were done. Our background noise went from just the sounds of the animals waking up to the roar of the cars on the speedway in the middle of the fairgrounds all day to the concerts in the grandstand in the evenings. (The year the Charlie Daniels band played a couple of shows, my dad went nuts. We heard The Devil Went Down to Georgia several times, live, that day...) We got to know the vendors of our favorite foods (to this day, the Korean BBQ stand, the stand that sold french fries and pierogies and the lemonade/Italian ice stand are near and dear to my heart) and they'd let us cut the lines and even give us discounts or freebies every now and again. The best night of all was the night that any 4-Her could ride any ride on the midway for free. We'd go crazy that night, stuffing ourselves on funnel cake and popcorn before riding all the rides, over and over again. I'm proud to say that I was never one of the kids who barfed on 4-H night, riding the rides. I'm less proud to say that unfortunately, I was seated near kids who did a couple of times. Good thing being at the fair meant always having a change of clothes, as well as access to showers in the one restroom facility...

Besides our sheep shows - county, state and open, showmanship and market lamb, there were extra competitions too, my favorites being the Round Robin, the state Square Dancing competition, and a little something called Shepherd's Lead. Round Robin was
where members of the sheep, dairy, goat and pig clubs got together and traded animals to handle in a show, with each club showing the other three animals after giving a brief demonstration on how to show their own. (Pigs were by far the hardest to manage if one wasn't experienced with the ins and outs.) I enthusiastically participated in our club's square dancing subgroup - we were called the Woolly Squares. We'd practice to a record with the calls on it out in various club member's driveways or back yards each week all summer. I always danced "as a boy" as did some of the other girls, because actual boy 4-Hers were hard to come by and ones that would square dance voluntarily, rarer still. That meant I could wear jeans and a western-style, button-down shirt - no ginormous skirt and crinoline for me, whew. One year, our set actually won the State Grand Championship, which was amazing considering how comparatively little we practiced - there were actual 4-H clubs entirely devoted to square dancing, mind you - and how lame we were. As a matter of fact, while we were not the most technically proficient or perfect that night, something the judges acknowledged, they said we had the most spirit and that made up for a lot, just because we were having fun. (And let me tell you, if you think that talking openly in your snooty, private high school in a posh part of New Jersey about square dancing competitively on your summer vacation gets you cool points, well, showing off the multi-colored, giant rosette you won as part of the championship team? That much more exponentially cooler!) Shepherd's Lead was open to sheep club members from around the state. It was, I kid you not, a combination fashion show and showmanship competition. (Showmanship is how well you handle your animal, how well the animal is trained to work with you, and how well they have been groomed - or fitted - for the competition.) Not just any old "fashion show with a sheep," mind you, but one in which you were to wear wool. In late August. You got extra credit for making your own outfit, which I did once only. It was a lovely mauve wool vest and A-line skirt, which I wore over a shiny, cream polyester blouse with really puffy sleeves. Stylin'! So, you'd get all bedecked from head to toe in wool, gussy up your sheep, and then walk the showring in your ensemble, after which you walked up to the table and had an interview/Q&A with the judges. There were prizes, and dagnabit, I never won one. Not even the year I made my own outfit. There was no Miss Congeniality for Shepherd's Lead. Humph.

So, yeah, fairs make me nostalgic. The kiddo and I have gone to the NY State Fair for the past couple of years, and we've been to the county fair before as well. I was probably as excited, if not more excited, than she was to go today. We did all the fair-y things - walked through the animal barns (lingering, as I'm prone to do, over the sheep pens) where even the smell of animals and hay was making me a wee bit misty-eyed, checking out all the cool exhibits in the main halls (the hydroponics in space exhibit was pretty cool, and the kids got to plant hydroponic sunflowers to bring home), watching the free entertainment - this year it was a show with miniature horses "wearing masks with special, big feathers!" as the kiddo told Hubby this evening at dinner, and of course eating way too much food. This year, the big indulgences for us mommies were salt potatoes and Artichokes French. These are both regional specialties, neither of which I ever ate in my childhood fair-going days. (Like I said, back then it was all about the pierogies and Korean BBQ beef on a stick.) The kids went more traditional with hot dogs and cotton candy. I drank one of the ridiculously overpriced yet somehow irresistible fresh-squeezed lemonades, too.

Sadly, the rides on the midway were ridiculously expensive - the cheapest of the kiddie rides was still $3 a kid per ride. (Even the big slide - $3 to slide down in a burlap sack once? Oy!) That's a long way from my childhood, and put a damper on the kids' fun since they couldn't ride endless rides the way they'd dreamed. Other than that, though, and the mud from all the rain, it was a great day and has left me looking forward to next month's annual trek to the Great New York State Fair!

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