Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Sell That Fine Pig"

Lily is wearing a sleeveless ruffled top with her shorts and cowboy boots. Her long red curls are tied back from her freckled face with two ribbons. She has walked into the sales ring at the Atchison County Fair from a Norman Rockwell painting. I cannot help but be charmed. But when the auctioneer reads her name, she bounds across the sand, with one finger beckoning to the shaggy lamb behind, who follows her, his leash trailing. This makes me clap my hands in delight and sing under my breath,
"Lily had a little lamb....."
And everywhere that Lily went,
The lamb was sure to go."

Surely this performance earned the young lady a couple more bids on the premium for her animal. The lamb knew Lily and Lily knew her lamb.

Jilli's sheep is tired by the time she is called to the sales ring. But Jilli isn't. With enthusiasm that is not entirely communicated to her animal, she somehow moves him to the center of the ring with her hands, rope, boots, and the sheer force of her personality and will. She is working so hard. The bidding takes a good long while, long enough that the reluctant sheep gives in, stands pat, and allows Jilli to mold it into the preferred stance. It may or may not matter at this sale, but her folks have impressed upon Jilli that she should never stop working until the job is done.
Because of the heat and humidity, the sale starts late this year. Whether its the hour, the temperature, or just the ongoing slow decline and consolidation of our county's business community, the stands are full of family members, but not as many buyers as one would wish for the number of exhibitors. Nonetheless, the bidding can be brisk; it is always good-natured; and whether the animal is a hog, a rabbit, a goat or a chicken, the kid will get a nice check and the buyer a round of appreciative applause.
When Lee and Ann and Ben showed animals for 4H and then FFA, the barns were full with up to 70 steers and one year, on top of 200 hogs. Six or seven Hurst cousins worth of cattle did contribute to the bounty. Today's show ring features a solid representation of pigs, a pampered lovely handful of steers, sheep, goats,and a rainbow's worth of rabbits and chickens in arms. Farms have changed in our county, but the faces of the parents watching from the barn, the fence, or the stands are ever the same: focused and intent, alert to the bidders and the auctioneer, poised to offer advice and encouragement to the showman in the ring.
Some of the bidders are the same too. It does my heart good to hear some of the self-same folks bidding that were buying animals at the fair almost thirty years ago when Lee and Ann first led a steer into the ring. Now Lee and Ryan and Ann and Matt are the ones reminding their kids when the pigs were born and how much they weighed and Aaron, Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie are the ones with whips and brushes, ever watching the judge, and stuffing ribbons in their jeans' pockets as they drive the pigs back to the pen.

"Sell that fine pig!" All the pigs are fine by the end of the evening as the stands thin and the buyers settle up. Every time the ring man raises his hand and calls,"Yup!", its a vote for tomorrow, a down payment on the success of the little girls with star spangled belts and boys with sweat running down their faces.
"Sell that fine pig!" and pay it forward for the kid whose pig peed on her boot or the kid run over by his animal in the alleyway. Raise your hand and you'll send a message in a bottle from the past to an unknown future where the lessons of responsibility and conscientiousness pay interest and more.
Sell that fine pig!" and record for posterity the common language of hard work between generations. Support your fair and vote for the heritage of blood and land and tradition personified in kids and pigs, moms and dads, goats or sheep, steers or chickens.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Meet Me at the Fair.....

'Meet me at the Fair'

It's Atchison County Fair Week! 4-H kids and FFA students will have delivered their projects to the Velma Houts building for display and judging. There may be homes where this hasn't involved a mad rush, but at our farm, the atmosphere was always one of pure manic panic.

Baking dishes would be piled in the sink; pincushions would be on the kitchen table, photos would not yet be framed on their poster board, and there would be a frantic search for both the index cards to pin to the project...and the fair book with the directions for how to display. Millie led sewing projects for a generation; I'd like to know how many dresses, skirts, tops, and now quilts, she has finished up the day...or the night...before Fair Day.

'Don't tell me the sun is shining
Anywhere but there....'

Our fair experiences have always been more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie than a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Allow me to elaborate. Instead of the neatly tied up loose ends and prize winning hog in the movie 'State Fair', our fair projects were fraught with tension and an underlying feeling that something might go wrong. From the first...or let's admit it, the second year of our kids' experiment with 4H calves, we learned more about Murphy's Law than the finer points of showmanship. There was never a 'Rudy' moment or a 'Rocky' comeback, the slow but inexorable climb to the top brought about by grit and determination. There were ups...but lots of downs.
Consider the year the steers escaped...over the fence....because they were part of the Hurst cow herd and selected over the years for the ability to see fences as a challenge, not an obstacle. The neighbors four miles over eventually noticed them in their herd, but by that time, we had conceded the project and decided to take our vacation a week early. The calf lot grew up in weeds and Lee and Ann, ages 9 and 8, got a reprieve.

Ask any of our kids and they will continue the saga. The steer that bloated and missed the show. Doc Nims put a vent in his side which then spewed foam during the digestive process. Pretty hard to fit a steer with an overflow valve. The steer that bit his tongue in two. The steer that broke his leg. The steer that wasn't quite dehorned enough. This isn't as bad as it sounds; over the years, Lee, Ann and Ben raised and fed and showed more than 50 steers. But every time we lost an animal, it was after 250 days of getting up early to feed and check the water, then repeating the process later that day or night.

The ostensible reason to have an animal project is not for the honor...or the glory...but to make a profit. Even after Grandpa Charlie, or TPC, or Burke Lumber, or Bill Smith Trucking paid the premium at the auction, I don't think we ever made that goal. Now that the next generation is walking down the gravel in their tall rubber boots to check the feed and 'walk' their pigs, their parents are willing to admit the truth. Money? It's just a fiction perpetuated by adults with previous experience and an ulterior motive.

Kids with livestock learn consequences. Many of us have the recurring nightmare about taking the final for a class we never showed up for. But our kids still awake fearing they've forgot to water their steers...or left the gate open...or didn't check the feed...even though the fence was torn out years ago and the cow lot is now a mum patch. That level of guilt...or call it responsibility....serves them well as adults. Dealing with loss and adversity is something kids can learn by playing sports, but it is a life lesson made more consequential by caring for another living being. Doing your best is not always good enough and will not always bring reward.
There are pictures in every August photo album. One year Ann had a steer that showed well enough to win Reserve Grand Champion, though what she remembers best is that the steer stepped on her foot on purpose.
There are also pictures of Ben telling the judge a story about the placid potbellied steer he showed his first year.

There are photos of Lee year after year, lined up with her steers alongside her siblings and cousins...showing for reserve grand one year. And getting a trophy for senior showmanship. Consolation prize for never bringing home a big ribbon.

The trophies are still in the closets in my house. But this week Blake and I will be on the bleachers as Aaron and Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie don their boots, stick a brush in their jeans' pocket, and try to keep their well washed pigs where the judge can see them.

Unlike Blue Boy in State Fair, we don't expect any trophies to come home with this bunch, this year. But there will be stories....and memories...and the stuff "dreams" are made of!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Fireworks and Faulkner

"The past is not dead. It isn't even past." 
 William Faulkner

The occasional booms and crackles serve to remind me it is Independence Day. The two days of clouds and rain allowed us to turn off the air conditioner, leaving the downstairs cool and quiet without the hum of the window unit as background noise. It is July 4th; we didn't have to water 15,000 mums and asters; we didn't have to worry about the pollinating corn; we didn't have to run a single sprinkler. Tomorrow there is a heat advisory, but today we have reason...and time! give thanks.
July 1980 continued the brutal stagnant heat of June 1980...except for one day. On the third of July, a random and unexpected storm front passed through Tarkio......and not much north or south.....dropping the temperature thirty degrees and dumping 2 inches of rain on the farm we rented east of town. That storm was not just spotty; it was a spot of green in an otherwise record breaking dry spell. In no way are we in such a precarious situation these 36 years later, but I still recollect the immense relief and disbelief of 1980 when the rain swept in this weekend. The past isn't's not even the past.

We spent July 4th in 1980 at home, no fireworks, no family get together. Our baby wasn't due for a few days, but I was weary and so was Blake. So we watched something patriotic on old movie in technicolor redcoat and blue... until midnight......not the 4th anymore, but the 5th....when came time to call up Millie and Charlie, have them come stay with little Lee, and head down to Fairfax.....

I will never forget our neighbor across the street, Dorothy Brown, still awake at midnight....duly noting the arrival of the grandparents and the departure of the mom and dad. You didn't put much past Dorothy.........
It’s hard not to think of Ann as a firecracker baby, even though she waited until 9:08 the morning of the fifth to finally arrive.

This year, as we did thirty years ago, we celebrated the 4th of July with the big red barn as a backdrop. The cars that pulled into the driveway opened to reveal coolers and camp chairs and kids and fireworks. Soon, there were kids climbing the stairs to play in the only antique barn in mid Missouri with a ping pong table in the former hay loft. The thud of horseshoes and clang when iron met iron carried across the farmstead to the other side of the house where there was a hot game of catch which dissolved into laughter when fallen walnuts were substituted for the baseball. Kids and catch and croquet and horseshoes...the big red barn enfolds them all. The past isn't dead...its not even past.

It warms my heart to see this generation of kids explore and make memories at their great grandparents' farm: to swing on the same front porch, eat ice cream on the same picnic table in the same screened breezeway,
play in the same fountain,
and shoot fireworks in the same driveway their parents did.
My father watches from a folding chair older than I am while bottle rockets and other flotsam tumble off the metal roofs of the big barn and the shop after the shooting stars in the sky above have faded. Having the great grandchildren there makes my folks happy; my father says he wants them to remember these times, to have a sense of this place, to carry with them and recollect as vividly as I remember summertime visits to my grandparents' years ago.

They are well on their way. Every child with legs long enough takes a turn riding my mother's three wheeled bike (giant tricycle, says Josh!) up and down the driveway.
Levi is content to ride along in the back basket. Lizzie and Josh make certain to visit the fountain...turned on specially for the occasion after Josh remembered splashing in it on a previous visit.
Abbie has her first lessons in grilling, taking gentle instruction on turning hot dogs and flipping burgers from her great grandpa.
Lizzie, with a keen nose for treasures, brings me two of the most antique gumball machine creepy crawlers still extant from a stash of treasures squirreled away by her grandma and great aunt. Plans for a horseshoe pit of our own are in the works, renewing a tradition that lives in my memories from Granny and Grandpa's farm in Holts Summit.

How much of what we are is tied to place? This old house, this landscape, these buildings, are part of my parents' life work, a homeplace they renovated and renewed and repaired over four decades. But it is also part of our family history: a place our children grew up visiting and spending holidays, where we sledded and hiked, and picked fruit, and celebrated Christmas and New Years, played games, and planted flowers. Watching our grandchildren create their own traditions, like kids do, is a joy and an affirmation.

The past isn't dead. It's alive and shooting fireworks.