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 in which this hasn’t involved a mad rush, but at our farm, the atmosphere was always one of pure manic panic. 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 4-H 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 a local business 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 hot rubber boots to check the feed and “walk” their pigs, their parents are willing to admit the truth. Money? It’s just a fiction perpetrated by adults with 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 forgot to attend. 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.
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!