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Thursday, July 24, 2008

At the Whitley County Fair

The parking lot is packed but it's not really a lot, it's cars parked under big trees along the lanes through a rolling park. We pull in below an oak.

The evening sun is still sharp but the cooling air softens its edges, even as the breeze reminds us the barns are full of farm animals.

The food pavilion is busy with lines at the windows and picnic tables full of diners. Take your pick of a hamburger or hot dog or chicken plank, iced tea or soda. Fair food. But don't miss the homemade ice cream, the raspberry or lemon, maple or chocolate or vanilla. My raspberry/maple twist is a contradiction of tastes, a strange synthesis of fruit and tree, and absolutely wonderful.

After ice cream we wander through the 4-H barns, all the animals the kids have tended this summer.

The bunnies of all kinds, the furry ones with funny foreign names and mashed-up ears, the smooth white ones with long pink ears called, rather baldly, fryers.

The comic goats, trying to escape their pens, stretching on hand legs, trying to eat the banners overhead, the straw in their pens, my bracelet as I try to pet one.

Two barns of cows, one calves, one mature, the black and white Holsteins, the black angus. Milk and meat.

The chickens, a frenzy of clucking and wing flapping and feathers flying.

The worst-smelling barn, the pigs, squealing -- it must be bath-time, as kids are herding individual pigs along the aisles, using long, stiff switches, toward the concrete area just outside the barn with faucets and hoses. The pigs aren't hit with the switches, but gently touched on one side or the other, guided by the human behind them.

In these barns, some pens are dedicated to people--camp chairs and coolers and supplies. Signs telling you which 4-H club is where. Signs over the pens telling you which kid from what farm belonging to that club. Sometimes a ribbon, if judging has happened already. Tall, thin boys in tight jeans with big belt buckles and short haircuts and plaid shirts. Pretty girls in shorts and bright pink rubber boots, their hair in ponytails and wire brushes in their hands. Farm moms and dads sitting nearby, talking, sipping sodas and issuing quiet orders. A subtle confidence about them all.

We cut through the show barn, ringed with bleachers, its floor deep with wood shavings, a small stage just in front of the office at one end. It's where the animals are shown, and shown off, ribbons are won, auctions are held. A summer's -- sometimes, a years -- work sold. That's how it is.

Just now all that's happening is the stage is being dismantled from the last competition, a fashion show of sewing projects.

Then my favorite, the horse barns. These stalls are decked out in bunting and bright paper and big posters telling the stories of horses and riders and past competitions. Horses and ponies of every size, shape and color, beautiful palominos, brown-and-white ponies, even a brown and black thoroughbred. All carefully brushed, some with fly covers on their heads, some with blankets draped over their backs. They are quiet in the stalls, and as I poke a finger or two through the mesh and try to stroke a long neck, there's a sense of waiting, they're waiting for ... something, or someone. Not me.

Just outside the barn is the show ring, but there's no show tonight, for last night's storm has made a mud-bath of the thing. If it's not fit for horses, it's more than fit for the half-dozen kids playing in it, having a mud fight, filthy and laughing, running, slipping, playing tag.

Plenty of water hoses around the barns to shower them off, later.

We catch a different scent, this one warm and sugary, as we walk out of the last barn. Can't resist. One last stop for a "lamb's ear," sweet, soft dough, fried and sprinkled in sugar and cinnamon, served up at the counter by teenagers from one of the 4-H clubs, with the moms cooking behind them. It's smaller than the "elephant ear" at the state fair, and more buttery, and no where else in the big, big world could we get a treat more perfect for this time, this fair.

A country band begins playing in the big, outdoor show ring and the music trails behind us as we leave.

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