Inside my cedar chest, buried under layers of special artifacts from later periods of life, is a container full of purple, lavender, blue, red, and white ribbons, some certificates, and a few trophies. The container represents a decade of my 4-H life, from 8 to 18.
I took photography, sewing, cooking, flowers, cat, personality, forestry, photography and crafts. We gave demonstrations on our projects, wrote scripts and performed in talent contests, entered an essay contest, modeled sewing in the dress review, went to 4-H Camp and Purdue Round-Up.
It was while watching my nieces show their dogs in the show ring when I was 16 that I knew, suddenly, what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. The concept hit me like a ray of streaming sunshine while watching a young reporter cover the show. I look back now and see that so much of my 4-H work was prep for a paid job. Designing a 4-H poster is not so different from a page.
The highlight, every summer, was the big show: The Indiana State Fair. The goal was for one or more 4-H project at the county level to be selected good enough for statewide competition. It was a thrill to arrive at the state fairgrounds, rush to find my projects, and see how they placed.
Summer chores and babysitting the neighbor kids took on new meaning because they meant saving my earnings for a day at the fair. We didn’t take summer vacations. I thought of the state fair as a vacation in a day. We got up while it was still dark and pulled out of the drive while the sun was coming up.
When we got there, Dad went his way and Mom and I ours. I loved the day with my mother where we enjoyed the softer side of the fair in the home and family arts, 4-H exhibits, the commercial building with the freebies, entries for more freebies (and our names on mailing lists), and the unusual (back then) products that you didn’t see elsewhere like the bow maker and the colorful, endless spools of pretty ribbon we could buy to make the bows. I was fascinated by the little shells with paper flowers inside. You sunk the shells in bowls of water and gradually, they opened to reveal the flowers. We loved the Old Hook’s Drug Store, the Farm Bureau Building, corn dogs, people-watching on the tractor trams around the grounds. We loved it all. Simple, old-fashioned fun.
As an adult, I’ve been to the state fair many times. There, I’ve seen The Beach Boys and David Cassidy and watched my son Sam participate and place twice in the annual High School Band Day. I’ve toured the Midway with younger son Ben and his pal. I’ve sat through one of those incredibly long live commercials for cookware just for the “free” one-dollar knife.
Tomorrow, Ben and I are going to the fair for a while. It won’t be a dawn-to-dark affair like it was growing up when the state fair was the event of my summer. But everywhere I’ll look, I’ll see the ghosts of those years, of my parents, of 4-H projects and friends from childhood. I love it that it’s so the same. At my age most things aren’t as I remember. The state fair is.