The Washington County Fair has come and gone. If I was thirteen, there would be no consoling me today. I would be unpacking the show box, turning my sparkling heifers out with the rest of the great unwashed herd. To coax me out of my sadness, my mother would have hung my sheets on the line, would have made my favorite meal – barbecue chicken and creamed corn – and I would try not to make her feel bad for missing me and being happy I was home.
Home was great. Home was home. But the fairs? The idea of getting dropped off the night before the place opened, stashing your heifer away and then meeting up with a band of kids who had also just waved their own parents off? Hard to believe any of us were ever that lucky.
We had chores, of course. Things like barn duty where you stayed with the animals while everyone else took off though they might hang out, too, perched on showboxes, people-watching, telling stories from their real lives. We also had show days when we got serious at the washracks, mixed beetpulp in black tubs, our forearms dusted with gray. We crammed into public bathrooms and dressed into improbably white clothes before we coated our animals with fly spray, removed the braids from their tails and teased their tails into frothy bundles.
But mostly fairs were one big parentless field trip-slash-sleepover where we could subsist on French fries and Del’s lemonade (ok, Cindy was a sucker for the salt potatoes). We slept wherever we got an invitation. At the Rodrigueses’ house in the boys’ bedroom (they slept, instead, in the haytrailer at the fair), we talked through the night below a poster of Rocky Balboa leaning his iconic torso over a threshold. We drove to the fairgrounds before the dew dried on Newport County’s pastures, listening to a Catholic mass and balancing a pot of chorizo for the concession stand between us. At Washington County, we slept in the pop-up camper in the Kettles’ back yard. One night, we heard the boys birdcalling us from the Cottrells’ cornfield across the street, but before we could sneak towards them, Shep the German Shepherd woke up Mr. Kettle who bellowed: “Cynthia!!” out the window and sent us all scampering back to our separate hemispheres. At Rocky Hill, the girls had five star accommodations in Kathy Bailey’s large bedroom. Mornings, we climbed into the pick up bed singing that year’s fair song (I Just Want to Be Your Everything, or The Devil Went Down to Georgia.) One especially lucky year, we slept in an abandoned concession stand on the midway. As we slept, the boys played softball with the carnies who rewarded them with reams of ride tickets they split with us the next day.
We washed our hair with cold water at the washracks, played tackle football on dirt-packed arenas, jumped off the pier into the Sakonnet River and climbed back up, shredding our palms and our knees on the barnacled posts. David Rodrigues, a fan of WWE, invented hay trailer wrestling and taught us how to pin boys twice our size. When we were finished, we’d tumble back out into the daylight, scratched and sweaty. Hot afternoons, we swam in cow ponds and never got whatever disease it is that forces beaches to close. We lay around the boys’ bunkhouse begging John Westlake to draw our caricatures and waiting for the petting zoo llama to spit on someone. Early mornings, at the Big E, we walked heifers through the deserted midways while others cleaned their bedding, strolled alongside the world’s largest steer on his way to get a bath, bought hot chocolates from stands opened for carnival workers and maintenance crews. We saved our money for the laser light show.
Once again this year, however, I missed fair season. No corn fritters, no egg toss, no heifers smelling of Wisk and baby oil. I didn’t buy my annual (losing) ticket for the Ayrshire calf raffle and maybe that’s a good thing because one of these days I might actually win it. And if I did, who knows? I’d have to dig the old show box out, polish the leather halters hung in my attic just in case, see what the old gang is up to, tell them how much I’ve missed them.