Monday, July 18, 2005

Diamond Days

In rural Wisconsin, the annual county fair is still a big deal. Some of them have gone on for upwards of 150 years. The one in my hometown opens this Wednesday, and traces its origins back to 1857.

When I was a kid, I belonged to 4H. In 4H you take on one or more projects that you are supposed to work on for the whole year in order to have them ready to exhibit at the county fair in the summer. I had lots of different projects over the years. One year, for example, I was the only boy to take part in the County Foods Revue. I was better in the kitchen than I was at a more stereotypical boy project like woodworking, and even then I believed that a man has got to know his limitations. So it was me--and maybe 40 or 50 girls. (Alas, even with those odds, I couldn't get a date.) But my main project was known as "dairy." Because I was growing up on a dairy farm, it was a natural--you were supposed to raise, train, and groom an animal, then exhibit it in the show ring. That's what you were supposed to do, at any rate. My enthusiasm for the idea of it was far greater than my dedication to the execution of it, and as a result, I often found myself dragging a less-than-tame animal around the show ring for several horrific minutes before being mercifully dispatched with a pink fourth-place ribbon, which was the worst you could do.

The good thing about it was that the show was usually on Thursday morning. Once you got through that, you had the rest of fair week, until late Sunday afternoon, to hang out in the 4H barns. In contrast to the hell of the show ring, this was glorious. From around age 11 to age 15, next to Christmas, it was the highlight of my year.

Looking back, I can't really explain why. Your primary job while hanging out, after all, was to carry manure from the stalls to the pile outside, and you would inevitably be carrying a forkful when some cute girl happened by. However, you were as much on display as the animals themselves, and I never minded getting attention, even a tiny bit of it. (I am pretty sure I occasionally lounged on a hay bale with a piece of straw in my mouth, Huck Finn-style.) And I did get to spend a lot of time with my best friend, who was also in 4H. (The last year I was in 4H, we actually got to stay overnight in the barns, which was a tremendous adventure.) In short, you'd spend the week living on hot dogs and Pepsi and trying to dodge your parents, who inevitably wanted you to come home and work in the fields or something. When you were 12 or 13 years old in the 1970s, perhaps that was enough to make you feel like you were on vacation in a different world--an exotic vacation you wouldn't forget.

And (big surprise) the radio was on from the moment you got there in the morning until the moment you left for the night. We'd flip back and forth between Chicago's AM powerhouses, WLS and WCFL, and there's a handful of songs from mid-summers in the 1970s that I will forever associate with those long, slow days: "Diamond Girl" and "Smoke on the Water" from '73, "Keep On Smilin'," "I Shot the Sheriff," and "Radar Love" from '74, and "Listen to What the Man Said" and "One of These Nights" from '75.

There's no really good story here, as you've probably determined already. It's just another instance in which music on the radio shapes memories of another significant experience from back in the day . . . which is what this blog is all about.


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