There are few things that say “summer” to me the way the fair does. While there are subtle differences between, say, the county fair and the state fair, they both give me the youthful feeling of hope and time running out. They both make me recall the days when I could eat endless sno-cones and shredded chicken sandwiches on the five bucks my dad gave me when he dropped me off at the gate in the early morning cool.

Even as I meander through the barns, picking my way through piles of things the city folk call “ewww!” and savoring the smell of all those animals, I can’t help but smile at the competitive nature of what we’re there to do. Just in case there was any doubt: we want to WIN! Four napless days, early-to-rise and late-to-bed, grabbing a sandwich when there’s a break and feeling the sweat pour into cracks you rather wish it wouldn’t…all of that is an investment that make the the rest of the year’s sweat and stress into merely memories. Give us a ribbon – or better, a banner! – and we’ll come back every year for more. Give us a taste of the competition, let us see that we’re good enough to compete, and we’ll work even harder in the hope of winning in the future. The fire of our hope and faith is only fanned on by the taste of glory. It doesn’t, in fact, take much glory to keep us fed for the year, hanging on and working our tails off until next fair.

It was at the fair that I learned about observing interesting people as they clash and mix. You see, in the barns, there’s a certain etiquette. It’s not written down and it’s not a secret code. Most folks would call it common sense, but having been around both sides of the equation (city folks and farm folks), I don’t think it’s common sense at all. Common sense refers to universal knowledge, and this knowledge is only universal for those who are comfortable and at-home in the barns.

It was due to fair projects that I became interested in various and sundry little things that fill my time now. It was at the fair that I saw that a ribbon is really just a metaphor for winning, not really the important part. At the fair, people embarrass themselves arguing with judges and go to strange lengths to protect their children’s “right to win.” There’s romance in the air if you’re in a certain age range, and daredevilry in the air for anyone brave enough (rich enough?) to go on the fair rides. You see people in ways you haven’t seen them before – and might not again, if your town is small enough, until next year. At the state fair, then maybe you get to see a wider range; maybe you have twice as much to see and do and feel and taste.

The fair is best remembered with funnel cakes in your nostrils and dust between your toes, sweat seeping down your back and weariness tugging at your eyes. The fair is days of intensity, summing up years of work, hours of effort. The real prize is being there, remembering all, and being able to go back now.