By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It’s fair season, and for 4H families across Southwest Kansas, that means a week of old-fashioned chaos. Thanks to social media, I peeked into the world of a good friend who I can only describe. in the nicest possible way, as a 4H fanatic. All week, she posted updates about baking competitions and animal shows, ribbons, rankings and runner-up statuses. She sounded insanely busy, but also in her element.
Though I grew up in a small Kansas town, I didn’t participate in 4H, and because Minneola was not the Clark County seat, the fair didn’t occupy center stage in my town or childhood. I loved the children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web,” but I had no idea what the “lambs lead” show involved or why the designation “Grand Champion” was reason to rejoice.
All that changed when I moved to Liberal in the early ‘90s. Tasked with covering the “Five State Free Fair,” I soon learned that county fairs in Southwest Kansas are far from pedestrian. I met a little girl and her python at the pet competition. I snapped photos of the Fashion Revue. I inhaled the scent of cotton candy and funnel cakes and felt that finally I had taken part in an quintessentially American experience.
This weekend, as I stepped into the exhibit barn at the Stevens County Fair, I inhaled the sharp scent of animal manure. No problem; Eau de Ag is an honest, if pungent, fragrance, and not so bad once you adjust. Just ask the flies. They love it.
I’d traveled to Hugoton to staff the information booth for Seward County Community College/Area Technical School and get the word out about the great opportunities for students of all ages. Last Friday, though, it seemed all the adolescents were still in bed, asleep — or at least most of them. Sure, a few helped wrangle goats into the arena. Another operated the Fufure Farmers of America booth next to our college information. But for the most part, the fair on a Friday morning was old folks and children.
That included our next-door booth neighbor, a brother-and-sister pair well into their 80s. She displayed a tempting array of Tupperware products in hues bright enough to put a crayon box to shame. A few jars of homemade preserves and a stack of paperback westerns completed her display.
Her brother, one table over, offered a fascinating jumble of items from the past and present. He sold an assortment of belt buckles. A selection of antique-looking model airplane kits. Bits and pieces of china sets, knick-knacks and clunky, rusted farm tools. Carefully lined up on the front edge of the table was a set of photographs showing his art endeavors: small metal sculptures of old-time tractors, spoked wheels, obsolete manufacturer names and bright enamel paint combined to make something far more complicated than a tinkerer’s craft project. The tractors became 3-dimensional art in a Grandma Moses fashion.
Of course, someone in his 80s with a table full of farm-shed marginalia to sell has plenty of stories to share, and our new acquaintance did. A Southwest Kansas native, he’d lived through the Dust Bowl, four wars and multiple career changes. We asked about a fading tattoo on his forearm and he laughed: “That means I was 17 years old and stupid and drunk.”
He went on to describe a stint in the United States Air Force, degrees earned at the University of Kansas, and a career as a biology teacher in small, High Plains communities as far-flung as South Dakota and as near as his hometown.
In a sweet digression, he shared the story of how he met and married his wife, a British girl he’d courted with two dates and a year’s worth of transAtlantic letters. Over time, he settled on the notion of marriage. He sold the cow he’d raised from a 4H calf and sent the money to England.
“Fifty two years,” he said wistfully, tears bright in eyes still a piercing blue. “We had 52 years before she passed.”
Traffic was slow during my shift at the booth, but the time passed without a snag as the man described jackrabbit hunts, wartime wagers and a life spent as an educator. Someone stopped by to ask about auto mechanics programs at SCCC/ATS. His son, he said, “didn’t like school, but I want him to get an education.”
My coworkers and I offered information, contact numbers and reassurance.
“One year, and your son can earn a certificate and be ready to get to work at a better-paying job than retail and minimum wage,” my coworker said. “If he decides to earn an Associate degree, he can always do that, too. Have him call me, and I’ll help him plan out a schedule.”
At the next table over, our new friend nodded wisely. It was a coin toss with an army buddy and their supervisor that sent him to England rather than Korea all those years ago, he shared. At the time, it seemed casual, maybe even trivial, but it changed the course of his entire life in profound ways he couldn’t begin to understand as a young adult.
“You don’t think about it when you’re young and you just want to see the world, but one choice can change everything,” he said.
I hope the teenager will listen to his dad and visit the college just up the road from his Oklahoma Panhandle town where the family lives. I hope my octogenarian companion sells all the tractor art he can create. I hope I have the wit and wisdom to choose wisely when life offers me a coin toss. I have the feeling these turning-points occur daily for us all.
Saturday, I will visit the fair in Liberal. I can’t wait to discover the stories that wait for me there.