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Irons in the fire: We had the fair

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 August 2021

We were never much of a vacationing family. For some reason or other, most likely revolving around time and finances, my kids were never really treated to the classic Disneyland or East Coast family vacation.

Oh, we’d get up through Montana and into the far northern reaches of Idaho occasionally, most likely for some relative’s wedding or funeral, but we never really vacationed for vacation’s sake. I sometimes feel a twinge of regret for my poor parenting on many levels, and I sometimes wish we had more family vacation memories in the bank for my now-grown children to draw on. However, when I consider the replacement currency, I can’t help but hope my kids appreciate its value. We had the fair.

When it comes to farm and cowboy culture in America’s outback, one of the strongest, most common and beloved threads is the county fair. A county fair is a family reunion of sorts that brings us together and strengthens the bonds that give us the fortitude to carry on and persevere through whatever Mother Nature, Father Time and Uncle Sam may hurl at us for the remaining 51 weeks of the year.

If you’re reading this, there’s a fair chance right now there’s a lump in your throat and a tiny ache in your heart as you get a little homesick, as a thousand memories – most of them good, but some of them sad – flood your mind and overwhelm your consciousness. You’d probably never be able to pick the best memory but, if pressed, you could probably find one or two of the most poignant. At the risk of my story devolving into a literary version of someone else’s vacation slide show, I’ll share one of mine.

Like the sometimes-irrational love of our sports teams, our fondness for the fair was always something my kids and I could rely on as a diversion from the stress and anxiety of generational misunderstanding that can sometimes strain otherwise loving family relationships. Over a 20-year period, we raised somewhere around a hundred head of show steers and heifers. We were never really big-time, but we worked hard and, for the most part, did the best we could.

The beef show at our home fair has always been competitive, with between 85 and 95 kids participating. You’ll usually have to look pretty hard to find a bad steer or a kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Such being the case, winning the show is a notable accomplishment.

My oldest son was always in the running but, despite his best efforts, he’d never won the overall showmanship contest. Between his junior and senior years, things seemed to be lining up for him. His steer was so stone-cold broke he could set him up, drop the lead strap and walk away for five minutes, and the steer would stand there with his head up and never move an inch. He’d put in the time and the work, and heaven knows he deserved to win the thing, but in the end, it still came down to the opinion of one judge at one particular moment.

The culminating event of the livestock show is the beef showmanship championship round. My son had won his class and was in the running to win it all. After several grueling minutes, it was apparent that the championship decision was between him and the defending champion, a pretty girl from across the county. It seemed to be a replay of the previous year, when the same two kids finished as grand and reserve champions. I’d taken a break from my fair board responsibilities to watch the final. I, like any number of other parents lining the ring, tried to act cool as my stomach churned like the Snake River as it ambled by the fairgrounds, just a mile to the north.

Finally, in appropriately dramatic fashion, the judge walked up to my boy, tipped his hat and extended a hand of congratulations. After properly thanking the judge, my son abandoned all decorum as he scanned the crowd and caught my eye. He dropped the lead strap, ran across the ring, picked me up and wrapped me up in a bear hug the likes of which I hadn’t received from him since he was 4 years old. We’re not usually the publicly affectionate type, so the moment was that much more memorable, and I draw on that memory every now and again when I’m just a little lost or overwhelmed.

It was just a county fair in Idaho, of little note to anyone outside a pretty small circle – but to me, if only for a minute, it was the center of the world. It’s a scene I pray is played again and again in a million different versions at a thousand county fairs. We may not have much, but we have the fair.  end mark

Paul Marchant
  • Paul Marchant

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Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

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