Our heels spin in the dust of the infield. The grounded hot-air balloons to the right form dark silhouettes against the silver sky. I squint in their direction, looking for the source of the voice.
A 4-H member in a red t-shirt emerges from the early morning haze, a wide blue lanyard swinging around her neck. Her short brown hair frames an excited grin.
“Meg!” I exclaim. “Hi!”
“Hi! I saw the jacket and knew it had to be you, so hi!”
“I’m giving a speech at the Opening Ceremony. It’s starting soon, we need to go.”
“I’ll be there, too!”
I wave, she gives me her usual salute, and my teammates and I spin again and rush to the FFA Pavilion to meet our supervisors.
It’s 2006. Two months ago, I was elected as the Indiana FFA State Sentinel, and now, I am about to speak during the Opening Ceremony for the 150th Indiana State Fair. My teammates and I wear FFA official dress for the special occasion – the white shirt and blue and gold tie under the corduroy blue and gold jacket, black skirts or pants, black shoes. Meg, a friend and dedicated 4-H ambassador from my county, had seen our jackets and called to us.
From the Pavilion, we scurry to the Department of Natural Resources building and the stage behind it. A crowd packs hundreds of chairs, and a half-circle of red shirts stand sentinel behind the back row.
While four of my teammates find seats in the audience, three of us are ushered onto the stage. I am directed to a chair; my teammates stand behind me. On my right is Lieutenant Governor Becky Skillman; next to her is the president of the Indiana State Fair Board; and further down is Governor Mitch Daniels and the State Fair Queen.
One by one, representatives of the State Fair stand up to thank the audience for attending and to share memories from their fair experiences. The lieutenant governor speaks. A Pioneer Village representative, who also is a past FFA member, tells the audience about his favorite events.
And then, I find myself, a farm girl from a county with only five stoplights and a lot of corn, at the mic.
I’ve only missed two Indiana State Fairs, the two summers I was overseas. No matter where I’ve lived in the U.S. and what was happening in August, I went home for the State Fair.
But now, it’s Friday, August 14, 2020. The next six days are supposed to be the best six days of my year. 4-H members arrive with their ewes today to set up for the weekend’s show, Clydesdales and Percherons prance off trailers to prepare for the six-horse hitch competition, and Shetland and Shropshire sheep arrive and show throughout Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The soothing clip clop against the asphalt, the baa’s ringing out to ask for morning feed, and the smell of deep-fried everything along Main Street collide in a rich symphony.
That’s what’s supposed to happen.
But it’s not.
I wanted to exhibit the lambs from my new Shetland flock this year. My family considered taking the Clydesdales for the halter show. It would have been a comeback for us, the first time in years we’d shown there. I wanted to savor funnel cakes, buffalo burgers, and deep-fried sugar cream pie. Merely mentioning those words makes my mouth water.
I don’t have that chance this year.
So, I look through pictures from past fairs and recall precious memories from the highlight of my summers.
Participation in the Indiana State Fair is a tradition for my family, and I remember one year when my brothers and I saw the Pepsi Coliseum (as it was called then) rise above us as we approached the infield in our car. We all shouted with excitement at the same time. From the driver’s seat, Dad proudly looked over at Mom and said, “Well, it looks like we’ve raised another generation of fairgoers!”
The Fair was where Grandpa and I would pick up Krispy Kreme donuts every morning in the sheep barn. He’d give me quarters, and I would proudly order two 25-cent donuts, standing on my tiptoes to see over the counter of the Indiana Lamb stand. Then, we would clean our many sheep in the brick wash racks, sunlight streaming through the high windows, illuminating soap bubbles formed by rubbing Orvis over the sheep’s woolly backs. Before the new sheep barn was built and the old barn’s open sides were closed, I kept a close watch from our pen for my great-uncle’s horse trailer to pull in on Sunday morning. As soon as the familiar red vehicles arrived, I would dash out to the street to greet my dad and uncle and watch as they led the Clydesdales, our Clydesdales, into the draft horse barn.
I showed Shropshire ewes at the State Fair for all ten years of my 4-H experience, sleeping on a cot in the tack pen next to my sheep, falling asleep to their quiet munching on hay. During the 4-H beef show, I would sleep soundly next to the stalls after the calves had been taken to tie-outs, soaking in the barn’s peace.
Showing at the State Fair provided a goal, something to aim for on our farm. I learned from each judge who examined my animals. Fellow livestock producers also gave me suggestions for how to improve. I’d make changes, and the next year, my sheep and calves would be even better.
Sometimes, those efforts led to triumphs. Throughout my years showing ewes, I won a few firsts and seconds, and I took the breed showmanship my third year of 4-H. My family won Reserve Champion in the open show one year. One of the best awards, though, was Shropshire Herdsman, which meant I kept my pens clean and took good care of my sheep.
At other times, there were disappointments, like losing hold of my heifer in the Coliseum so many times I couldn’t finish the show or placing near the bottom of the class with sheep we thought would do well.
But no matter what happened in the show ring, the Fair was a place of excitement and exploration in and out of the barns.
Dad would receive free tickets to the annual rodeo, and our trip into the majestic Grandstands to watch it would be our special outing after the 4-H shows were done. One year, on our way to the Dairy Bar for breakfast, my uncle and I watched Robbie Knievel, Evel Knievel’s son, practice wheelies on his motorcycle along Main Street before his show that night. A friend from a school near mine performed with her marching band in the Band Day Competition finals, creating an airplane formation that flew under a wall of sound. (She later appeared in the Indianapolis Star photo gallery online, holding her saxophone and yelling as part of the routine.) I found my love for a capella music through watching free stage performances, and Mom and I would walk through the photography displays in the 4-H and Home and Family Arts buildings to look for ideas for my own projects. Later, I would win the college division of the open photography competition two years in a row.
The State Fair opened my eyes to adventures and opportunities I might never have known existed otherwise. I’ve made friends and learned about possible careers. I’ve learned through victories and failures in competitions.
Walking the circle to see the exhibits, find my favorite food stands, and run into people I haven’t seen since last year recharges me. I can see I’m not alone in farming, and I’m not alone in facing the challenges I experienced over the last year; we’re all in this together.
Believing that is hard when we can’t gather together for such an important event like the Indiana State Fair.
The pictures help me believe again.
And so do the thoughts of what happened next on that stage.
At the mic, I gaze at the crowd full of people who love the State Fair like I do. My family sits a few rows back from the stage. I take a deep breath.
“I am 18 years old, and this is my 18th Indiana State Fair.”
I speak of the event’s importance to my family; of the memories and friendships I’d formed because of it; of the wonderful sights and sounds that create so much August excitement.
And in the midst of my speech, I see Meg. She stands near the center of the line of 4-H members in the back, glowing with happiness. She catches my eye, and the warmest smile I’ve ever seen spreads across her face.
That’s what the Indiana State Fair is: the warm smile of summer welcoming us to one last celebration before school starts, before we entrench ourselves in harvest and begin preparations for winter. We see friends who steady us, and even when we compete against each other, we share ideas and give encouragement. Dignitaries shake hands with a first-year 4-H member and the Pioneer Village staff in period dress talk with visitors from across the state. The faces of children meeting farm animals for the first time shine in astonishment.
The Fair is happiness, connection, pure joy.
My speech ends. The audience applauds. I take my seat. The governor stands and speaks.
And the Great Adventure that is the Indiana State Fair officially begins.
May it never end.