Fair Play

How could I not enter the county fair? It’s just too much fun!

ILLUSTRATIONS BY HANNAH ENGLAND

It’s been 40 years since I first loaded a horse into a rickety borrowed stock trailer and headed to Hamilton, Ohio for the Butler County Fair. Each summer as a child, I enjoyed a hot July week of 4-H competition along with epic water balloon fights, practical jokes (such as painting eye shadow and lipstick on some long-suffering pony), and listening to Dad deliberately goofing up the lyrics of whatever top-40 hits happened to be playing on the radio during fair week. (In my mind, Paul Simon will forever sing “Love Me Like a Sock.”) Best of all, our long months of horse training, grooming, hay-bale wrangling, and manure-tossing all paid off in the form of brightly colored, gold-embossed prize ribbons.

Our plant topped the other sunflower by nearly a foot. Did we really have a winner?

It was a lot of work for 99¢ worth of vindication, but somehow it was worth it.

I have never quite gotten over the feeling of excitement that surges through my veins at the sight of a neon-painted midway, the sound of carnies hawking their games, the grit of racetrack dust in my teeth, and the scent of cattle and chickens and corn dogs (although quite possibly that pounding in my chest is my circulatory system objecting to the idea of yet another funnel cake).

Last year during an evening stroll through a nearby county fair, I suffered a serious relapse of Fair Fever. Raised up against a pillar in the horticulture building were the entries for the tallest sunflower. My husband and I looked up at the blooms towering above us—and then at each other. We had a contender in our own garden, and it was too late to do anything about it.

“Just wait till next year!” we said to each other.

We meant it.

As luck would have it, this year’s garden sunflowers were all volunteers from last year’s seeds, enthusiastically spread by marauding birds in August and then tucked snugly in for the winter under a blanket of autumn leaves, horse manure, and black plastic. Spring found them growing like mad weeks before the last-frost planting date suggested on seed packets.

I figured that gave us about a two-week head start on the other gardeners. We had it made! Sure enough, by early June our plants were looming over our heads. We got so excited we began toting a stepladder and tape measure out to the garden and measuring the height of our crop every few days. In mid-June I drove to Hamilton, paid my two-dollar entry fee at the fair office, and, with the solemnity befitting the occasion, enrolled in the tallest sunflower competition.

I was back in the game.

Time rolled around for the fair. We harvested our prospective prizewinner—root ball and all—and loaded it into the pickup. It measured well over 11 feet tall! A full yard of it extended out from the back of the truck. This clearly would not do—a stem fracture might cost us our prize! I splinted our plant to a board with strips of cloth and then drove down to the fairgrounds at a breakneck speed of about 10 mph.

Once inside, we scanned the exhibit hall for the competition, and our hearts sank. A huge entry was staring majestically at us. We thought all was lost. But as we tilted our plant back against the wall, it rose higher and higher, until it topped the other sunflower by nearly a foot! We left congratulating ourselves, our anticipation seasoned deliciously with suspense. Impending victory tasted as good as a chocolate-dipped frozen cheesecake on a stick. But did we really have a winner?

The following day, we burst into the building, anxious to see where we stood. There was our proud blossom, now wilting a little bit, with a red ribbon on it. A late entry had beaten our baby by mere centimeters. But we were happy with our second-place award.

Oh, but fair fever isn’t cured that easily. A neighboring county fair was coming up, and we had another potential “Tallest Sunflower” winner back in our garden. We also had a good entry for “Largest Seed Head,” approximately the size of a garbage-can lid, and a weirdly cheerful Siamese-twin blossom just right for the “Freaks of Nature” category.

Two fairs in one summer! Would the plants measure up? Could I stand another funnel cake? Would I ever stop singing “Love Me Like a Sock”? We would soon find out.

On a misty August morning that promised late-day heat, we loaded up our plants and—on a whim—the plate of “Ten Best” green beans that I had scouted out while canning two days before. Off I went. The fairgrounds already hummed with activity. Workers were organizing exhibits. Midway rides lay in pieces on the ground. A hog squealed irritably nearby. A woman with an entire basket of beautiful vegetables stopped to chat. I was pleased to be recognized as a fellow gardener. I guess she noticed the sunflower lassoed to a 12’ 2 x 4 that I was carrying!

That evening my husband and I hopped in the car and headed north to see how we had done. Our “Largest Seed Head” sunflower entry had a blue ribbon draped across its salt-and-pepper-colored seeds. The “Freaks of Nature” sunflower earned a second place ribbon—beaten by a conjoined potato. The green beans also managed a red ribbon despite stiff competition. Our tallest sunflower? Not quite tall enough. It drooped its head in defeat next to a strange mutant sunflower bush that outstripped it by several inches. Still, second place was not bad.

A week later, I made a final trip to the fairgrounds to collect our ribbons and plants. A woman bounded up to me and asked if she could have some of my sunflower seeds. Thinking she was another gardener, I broke a handful off the largest seed head and handed them to her.

“You going to beat us next year?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, “I feed ‘em to my rats.”

Rats?! My prize-winning produce? Humph.

Our ribbons now add a dash of color—mostly red—to the windowsill over the kitchen sink, and my husband and I are googling “Growing Giant Sunflowers,” cackling like lunatics over our summer adventures, and plotting our plan of attack for winning that elusive tallest sunflower title next year. The things we do for 99¢ ribbons.

Some things you just never outgrow.


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