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The best part of the county fair

The best memories I have of my childhood center around one annual event--the county fair.

One whiff of show adhesive and clipper oil and I'm instantly transformed into a 10-year-old with five days of freedom stretching out before me. Freedom to hang out with my friends in the cattle barns, to run up and down the carnival midway, and to just be a kid.

Of course, as 4-H members we had responsibilities during the fair that had to be accomplished before the fun. There were livestock to be fed and watered, stalls to clean, project judging schedules to follow, and such. But, once we met them, the days were ours to do with as we pleased--as long as we followed the rules.

Before the age of cell phones and GPS tracking chips, a note in the show box was our instant messaging. Before the era of 24-hour news of missing and exploited children, the urban legends our parents told us about strangers were enough to keep us alert for danger. It was a delicate balance of trust and accountability.

Most importantly, our freedom to roam and be kids depended on adults willing to step up and look out for our welfare. You see, back then we had an entire county of parents roaming the fairgrounds, who knew every kid's name, club affiliation and family tree. We had county Extension agents, and volunteer leaders who could distinguish between good harmless fun and injury-inducing mischief. One good "Mom Look" was all it took to put the kibosh on any out of control fun--and it didn't even have to be from your own mom.

Nope, as long as we checked in with the folks at lunch, respected the adults in authority, and made it back to the barn in time to tie out cattle before dark, no one cared if we wandered around the fairgrounds. Our parents knew that if they asked us to be responsible 4-Hers in the show ring, then maybe they could trust us to be good kids outside of it. And we didn't want to let them down.

Call our folks naive and irresponsible if you will. But despite the odds against us, not one of my friends ended up on a milk carton or in an emergency room.

Instead, our fairs were filled with afternoon water fights to cool us off after a morning of cattle shows. There were stops at the souvenir booths to spend saved up allowances on cheap cap pistols and neon pink cowboy hats with the feather headbands. And evenings were spent chasing fireflies around the campers with our new friends while our parents talked around the picnic tables.

As we got older, that freedom extended to group outings to the rodeo, and later double dates to the demolition derby. We got to show off our driving skills to our friends on trips downtown for supplies for the noon meal. And, there were evenings sitting around the cattle stalls on lawn chairs and show boxes, just talking with neighbors as the fairgoers passed by.

I think that was the beauty of a county fair back then. Sure, ribbons and trophies and rewards for a year of project work were nice. But, there was the ultimate lesson of being trustworthy and accountable for oneself as well.

Maybe it's just the haze of a 30-something's fuzzy memories of yesterday, but I honestly think we didn't know we had it so good.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.



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