Growing Stuff at the Fair
“I’ve never shaken the hand of royalty before,” I say.
She smiles coyly.
“Were you elected in a democratic process or born into your position?”
The Pork Queen thinks on this. “Kinda both,” she says. She jerks her thumb out the window toward the large Florida State Fair food trailer. “My father’s a pork farmer but I did have to write an essay.”
I strike up the conversation after completing a test at the Beef Table, where two middle schoolers quiz me to determine if I know that nail polish, auto tires, boots, concrete building blocks and, if memory serves, even my late Aunt Petronella, were all made from beef cattle. (Hint: If a seventh grader holds up any cue card at the Beef Table, always pick: E. All of the above.) When I finally catch on and get one right, one of boys cries, “Good job!” and slaps a big, red sticker on my chest. Walking off to the Dairy Table, I peek at it. No Farmers No Food, it reads. I strategically reapply it over a large stain on my sweatshirt, where a guava pastry squirted its gory innards 20 minutes ago.
At the Pork Table I keep shaking my little plastic container of heavy cream to churn enough butter to spread on a packet of two saltines. The Tama Pork Ambassador, an intense but friendly 18-year-old fellow, introduces himself next. “Did you know that pork loin has less fat and is healthier for you than chicken?”
My third grade daughter, Grace, a fierce proponent of adding bacon to all meals, offers an impressed nod toward me.
“I did not,” I say. “And why’s that?”
The Pork Ambassador and Pork Queen exchange embarrassed glances. I feel compelled to save them. “I had no idea Tampa had a Pork Queen and a Pork Ambassador.”
“They don’t,” the Pork Ambassador gently says. He points to his nametag: Pork Ambassador of Tama County, Iowa.
“I guess I mentally stuck a P in there.”
“There’s a lot of P-ing at the fair,” he says.
My fifth grader high-fives him.
The Pork Queen’s dad comes over, hands me a dollar-off coupon for his food trailer. “Best deal on the Midway!”
The Tama County Pork Farmers are offering The Bubbanator for $6. With my coupon, it was a steal. I curse myself for eating the $11 gyro for lunch.
“I’m hungry,” Emma, my middle schooler, announces again.
“You just ate.”
“I want pizza on a stick.”
“Pizza is made so you can just hold it in your hand. Why do they have to put it on a stick?”
“Everything tastes better on a stick.”
“Even poop?” Grace challenges.
We wander into the goat and sheep building, tucked inside the Mooternity Ward. The girls fret about a handful of baby chicks stuck on their backs, backpedaling and chirping in piles of wood shavings. To distract them, I buy little cups of food to feed the goats. Emma’s quickly vanishes. Grace, however, doles hers out piece by piece, striving to make it last until the next century.
“Our first calf of the fair arrived at five this morning,” a voice booms over a loudspeaker.
“Hey!” Grace cries.
Fed up with not being fed up, a goat seizes Grace’s food cup. A lively tug of war ensues. “Hey!” she shouts again. The goat dashes to the back of the pen, victorious.
“This heifer will likely calve in the next hour,” the loudspeaker voice says.
A rooster crows.
I turn. An elderly man in jeans is standing before a large elevated platform at the front of the Mooternity Ward. It’s surrounded by patriotic bunting, overflowing with hay. In the center of its pen, Cow 586 torques her tail and arches her back. Two small hooves are sticking out of her backside.
“That’s kinda gross,” Grace announces.
“We gotta watch this.” I pull them protesting into the stands, which hold 75 people all filming the calving on their smartphones. We plop into a spot in the top bleacher. The cow lies down. A contraction raises her back leg. Her calf’s fat tongue now protrudes along with its front hooves. Grace’s arms cover her face. “This is a good spot.” she assures me. She gestures to the wheelbarrow five feet below us behind the bleachers. “I can just barf into that.”
The calf slides out. Grace gags a little. The dairyman climbs onto the stage and jabs an enormous needle into the mama cow’s backside. He gives her a kick and she jumps up, snapping the umbilical cord. He lifts the slimy calf’s back leg. “A boy!”
Everyone in the bleachers cheers.
Later in the cattle building, I watch as young kids lead around enormous beasts, outweighing them by 1,100 pounds. A burly judge in jeans, a sports coat and a cowboy hat lopes among them, judging their appropriate cowness. I try to figure out what this entails, but he’s muttering into his microphone and the enormous building amplifies it into gibberish. Florida’s future cattlemen and women sport the same uniform: jeans and T-shirts. But the girls flash bedazzled belts with buckles the size of road signs.
Emma urges us on and we enter the cattle pens. I suddenly realize farm cows don’t actually all look like the teenager in the Chick-fil-A costume. There are actually different cow species and some are identified by small signs. I’m patting a particularly fascinating one with a strange hump on its front shoulder, but it’s not identified anywhere. “Sir,” I call out to a man wielding a poop rake. “What’s this particular animal called?
“A cow.” The man keeps raking.
Grace starts laughing at me. Needing to save face, I follow up. “But what kind of cow?”
“Beef cow.” He walks off to find a shovel.
Emma, who’s spent the afternoon peering beneath every animal we’ve encountered, is nearly under the beast. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
I join her, bending and peering underneath like we’re searching for loose change beneath a sofa. But the cow’s anatomy appears rather non-committal. I push up my glasses. “I didn’t know it was a cow. Do you really trust me to get its gender right?”
Grace tugs my sweatshirt. “Oh, Dad! He’s for sale! Can we buy him?”
She points to a sign hanging above the cow’s head:
Semen for Sale.
I tug them out of the hall. “Why don’t we find the pig races.”
We wander among the oinkers and strike up conversations with a high schooler watering his friend’s animal and a friendly mom whose daughter is walking alongside her pig, which pops along like it has an enormous dirty diaper. “How long has your daughter had—” I study the pig’s backside, “her?”
“It’s actually a him,” she says. “About eight months.” She details the feeding regimen, the weight gain, the price per pound. “After the fair,” she announces, “he’s off to the Big House!”
Which makes her happy but probably not the pig.
Following our tour of the crafts pavilion, the kids are plain tuckered out. We lope back to the parking lot. Like three grandmas hitting their recliners at the end of laundry day, we fall into the car seats with satisfied groans. Soon I’m stuck in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic and my exhausted daughters fall asleep. My mind flickers over the day. The echo of a remark a friend has made more than once eats at me. “You’re a Northeast Elitist,” he says, a guy two generations removed from a tar paper Alabama shack.
I always reassured myself that he was just kidding.
In my 16 years in Tampa, it was the first I’d been to the state fair. The local newspapers’ annual focus on the Midway’s latest fried monstrosity simply fed my fat expectations: the fair was a collection of carnies, yahoos, yokels and rednecks. Yet looking for a new column that morning, these people were an opportunity too good to pass up. I’d go, drag the kids and have a perfectly ironic time.
Only it was I who had consistently come across as the idiot.
It was I who was mesmerized watching a grandfather birth a calf while gently explaining it to the kids watching.
It was I who encountered dozens of eager Floridians willing to share their enthusiasm for their animals – all taking a moment for a clueless suburban whose knowledge of farming and animals didn’t extend beyond front lawns and family pets.
I’d gone to the fair expecting a freak show of Southern rednecks, roaring into the city in their Confederate flag-draped pickup trucks.
I went home having met some of the friendliest, hardest working, most genuine people I’ve ever met in Tampa.
“The bedrock of America,” my Alabama-bred friend calls them.
Sitting in traffic churning back out into the suburbs, I’d discovered a truth about my adopted southern state: that if you take the time to wander off the Midway and into the Florida State Fair’s exhibition halls – if you take the time to speak with all the friendly people who still can peaches, who still plant tomatoes, who still raise beasts – you’ll encounter all sorts of unexpected things that they can still make grow.
Even Northeast elitists.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher
Three Freshman Scenes: Your High School Ejamacation
“So we’re just sitting there eating our lunch and these Trads come up and say, ‘Beat it, Nubes. This is our table,’” pants Number One.
The early days at Robinson high school have become a modern version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
Eye roll. “Dad, you don’t know what a Nube is?”
I study her freshman bravado. “Neither do you.”
“And a Trad?”
“The non-IB kids, Dad. The traditional students who are in regular classes like Boom Boom Math. They’re completely scary.”
“The way the boys dress. Black hoodies, black sneakers, black slouchy pants with chains. The Goth I-don’t-care-about-school look.’”
“How do the IB guys dress?”
“They’re mostly Preppies and Frat Boys.”
“You sound like Mr. Rooney’s secretary.”
1. Clever Ferris Bueller references are lost on Sportos, Motorheads, Wastoids and Nubes.
2. Frat Boys dress like a South Beach condominium that has taken up Cape Cod yachting: pastel shorts; untucked, billowy, casual shirts that button down the front; and Sperry boat shoes.
3. When your daughter begs topics for her IB inquiry skills research essay, if you suggest she drop Frat Boys in West Tampa to see how long it takes them to get beaten up, she’ll roll her eyes again.
I drop my daughter and her date off at the homecoming dance. I linger in the hotel parking lot watching them walk in. A big SUV pulls up. “Have a great time!” a mom brays at four girls teetering on heels.
She drives off. A moment later, one of the girls peers out of the hotel’s sliding entrance doors and waves to the others to follow. A beat up Subaru squeals up. The girls hop in and vanish.
Having been warned repeatedly (14 times) not to be late, I arrive 25 minutes early to pick my daughter. I sit in my car in the parking lot, awaiting her text granting me permission to approach. A car squeals into the lot.
The four girls hop out and disappear behind the hotel’s sliding glass doors. The mom in the SUV pulls up 10 minutes later.
“Did you have a great time?” she brays as they emerge and climb aboard.
“Far better than you’ll ever know,” I answer for them.
My phone warbles. I roll up. My daughter and her date climb in. I begin the 40-minute drive to New Tampa to drop the boy off. “How was it?”
“Great!” they exclaim.
A wall of silence falls. I attempt some baseball small talk. But because I know approximately three things about baseball, the talk is particularly small. The reign of silence returns.
We drop him off. My daughter returns to the car. She slams the door. “How was the dance?” I repeat.
4. To dress appropriately for the Homecoming Dance, boys must wear dark dress shirts and solid, shiny silk ties. Girls must cut a cardboard toilet paper tube in half, cover it in glitter and smush their bodies into it until it just covers the lower curve of their buttocks. It should be tight enough that if your daughter moves too quickly during photos at the West Park Village Bell Tower, a sequin should blast off and blind the photographer.
5. To have a truly fabulous time at the Homecoming Dance, you should spend no more than ten minutes there.
6. Don’t be fooled by the polite young man who yes-sir-ed you to death on the way to the dance. He’ll still spend the entire night attempting to shloopy-doo his date – a highly technical term for a modern dance you don’t want to know about. While this might be forgivable if he bought the $80 tickets, it certainly is not when his date’s dad did.
7. When your high school kids ask you if they can have a sleepover with friends, take it from this former high school teacher: no matter how much you trust them, odds are they spent the night in a beat up Subaru.
I’m sitting in Robinson’s cafeteria next to my put-out daughter. At the table in front of us my neighbor sits beside Braxton, her put-out son. We’re attending another meeting striving to explain the intricacies of IB high school graduation requirements.
In addition to mastering 1,472 IB acronyms, our children have to complete lots of CAS hours. The letters stand for Creativity, Action and Service.
Great, because none of the freshman IB parents do. Which is why that mom, sitting way across the cafeteria, raises her hand, causing her put-out daughter to hide her face. “We’re not really sure what Melissa here can do to earn her Creativity hours,” the mom chirps.
“Well,” the highly creative assistant principal suggests. “A lot of students take music lessons.”
My neighbor raises her hand. Her son, an athlete on the lacrosse team, begins to squirm. “Do art classes count?”
Braxton’s face nearly blisters from redness.
Since I’ve known the boy his whole life and since, just three years ago while playing catch, he hurled the football directly into my crotch and then dashed off laughing like a rabid hyena, I experience zero empathy. I lean forward and whisper over the droning assistant principal. “Is it macramé, Braxton?”
His mom looks at him, giggles and piles on. “He sketches nudes,” she teases.
I hear her but pretend otherwise. “What?”
“HE SKETCHES NUDES.”
Braxton leans forward. “Stop talking now.”
8. After paying all the bills, the primary responsibility of a high school parent is to be silent and invisible.
9. Given that your child already dismisses you as an uncool moron, while attending school meetings with them, always ask questions whose answers everyone (including you) already knows. Then, as your child cringes, whisper that the torture will continue until he cleans his stupid room.
10. If you spot Braxton out with his football, you might want to just avoid him for the next few weeks.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher