The Real Fair

September is the month for The Fair. Yes, the Puyallup Fair. I practically grew up there, and every year I go back to see the cows and think about what the Fair used to be for me.

I want to talk about the real Puyallup Fair. Not the crowded, sweaty, sore feet, baby-strollers-from-hell, shop till you drop, can’t find a parking space, what-haven’t-we-seen-yet, how much did you buy, did that ride make you vomit, junk-food Fair that we see advertised on TV.

The Fair I want to talk about is the 6:00 AM, pitching out the stalls, taking the blankets off the cows, backing the pickup into the cattle barns, unloading the 10-gallon jugs, milking the cows, loading up the jugs, washing out the portable milking machine, and getting the truck out of there before “the public” shows up at 8:30. For me The Fair was taking a nap with my cow in a stall, leaning on Holly while my whole body rises and falls with her breath. Or scrubbing Holly’s feet at the wash rack as she stands placidly chewing her cud and jangling her wash chain, enjoying the cool water on a hot day.

Or forgetting to take a halter rope with me to the wash rack and deciding to try and lead Holly back to her stall with only the loose wash chain dangling around her neck (which means I can’t signal her to stop or go, or control her if she decides to take a detour on her own). Happily, Holly follows me as if nothing were wrong, and remembers the way back better than I do–navigating by smells, because cows are near-sighted.

Or the dozens of children who want desperately to touch a cow, but are afraid of them because of their size. I have an old trick to make Holly seem less menacing; I put my hand underneath Holly’s neck and scratch her there, so she closes her eyes and stretches her neck with pleasure…and stays immobile long enough for the kids to gently pat her on the side without fear.

I remember the times I woke up early on show days and nervously worked ahead of time, always checking the clock, to make sure my cows were spotless, had eaten just enough but not too much, that their feet were clean and their hair shone…that they were ready to impress The Judge.

That was always the main point of The Fair: to impress The Judge–whether it meant having the best-trained dairy cow, the biggest pumpkin, or the best-tasting apple pie. Like all the other farmers and their families, I was there to show off the work I’d done all summer and all the previous spring and winter. The Fair existed because of our work; all of the other stuff–rides, food, commercial exhibits–were all secondary to what the farmers brought to The Fair.

For those of us who showed animals, there was the added challenge and prestige of working in partnership with animals, especially large ones. A lot of time and effort went into training them. For example, because a dairy cow can weigh up to 2,000 pounds or more, it’s simply impossible to control one with strength alone–no short cuts would do the job. Some people would try to use fear, but find out later that their animals had developed “bad habits” or phobias. Usually, persuasion and reward would work much better.

Good trainers learn how to overcome a herd animal’s natural distrust and fear. Because most people eat meat, cows and horses smell this and immediately identify people as predators. The trick is to appeal instead to the animal’s curiosity, need for physical and social contact (it’s a herd animal, after all), and its reasoning ability. Animals are not stupid; they can see cause and effect, and exercise self-control. And, of course, they also feel, regardless of what scientists say. The best trainers know this and work to accommodate animals’ emotions.

Which brings me to why I still prefer to visit The Fair during the early morning hours. When there are no crowds around, I can pretend that the animals are as much the main event at the Fair now as they were when I was a kid–when there were more of them, and fewer objects for sale. During the peak of the day, when hundreds of people crowd the aisles, stare for a moment at the cows, and then pass on to something more interesting, the animals seem to know that something’s wrong. It’s as if they understand that they’re not at the center of things anymore, that The Fair has changed and left them behind.

And when I see an article in a Seattle newspaper laughing about the hokey animals and produce displays at the Puyallup Fair, I wonder if it isn’t time for me to get out of town for a while.

To hang out with some animals, of course.