She's a Bull

Some of what you can learn at the state fair.

1. That Palominos are the Malibu Barbies of the equine world.

2. That a 3,000-pound bull can be as dangerous as a hand grenade, so if you’re going to bring one to the fair, you ought to prepare him for the crowds and the noise and the ogling he’s about to endure. One method that has been described to me: In the weeks leading up to the fair, you fill his barn with the screechiest, most head-banging heavy-metal music you can find.

3. That if you go on the first day, as soon as the gates open at 6 a.m., you get to experience the fairgrounds at their aesthetic peak. The lawns are deep green and untrampled, the flags and banners crisp and bright, the upper reaches of the barns alive with flittering birds. You can take your coffee at an open-air diner and watch the sun slant over the Snelling Avenue entrance, soak in the morning calm and the undercurrent of anticipation, admire the canna lilies, their blossoms as red as matadors’ blood. As it turns out, there’s a matador sitting nearby. Well, technically he’s a knife salesman who’s about to spend the next 12 days hawking ever-sharp blades in the Ag-Hort Building, but I think the comparison is apt. He’s natty and courageous, graceful and direct; his livelihood depends on a combination of instinct and artistry. He lays his newspaper aside as a teenage waiter brings his breakfast. “Kid,” he says, flicking a glance at the glorious morning, “it’s all downhill from here.”

4. That the average Minnesotan is a magnanimous soul, eager to share his or her knowledge of matters agricultural with family and friends. Take this silver-haired gent who’s standing with his granddaughter at the children’s barnyard, both of them admiring a prominently uddered Texas Longhorn cow that happens to be nursing its calf. “Now that,” he declares, “is what you call a prime Texas Longhorn steer.” To which the little girl laughs and replies, “No, she’s a bull!”

5. That cattle judges are syntactic innovators and poets of animal husbandry. They stroll the show ring in their boots and Stetsons and dessert-plate-sized belt buckles, saying things like “He’s a real growthy calf” or “She’s the best-mammaryed heifer…a lot of dairyness and milkiness there” or “She’s frail—it goes beyond being dairy, she’s just plain frail” or “This fella here could use more fleshing ability” or “He’s very boldly sprung, he’d hang a real clean carcass,” and the language is so sharp and interesting that even a bovine ignoramus can begin to see what they mean. Soon it doesn’t even occur to you to snicker when a judge says, “It’s the teat placement that really grabs your attention.” And when he finds an animal that really comes close to the Platonic ideal he carries in his mind—when he says, “Now that’s one of the best udders I’ve ever seen. It’s almost too good to be true. It looks like it was drawn on”—you share his zeal. You want to high-five somebody. You’re alone in the cheap seats at the Coliseum, so all you can do is enthuse silently. A near-perfect udder—it’s exciting. It kind of makes your whole day.

6. That sometimes people don’t exhibit blue-ribbon behavior. A guy and his wife walk up the Coliseum ramp during the Holstein judging. He watches for a few moments and then says, “Christ, why don’t they just pick the one that has the most black spots and be done with it.” His voice is full of boredom and scorn. You could say something to him, perhaps explain what’s going on, but that wouldn’t be very Minnesotan, would it? Instead, you judge him. You notice that he’s wearing an expensive-looking pearl-gray polo shirt, pleated white shorts, and running shoes that appear to have gold-lamé accents on the heels. For a male, he’s notably well-mammaryed, though his carcass is far from boldly sprung. There: now you both feel superior. A moo echoes in the cavernous concrete dimness.

7. That you hear the best groaner-jokes from the music acts at the senior citizen building. For instance: “We made a record on the Oral Roberts label, but the hole kept healing shut.”

8. That when you are practicing the art of taxidermy on a bass, you have to replace the cheek meat with papier-mâché—otherwise the finished fish will resemble an undernourished chain smoker. That when you are preparing a 4-H project called “Organs of a Porcine,” it really adds impact if you display genuine porcine organs—heart, liver, spleen, and kidney—in large Skippy peanut butter jars. That when your ewe is beset with a prolapsed uterus (i.e., when the uterus is outside, rather than inside, the ewe’s body and is “hanging all the way down to her hocks”), you should wash the misplaced organ with Palmolive dish soap and sprinkle it with tetracycline powder before putting it back where it belongs.

9. That in 1951, an aerobatics pilot named Carl Ferris crashed his biplane in a cabbage patch near the intersection of Snelling and Larpenteur while 32,000 spectators watched from the state fair grandstand. A “stunt girl” named Kitty Middleton was standing on the upper wing at the time. Both were killed. Ferris was 32; Middleton was 17. The youngest of 13 children, she had joined the air show just a few weeks earlier. A publicity photo shows her standing on the wing of the plane, a pretty, dark-haired girl with plump cheeks and sturdy legs, wearing a white sleeveless blouse, a short majorette-style skirt, saddle shoes and bobby socks, drop earrings, and a little wristwatch. Witnesses said she was waving to the crowd when the plane went into its fatal dive.

10. That at age 78, having lost the fingers of your left hand in a lawnmower accident, there is nothing to stop you from entering the state fair talent show. You can go out onto the bright bandshell stage as the sky behind the big trees is going black, sit down at the grand piano, zip through your number (Beethoven, no less), and knock the crowd on its keister. Soon enough the fireworks will go off, and everyone will know they’re for you.

11. That the nights are dangerous. After the barns and pavilions shut down, when the fair is just beer gardens and loud rides and games of dubious skill, who’s left out here? Guys who appear to subsist on testosterone and pork rinds, their skanky girlfriends, and you, the freelance writer. At this moment you’re in grave peril of succumbing to the most virulent strain of mawkishness there is: the end-of-the-fair blues. Life is short, all is vanity, our works amount to nothing, and oh my God that sheep with her womb inside out, how sad was that? It’s time to make your way to the exit. Fried dough doesn’t travel well, so leave those last few Tom Thumb doughnuts for the sparrows. You and a handful of other people saw an almost-perfect cow today, while thousands of others saw the Oak Ridge Boys or Kid Rock or some Palomino from American Idol again. Cling to that if you need something to cling to, but seriously, get going. Even though this whole place is imaginary, you don’t want to be here when the rest of the crowd figures that out.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson recommends 4-H project perusal as an antidote to existential angst.