State Fair best closes the chapter on summer

September 05, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Weeds taking over the neighborhood baseball field. The first sighting of apples amid the peaches at the farmers' market. A shiver on a summer night that turned suddenly cool.

Summer passes incrementally. Days that used to stretch wondrously and endlessly - It's 8 o'clock, and it's still light out! - begin to shorten, almost imperceptibly at first and then all at once. You think summer will never end but then, a couple of heat waves and a tropical depression later, it's over.

The swimming pool, the bleachers, the gin-and-tonic no longer beckon. You crave a latte, the library, socks.

I used to be able to stretch a summer into September, or even October. You can do that as a baseball fan, just not as an Orioles fan these days. If your summer follows the fortunes of the O's, it was pretty much over this year by the All-Star break.

When I lived in Florida, I often lost track of the seasons - they passed without obvious signposts. The sky was invariably blue, the orange juice was always fresh, the tans as even in January as June.

It was sort of unnerving to live so boundlessly, so mindless of time's erosion. I think that's why I like state fairs. I like the definitive, chapter-closing, season-ending sense of it all. Once the State Fair hits, summer doesn't have a chance. It's really over, especially for kids like 15-year-old Dwight Rodgers. He lives in St. Mary's County, where school started around the same day the fair opened.

Dwight is one of the 4-H kids you'll see if you wander from the neon, fried-dough, Ferris wheel part of the State Fair at the fairgrounds in Timonium. Follow your nose toward the Cow Palace and the swine, goat, and sheep pens, or your ears to the poultry-and-rabbit barn where even long after sunrise the roosters let out an occasional crow, which seems unduly rude to the silent bunnies in their midst.

Here is where summer truly makes its final stand. In the Cow Palace, the potted black-eyed Susans that circle the straw-covered staging area are on their last, head-drooping gasp. In the home arts exhibits, peaches and beets and watermelon rinds have been preserved, as if in amber, in their canning jars. The livestock have been weighed.

More so than for city folk, the summer ends for farm people with a flurry of assessing: how fat the hog, how productive the chicken, how sweet the jam. It's perhaps fitting that for the 4-H kids, the State Fair wrapped up this Labor Day weekend with a judging of their judging.

On Saturday, kids like Dwight judged nine kinds of animals - from dairy cows to sheep to swine - four of each, grading them on such factors as breed characteristics and size. Later in the day, they would then have to defend their grades to the judges, who would then award them trophies on how well they had made and presented their assessments.

I don't know - one Holstein tends to look like every other one if the closest you tend to get to them is a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Even the experts can get baffled, initially.

"I ain't quite sure yet," Dwight says as he roams to another side of the pen to get a different view of the four pink pigs who seem interchangeable except for the duct-tape stripes on their backs indicating their numbers.

Dwight says he got interested in judging - even going to a camp in Nebraska this summer to further hone his skills - because everyone else in his family did.

It's as good a reason as any.

Everyone seems to be here mainly because they've always been here. "You start seeing the kids of the kids you judged with," says Rick Thomas, a timekeeper and ringmaster for one of the judging venues. He started as a 10-year-old and now is 52, and he can't think of much that has changed over those years.

Time does pass, even in so timeless an event as a state fair.

Donna Lethbridge, who with her husband has a dairy farm in Carroll County, used to show hogs as a 4-H kid. Now she is one of the moms, standing on the sidelines with snacks and water bottles while her two kids compete in the livestock judging event. It's a long day - they got there at 8 in the morning and probably won't get back home until close to midnight.

At one point, all three of the Lethbridges' children were active in 4-H, but the oldest one is now a high school senior and too busy with other things - basketball, AP classes and applying to colleges.

"Life - it really goes fast, doesn't it?" Lethbridge muses.

It does.

After taking in some more sheep judging, I headed to the nearby Maryland foods stands and had a nice lamb sandwich.

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