Picture this. July, 1985. The height of the Reagan Era. “Like A Virgin” and “Careless Whisper” topped the pop music charts. The Marion County Fair was in its prime. And, it was the end of farming for yours truly.
I must say that as a gay kid growing up in rural Iowa, I did the best that I could. While I would have rather been in the house baking cookies and reorganizing my bedroom, I was out feeding the calves and “walking” the electric fence. (farming 101–the electric fence surrounded the pasture where the cattle grazed–we had to make sure no weeds were touching the fence…) I spent most of my chore time talking and singing to myself, unaware that anyone could possibly hear me. My point is, I would have rather been indoors.
Each summer me, my three siblings, and our “prize” heifers (farming 101a–heifers are young, female cows) would make the trip to the Marion County Fair. What a nightmare. I hated this time of year more than anything. It meant hours upon hours of washing, combing, training, feeding our “prize” heifers for the competition. And, I usually approached it with the excitement one usually reserves for root canals. That is, until the 1985 Marion County Fair.
I decided that for this year, I was done taking last place. I was a winner and the judges somehow continually misjudged me. Ok. I’m not fooling anybody. I was the least interested of my siblings in this bullshit (pun intended); and so, I always got the runt of the heifers. One year, I actually was given a deformed calf. Her name was Martha, and she was born with her head on sideways (seriously). Needless to say, Martha didn’t live long enough to even make it to the fair, but my point is clear.
However, there was one prize I could take: The Marion County Fair, Dairy Division, Livestock Showmanship Award. The title alone made me twirl and giggle with glee. And, the thought of that trophy in my bedroom simply made me gitty. I was already redecorating my bedroom around it. This award was given to the one individual who took the best care of their heifer during the week of the fair. I just had to do the best job of shoveling poop. It was as good as mine.
So, during the fair, when I would have normally been spending every waking moment on the carnival rides, allowing my heifer to starve; I went crazy shoveling poop. If my heifer even looked like she was going to poop, I was there waiting to catch it in my shovel. I was a farming rockstar.
It was no surprise that I took last place in the actual competition. But, my showmanship trophy would be given to me on Friday at the end of the fair. When I wasn’t hovering behind my heifer, waiting for her to defecate; I was practicing my surprised reactions for when I was announced as the winner. I also was taking note of my competition. There wasn’t any. Simply no one was spending nearly the amount of time with their heifer that I was. No one.
The moment finally arrived for me to accept my award. The 4-H Superintendant of the Dairy Barn gathered everyone together to make the big announcement. After making the standard announcements, she finally got to the point. “The Marion County Fair, Dairy Division, Livestock Showmanship Award” goes to… I could feel myself get light-headed. And, I think that I actually blacked-out for a few moments, because I didn’t hear her say my name. I didn’t hear her say anyone’s name. I just saw some dumb-ass loser kid walking up to take my trophy.
What happened next will go down in the Marion County 4-H program history books. It was also when I learned how to make a dramatic exit. I couldn’t control what happened next. It just happened. I wailed. Literally. This shriek of horror escaped my lungs as I turned and ran. Straight to our fold-down camper. I cried so hard and for so long that my parents actually had to get the Dairy Superintendant to come to the camper and console me. She gave me some lame reason why we are all winners…but, it didn’t matter, though, it was just confirmation of what I already knew…I was not a farmer.
I don’t know if it was from embarassment or pity, but, my parents never really pushed me to do anything 4-H-related again. And, when my parents sold our dairy operation several years later, I knew it was because I was secretly willing all of those cows to break out through the electric fence and never return.