The fair is cool

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2008

Wasn’t fair week supposed to bring blistering hot weather?

That’s what happened last year when temperatures hit three digits, following what had been the warning told to me: Every year during fair week, the weather turns ugly hot.

That myth has been busted.

On Wednesday night, the first night of the 28th Franklin-Southampton County Fair, some of the folks seated in their lawn chairs watching the talent show, followed by the queen’s pageant, reached for a sweater or a light jacket to combat the chilly night air.

Perhaps it affected the turnout on the first night. There were plenty more cars in the parking lot this Wednesday than there were in 2007. Maybe it was the cooler night, or maybe the talent show, followed by the queen pageant was a big enough draw to bring out a larger crowd.

You didn’t even feel for the guy working in the chainsaw cage sculpting animal figures from thick logs. Even with him wearing long pants beneath protective sheaths on his legs and sawdust flying every which way, there was no pity because of the heat, because there was no heat.

Southampton Memorial Hospital CEO David Fuller wore a dark suit to the fairgrounds. He was a judge of the county queen contest. Last year, that suit might have needed two trips through the dry cleaners in order to wear it again. Then again, Fuller might have, um, weathered the heat last year: Afterall, the man is from Mississippi, and his last job was in Alabama. He knows what heat is.

This is my second county fair experience in these parts, my third overall.

The first was nearly 30 years ago in Shenandoah County, on the other end of the state.

It was my first week in a new town on my first professional newspaper job, a weekly newspaper in Woodstock, Va., which is bisected by Interstate-81. “Let’s send the new guy to the county fair,” my new editor said.

Here I was, a guy from Long Island, N.Y., who a week earlier had no concrete professional plans. I’m watching the summer days get shorter, wondering, “What am I going to do come Labor Day?”

It’s an unwritten rule that student-aged kids must do something by the first Labor Day after graduation, something other than lay around all summer. I’m pretty sure my father would have put that rule in writing if things came to that point. But there I was, wondering what my future would hold.

I considered heading back to The Valley where I’d spent four years going to James Madison (although the first two years it was called Madison College.) Without too many prospects on the employment horizon, I did what many recent graduates do: I called friends begging for help. One such friend who, coincidentally, works for the same company that owns The Tidewater News, asked, “You wouldn’t want to work in Woodstock, would you?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t been to Woodstock, but I’d passed it on the Interstate. The McDonald’s sign at that exit was very tall.

But with the old man making it known that my summer free-loading was running out, Woodstock suddenly seemed like a good and safe alternative. As is the case in most newsrooms, jobs are gotten by knowing someone else in the business. That small-world connection got me in the door. The fact that I was not only new to the workforce, but also from Long Island, got me sent to the fair in a rural county.

“Just go and report on what you see and hear,” were my instructions. The fair in Shenandoah County is very much like the one held in Southampton this weekend: Agriculture plays a major role in the goings-on. At the time, the Shenandoah County Fair had no rides but it did have its share of kids staying all week in the barns with their animals.

But I noticed something at the

Southampton fair on Wednesday: Many of the stalls in the livestock barn were empty this year. Is that a reflection on the disappearing farming industry or on some other factor? I don’t know.

However, in a word, I was fascinated by the county fair. I returned to the newsroom that first week on the job and wrote my story on the local fair. I’m sure it was a pretty lame report, but I didn’t care. I was hooked. I’ve come to learn that county fairs are conducted as much for the social opportunities as for the judging of all things raised or grown, or for the headline acts that come to town. How many conversations next week will begin with, “I saw so-and-so at the fair last week”?

One major difference I’ve learned, however, is that about half of the conversations held on the fairgrounds these days involve a cell phone.

Later, I worked some of those fairs, manning a barbecue pit, turning and spraying chicken halves. Talk about hot work. It’s enough to melt the Chap Stick in your jeans pocket. Hardest work I’ve ever done, standing over that heat and that smoke for hours on end.

So this week, it’s back to the fair (which, by the way, was rated in an informal survey of this newspaper’s readers last year as the most enjoyable event thrown in these parts) and time to enjoy many of the same sights and sounds that have been seen and heard for years. Well, 27 of them, anyway. Enjoy this year’s.

Paul McFarlane is the Editor of The Tidewater News. His e-mail is