Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Carthage Fair 1969, Part III -- No Ribbons, But a Trophy

Grandpa's trophy tray
from one of the last harness races
ever held at Carthage Fair.

That first morning at the 1969 Carthage Fair, I waited in a fever of anticipation for the exhibit buildings to open at 10 o'clock. Deep down I knew my entries hadn't won anything, but I was enough of a resolute optimist about such things to believe I might have won. The premium list had said the judging would take place that morning, and I believed it. I thought I might actually be able to stand on the sidelines and see the judges look over the entries and award ribbons, like a scene from "State Fair."

What I didn't know was, despite the claim in the premium list, judging had taken place the day before. Ribbons were already tied to the winning entries when at last I entered the arts and crafts building. Of course, there were no ribbons tied to my wall hanging or the rug. My first reaction was intense disappointment, and I gazed awash in resentment, picking holes in the merits of the winners. ("Well, of course, THAT picture won, it has a frame. That rug won just because it's bigger.")

I probably called Mom from the fairgrounds to give her the results. I remember sympathy and a lack of "I told you so." That day and throughout the fair, I drifted back to the needlework and crafts to stare at my entries; I also began to study the other competitors' work. It was my first exercise in reviewing the competition in a contest and making mental notes of what was better about the winning work compared to mine.

I also drifted around the fairgrounds watching other competitions. I enjoyed seeing the 4-H judgings of horseback riding and cattle showing. I gazed at the awarding of ribbons--big rosettes even for fourth and fifth place--with mixed longing and vicarious pleasure.

At lunch that first day, Grandpa waved off my failure. "Nahhh, you can't win at that fair," Grandpa declared in his cigarette-scoured voice. "Those same old women enter every year. The judges always give them the ribbons." One of Grandpa's younger cronies joined us for lunch the next day, and he agreed that nobody but "those same old women" won ribbons for things like needlework. I had wished I could be comforted by their rationalizations, but it was disconcerting to hear that fate determined county fair winners before a single sampler or afghan had been entered. Also, I didn't believe for a minute it was true.

When other members of the family attended the fair later that week, they tramped up to the arts and crafts building to ooh and ahh over my entries, even though they'd watched me work on them for weeks. They also loyally sniped at the ribbon-winners. I appreciated their support, but I'd already turned inward to examine my defeat and plan my attempt for next year's fair. My disappointment and my ribbon envy had turned pragmatic. I wasn't about to throw in the towel after one fair.

On Saturday morning, Grandma brought me, my brothers, and my two cousins back to the fair. It was a rainy, gloomy day. When, again, we entered the arts and crafts building to look at my entries, now for the last time, I saw that a corner of my embroidered hanging had come loose. It had fallen across the front of the embroidery so you couldn't see the picture. (Since I hadn't provided any means for actually displaying the hanging, the resourceful workers had simply fastened it to a wall with folded masking tape.) It was the final losing image to carry with me throughout the ensuing year.

At the barn, though, when we stopped by to visit Grandpa, he said he had something for me. He brought out the trophy tray he'd won earlier that week, handed it to me, and said it was mine.

"Now, that's going to cause hard feelings with the other grandchildren," Grandma sniffed, but Grandpa said I was the one who had helped him all week. I deserved the tray. Grandma had told me that I was "sweetheart of the week" as far as Grandpa was concerned because of my interest in and participation with the horses every day.

August 9, 1969
The grand climax of this fair has been getting that silver tray. It means more to me than any piece of ribbon. Having Grandpa saying he's giving it to me because I helped with the horse, and knowing I helped almost makes it like I kind of really won it for Huckleberry Boy (Hound Dog). It's now my most prized possession. I've made a vow to myself that if there were ever a depression or something of the sort ever happened that we'd sell everything but our necessities, I'd gladly sell everything in my room, but one thing I'd cling onto is that tray. It's not that it's silver, and a trophy, but it'd represent Grandpa, Carthage Fair, anything I loved, and better times. I love it and every time I see it I'll remember this week.

I knew full well Grandpa didn't value the tray personally. He'd said he'd rather have a blanket. But he hadn't just tossed the tray over to me the day he won it; he'd obviously thought about it. He meant it as a reward. What I didn't know at the time (perhaps Grandpa did) was that we'd seen the final harness racing at Carthage Fair, forever. I'd never have another chance to experience the fair with Grandpa in that way again.

I still have the tray. I used to display it on the overhang in my apartment kitchen, along with some other county and state fair memorabilia. When I moved in with Mom, she added the tray to her fair collection and displays it with a museum's worth of items, including her own trophy bowls and tray for pie baking at the fair.

And always, whenever I see that tray, I think of that week in August of 1969.

I lied to myself in my journal, though. Not about the tray being my most prized possession, or how much Grandpa or the fair or anything else mattered to me. The lie was I did not feel as if I'd personally won that tray. It wasn't my prize. I hadn't won a thing. I absolutely had to win a ribbon of my own. And I had to wait an entire year before I could try again.

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