Driving along Interstate 70 a few weeks ago, I noticed near West Friendship the big sign announcing the opening of the Howard County Fair on Aug. 13. The sign and the white buildings of the fairgrounds brought back memories of my visit to last year's event. Until then, the last county fair I had attended was almost 30 years ago, in Jessamine County, Ky.
After the big-city life of New Orleans and now Baltimore, rural, down-home things had been pretty much buried in the past. Buried, but not forgotten.
Last August, as I left Baltimore to visit the Monocacy Battlefield with wife and mother-in-law, the fair was up and running. The midway rides were spinning; droves of people were wandering along the midway and through the exhibition halls and barns.
Carnival rides one can find anywhere. But as we whizzed past the fairgrounds then, my mind went back years ago to colorful exhibition halls and barns. Glorious arrays of vegetables and fruit and flowers, youngsters' creative projects of clothes and crafts. And everywhere the bright ribbons, with the most splendid entries bearing the dark-blue first-place award.
And those barns! The child in me had longed to mingle once more with the chickens, sheep, cattle and yes, even the hogs. Perhaps everyone who has spent the last 30 years surrounded by office buildings and exhaust-belching cars on city streets feels the same way. Don't we all occasionally long for some old-fashioned lowing and clucking?
On that day last August, that was how I felt. The problem was, could I convince my wife and mother-in-law to grant me my silly wish on the return trip?
Returning to Baltimore later that day, I left the interstate and followed the parallel Route 144. And guess where that led? Right to the entrance to that Howard County Fair.
Trying to maintain a normal tone of voice, I said, "Look, honey, here's the Howard County Fair. Would you like to stop for a while?" Maybe she was thirsty, or still half-asleep. But anyway, she said, "Sure."
Once inside, we first worked our way through the poultry and rabbit barn. I had no idea so many chickens of different shapes, sizes and colors could be called "bantam." Or how some rabbits could look like poodles.
But I was yearning for the bigger stuff. While wife and mother-in-law browsed among the crafts and household exhibits, took off for the dairy barn. Again, a learning experience. The days of hand-milking had passed me by. A boy tending his cow did make me feel a little important, however, when he noticed my camera bag. Mistaking me for a newspaper photographer, he asked: "Are you taking pictures for the paper?"
It was all fun and interesting, but not a whole lot of excitement. That would be furnished by the swine.
Hogs hold a special fascination for me. Maybe it's because they're so different. They look like barrels resting on undersized legs. And they lie down a lot and seem to be always grunting
When I found a barn with a lot of hogs, a kind man opened a latch and let me inside. It seemed a trifle inconvenient having to move wooden barriers to get from aisle to aisle. And that should have been a tip that something was amiss.
Soon I was in a wide walkway in the center of the barn. It led to a ring where judging of hogs ranging from 185 to 245 pounds was taking place. Having never seen the likes of hog judging, I edged closer. There were dozens of other spectators -- but all sitting in bleachers outside the walkway.
It was obvious I was in the wrong area. I had probably only gotten that far because of that official-looking camera bag.
As I turned to retrace my steps, the way was blocked by several hogs lurching toward me. They were being goaded toward the ring by adults and youths alike, the youngsters smacking the hogs' rumps with what looked like miniature fly swatters. Adults were attempting a rear-guard blocking action, wielding pieces of plywood about 3 feet high and 4 feet wide.
The drivers' success was varied. Some hogs were obedient and moved forward. Some reversed direction and forced their way through the human chain back toward the pens. But enough bore down to cause me to turn and attempt to escape back toward the arena. Then, to my alarm, some came trotting toward me from the ring area, their handlers just as zealous in returning them to their pens as those behind me who were trying to get their charges into the arena.
I was caught. It seemed like one big blur as adults, youths and hogs converged amid a cacophony of shouting and squealing. As a city slicker who has only seen hogs from over a fence, I felt a twinge of fear as the beasts forced me against the railing.
The handlers soon restored order and I suffered only one minor but painful injury. One of the jostling hogs -- it felt like the biggest of the lot -- stepped on my big toe.
My trauma, though, was nothing compared to what one young lad suffered in the melee. The boy, who appeared to be about 8 years old, squared himself to head off a hog hurtling toward him.
The beast turned not to left or right. It ran straight between the boy's legs, catapulting him upon its back. It then took off down the aisle, with the boy riding backward, bouncing and hanging on for dear life.
After about 20 feet, the boy tumbled off. Fortunately, he appeared to be unhurt.
I hope before the next 30 years are up, there'll be another opportunity to go to a county fair. But this one will be a tough act to follow.
I did learn one valuable lesson about such fairs. Next time, the camera bag stays in the car.
Ellis Easterly is a copy editor for The Baltimore Sun.