At the Minnesota State Fair, I learned to love the sweet serene and bony girth of the cows, which we studied, my grandfather and I, stall by stall and row by row, contemplatively and patiently, like art lovers in a gallery, quietly contemptuous of the loud talkers, of those who seemed to think if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Like a couple in a receiving line, we distributed our attention equally, spent time with each animal. I felt no envy of my country counterparts, the 4-H-ers with their fresh Levis and grooming brushes and blue ribbons, no particular interest in the milking apparatus or the poster detailing the workings of a cow’s complex stomach. I was content with a single furtive touch of a Holstein’s velvety flank, just once a year, my own private ritual of good luck.
In another barn we looked at goats, horned and bearded and aloof; sheep, wrapped so thickly in their wooly dullness they seemed oblivious even to their own existence; and pigs, low and guttural, whose gross and leering sensuality resembled Porky and his cute Saturday morning cousins not one bit.
Afterwards we bought ice cream cones in the dairy building and inspected the butter sculptures: the finalists in the Princess Kay of the Milky Way competition done in yellow busts, enclosed in a refrigerated case, their eyes hollow and lips monstrously thick, the greasy golden waves of their butter hair repulsive and fascinating.
Then we would watch one of the salesmen demonstrating kitchen gadgets. In the mirror positioned above his head, we saw his deft hands changing blades and adjusting settings as he transformed his cornucopia of produce—tomatoes and potatoes and radishes and carrots—into paper-thin slices, crinkle-cut wedges, ornamental flowerets, all of them little works of vegetable art.
Our favorite part of the Fair was Machinery Hill, where we lost ourselves among the green and yellow tractors and combines and backhoes, like gigantic Tonka toys, with tires as tall as I was, cabs like space ships, the blades and discs shiny and dangerous as medieval instruments of torture. Maybe the place recalled my grandfather’s youth. He was raised on a farm near Lester Prairie but spent most of his life repairing trolleys in Swift’s South St. Paul slaughterhouse. He seemed at home here, and I couldn’t have been happier, standing back with him to admire these tremendous beasts, like prehistoric reconstructions in a natural history museum, trying to imagine them animated, roaring miraculously to life.
Our first year at the Fair we followed my grandmother’s instructions and ate lunch at St. Bernard’s dining hall, where a man in a turkey outfit rang a bell and held the screen door as we entered. We stood in line, grim as institutional inmates, to receive hot turkey sandwiches and gravy, a scoop of lumpy mashed potatoes, and a small mound of mixed vegetables. I seemed to be the only child in the place, one of the few diners without a hearing aid. My grandfather, who felt contempt for what he called “old folks,” who shunned senior citizens’ outings and organizations, who refused to ask for his discount on the bus, drank his coffee in sullen silence. The next year we discovered 25-cent Peters wieners in the food building. We loaded our hot dogs with mustard and relish and ate them standing up. It was a bargain my grandfather would recall with pleasure for years afterward.
My grandfather was spry enough, but still we spent a considerable part of our time resting on benches. He’d pull a can of Copenhagen from the pocket of his baggy trousers, and, if it was new, he’d recheck the date stamped on the bottom to make sure it was fresh. Then, with his pocketknife—the same knife I’d seen him use to open paint cans, to remove my slivers, to core my apples—he’d slice the can open with surgical precision. Not until years later did I learn that taking snuff was considered a gross or dirty habit. My grandfather’s hand passed over the open can and then in front of his mouth, and even though he never opened his palm afterward, his gestures did suggest those of a magician—now you see it, now you don’t. I rarely saw him spit.
Perfectly matched by temperament, my grandfather and I, cautious, wary, quiet, we didn’t talk much, and I didn’t mind. I was a shy kid, especially with my grandfather, perhaps only because I love him so fiercely I sometimes felt dumbstruck around him. Maybe we understood each other so thoroughly that there was no need to speak. I was grateful that he didn’t quiz me, never took photographs, felt no need to bring me home stuffed with cotton candy or laden with souvenirs.
We toured the whole fairgrounds, except for the Midway, which I discovered as a teenager when my high school buddies brought me through the Royal American arch into this brand new world of games of chance, milk jug pyramids, barkers, unimaginable freaks—“born like you or I, with one exception”—and of course, the rides: brightly painted cars and cups and capsules bucked and jolted and turned upside down, clanking above the blare of rock music, each manned by a disreputable-looking youth with a cigarette in one hand, the control lever in the other.
The Midway was a taste I hadn’t yet acquired, so while my pals ogled the rubber lady and bounced quarters off polished plates and rode the Mad Bomber ’til they puked, I returned to the livestock, to the dark barns, to the smell of fresh hay and manure, to the cows’ warm and patient breath.