A tale of straight shooting, lost love and lessons learned at the county fair.
Story by Dave Crehore
On a wet Sunday morning in early June 1957, I was sitting at the dining room table in our old house on River Road, dring a glass of milk and paging through the Milwaukee Journal comics section.
It was raining too hard to go fishing, I was fourteen years old and bored, and the comics werenít helping much. As usual, Dick Tracey was fighting crime and talking on his 2-Way Wrist Radio, the Dragon Lady was plotting Oriental intrigue, Fearless Fosdick was shooting neat round holes in the bad guys, and evil commies were kidnapping Little Orphan Annie while her dog Sandy looked on helplessly, saying "Arf."
I flipped to Pogo and Li'l Abner, the only strips I actually liked. Pogo was always good for a laugh, and I routinely check out Li'l Abner to gawk at Daisy Mae, Moonbeam McSwine, Stupefyin' Jones and the other Dogpatch girls in their incredibly tight and skimpy clothes.
I was looking them over when Dad came in from the kitchen and handed me three envelopes of Burpee seeds – watermelons, acorn squash and cucumbers – and a slender book on raising vegetables.
"Project for you this summer," Dad said. "Spade up a patch behind the shed and plant 'em according to the instructions in the book."
Cripes, I thought, school just got out Tuesday and already he has me digging.
"It'll be a money-making proposition," Dad said. "I'll pay you fifty cents for every watermelon that's big enough to eat, a quarter for the squash and a nickel each for the cucumbers. And if you enter some of them in the county fair, you'll get an exhibitor's pass that will let you in free every day, whether you win a ribbon or not. That's two bucks saved right there, and if you're lucky with your crops, you'll have all the money you need for the fair."
That got my attention. I was a fair fanatic. The Manitowoc County Fair was held six days each August about a mile and a half from our place, and I never missed a day. It ranked right up there with Christmas and Thanksgiving as one of the high points of my year. In Manitowoc, the fair was as close as we ever got to the bright lights.
To my surprise, the vegetables flourished. By the middle of August I had a dozen big watermelons, two rows of plump and profitable squash and about a hundred cucumbers that met the strict standards set by my book: four inches long, an inch in diameter and warty. Bigger cucumbers, the book said, were full of seeds and too large to be conveniently pickled and put into Mason jars.
I decided to enter my cucumbers, and it was with great expectations that I paid the one-dollar entry fee, signed a form and picked up the pass. On Monday, the first day of the fair, I put a paper plate with five carefully chosen cukes on a long table in the Armory with hundreds of other cucumbers, mostly huge and undesirable. Apparently the people who grew them hadn't read the book.
The largest cucumbers of them all, great swollen things like green submarines, were next to mine. They had been entered by someone named Laura Larsen. I pictured her as a chubby, snub-nosed little girl in a starched pinafore who would pout when I walked off with the blue ribbon.
I left the Armory and took a walk around the fairgrounds while the morning was still fresh and cool. On the north side of the midway, seriously sunburned men were walking slowly back and forth, assembling the Ferris wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Scrambler, the Octopus and other large and rickety rides.
Across the midway from the rides was a row of pitch-and-toss stands. They were already open for business, but I passed them by. I had been cruelly cheated by them in previous years, and I knew from bitter experience that I couldnít lob a five-inch wooden hoop over a four-inch square post from a distance of ten feet.
Nor could I throw a baseball hard enough to knock over three white bottles stacked in a pyramid. I suspected that the bottles were made of lead, and I was pretty sure the baseballs had been doctored as well. The only really good curve I ever threw was with one of those baseballs.
Just ahead, however, was my intended victim, a wizened old crook who ran the shooting gallery. In 1956 I had spent six dollars here without winning a thing and went away baffled. With my own Savage bolt-action single shot .22 I could hit bottle caps at fifty yards, so my marksmanship wasnít the problem. For months I wondered how I could shoot so well at home and so poorly at the fair. Finally I asked Dad about it.
"Those gallery guns are so worn out they shoot around corners," he said, "and I'll bet the rear sights are buggered up besides. Annie Oakley couldn't hit a bull in the ass with one of them. If I were you, I wouldn't bother. Otherwise, you'll have to find some way to sight in the rifle without being noticed.Ē
I plotted revenge while I was weeding my cucumbers that summer, and now, on the opening morning of the fair, it was time to settle the score. My heart thudded as I walked up to his counter and paid half a buck for ten shots with an old Winchester pump-action .22. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder, picked a freshly painted metal target about 30 feet away and held the sights in the middle of it.
I pulled the trigger and the slow moving little bullet hit the target with a clank a fraction of a second later. With the sharp eyes of youth, I saw a small gray mark appear at the point of impact about an inch below the center and two inches to the right. I waited until the crook was talking to another customer, turned away, and bent the rear sight up and to the left with the screwdriver blade of my Boy Scout knife. I fired another trial shot and found that I was dead on for windage and about a quarter-inch low, which was close enough for my purposes.
Now that I was sighted in I began some serious shooting, pausing now and then to let the barrel cool. I shot up four dollars worth of .22s and won two pink teddy bears, three packs of Pall Mall cigarettes, a Benrus wristwatch, and an angry look from the crook when he handed over the prizes.
Vengeance was mine! As a member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, I know that vengeance was supposed to be the Lordís, but I didnít give a damn. I was walking about a foot above the sawdust when I headed down the midway with my loot.
After a while, though, I got tired of carrying the teddy bears, so I gave them to a woman who was pushing a couple of little kids in a stroller. I sold the Pall Malls for fifty cents to a teenage thug with a greasy ducktail haircut and a black leather jacket, turning a small profit.
Then I wound up my Benrus, and when the noon whistle at the shipyard blew I set both hands straight up. I waited impatiently for the minute hand to move, but it didn't. Five minutes later it was still noon. The watch probably needed a little jolt bump to get it started, I figured, so I took it off my wrist and tapped it gently against the heel of my shoe. The back of the watch fell off and a cascade of gears and springs fell into the sawdust.
At that moment somebody grabbed me from behind and spun me around. It was the thug in the black leather jacket. "Where the hell didya get them cigarettes?" he shouted. "Chrissake, they must be ten years old! The tobacco just falls right out! Gimme my money back!"
"OK, OK," I said. I dug out two quarters and handed them over. "What are ya, some kinda crook?" accused the thug. He waved his fist in my face. "I oughta pound ya," he added.
I walked away as fast as dignity would allow. So much for revenge. I had shot up the money for eight of my watermelons with nothing to show for it.
The livestock barns were next: sheep, swine and cattle. It was always best to visit the livestock barns early in the fair, because they got pretty ripe after three or four days of hot weather. The sheep barn was full of big blatting rams and ewes, but in a back corner was a small pen containing a single lamb, a late-born knock-kneed little charmer with a black face and socks. I looked at the card stapled to the wooden gate. "Breed: Hampshire lamb," it read. "Entrant: Laura Larsen, St. Nazianz, Wisc."
It was the little girl with the big cucumbers! The lamb wobbled over to me, and as I reached down to scratch its head I heard a sweet feminine voice. "Isn't he cute?" it said.
I turned around, expecting the chubby third-grade girl I had imagined. Instead I was face to face with a Nordic princess. Her long blonde hair was braided into a pigtail that reached to her tiny waist and she wore jeans almost as tight as Daisy Mae's, rolled up to reveal trim ankles. The front of her red-and-white checked blouse had bumps that were a preview of coming attractions. I was smitten. No, I was overwhelmed.
Laura slipped through the gate and sat down cross-legged on the straw. She called the lamb to her and it jumped into her lap. She rubbed noses with it, and then smiled up at me. I stood there with my mouth open, possibly drooling. I had just discovered that nothing is more appealing to a 14-year-old boy than a 14-year-old Norwegian farm girl with a lamb in her lap.
"Do you have sheep in the fair?" she asked.
"No, no sheep," I stammered. "Cucumbers, but no sheep."
She rubbed noses with the lamb again and cooed at it. "His name is Barney. I just think lambs are so cute," she said.
"Yeah, real cute," I said. Especially when sitting in that lap.
Some other farm girls walked up and began talking to Laura. Compared to her, they were ugly as trolls. Dammit, I thought, the moment is slipping away and I'm standing here turning colors like a barber pole. The trolls showed no sign of leaving, so I staged a strategic retreat. "Well, I'll be seeing you," I said, grinning like an idiot.
"It was very nice meeting you," she said. "My name is Laura."
"Yeah, I know," I said. "My cucumbers are right next to yours."
"Oh, are they?" she said. "Well, good-bye. Barney and I will be here until Saturday night." It was an invitation to return, and I got another of those smiles.
Yeah, good-bye," I said, and got out of there.
I stumbled through the swine barn in a romantic trance. Usually pigs interested me, but I barely noticed them. "Laura Larsen, Laura Larsen," I muttered. There was poetry in that name.
When I emerged from the stifling heat of the swine barn I was beaded with sweat and filled with resolve. I shall return, I vowed, quoting General MacArthur. I shall return with a little savoir-faire. I shall return and tell her my name.
After supper I rode my bike back to the fairgrounds. My first stop was the sheep barn. Barney was alone in his pen, and as I turned to leave, a grandmotherly woman sitting in front of an adjoining pen spoke to me.
"Looking for Laura?" she asked.
"Sort of," I said.
"Sort of, my foot," she said, with a knowing smile. "She and her mother are out walking around the fairgrounds. You might run into her, enso?"
"Yeah, maybe," I said, but I didnít think much of my odds. It was the first night of the fair and at least 2,000 assorted shipyard workers, high-school kids, farmers and good-natured drunks were clogging the midway. I decided to lurk there, walking back and forth and hoping that Laura would pass by on her way to tuck Barney in for the night.
I bought a bag of salt-water taffy and started looking for a blonde pigtail. But Laura and her mother were nowhere to be seen, and after about an hour I gave up and got in line for a ride on the Scrambler.
I liked the Scrambler because it did not hurl its victims into the air or spin them around like the other rides. Instead, it did its evil work at ground level. The passengers sat in steel cars with slippery bench seats and were thrown violently from side to side while rotating around a central column, constantly accelerating and decelerating.
The idea was to ride the Scrambler with a girl, maneuvering her so that she sat on the end of the seat. The operator would yank a lever, feeding power to the Scramblerís huge motor. You would fly off to the left, stop suddenly, pause for a second, and then rocket back to the right. When the car slowed down, momentum slammed you into the girl, when it sped up again she slammed into you, and a good time was had by all.
The Scrambler had just come to a stop when I heard that voice again. Laura and her mother, a grim six-footer, had joined the line behind me. I got another high-voltage smile from Laura, making three for the day.
"Hi, Dave, are you having a good time?" she asked. "I got your name from your cucumbers – we were just looking at them."
Hot blood shot to my face. She cared! She had walked the entire length of the fairgrounds to find out who I was!
Laura introduced me to her mother, who gave me a quick once over. "Dave's cucumbers were cute," Laura said. "Weren't they, Mom?"
"I suppose," her mother said. I guessed that she didn't think much of boys who entered cucumbers in the fair. Cows, maybe, but not cucumbers.
The Scrambler was filling up fast. I pulled out a handful of squash money and bought three tickets. When we boarded our car, I tried to sit next to Laura, but her mother wedged herself between us.
What happened next was the longest and fastest Scrambler ride I had ever experienced. When we got up to speed, the operator jammed the throttle wide open and walked off. The ride went on and on. We were really getting our money's worth, but instead of colliding pleasantly with Laura, I was battering her mother's large and bony hips.
I held on with all my strength, but I couldn't resist the massive G-forces of the Scrambler, which had shifted itself into overdrive and was throwing us back and forth at maniacal speed. Laura shrieked delightedly while her mother fixed me with a look of silent disgust. Apparently she thought I was crashing into her on purpose.
Finally the operator returned, carrying a large paper cup of Kingsbury beer. He looked at his watch and grabbed the lever. When we got off the Scrambler, Lauraís mother walked away without a word, her long legs pumping.
"Wait up, Mom," Laura said. "I'm dizzy." When we caught up with her, I handed out taffy as a peace offering. Laura's mom declined at first but finally gave in, took a piece and began to chew. Then she gagged and turned away from us. She stuck two fingers into her mouth and pulled out a dripping gob of taffy. A large and expensive-looking chunk of broken bridgework was imbedded in it. She put the gob into her purse.
"Come, Laura, we must be going," she said, whistling like a hockey player through the gap in her front teeth. All I could do was stand there as she strode rapidly down the midway, pulling Laura behind her.
Something my great-grandfather Albert once told me popped into my head: "Never get serious about a girl until youíve had a look at her mother," he said. "A real close look. Girls turn into their mothers after a while." Laura Larsen had lost a little of her luster.
The next morning I hung around the sheep barn, but Laura was always guarded, sometimes by her mother, sometimes by the trolls. When I walked by, her mother glared and the trolls tittered. She acted like I was invisible, and I soon found out why. A new admirer had appeared, a tall, good-looking kid of 15 or 16. Compared to him I was grubby and strictly ordinary. From then on he practically lived in the sheep barn and Laura stuck to him like flypaper.
The fair went on, day after day but a lot of fun had gone out of it. Just before closing time on Thursday night I made a final trip to Barney's pen. He was sleeping and no one was around except the woman I had talked to on opening day.
She gave me a sympathetic look. "In case youíre wondering," she said, "that tall kid lives down the road from Laura. His father owns 400 acres and milks about 75 head, and he's a seed corn dealer besides – the local kingpin. Laura's mother practically has her married off to the kid already. But you still have a chance, enso?"
"Yeah," I said, without much conviction. I couldn't compete with the young Prince of St. Nazianz and I knew it.
Friday was vegetable judging day. I waited in the doorway of the Armory as the cucumber judge moved slowly up and down, distributing ribbons. When he was done I walked calmly to the long table of cukes, fully expecting a blue ribbon, although a red ribbon for second place would be OK, too.
But when I got to them, I saw that a terrible mistake had been made. The First Premium Blue Ribbon was draped across Laura's submarines. My splendid entries did not even get honorable mention.
The cucumber judge was on the other side of the table. He was a thin man of about 50 who wore horn-rimmed glasses and parted his hair in the middle. I worked up a little nerve.
I got a book that says cucumbers are supposed to look like these," I said, lifting my plate. "But you gave the blue ribbon to some that are way too big."
The judge looked back and forth at my cucumbers and Laura's. Then he shuffled through a pad of entry forms on a clipboard. "I think I see the problem," he said. "You entered your cucumbers in the wrong division."
He handed me my entry form and put his finger on a block of small type I hadnít read when I signed it. "This form is for the table division, and in that division, the bigger the better," he said. "Yours are pickling cucumbers. If you had entered them in the pickling division, you would have taken first prize. Those are beautiful little cukes for pickles.
"But... I said.
No buts," said the judge. "Rules are rules."
He walked on. I was alone at the cucumber table, and I said some things about rules and the judge and the shooting gallery and Laura and her mother and the Prince that would have gotten me drummed out of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I felt a lot better when I was through.
Outside, a cool breeze was blowing off Lake Michigan and towering white clouds were drifting by under a sky of perfect blue. As I headed back to the midway I added four axioms to my meager collection of wisdom:
Rules are rules.
Along the way I met Lois, a girl I knew from Woodrow Wilson Junior High. She was wearing Bermuda shorts and a sweatshirt, and her light brown hair was cut short for the summer. She was no princess, but I was no prince. I told her about my cucumber fiasco and she didn't laugh, which endeared her to me.
"I didn't enter anything in the fair this year," she said, "but my mom won two blue ribbons for her pies, one for apple pie and one for lemon meringue."
Things were looking up.
Hand in hand, we walked to the Scrambler. The only seats left were between two jolly plump ladies who smelled of beer. I gave the operator the last of my watermelon money and Lois and I whirled away, alternately squashing and being squashed by the ladies, who were having the time of their lives. And so were we. Two whole days of the fair were left, and they were bound to be worth the price of admission.
Dave Crehore retired from the Department of Natural Resources where he served as a public information officer in Madison and Green Bay.
© 2009 exerpted from "Sweet and Sour Pie" by Dave Crehore. Published by, reprinted with permission of, and available at The University of Wisconsin Press.