August 1, 2009

My Life in 4-H (Part I)

4-H Fair week in our family and our town was a highlight of the year. My father, a high-school agriculture teacher, also helped with the county fair. At 10, I was expected to embrace, and hopefully, excel in 4-H projects. Both my parents were in 4-H, my mother the winner of several cooking demonstration contests, and my father the winner of a Sears and Roebuck 4-H Scholarship.

The Go-Getters 4-H Club met during the summer to learn parliamentary procedure and work on projects. Later in the summer we marched in the 4-H Parade, modeled (if chosen) in the Style Show and traveled on a hot, yellow school bus to the State Fair in Indianapolis.

That sugary, high fat trip to the State Fair – taffy (vanilla, lemon, chocolate), Dairy Barn milkshakes, cotton candy, lemon shake-ups -- was also a reward of summer. We saw the "world's biggest boar," viewed ornate, fancy wedding cakes in glass cases, rode on unsteady carnival rides, and sampled goodies. I usually threw up on the bus halfway home between Elwood and Marion after one too many hot dogs.

Taking a project to the State Fair was the culmination of summer project work and a county fair win. Grand champions received a large ruffled purple ribbon. Blue ribbon was so good that it has a cliché’ – put blue ribbon in front of anything and represents excellence. Blue-ribbon pie. Blue-ribbon commission.

The red and white ribbons were the 4-Hers equivalent of what losing Oscar nominees say, “It is my great honor to be among such a wonderful group of people.” What a crock -- every child wanted that purple or blue ribbon to show off to friends and grandparents and tack in a scrapbook.

My first year projects were sewing and cooking. My grandmother, skilled as a seamstress, helped me learn the basic skills of the black Singer sewing machine, threading the needle and bobbin, operating the foot peddle, holding the piece of goods with the left hand. The objective was to make an apron. Grammy, God bless her, followed the rules and did not do the project for me. My favorite part of the whole sewing experience was running the foot pedal and seeing how fast I could make it go. Speed doesn't necessarily jive with excellence in sewing, especially for a novice.

I was obviously influenced early by Picasso’s paintings, particularly the blue period, because the turquoise-colored aprons' ties were different lengths, one about 6 inches longer than the other.

The front piece was longer on the right side, making it the perfect apron for a woman who has one very long leg and one very short leg. Amazingly, I was not chosen that year to model my pièce de résistance in the 4-H Style Show.

Then cooking. Surely I could follow the easy year-one 4-H recipes. Cooking was, like Napoleon, my Waterloo. The years in the kitchen have not been kinder. That first year (before the incident) my mother worked with me on basic baking skills.

One summer day, I was heating butter and bar chocolate in the top of a copper-bottomed Revere ware double boiler on my parent’s electric stove. Something outside distracted me (let’s blame my kid brother or the collie dog Shep E. Doodle Doo.)

The next thing I see, while dawdling in the backyard, is my mother rushing out of the back door with a towel-wrapped, smoky pan, the remnants of the butter and chocolate. She was yelling, "This was a wedding present!" She was not a happy camper. And neither was my father when he came home from work and found out he had to repaint the kitchen and adjacent family room from the smoke damage. Oops!

When Fair week arrived, the background music should have been Beethoven’s funeral dirge because the mood in our house was mournful. Dad had early access to the 4-H Building after project judging and Mom and I sat near the phone, awaiting his phone call. My drop cookies and my apron had both received a white ribbon. “You’ll be better next year. You did your best.” My parents were encouraging, while I know down deep they were disappointed and I was as well.

After a series of white ribbons, someone figured out that maybe I should try other projects. I took flower arranging and photography and received blue and purple ribbons, and a trip to the State Fair for my zinnias and gladiolas. I am still amazed about that last one, as I did not frequent the garden (there are snakes and bugs outside, if you didn't know.) Hmmm. I am still using a camera, however. There’s a lesson there. Quoth the raven.