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Politically Incorrect

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What you learn from 4-H. Just bring a heater if you camp at the Fair.

      My eyes opened to darkness, and I lay huddled in my sleeping bag, trying to figure out whether I had actually frozen to death in the night. It seemed that way, and given the various aches and pains that were making themselves known, I thought there was at least a small possibility that I was truly in hell. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the lack of light and I saw the huddled bodies of my three children around me, their breath making a frosty pattern in the air, condensing on the tent walls, dripping down to soak into my back.  If they were breathing, then it was likely we were all alive.
    Cows were bellowing and it seemed like they were right outside my tent flap and then I remembered—they were. It was sometime in the early 90s and the kids and I were camping out at the Bonner County Fair.
    It had seemed like a good idea at the time, which is how a good many of my stories always seem to start out. Misty and Dustin were in 4-H, and we all had things entered in Open Class competitions, and it’s a long drive from Sandpoint to Clark Fork, especially when you look at the schedule and figure out you have to be at the fairgrounds every day, all day, for most of a week. Camping out seemed the logical thing to do and after all, it was late August—how bad could it be?
    I soon decided it could be pretty bad. I couldn’t feel my fingers, couldn’t feel my feet, couldn’t feel my face. All it seemed I could feel was my soaking wet back and how cold it was, and a whole lot of spots in my body where it appeared my bones had tried to force themselves right out of my skin. When we’d packed up the truck the day before I thought we’d pretty much packed up most of the house but, as I went over our camping gear in my mind, I realized something I’d neglected to bring was a camping stove and some coffee.
    I fought my way out of the tangle of sleeping bags and children’s bodies, dug around ‘til I found my sandals, and let myself into the mist of an early morning. The cows weren’t the only animals awake, just the noisiest ones. As I stretched into the morning air I could hear the sheep stirring in their barn, and a slight smell wafting my way from the south told me the pigs had been active through the night as well. I made my way over to the truck, crawled in, turned the key and cranked the heater up full blast. I was already smiling.
    I can’t remember now just how many years we did 4-H but it was a lot of them. I had first signed my kids up because I thought they would learn the things I couldn’t teach them—things like cooking and sewing and training a dog how to walk on a leash. And it did. But what I didn’t know then was just how much more we would gain from participating in this wonderful volunteer program.
    I think the first lesson I learned was that if kids want to take a project, someone’s got to teach it, and that’s how I ended up leading projects in subjects I knew nothing about.  It didn’t seem to matter, though, because I learned right alongside the kids and they learned in spite of what I did or didn’t know. Through the years we learned how to fly model rockets, how to decorate cakes, how to classify rocks and how to juggle little balls made out of beans and balloons. (Juggling isn’t an official 4-H project, by the way. It’s just something I thought would be fun to learn when we were doing the space project—Blue Sky Beneath My Feet. The kids didn’t seem to mind and every one of them ended up with a blue ribbon, so it must not have been too distracting.)
    We learned the fundamentals of photography, and how to sew a vest, and how to breed and show an amazing array of "pocket pets," most of which ended up loose in the house at one time or another, generating continual entertainment for our cats. We learned how to give an animal a vaccination, and how to put together a nutritious lunch, and what types of things should go into a goodie bag when you’re taking care of a 3-year-old.
    We learned that cats, no matter how well-trained, do not like to participate in “Fit and Show” in the main barn at the fairgrounds, and we learned that given enough time, they can all figure out how to get out of a cat harness. We learned that soy sauce may look like vanilla in the bottle, but it tastes a lot different in the cake. We learned that it’s pretty easy to make “Egg in a Basket” but nobody really wants to eat it. We learned that guinea pigs make good house pets, but ducks do not and that no matter what you think you need to pack in your backpack at the house, you will regret most of it once you’re out on the trail.
    We learned it gets really cold in a tent in August.
    The most important thing that 4-H taught us, however, was just how much fun we could have learning things together, trying out something new and seeing if we could master it, laughing at the times we didn’t.
    We’ve let ourselves get too busy in the last few years, and this year’s fair won’t feature a single exhibit from the Gannon family, not even in the Open Class category. You’ll find us out there anyway, this week, wandering the aisles, looking at the exhibits, and sharing an awful lot of stories of years gone by while we visit with scores of friends and rejoice in what this experience gives to the people of our community.
    No, granulated sugar does not make a good substitute for powdered sugar when you’re making icing, but it sure does sparkle pretty on top of the cake.

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Landon Otis

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camping, Bonner County Fair, 4-H

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