I had heard for years how this was THE annual event in my wife's hometown, but I had no idea the 83rd Dillsburg Farmers' Fair was going to be this big. On Saturday evening, the downtown sidewalks began to fill up with folding chairs and blankets. Though the big parade would draw 50,000 onlookers in this town of only a tenth that many, the full magnitude of it didn't hit me. But then again, I didn't know I would find myself sitting next to America herself.
I didn't even notice her until a half-hour into the parade when it was only one-third over. We were sitting on bales of hay outside the front door of friends of my wife Liz' family. These friends have a tradition of holding a party at their home for Farmers' Fair. Folks drop by after checking out the prize-winning displays at the Fire Hall. Some felt the pies and jams were below par this year but others declared it was a mighty good season for the tomatoes. The hosts of the gathering have a primo location right on the parade route, so as soon as the sound of the bands tuning up a couple of blocks away drifted into the backyard, I followed the veteran party-goers out front where an assortment of seats had been set up.
Looking back on it, I'm sure America had been there long before the parade began. There were a lot of signs of her presence. You didn't see a lot of designer clothes. The food booths on Main Street, staffed by volunteers from churches, the Boy Scouts and the high school athletic teams were charging a mere one dollar for a hot dog and four bits for a can of Coke. Across from the food vendors a line of a hundred or so antique tractors, most of them at least fifty years old, colored main street in John Deere green and Massey-Ferguson red. The majority of them had been restored to look like new, but a few showed the proud marks of being working tractors on working farms. She would be drawn to the idea of being around folks to whom John Deere doesn't mean a lawnmower.
Anyway, I didn't recognize her until after two or three area high school marching bands, and half a dozen fire engines but before the Shriners in the little cars went by. Every piece of fire-fighting apparatus from fifteen miles around seemed to be participating. When Dillsburg's gleaming ladder truck came down the pike, someone mentioned that this equipment had been purchased solely through the efforts of volunteers and contributions -- without tax dollars. I turned and saw that the woman next to me was smiling softly. And I knew it was her.
We got to talking a little. She doesn't get out as much as she used to, but she never misses one of these events. She said she feels a little like a witness in the Federal Protection Program, sticking mostly to the heartland, the small towns and the few remaining urban "neighborly" neighborhoods.
The crowd applauded when a platoon of Vietnam veterans came marching down the street in their uniforms but she shivered. It was a cold, Valley Forge winter kind of shiver.
"Millions of boys have fought to defend me," America said, "and part of me died with every one who fell. But in many ways, those guys got the worst deal of all. Someday, I hope we can make it up to them."
A group of kids' soccer teams came down the route led by, naturally, their soccer Moms.
"What is the deal with kids playing soccer?" she asked. "We always thought of it as a sissy sport. Sheesh, France won the World Cup this year. Anything the French think is good just has to be bad. Well, maybe Jerry Lewis was okay, but only before he split up from Dino," she
Some pre-Halloweeners clowned by, wearing Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky masks. I asked her if she had an opinion on the whole White House mess.
"That's why we have elections every four years," she replied. " a lot of those guys, Tommy Jefferson, Frankie Roosevelt, and don't get me started on Chet Arthur. . . . .well, they had a problem keeping things where they belong. If the people don't like how the President operates, all they have to do is vote for a new one."
I guess I got caught up watching all the wheeled labors of love move by – the shiny trucks, the homemade floats, the Farmers' Fair Queen waving from the back of a convertible – so that when I looked over again, she was gone. The night had turned cold, but I was warm. It felt nice to know America can still be found, even if it's not as often as it used to be.
If next October you find yourself just south of Harrisburg and north of Gettysburg along Route 15 in Pennsylvania, check out the Dillsburg Farmers' Fair. Look around a little bit. Even if she's not sitting next to you, you'll see America there.