Some years we were a bigger attraction than the grandstand show. When our truck would pull into the county fair folks would line up to watch us unload our Angus heifers because they knew they were about to witness a rodeo event that would put professional bull riding to shame. The local fairs always came right after the conclusion of school and at the very heart of the wheat cutting season on our farm so my brother and I spent precious little time preparing our cattle to take the lead of a halter rope. The fact that we were a bit lazy had nothing to do with it. The result was an unloading at the fair that often found us running through the stalls and jumping fences trying to catch our animals who were more excited about being at the fair than we were. If the heifers got completely out of control then Dad would have to step in and wrestle them into submission. I have no idea how he’s lived this long.
4-H was the thing to do if you were a young Pike Countian. The Boy and Girl Scouts had a presence but those organizations were considered citified. If you had real grit in your cheeseburger then you joined 4-H. Sexism has long had its hold on America but it’s almost ironic to note that this rural organization called 4-H was one of the first groups to do away with sexual divisions. I was as likely to come up against a young lady in the championship division of Angus heifers, as I was a male, even though it was unlikely you’d find me in the championship ring during the competition. I was probably out chasing my cow around the fairgrounds.
We were the Perry 4-H Rooters and although there was an all-female group called the Perry 4-H Stitchers, we had girls in our club. The editor of an area newspaper recently sent me a yellowed newspaper clipping telling the tale of when she and I went head-to-head in 4-H public speaking competition. The article failed to mention who’d won that night so I lied and told her that I was pretty sure it was me. Since my Coonridge column appears in her newspaper I didn’t press the point.
It’s not an easy job to look back, dissect your life and say, “Okay, here’s where I learned this and this was the place where I learned that.” Our social upbringing is more of smorgasbord than an á la carte menu. But I know that my 4-H experiences occupy a large chunk of this thing called “Me.” We’d stand at the beginning of each meeting, say the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag, then recite the 4-H creed: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.” The “my world” was added sometime during my tenure in 4-H and I can remember that I kept forgetting to tack that on. When you’re in elementary and high school you’re forced to memorize a great many things … mathematical theorems, the state capitols, lists of dead presidents, and some rather useless numbers on the periodic table of elements, but of all those rote recitals, it’s the 4-H pledge that I remember most clearly and if I had to choose just one old list to live by, that one ranks right up there with the Ten Commandments. 4-H is and was a good thing.
And although you won’t find this activity in the official 4-H handbook, one of my most profound learning experiences came completely unplanned. Each year the county would host a “Share the Fun” night, an evening at which each of the area clubs would perform sort of entertainment on the huge stage at Pittsfield High School. I was the emcee for the night and after all the acts had performed we awaited the judges’ decision … and waited … and waited. Either they were having a knock-down-drag-out argument between Griggsville’s song and East Pike’s dance, or those blasted judges were just slow. Admittedly, time moves more slowly when you’re standing alone onstage in front of a couple hundred people, but a few minutes soon stretched into an eternity as I tried to come up with every joke or anecdote I could think of. All the time the assistant home advisor was standing in the wings whispering, “Stall, Kenny! Stall!” Then just as I was about to recite the periodic table of the elements, the local farm advisor, Harry Wright, appeared beside me and suggested we lead the entire audience in singing the Mickey Mouse Show theme song. We were the hit of the evening. If nothing else, I thank for 4-H for teaching me to think on my feet and fly by the seat of Mickey’s tail. Yeah, I’m in 4-H. Wanna make something of it?