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Out in the middle of the country in Illinois there’s a small town called Sandwich. Every year, beginning the Wednesday following Labor Day, the Sandwich Fair opens. The town is similar to Chatham and the fair is as great a tradition as is the Chatham Fair.

The Sandwich Fair isn’t as old; established in 1888, this year’s fair was only the 116th running of the event. The folks who chose the original piece of land to be designated as the fairgrounds those many years ago were true visionaries. They selected a beautiful oak grove and adjoining open land. The oaks with their cool shade and majestic stature are the cornerstones of this particular fair. As the fair has grown, (there were 80,000 attendees on Saturday this year), it struggles to retain its agricultural core. Of course there are tractor pulls, with machines that more closely resemble rail dragsters than tractors, but they pack in the crowds and the crowds spend money and money keeps the fair going.

There are too, those little changed constants. There is a honey stand with a glass-enclosed bee colony. “Find the queen and win a free jar of honey,” the sign reads. I remember being seven and staring at that thing for what seemed hours trying to find the matriarch. Never did get the jar of honey. A short distance away, I met Leo Carillo, a great character actor of the 30’s and 40’s and best known as Pancho on the “Cisco Kid” TV series. I thought he looked old, wondered how he got on his horse, but he was Pancho, he was real and right in front of me; a great moment in my young life. Pancho is long departed, but the exact spot where I stood in line to meet him remains and that in itself brought that lovely man back to life in my mind.

There were 300 pound pumpkins, corn; feed corn, sweet corn and Indian corn, bundles of wheat, oats, rye, clover and sweet smelling alfalfa, quilts and jams and preserves, jars of pickled everything and glass cases filled with pies, apple, cherry, peach, rhubarb too many to list, all honest things, made with love and care and they so endear me to this place.

Machinist Augie Otto built a small coal fired train, laid a quarter mile of track through the oak grove and brought it to the fair in 1953. It became an institution. In the 70’s he built a quarter size steam locomotive. Forty-eight people at a time still enjoy a magical ride through the oaks; the lines are continuous. Augie died in ’94 at 84, but his son Norman maintains the family’s tradition.

In many ways tradition is what the fair is all about. It remains a constant in an ever-changing world. It is a place to return to, a place to reconnect with your past. Whenever I return I run into someone I haven’t seen for years, saw one cousin this time I haven’t seen since I was 12. As we get older those old connections and friendship take on new life; they remind us of our mortality and encourage us to smile at times thought forgotten. While families and friends and lives split and stretch and branch off into journeys of their own, the fair is the connective tissue that restores the life and breath that once held them close. It is a delicious thing.

It is true that you can never go back home, it’s impossible to restore the past, it is what it is; the past, but there is deep benefit in reconnection to your past. It illustrates just who you are, your true self and your journey traveled through this wondrous and all too brief life.

This year at the fair there was a car show, organized by Doug Carter. I played football and ran hurdles with Doug; it was good to see him. I used to be a car guy, so I wandered row after row eyeing ’55 Chevy pickup trucks, ’40 Fords, ’34 Buicks, Model T’s, ’68 Camaros and Hemi-Head factory hot rods. I wound up hanging around behind my friend Rick McInturf’s cobalt ’67 GTO. There we were looking like an Eagles album cover, McInturf, Beecher, Kraut and Guyer, only Harderson was missing, he lives in Nevada. A bunch of middle aged guys doing what we did at 17, hangin’ around talking about cars and wondering how we got this old this fast, but glad we’re all still here.

The feeling this connection brings is powerful and fulfilling but it is ineffable. The toll, the near insurmountable difficulties visited upon each of us treading life’s path is staggering. The great courage of Lee’s wife Rhonda, Mike’s rebirth, each burden, gain or loss renews our strength to continue. There is great and simple joy in these meetings, the connection to life-long friends and family. County fairs, no matter where you live, are fine places to safely store and revisit these most precious of life’s gifts.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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