During the Oxen Draw contest, which came as the high moment for about 1,000 spectators on the second day of the Bridgewater Fair, I made the mistake of thinking the animals were the stars of the show.
Teams of yoked oxen -- the immense, muscled beasts that Russian weight lifters model themselves after -- were led to the center of a fenced field to be hitched to slabs of cement. On command, the oxen pulled the weights six feet along the earth. After each round, more slabs were added. In the end, the winning team had moved more than 3,200 pounds.
It is true that until tree stumps found their match in bulldozers, much of the land in the fertile Housatonic Valley of western Connecticut was cleared by oxen. But the Oxen Draw is a celebration less of the animals' power than the masculinity of the men who own them.
This manly presence establishes a role by which identities are established. The differences between husbands, wives and children are respected. The roles aren't make-believe, because everyone in the family knows that he or she is depended on to contribute to the common good. Work has meaning because the results of the work have visibility.
At the Bridgewater Fair, as well as the 40 other town fairs that draw crowds to the Connecticut countryside from July to October, all the supposedly corny sights are available: the 4-H kids taking afternoon naps next to their prize Jerseys and Holsteins, bulging pound cakes baked that morning by mothers who would never think of freezing them the week before, chairmakers, tomatoes the size of cantaloupes and cantaloupes larger than bowling balls, loomed rag rugs and butter from a churn, not a factory vat.
As quaint as this rusticity may seem, the country fair, at its essence, is a downpayment on buying back the past when what a person grew, carved, baked or sweated over was part of his psychological and cultural grounding. Those who exhibit their milk cows or their quilts illustrate what David Whisnant defines as "man's ineradicable needs for sensory engagement with physical reality, of which he is deprived by life in an urban-industrial environment."
At the Bridgewater Fair, when women talk about their quilting they speak of patterns learned as children from their mothers. In the cities, when a woman sews a quilt and shows it to a friend, she is asked, "How many courses did you take?" Men who give their working lives to corporations and who may be transferred 10 or 15 times may want to break free. But what will their women think? They ask as Tim Hardin asks in the popular song "If I Were a Carpenter":
If I were a carpenter
And you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway,
Would you have my baby? . . .
If I worked my hands in wood
Would you still love me? . . .
The song doesn't tell us whether this is a forlorn IBM manager in a crisis before a transfer from the east coast to the west. But a potential woodworker who was passionate about carpentry would probably be a steadier man and more attentive husband than the corporate paperpusher. He would be free, at least, from what Herbert Marcuse called "alienated labor," the kind that satisfies the needs of his employers or the market, but not his own.
It would be comforting to think that all the men who own the oxen teams at Bridgewater were contented farmers happy in the pastoral way. But they aren't. Some work in such nearby industrial centers as Waterbury or Danbury. Others still own their land but are waiting for the right offer from a buyer. Even the fair itself has lost something of its appeal. Commercialists are threatening to turn it into a technological trade mart.
But enough of the authentic remains for a momentary immersion into the pleasures of self-identity: pride in your work or your animals. This stimulation bolsters the noticeable community spirit in towns like Bridgewater. Local people are convinced that they have something of worth in their home town.
Close by, some of that spirit is disappearing. In affluent towns nearer New York City -- Westport, Wilton, Stamford -- fire chiefs report increasing difficulties in attracting volunteers for the fire company. The commuters, it seems, are preoccupied with the larger affairs of life -- getting ahead in their corporations, recovering from the physical wear of the daily train rides to Manhattan and thinking about the next move to the company's office 1,000 miles away.
In an editorial a few days ago, The Bridgeport Post found the shortage "not only worrisome but also a little sad." The paper recalled that in the 19th century in New York City "to be a volunteer fireman was not only an honorable calling but also a step up the social ladder. The mere mention that 'he runs with the Amity Hose' was enough to open many doors to the young New Yorker back then."
In Bridgewater, the volunteers are not drying up. "The community spirit here is strong," said a volunteer fireman at the fair.
This belief also can be dismissed by the sophisticated as corny.Except that one of these years, the adult-ed programs in the big cities are going to be offering courses in community spirit -- the way they now teach quilting and country cooking.