There was a brief interval before the three- and four- year-old Nubian milkers were to be led into the show ring, and a pair of ladies in sensible shoes leaned over the rail and tugged my elbow.

"How could you put that darling girl with the ponytail," one said . . . "And her cute spotted goat," said the other . . . "at the bottom of the line?" they chorused.

"Whether the girl is darling and her goat is cute has nothing to do with it," I tried to explain. "It's strictly the animal, the milk. The most milk for the least time, trouble and expense, over the longest life, goes to the top of the line. Did you listen to my reasons?"

"Yes, you never said what was wrong with her," one accused. I tried to smile.

"I listed how the one ahead of her was superior, especially carrying a more capacious udder, more strongly attached . . ."

"Oh, you Easterners are so materialistic," one announced, and they marched off toward the flower exhibits.

After the show the darling girl, who had collected more than her share of ribbons and money with other goats, off- handedly announced that that cute little spotty was soon to wind up in the freezer.

That was nearly 20 years ago, when I first started judging livestock, and it confirmed what my teachers had stressed -- you're going to get hassled, because you're there, right out in the open, and usually by someone who hasn't the slightest idea of what you're doing. The knowledgeable people -- the exhibitors -- may disagree with your placings, but if you get on that microphone class after class and clearly show that you consistently used the same criteria, they can't argue.

Most exhibits at fairs are judged out of sight of the crowds -- often by committees. Horses and dogs are judged in sight of the crowds, but neither the spectators nor the exhibitors get to hear why the placings were made. Livestock judges have to get on that microphone.

The livestock breeding and registry associations conduct conferences where potential judges place pre-judged classes and give their reasons against a numerical grading system. The ones who pass get licensed.

Why did I want to get licensed to spend long hours on my feet in dusty, sweaty show rings, coping with malfunctioning microphones, looking over hundreds of animals just like thousands I've looked over before? And for less pay than I'd get doing almost anything else?

Mostly because I'm an insatiable fair buff. And it's not true that if you've seen a hundred fairs, you've seen them all. Each has its special moments:

At Des Moines, being handed glass after glass of the zestiest FRESH tomato juice . . .

At Lincoln, everyone applauding as you hear and feel an ominous ripping sound as you bend over a four-month-old kid, and tell the superintendent to lockstep closely behind you to the men's room . . .

At Sacramento, incredible tacitos, nachos and Orange Juliuses . . . and after the show seeing an unsuspecting innocent react to a martini made from 190-proof alcohol frozen in the liquid nitrogen tank . . .

At Pomona (Los Angeles County Fair), wondering why everyone is paying such rapt attention . . . until you lean against the steel fence while holding the microphone and get mildly zapped . . .

At Columbus, being escorted by bright, lively, eager Ohio State Fair Junior Associates . . . to the wrong motel . . .

At Nashville, after your luggage has gone to Dallas, being taken to an amazing Western wear store (remember, the home of the Grand Ole Opry) and charging a superb outfit to the fair . . .

At Indianapolis, taking an early dislike to a pushy exhibitor, never missing her ankle as you drew milk during the rest of the show, to the great amusement and approval of the audience . . .

At Salem, after selecting the Best in Show of the Oregon State Fair, discovering that she's the daughter of a dairy goat you'd sold at a bargain price to a beginning 4-Her . . .

At Bangor, after being disappointed that the clam harvest has been decimated by red tides, happily settling for lobster . . .

At Hutchinson, Kansas, of all places, finding the best dairy goat you've seen in 20 years of judging, being shown by a darling girl with a ponytail.