There's no better way to experience a fair like Montgomery County's than with eyes as wide as giant sunflowers and a stomach that can absorb large amounts of fried dough rolled in powdered sugar.
In fact, one can argue that we love fairs precisely because they allow us to be 8 or 9 again, that lovely age when we were no longer afraid of the world and not yet angry at it.
When you go to a county fair as a child, everything, suddenly, seems possible.
If you're 8-year-old Jared Miller, you think there's no way in the world that a bull could weigh 2,000 pounds until you see a big Brahman named Rocky in Building 10. You've never heard of rabbits the size of cocker spaniels until you see the English Angoras in Building 22.
You never thought you'd win a prize until you hook a plastic crocodile in a carnival contest pool. You've never considered becoming a firefighter until Lt. Ronald Ricks loads you up with 70 pounds of gear and asks whether you want to climb the firetruck's 100-foot ladder.
"No thank you," you say politely, pointing to your blue Allen Iverson jersey and red Shaquille O'Neal sneakers. You'd rather be a basketball player, you say. Today, on a sunny morning at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, even the NBA seems within your grasp.
By the time metalworker Jim Miller (no relation to Jared) is spinning in the Roundup, his body pressed against a metallic cage, he has forgotten the battle he's having with an insurance company and wishing he could hold his legs out straight like his 5-year-old daughter Gayla.
When Gloria Aldana, a volunteer at a Rockville church, cheers for piggy No. 4 in the Ham Bone Express, she's no longer thinking of the unpaid bills waiting for her at home. She is remembering pig races at childhood fairs in her native El Salvador.
"We had a lot of the same stuff there," she says.
Piggy No. 4 is named Britney Pigears, and needs a cheerleader in the crowd. A man in his early sixties, dressed neatly in plaid shirt and khakis, claps loud enough to be chosen and ducks under the rope to make sure he has a ringside view. Yes, fairs can make us all a wild child for a while.
That's not to say that grown-up concerns don't infiltrate paradise. Look at some of the booths: Vote for John Kerry! or George Bush! Find a chiropractor! Hold up a mirror and see who Jesus died for!
But if you're a kid, or pretend that you are, you don't notice such stuff.
What 5-year-old Ariel Oravsky notices is "I could see everything from the Ferris wheel!"
Laura Miller, Jared's 6-year-old sister, falls in love with the sheep. "They really say baa," she tells her mom, Debbie.
If, as writer Annie Dillard says, a child's first chapter is his home and neighborhood, a county fair can be Chapter 2. Especially if all that child knows about farms comes from television or the Internet.
County fairs are different from their fancy big sisters, the state fairs. County fairs began in the late 1940s to showcase the work of 4-H and Future Farmers of America members. They are designed to be up-close and hands-on. Montgomery's, in its 56th year in Gaithersburg, offers more than 13,000 exhibits. This year, it's open through Saturday.
It's at the fair that Melisa Peralta, 11, stands next to a reddish-brown colt named Runaround Sue. "It's different from on the Discovery Kids Channel. It's the real color!" she says to no one in particular.
And it's at the fair that Jared and Laura Miller watch J.T. Hindle, a stogie-smoking sheep farmer from La Plata, wash his Hampshire ewe, transforming the color of her wool coat from stale coffee to light cream.
"How thick is the wool?" Jared wonders.
"Stick your finger down in there, see for yourself," Hindle replies.
Jared's finger disappears into three inches of knobby coat. He then spies dark balls the size of raisins lying on the ground nearby. "What are those?" he asks.
He refrains from repeating the finger test.
In Building 12, home of the dairy cows, Brad Hoffman, an Emmitsburg boy only a few years older than Jared, is scrubbing a Jersey cow with Wisk laundry detergent.
"How old is she?" Jared wants to know. "Does she have a name?"
Sometimes the grown-up exhibitors tell you more than you want to know. Judy Osborn, an expert in raising French Angora rabbits, introduces Jared to Red Rosie, who is 5 months old, weighs almost six pounds and, absent the fluffy blue-gray fur, is about the size of a paper towel roll.
"Her coat is eight times warmer than wool," Osborn continues. "The only thing warmer comes off a musk ox -- "
Jared sidles away as only little boys can do.
David and Dana Smith have brought their 4-year-old twins to the fair. David, a technology consultant, was their age when he first visited a fair in Riverside, Calif. "I remember it absolutely," he says. "For the first time I understood relationships that aren't directly obvious. . . . A farmer raises crops that have to be processed, then sold to become food for people. . . . I want my kids to have an appreciation for the complexity of all that we have."
Okay, Dad, but be sure and take your kids to the Ferris wheel.
Moments later he does, and though all four family members are smiling as they wait in line, his is the biggest grin.
Ah, the attractions of the midway, where good sense evaporates like the first bite of cotton candy. A little girl no more than four feet tall runs toward the bumper cars so fast that she stumbles and falls on the pavement. Up she jumps. No time to cry. Who doesn't remember that feeling -- having to get to a favorite ride before the next set starts because if you don't, you might have to wait a whole five minutes more?
Kids are lined up to see the two-headed monkey and the cow with five legs and six feet. Their friends and neighbors are in there now, they know it, the man in the booth told them so.
Meanwhile Ariel Oravsky has talked her dad, Keith, into shooting a water gun so precisely at his target that he wins a floppy hat with tiger spots for her and a silly feathery black hat for himself.
Then he actually puts it on, takes her hand and escorts her down the midway, crown princess for the day.
Gayla Miller is another 5-year-old princess this day, accompanied by dad Jim, the sheet metal worker who's in his thirties and looks like he played football in high school.
His wife, Gail, is at home, recovering from a successful heart transplant nine days earlier. Gail, who has been sick as long as Gayla's been alive, has spent 150 days in the hospital. Jim has had to summon a priest twice for last rites.
But the transplant went well and today, on an afternoon that sparkles in the wake of a rainstorm that never materialized, "Gayla is going home to Mom," Jim says, his face beaming.
He spies the Tip 'Em Over booth, where with the perfect throw of a softball he can knock down three wooden milk bottles and win a scooter for Gayla. It's too good to pass up.
He buys a bag of balls, throws each one as hard as he can and topples two bottles, several times. He buys a second bag, and then, looking around a little sheepishly, a third.
Because at the fair, everything is possible.