Choteau notes | June 2013

I went to the sheep show today. It was in the Weatherbeater, the big indoor arena on the edge of town. It was hot, biking over. I leaned my ride against the corrugated tin wall, next to the sign that says, "Horses enter through rear doors," and traded the glare of the June sun for the dim, stuffy air inside, wondering if there was an entry fee. There wasn't.

"White shirts: use, clean and return" read a sign hanging over a rack of long-sleeved, collared button-downs. A few rickety bleachers. A hushed tone, as the farm families gathered. Suddenly, I felt dizzy, and it was hard for me to keep walking forward. I felt like I'd walked into a postcard from my own childhood. Green clovers on white backgrounds. Kids getting numbers pinned onto their shirts. Sturdy little lambs calling, "ma, ma, ma." (That's "ma" with a short "a;" rhyming with cat, or rat.)

I'd seen a few sheep shows since leaving Iowa, but always in bigger venues, on a scale many times greater than this. The Choteau sheep show was just as tiny, comfortable, polite and unexciting as those from my own childhood. I was riveted.

The judge was tall and youngish and serious-faced, but with the kind eyes and gentle demeanor of all the best 4-H judges. He was perfect, actually. No flirting with the girls or excessive "buddying up" the boys. His whole tone and demeanor communicated two core messages: this is important business, and you're doing a great job at it. I loved how he ran the show, all the way from his pre-show pep talk to his hand-shake with every young person at the end of each round.

Watching the first group of kids enter the ring and line up their lambs, I realized I know 4-H the way some people know the Catholic mass -- perhaps with little comprehension of or interest in the broader organization, but with an intense love for the soothing, comforting, familiar details of the ritual. Shirts tucked in. Hair smoothed back. Set your lamb's posture. Keep your eyes on the judge. A 4-H sheep show is like a wedding, or a prom dance; it's a performance we put on for ourselves. There is no clear line between presenters and audience; everyone is on stage, everyone has a part to play. The kids, the lambs, the judge, the families watching from the bleachers, the teenagers advertising pizza for a dollar a slice in bored voices over the microphone, the crackling, feedback-prone microphone itself.

The basic tenets of the 4-H sheep show are as follows. It will be hot. There will be flies. At least one lamb will resist entry into the ring, causing its young handler to struggle, and eliciting a ripple of concerned, kind laughter from the crowd. And there will be at least one kid who will break your heart. He or she will tussle with an unruly lamb with determination, or stand proudly next to a skinny, unimpressive specimen. A strand of her hair will come loose from her pony tail, the tail of his shirt will work its way free from the back of his pants. You will want them to win, and they won't.

Today it was number 146 that got me first. It was the senior show, the high school kids, and he was tall and awkward and earnest. He couldn't get his lamb to spread out and straighten its back, and this humped-upness combined with the sheep's white face made it look prematurely aged, or like an old-lady ewe trying unsuccessfully to pass herself off as an ingénue. Everything about him said underdog: his unhelpful creature, his poorly-tied black bow tie, and his large-eyed, open face. The sheep's scrunched back was echoed by the boy's own as he reached down to adjust his lamb, over and over. He must have been six feet tall or more, and it was a long reach down to the lamb's head, which he valiantly tried to keep lifted and pulled forward. It was no surprise when both champion and reserve went to two sleek-haired sisters with sparkles on their jeans. They wore gingham shirts rather than the standard white, and their little Suffolk lambs were perfect. I didn't care for them much.

The juniors came next, with one girl smiling so brightly throughout the ordeal that she began to look slightly demented. There are official rules for 4-H shows, handed out in books with plastic-ring binders. I vaguely remember a rule about smiling while in the ring. I imagined this girl had read the same rule, and was trying very, very hard to follow it. I wondered if I had looked like that at her age. I don't remember who won that round, but it wasn't her.

The youngest group, the pre-juniors, were dwarfed by their lambs, and noticeably less able to control them. Two skinny men with clipboards who had been hovering on the edge of the ring throughout now stepped forward to help contain the stubborn beasts. These men are also a 4-H sheep show mainstay. Like altar boys, they are in view but not in the limelight, unless called upon for understated acts of heroism. "We had a runner earlier," an old lady sitting near me volunteered. "It just busted right outta here -- made it all the way to the new swimming pool, way over by the Methodist church." With a doubt, it was these men who'd helped round up the rebel and return it to its owners, waving off any thanks or recognition. One of them moved in now to assist a small girl whose lamb was pulling backward harder than she could tug it forward. "We just gotta get him out of reverse," the man said quietly to her, and the crowd chuckled, repeating the comment to one another. A 4-H sheep show is one of the only public events I've attended where a comment spoken in a quiet voice to a child can be heard throughout an arena. Other than the ma-ing of the lambs, it's a hushed affair.

One girl, the littlest, kept her face trained so carefully on the judge, and leaned her small weight so heartily and confidently against her lamb, that I felt sure she would be chosen the showmanship winner. All the kids were trying their best, for sure, but there was something strong in her that I felt set her apart. She was intensely present, and she moved deftly around her lamb as the judge paced back and forth, ensuring that it was always the animal, not herself in the judge's view. The judge took his time, paying the kids the respect of taking it seriously, evaluating them as carefully as he had the older groups. I was sure he would choose my favorite, and when he didn't, and I watched her face go brave, I thought I might cry. She was last in line as they began to move out of the ring. "That lamb must weigh twice as much as that last little girl!" I said to the lady next to me.

"That's my grand-daughter," the woman said.

"Well I thought she did really well," I said.

"That's her sister's lamb," said the woman. "Her own lamb died last night. They went out late to check on it in the barn and it was just dead." She said this in a matter-of-fact way, nothing to get too upset about. "Lambs just die sometimes," she said.

Earlier, during the junior's show, the judge had taken a moment to demonstrate "the best way to show off the brisket" -- a reminder that these were not pets, but food. Lambs just die, indeed. Knowing and accepting this is embedded into 4-H life.

A few generations ago, almost everyone knew what it was to nurture and then kill an animal. The death involved in sustaining life was not abstract, or remote; we knew ourselves to be the executioners, we literally had the blood on our hands. As we decrescendo away from our agrarian roots, some people find the notion of children learning to care for and then kill animals distasteful, while others idealize the past, projecting a sense of superiority over those city slickers who never had to muck out a stall, and imagining that we were somehow more noble and pure way back when.

Neither extreme feels right to me. I don't think my few years of raising, showing and selling sheep made me more callous or more noble. I know the experience affected me, but it's not easy to fully describe the effects, let alone assign a moral value to them. In some ways, raising sheep gave me great love and respect for the animals-- for their toughness, their instinctual mothering abilities, and the infectious joy they sometimes demonstrated. I remember watching troupes of lambs running with total abandon from one end of a spring-green pasture to another on wobbly, gangly legs, and sitting in the barn with the flock as they settled into the straw at the end of the day, nestled into each other, radiating peace. But I also remember them annoying the hell of me, and even scaring me. Explosions of snot hitting my face. The sharp hooves of a flock of hungry ewes trying to tip my grain bucket. The unprovoked brutality of rams, directed at me, or at their own defenseless offspring. Sheep can be very sweet and unbelievably stubborn, they can evoke laughter and rage. They are, I suppose, like us in many ways. Not simple.

Maybe that's what 4-H gave me, ultimately: an awareness that there are no easy answers. And maybe that's why, as I watched that little girl pulling her sister's lamb out of the ring, the ghost of her own dead lamb following behind them, I was so happy for her, and so sad.