County fair spurs memories of chaotic time

County fair spurs memories of chaotic time by David Lias Since early childhood, the county fair had been a form of escape for me and my brothers.

We started showing our Holstein heifers at the Sioux Empire Fair in Sioux Falls during the first summer when we �officially� were members of 4-H.

I was 9 years old.

It was, for the most part, a rather carefree experience. Except for my time in the show ring, when I would lament, at every instance that my toes were crushed by my bovine�s sharp hoof, that we hadn�t practiced the fine art of showmanship.

My brothers and I would find solace in the fact that we WERE AT THE FAIR.

It�s hard to say why we found it so alluring. It certainly wasn�t a magical place.

We knew, however, that if we managed our work and money properly, we could finish our chores with plenty of time to hit the midway, with its sordid sights, sounds and smells.

We quickly learned that it is best to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl on an empty stomach. We discovered (through experience, I�m afraid) that despite our success at baseball and hunting, we could never throw hard enough to knock down bottles that appeared to be made of concrete. Our aim with pellet rifles was never true as we attempted to score a prize-winning bulls-eye.

We didn�t care. The fair was our last hurrah while we still enjoyed our freedom. In a matter of weeks, school would be starting.

The 4-H exhibits, the midway, the fair food, the people in the grandstand selling everything from kitchen gadgets to aluminum siding � they combined to form a brief refuge from what had grown to be a routine summer.

During my last year of 4-H � precisely three decades minus one year this week � we really needed the Sioux Empire Fair.

People of all ages needed a place to escape, a setting where they might take their minds off the day-to-day goings-on.

It was 1974. One word neatly described the entire year, especially that summer: bizarre.

In March of that year, an indictment was returned against seven former presidential aides in connection with the Watergate cover-up.

President Richard Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

On May 9, 1974, three months before the start of the fair, the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings.

In late July, as I groomed my cattle in preparation for my last appearance in a 4-H show ring, the House Judiciary Committee voted 27-11 to approve an impeachment article that charged Nixon with obstructing justice.

The fair was held the first week of August in 1974. It had those same old sights, sounds and smells that I had grown to expect after years of attending the event.

But some things weren�t the same. People seemed to be adrift, deep in thought, with furrowed brows instead of wide smiles.

You couldn�t escape Watergate. In virtually every car and pickup, in every barn, every exhibit hall and in every food stand, there were radios blaring.

It was clear, from the 24/7 news coverage, that the presidency, and perhaps our nation, was in crisis.

On Aug. 8, 1974, my brothers and I milked, fed and gave fresh bedding to our small fleet of Holsteins.

That evening, like so many other furrowed-brow people, I tried to escape.

I walked through the midway. I looked at the new farm equipment. I made my way to the grandstand, just to see what was going on.

The local Republicans and Democrats each had booths in the building. And they seemed to be, well, too popular that night.

People were transfixed by a television in the Democrat�s booth. Nixon was on the tube, announcing that at noon on Aug. 9, he would resign.

After that day, I found myself among the more optimistic Americans who remained convinced that our system of government, with its strong Constitution, works as it was designed.

Watergate sent a message to us common folk. Our political leaders, right up to the president, have to live within the nation�s laws.

Three decades have passed, and our memories seem to be growing dim.

Watergate, I fear, isn�t a source of great political reform. At the height of the scandal, investigators and citizens alike asked, �What did the president know, and when did he know it?�

It�s a question that � in an era of Monica, Sept. 11, Whitewater, Karl Rove and Iraq � still has relevance today. Surveys show that the public believes government is corrupt, untrustworthy and ruled by money and personal ambition.

For some people, it appears, Watergate�s legacy is a simple message: Don�t get caught.

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