The small Midwestern town where I was raised is idyllic in many ways. It has a city pool where I spent my boyhood summers swimming with my friends, a dignified sandstone courthouse at the intersection of Jefferson and Main, a single screen movie theatre that was built in the late 1920s, and an annual county fair known as the Pork Festival.
The Pork Festival is a nod to our roots. We are a farming community—producers of all manner of crops and livestock. For those who hail from my town, the Pork Festival is part of the rhythm of life. Every September the carnival pulls into town, the streets around the courthouse are blocked off, the tents go up, the vendors with their standard county-fair wares (mirrors frosted with AC/DC and Van Halen logos, nunchuks, and cheap stuffed animals) set up shop, and the entire town adopts the attitude that we are all taking a long weekend together.
My earliest memories of independence came from those times when my parents would let my brother and I break free from their watchful eye so we could roam the confines of the festival at night, riding the Scrambler and the Octopus, and buying survival knives and throwing stars with our allowance money.
For three days we lived on breaded tenderloin sandwiches, elephant ears, and lemon shake-ups. We were kings in a kingdom flowing with sugar and fried food.
The festival’s main event was the parade on Saturday. The best way to describe the Pork Festival parade (and the highest honor I think anyone can bestow on a parade) is to say that it was exactly what you probably imagine when you think of a small town’s big parade. Picture marching bands playing, majorettes twirling their batons, and politicians handing out candy. Smell the exhaust of the Shriners as they zip around like dare-devils on their mini-bikes and go-karts. Cover your ears as the fire trucks and police cruisers roll by at five miles per hour—sirens blaring and officers waving from behind their amber Ray Bans and mustaches. Wave at the smiling beauty pageant winner—Miss Pork Cuisine—as she glides past, perched up there on the trunk of the local dentist’s yellow Mustang convertible.
This year’s Molehill contains a poem (below) I wrote about the Pork Festival’s beauty pageant winner and her ride down Main Street as she waves in her satin sash that identifies her as one of our town’s most beautiful treasures. For the young, the beauty pageant represents a sort of rising to the top. But for the older folks, it is a reminder that physical beauty, as the wise king observed, is fleeting.
Whenever anyone attempts to capture beauty, they have embarked on an exercise in futility. And yet, we’ll never stop trying because there is something eternal that lurks deep inside us all that knows we were meant for beauty and not decay. So we keep to the work of naming beauty, even as it fades right in front of our eyes. And next year, we start the process all over again.
The poem below is not meant to poke fun at Miss Pork Cuisine (the festival committee has since changed the name.) Yes, I am amused by the irony that “Miss Pork Cuisine” was the name on the sash of our town’s beauty pageant winner, but that absurdity is a pretty terrific metaphor for the futility of trying to capture beauty.
I enter myself into all sorts of pageantry. There are certain beauties I want to be known for. The same is true of you. Sometimes in this life we win the prize we seek and are given a sash and a seat of honor for a time. It feels good to be prized. But the ride will eventually end. Beauty measured by comparison will inevitably be eclipsed by someone younger, better, or more congenial.
The older I get, the more I am okay with all that. I am coming to believe that the best seat in the parade is there on the sidewalk, watching, year after year, as the town grows and changes, and yet still manages to stay the same.
Miss Pork Cuisine by Russ Ramsey, 2014 From The Molehill Volume 3
From my chair on the sidewalk in front of the bank,
I watch as this year’s Miss Pork Cuisine glides past
waving from her perch atop the trunk of the local dentist’s convertible.
The Shriners figure eight in choreographed glory behind her,
their miniature motorcycles like the train of her robe filling the parade route.
She is to this town what the car she sits upon is to the dentist,
an achievement in beauty and refinement,
a symbol of youth,
this year’s model,
one of the noticed few.
I wave back telling her to enjoy the ride.
The parade seems to be moving slowly,
but it will be over before she knows it.
There will be another next year
but it will not belong to her.