Fair Play

I’ve had a letter sitting here on my desk for a couple of years, one I’ve “been meaning to get to,” if you know what I mean. But here I sit, finally getting back to it, prodded by the man who sent it, dignified octogenarian Edward M. Wells of Leyden, Franklin County roots nearly as deep as the Sunderland sycamore.

It was Mr. Wells who showed up at my door a month or so ago inquiring about the letter. Did I still have it kicking around? If so, he thought he’d float it past Irmarie Jones or someone else who may be interested. It brought me back to my school daze many years ago, the Harris-tweed, bespectacled teacher, chalk-dusted shoulders, asking how many more days I’d need to finish the essay due last week. Well, let’s just say Mr. Wells got a 21st-century response, no resemblance to my trusted 1970 friend, Sixties Defiance. The story of Robert “Bud” Coombs’ had indeed interested me; loved the writing style, too. I did intend to do something on it. Just needed a little poke, I guess. Well, Mr. Wells was there to dig his dusty pointer stick between my ribs. So here I sit, wondering where to start.

Accompanying the essay was Mr. Wells’ handwritten letter, dated June 2, 2007, prefacing the little tale, deft touch, that had been written for the Christmas holidays by his late cousin’s Tucson, Ariz., widow. Her name was Jean, wife of “Bud” Coombs, he from, you guessed it, Coombs Hill in Colrain, just a hop, skip and a jump west of me, on the site of the old Fort Morris of French & Indian War fame, one of four garrisons available to Coleraine’s earliest Scots-Irish settlers when danger loomed in the howling wilderness. Bud’s people had farmed that idyllic spot looking east at Monadnock since the start, parts of four centuries turning up stones and Native implements while tilling the soil.

But this is not a history of Coombs Hill or Coombs Farm or that old “South Fort.” No, this story has Franklin County Fair flavor, one that some of the older readers among us will remember well. It’s about what the annual September gathering on Petty’s Plain once meant countywide to farm- and schoolboys alike. Sadly, this weekend there will be no
schoolboy athletic competition akin to the days of Bud Coombs and my own father, himself a former fair sprint champion, then a Deerfield teen representing Greenfield after putting Deerfield High in his rearview due to “issues” with the school administration. Like they say, the apple doesn’t fall from the tree. Maybe I too should have fled. But I stayed … and ultimately paid.

Enough of that, though … back to Bud Coombs and his Franklin County Fair day in the sun, as told by his sweetheart in her stylish, heartfelt essay that touched on a little of everything pertinent to country fairs and those who attended them way back when. Times have changed. Now the grandstand is filled for demolition derbies; in my day, fireman’s
musters. Not back then, in 1942, bombs disrupting daily lives worldwide, subsistence hilltown farms struggling to make a go of it with laborers off to war on faraway
continents. Like many other agrarian highland lads, Bud Coombs was strong like bull and fleet afoot but unable to join proud Arms Academy’s athletic teams because daily farm chores precluded it.

The story begins in the barn, where Bud and his father are performing morning chores as part of their daily routine, the reticent teen hinting that he’d like to break free, no school, and take the old Chevy to the fair. His father, painfully short on words, one-ups him, tells him to take the big red Oldsmobile, quite a treat for a 17-year-old rolling down dusty Brook Road and across the lush Greenfield Meadows to the county fair. Yes sir, he was living large.

He climbs the gentle slope to the fairgrounds, parks the Olds out of harm’s way and heads for the gate. Once inside, young Bud goes directly to the grandstand area to catch the track meet, where the county schools — his Arms, Greenfield and Turners, probably others — vie for bragging rights annually in a spirited competition fueled by town and school pride. Remember, those were the days when every Franklin County town had
its own summer baseball team, and inter-town rivalries were intense, more so than today,
when kids have traded their Louisville Sluggers for joysticks. But let us not digress, or take cheap shots at today’s youth. Back to the ’42 fair, nine months removed from Pearl Harbor, the world aflame, young Bud quick-stepping down the midway to the track.

He arrives at in front of the grandstand and the Arms coach, short of competitors, is nervously pacing, furiously scanning the bleachers, the track, anywhere for able bodies. He spots Bud. Can he run? Timidly, Bud nods. Yes, he can run. He’s promptly rewarded with Arms maroon and white to don, a pair of “roomy” track shoes to lace up. He puts on his new uniform, receives quick lessons in stance and how to burst from the blocks at the report of a revolver, and proceeds to win the 220- and 100-yard dashes, helping his school secure the Franklin County track championship, quite a feat against the larger schools. A story fit for the big screen, that of Bud Coombs’ day of glory at the fair. Yes, a
wartime tale worth repeating.

Before departing for home, back up Brook Road to Coombs Hill, Bud is named captain of the fair team and spends the rest of the day walking the lanes, flirting, eating hot dogs, cotton candy, candied apples; playing games and riding the Ferris wheel with adoring Arms coeds, frightened by rocking at the peak. He arrives home a little late for evening chores and his father is already at it. He doesn’t say much, just nods and softly kicks a milking stool toward a waiting shorthorn. Bud sits firmly, grabs a teat, pulls and twists, producing that familiar hollow splash off the base of an empty bucket.

“Good fair?” his father inquires.


More splashes.

Humble souls, those country folk from our bucolic Franklin hills. Don’t say much. Never did. Never will.

Just enough.

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